January 2nd, 2013
07:00 AM ET
Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
(CNN) –China Daily, an English-language newspaper and a mouthpiece of the Chinese government, last week published an article called “Western Voices Question Tibetan Self-Immolation Acts.”
The first of the voices quoted was mine—for a Belief Blog piece I wrote last summer criticizing the Dalai Lama for averting his gaze from the spate of self-immolations protesting Chinese rule in Tibet. "If the Dalai Lama were to speak out unequivocally against these deaths, they would surely stop. So in a very real sense, their blood is on his hands," I wrote in a passage quoted in the Chinese Daily piece.
In my post, I wrote of an “epidemic of self-immolations,” noting that from mid-March to mid-July 2011 more than 40 Tibetans had set themselves on fire to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Since then, the pace of these protests has accelerated. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, 94 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since March 2011, and the pace in November was nearly one a day.
I continue to be opposed to suicide as a political strategy, whether it takes one life or many, whether it takes place in Tibet, Sri Lanka or Iraq, and whether it is performed by Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims.
I also continue to disagree with the voluminous e-mails I received from activists around the world attempting to justify self-immolation as self-defense, a necessary response to Chinese atrocities. I am particularly troubled by the refusal of Tibetan Buddhist leaders to denounce the political suicides of teenagers. (One of the most recent self-immolations was of a 16-year-old girl, Wanchen Kyi, who died on December 9.)
Nonetheless, it is disconcerting to see one’s words used by Chinese officials to justify the atrocities it has been visiting on Tibet for generations. So I hope any further quotations by China Daily of my writing will note that I agree with Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s representative for foreign affairs and security policy, who called on China last week to address the “deep-rooted causes of frustration” among the Tibetan people, and to act to ensure both their political rights and the right to practice their religion and preserve their unique culture.
In the 19th century, various American political and religious leaders vowed to put an end to a minority religion and culture that troubled their Christian sensibilities. In 1838, Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued an executive order, stating that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state.” In 1884, a Tennessee preacher gave a commencement speech arguing (in the words of one witness) that the “strong arm of government should be employed to wipe from the face of civilization every Latter-day Saint in Utah, men, women, and children.”
What the world has witnessed in Tibet (when it is not looking away) is an effort to do just that to Tibetan Buddhists.
When I criticized the Dalai Lama for his silence on the self-immolations, I should have criticized the Chinese government even more forcefully, for carrying out a policy of cultural genocide in Tibet. I should have criticized President Obama as well, for failing to speak out as eloquently against human rights abuses in Tibet as he has against the ongoing atrocities in a variety of countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
I recognize that the Dalai Lama is in a difficult spot here. The Buddhist tradition he represents stands against self-killing, yet his Tibetan people are running out of ways to mobilize international sentiment to pressure Chinese leaders. Nonetheless, I continue to believe that he should speak out plainly against self-immolations in Tibet.
But that is only part of the problem. The bigger part, of course, are the atrocities of the Chinese.
As a scholar of religion, I am particularly concerned about the liberty of Tibetans to practice their Buddhist traditions, a liberty abridged when the Chinese burned thousands of monasteries and nunneries in Tibet. As a human being, I am horrified by ongoing Chinese efforts to exterminate the Tibetans’ culture and language, and to refuse to the Tibetan people their human rights, including the right to self-determination.
So quote me on my disagreements with the Dalai Lama, if you will. But be sure to add this: The biggest moral outrage in Tibet today is the behavior of the Chinese government.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.