Understanding the global threat against sacred spaces

Chaiwat Satha-Anand, TFF Associate
Chairperson, Strategic Nonviolence Commisssion, Thailand Research Fund
Senior Research Fellow, TODA Institute of Global Peace and Policy Research

On August 6, 2012, the neo-Nazi Wade Michael Page walked into the gurudwara (Sikh temple) of Wisconsin in Oak Creek and murdered 6 people including the temple president. He was killed by the police in the incident.

While the Sikhs in the US had suffered from discrimination since they started coming to the United States in the early 20th century: they were driven out of Bellingham, Washington, in 1907; and out of St. John, Oregon in 1910, this most recent Oak Creek killing sparked global outcries from Washington DC to New Delhi. In India, members of Sikh communities staged protest demonstrations in several cities including New Delhi and Jammu, Kashmir.
There are many ways to understand this abominable incident.

Page’s personal history of his association with the far-right group and psychological profile would be one way. Bringing in the American history of violence with its reverence in the gun cultural economy, including the most recent killing at the screening of The Dark Knight Rises at a Denver cineplex on July 20, 2012 which claimed 12 lives, would be another. Situating this case in a larger context of growing hate-groups in the US would be yet another way.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are now 1,018 hate groups which is a 69 per cent increase since the beginning of the twenty-first century. There is also a resurgence of the anti-government “Patriot” movement, some groups with their armed militias. It grew by 775% during the first three years of the Obama administration, from 149 in 2008 to 1,274 in 2011. In Wisconsin alone, there are 8 hate groups including the neo-Nazi “New Order” in Milwaukee, “Crusaders for Yahweh” in Eau Claire, and “Aryan Nations 88” in Green Lake, among others.

Situating the Wisconsin killing in the American context is certainly important, but I would argue that the case is much more dangerous if viewed in the global context of a heinous trend conducive to deadly religio-ethnic conflicts: that of violence against sacred spaces which includes killing worshippers in their houses of worship.

This article attempts to show that there is indeed such a trend of violence against sacred spaces and that to cope with such phenomenon, it is important to understand why violence against sacred spaces is dangerous.

Violence against sacred spaces: a global trend?

In southern Thailand, there have been cases of violence against sacred spaces and religious personnel since the new round of violence re-exploded in 2004. But recently, two of the most significant cases include: the killing of 10 Malay Muslims, including the Imam, while they were praying in the Al-Furqan mosque in Narathiwat on June 8, 2009; and the bomb attack that killed two Buddhist monks from Suan Kaew temple while they were making their daily rounds of alms begging under military protection on a road in Yala on May 16, 2011, one day prior to the most important date in Buddhist calendar – the Visakha Puja day. Incidents such as these prompt me to ask if they are but isolated cases or symptomatic of a global trend.

In 2010, I conducted a study on the issue of violence against sacred spaces covering the period of 2009-2010 and found that there have been 104 incidents related to sacred spaces and religious personnel around the world, 49 took place in 2009 and it rose to 55 incidents in 2010. In 2010, the number of people killed in relation to sacred spaces increased 19.8% and those wounded increased 29.1%. These incidents combined have killed 1,730 people and wounded 3,671. Most of these incidents took place in Iraq and Pakistan which accounted for 77.2% of the casualties in 2009 and 71.2% in 2010.

If one considers the fact that Iraq is in a state of war and that Pakistan is not, it is important to point out that the number of people killed and wounded in Pakistan is 33.8% more than the number of casualties in Iraq in relation to sacred spaces and personnel. In addition, the year 2010 saw a dramatic increase of 147% in number of casualties in Pakistan resulted from violence against sacred spaces and personnel compared to 2009. (Peace & Policy 17 –forthcoming 2012)

Violence at sacred spaces in 2012

In addition, a cursory glance at what has happened to sacred spaces in the first six months of 2012 yields the following results:

January – People’s Republic of China: More than a thousand of Northwest Muslims fought against the Chinese police who demolished their mosque in the Ningxia region. (Bangkok Post, January 3, 2012)

February – Thailand: suspected insurgents threw two M 79 grenades into a Buddhist temple in Southern Thailand to avenge the earlier killings of four Malay Muslims by the Thai rangers. (Bangkok Post, February 2, 2012)

March – Australia: the Nazi symbol “KKK” and “white power” were scrawled across a wall, and several headstones were vandalized at the Fingal Head Cemetery, a burial ground for the Aboriginal people in New South Wales. (Bangkok Post, March 9, 2012)

April – Sri Lanka: Buddhist monks led an angry protest calling for the government to demolish or move a mosque in Dambala, North of Colombo. (Bangkok Post, April 24, 2012)

May – Jerusalem: Vandals, believed to be ultra-orthodox Jews, armed with hammers caused serious damages to a 4th century synagogue in the town of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. ( Bangkok Post, May 31, 2012

June – Iraq: Coordinated bombings and shootings took place during a major Shi’ite religious commemoration killing at least 59 people and wounding more than 200 in and near Baghdad. (Bangkok Post, June 14, 2012)

Though each case needs to be construed in the context of its own local conflict dynamic, taken together what these incidents mean is that: violence against sacred space could happen anywhere; the targets could belong to any religion/belief; the perpetrators could be organized or spontaneous; and violence that took place could be either provocative or reactive.

Moreover, some of these cases engender deadlier violence. For example, recent explosions at three churches in Northern Kaduna, Nigeria, killed at least 16 people. Very soon this incident led furious Christians to retaliate against Muslims in a subsequent riot that killed at least 45 and wounded more than a hundred. (Bangkok Post, June 19, 2012)

The use of violence against sacred spaces that has occurred around the world was possible precisely because of the uncertainty of the cultural line separating the sacred from the profane spaces. Moreover, when these sacred spaces are attacked, it is their sanctity that generates cultural power producing collective identity, often times through moral outrage.

Because of this complex conditionality, Muslims, Christians or Buddhists, among others, who witness their places of worship attacked, would react with outrage, and at times with vengeful violence. One of the reasons why attacking these targets endowed with religious symbolic meanings can be extremely dangerous with the curse of making conflicts deadlier is because they are not individuals but communal. The site that hurts is not the body or physical entity but the self – at times collective. Through anger of those communities of faith attacked, a kind of moral outrage as evident in Nigeria and elsewhere, violence against sacred spaces oftentimes engender conflicts deadlier and intractable. As a result, this kind of conflict becomes increasingly difficult to resolve.

A conference and an initiative to do more research and reduce this growing trend

Anticipating such incidents which seem to occur with increasing frequency, the TODA Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research, together with the Center for Global Nonkilling in Honolulu, Berghof Foundation, and Peace Information Center in Bangkok, organized an international conference on “Protecting Sacred Spaces and Peoples of Cloths: Academic Basis, Policy Promises” in Bangkok on May 28-29, 2011 to explore a specific class of ethno-religious conflict when perpetrators target sacred symbols and peoples, especially religious, which usually render existing conflicts deadlier and/or much more difficult to cope with.

At the conclusion of the conference, international scholars and policy makers in attendance, including the eminent Secretary-General of ASEAN, Dr.Surin Pitsuwan who was there for the whole conference, seem to agree that this issue is indeed a dangerous global problem rarely touched by researchers, and that some appropriate regional and/or global policy needs to be formulated to prevent existing conflicts from sliding further into the realm of deadlier violence.

Perhaps the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century is the right time for a country such as Thailand or a region such as ASEAN to do something globally significant – initiating a cultural code of conducting conflicts that would render violence against sacred spaces internationally and formally unacceptable, for example.

By overcoming its local or regional shortcomings, this country and/or ASEAN could help re-imagine a world where ethno-religious conflicts would be contained by locating sacred spaces and lives of religious personnel outside the curse of violence.

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