“Burmese Buddhist Identity, Gender and Colonial Secularism"

Alicia Turner, Associate Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies, York University

This talk charts a genealogy of Buddhist identity and religious difference in Burma and the ways it has created the preconditions of violence in the present. It seeks to bring together a practical and a theoretical problem. First, how do we understand the anti-Muslim discourse and genocide in Burma in relation to Buddhism? Second, if has Saba Mahmood has demonstrated, secularism entwines the construction of gender with the production of religious difference what happens when religion is taken not as the mechanism of women’s restriction, but as the source of their liberation? Rejecting the idea of Burmese Buddhist nationalism as irrational or excessive religiosity I interrogate the secular colonial origins of Burmese religious divisions in discourses of tolerance and freedom for women. Far from colonial secularism initiating a universal liberal framework for pluralism, such discourses instantiated religious difference as the conceptual ground for identity. My work tracks the secular construction of Buddhism as a World Religion imagined as an Asian reflection of European liberal values. Secularist colonial policies constructed Indian Muslims as the foil to the valorized liberalism of Burmese Buddhists. Burmese Buddhist and nationalist thought in the twentieth century then interwove the Indian religious other and the self-identification of Buddhism with religious tolerance and the freedom of Burmese women. It is this discourse has animated the contemporary Buddhist nationalist rhetoric arguing that because Buddhism is so tolerant it is at particular risk of being overrun by intolerant religious others. This history offers us a way of understanding the contemporary situation in Burma and suggests the equal need to consider how the same discourses shape North American popular ideas of Buddhism and scholarly research agendas.

Alicia Turner is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Humanities at York University in Toronto. An expert in Buddhism in Burma/Myanmar, she is interested in the intersections of colonialism, nationalism and secularism. Her first book Saving Buddhism: Moral Community and the Impermanence of Colonial religion explores concepts of sāsana, identity and religion through a study of Buddhist lay associations. She has co-authored The Irish Buddhist: The Forgotten Monk who Faced Down the British Empire (Oxford 2020), which tells the story of an extraordinary Irish sailor who became a Buddhist monk and anti-colonial activist in early twentieth-century Asia in order to explore multi-ethnic plebian Asian networks at the heart Buddhist reform. She is currently working on a book, entitled Buddhism’s Plural Pasts: Religious Difference and Indifference in Colonial Burma, that explores the workings of colonial secularism through a genealogy of religious division.

Dates: 
Monday, November 4, 2019 - 4:30pm
Swift Hall Common Room