Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

An age of anger imperils the West — and the East

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Around the Western world we are witnessing an age of anger and fear. This is manifested in the vitriol of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s scorched earth presidential campaign and the fear-mongering by the pro-Brexit British. Across the EU, jingoistic messages are also gaining sway, if not respectability.

In “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” Indian writer Pankaj Mishra eloquently examines the sources of frustration, envy and rancor that feed ressentiment — a psychological state caused by unexpressed feelings of envy and hatred — among those who are on the outside looking in. The collateral damage of globalization is a heightened sense of vulnerability that feeds such a state.

“Demagogues of all kinds, from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to India’s Narendra Modi and France’s Marine Le Pen and America’s Donald Trump, have tapped into the simmering reservoirs of cynicism and discontent,” writes Mishra.

“There is a pervasive panic … generated by the news media, and amplified by social media, that anything can happen anywhere to anybody at any time. The sense of a world spinning out of control is aggravated by the reality of climate change, which makes the planet itself seem under siege from ourselves.”

Mishra also notes that competition, envy and domination over other individuals “have become the essential condition of existence in our commercial societies.” He believes these atavistic yearnings yield “intense hatred of supposed villains, invention of enemies, attempts to recapture a lost golden age, unfocused fury and self-empowerment through spectacular violence. Many crave bloodshed for its own sake, seeing in it alone the possibility of individual and collective salvation.”

This ressentiment is stoking a whirlwind of anger that is sweeping across Asia. The elusive benefits of globalization leave many feeling betrayed, uprooted and under siege. Asia has become a breeding ground and refuge for zealots seeking to legitimize victimhood and revenge.

Yet it is not only the marginalized that are lashing out. The July 1 massacre of diners — including seven Japanese — in a cafe located in an affluent neighborhood in Dhaka shocked the world and Bangladeshis. It turns out that the killers were from relatively wealthy backgrounds and well-educated, not the downtrodden and desperate. Recently Mishra told me he thinks that such young men are attracted to extremism because they have high expectations fueled by a cosmopolitan upbringing. They know very well what is on offer — the possibilities that are available to others — only to find their ambitions and upward path thwarted. These derailed hopes spark anger, leading some to embrace religious extremism.

There is a wave of Islamophobia generated by such extremism and also by demographic anxieties. In recent years, militant Buddhist monks have engaged in violence and advocated intolerance in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Monks have joined political movements that target minorities and the vulnerable while their leaders have spewed hate speech, inflaming prejudice and discrimination.

Muslims have been the targets of violence in Myanmar, mostly affecting the ethnic Rohingya population — often denounced as Bengali foreigners — whose villages have been torched, leaving many to languish in grim refugee camps while the government dithers about their status as citizens. This puts into context recent allegations about militant Rohingyas attacking police outposts and a subsequent military crackdown.

Anti-Muslim violence has erupted elsewhere in Myanmar, egged on by an extremist Buddhist religious group, Ma Ba Tha (the Organization to Protect Race and Religion). U Wirathu, the firebrand monk who sparked the movement, is famous for his vitriolic rhetoric exhorting intolerance. Ma Ba Tha also campaigned against Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the 2015 elections, a quid pro quo for the former military-dominated government passing “race and religion” legislation hardline monks advocated — including a ban on intermarriage between Buddhist women and Muslim men. It has also campaigned against granting citizenship to Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine, a state where there has been considerable unrest.

At a recent conference, a scholar explained that Ma Ba Tha is best understood as a manifestation of the sense of crisis within the sangha (Buddhist religious community). This anxiety is fed by the plummeting number of novices joining the sangha, as now there are other options for young men in a growing economy offering greater mobility. Moreover, especially in the Mandalay region where Wirathu is from, donations of rice are also down significantly, partly because many farmers have sold off their land to make way for large Chinese projects, but probably also reflecting new economic realities eroding spiritual inclinations. Finally, the post-2011 spread of social media has provided a platform for younger monks to bypass organizational hierarchies to reach wider audiences and gain a following that taps into and fans the sense of crisis.

From this perspective, Ma Ba Tha may promote reforms designed to make Buddhism more relevant to people’s lives and reinvigorate devotion in a time of socio-economic turmoil. Perhaps, but stoking a climate of fear and anti-Muslim prejudice is counterproductive and appalls many devout Buddhists. It is therefore welcome news to hear that this past July the government and State Sangha Committee joined in repudiating the group and that it now appears to have faded away.

In Sri Lanka, gangs of monks and devotees also engage in violence, most recently targeting casinos and Muslims. During the civil war against the Tamil Tigers from 1983-2009, the monks once agitated against the Hindu community, but they have since pivoted to the Muslim minority as the new unifying threat. The monks see themselves as protectors of the majority Sinhalese community and have nurtured political ties to advance their agenda.

According to Dr. Laksiri Fernando, a Sri Lankan political scientist, the extremist Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena advocates racism, hatred and violence while impeding reconciliation initiatives. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the incendiary leader of the group, feeds a sense of crisis, inventing outrages that fuel resentment and provide a pretext for violence. The group hypes the higher birth rate of Muslims and plays on envy of Muslim merchants’ relative success to inflame the dispossessed and generate a climate of fear.

One cannot imagine the Buddha recognizing his teachings in such angry vehemence. When monks are hatemongering, the world is truly in trouble.

Asia’s age of anger is not abating.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.