Religious queries can yield political insight

tibetanmonks6One of our standard criticisms at Get Religion is that reporters focus on politics to the exclusion of religion. I wonder if the press grasps the flip side of this notion. By overlooking or underplaying religion, reporters fail to illuminate politics sufficiently. Take this story in The Washington Post. Reporter Jill Drew wrote about Tibetan Buddhist monks who struggle with the forced education campaign instigated by the Chinese government. Drew's story was interesting, informative, and well executed. But by not delving into the beliefs of the monks, she left her readers with questions about the Chinese-Tibet political conflict.

Drew's lede was memorable. She told the story of a Tibetan abbot and the conflict between his religious beliefs and Chinese policy:

Arjia Rinpoche was 47 years old and a senior Tibetan abbot when he first signed a document denouncing the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's spiritual leader.

It was 1997, and about 50 Communist Party workers had come to his monastery to conduct what is called a "patriotic education" campaign -- 45 days of instruction in the Chinese version of history and a requirement that all monks sign a document accepting Chinese rule in Tibet and rejecting the Dalai Lama as a "separatist." For many followers, that amounts to painful renunciation of their religion's central figure.

"It was not our wish, not our thought, but we don't have choices," Arjia said. "We have fear."

Such campaigns are now a standard feature of life in Tibetan monasteries and nunneries. They are one of many tools Chinese leaders use to tighten party control of a religion whose charismatic leader, the 72-year-old Dalai Lama, is revered in Tibet, respected around the world and viewed in Beijing as a threat to the party's supremacy.

Drew showed that monks pay a high price for flouting Chinese policy.

monks say those who don't accept China's terms are stripped of their robes and permanently expelled from their monasteries. If they protest, monks say, they can be jailed and tortured.

Arjia, who fled to the United States in 1998, said that fate was well-known to the 700 monks from his community, Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai province on Tibet's border, when they gathered for a final meeting after 45 days of patriotic study.

At this point in the story, I think that Drew should have broached the idea of martyrdom. While nobody wants to be jailed, beaten, or tortured, religious and non-religious figures have braved death to uphold their beliefs. Indeed, there is an old saw about Christianity that "the seeds of the Church began with the blood of the martyrs." So do Tibetan monks believe in dying for their faith? Have they done so? (According to the U.S. State Department, one Tibetan monk likely did.)

If monks balked at the forced education campaign and were killed as a result, Tibet's plight would likely receive even more international tension. Think of the seven Buddhist monks in 1963 who set themselves on fire to protest anti-Buddhist policies. Such a state of affairs might well spark more outrage about China's occupation.

Of course, China does not single out Tibetan Buddhists; it clamps down on all religious figures under its aegis. Drew ably pointed this out to her readers:

For the Chinese, the campaigns boil down to a simple loyalty oath.

"The government controls all the religions in China very tightly, such as Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity," said Kang Xiaoguang, a professor of regional economics and politics at Beijing's Renmin University. "The government doesn't only aim at Tibetan Buddhism. On the contrary, it makes greater concessions on Tibetan Buddhism than on other religions."

As they say in academia, this paragraph needed more "unpacking." Besides not specifying which concessions the Chinese make to Tibetan Buddhism, Drew neglected to note why Tibetan Buddhists are fighting Chinese rule than other religions. Is their intransigence related mainly to their religious beliefs? Or is it related more to nationalist sentiment -- the Chinese are unjust occupiers?

Posing these questions and answering them would have served Drew well. She could have highlighted that Tibetan Buddhist monks are the most tenacious fighters against China's policy.

Perhaps I protest too much. Drew is based in Beijing, and she must have struggled to write a story about a closed country such as Tibet. But it's important to keep in mind that in this occupied nation, politics and religion are close cousins.

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