The Middle East already has been heavily influenced by Islam. So are many regions in Africa and significant parts of Europe, and North America. So are regions of the Far East.
Now one nation is worried enough about that very influence to consider legislative action.
Government officials in Burma, which is 89 percent Buddhist, are considering an “anti-conversion” law that would make it illegal for a Burmese Buddhist to convert to any other religion.
The plan focuses on the country’s women and requires a series of government permissions for a Burmese woman to marry a non-Buddhist. The law, if passed, would also require the man to convert to Buddhism.
Georgetown University professor and Burma analyst David Steinberg says the law’s purpose isn’t aimed at protecting the Buddhist majority from the Christian Chins and Kachins, it’s to protect the country from the Muslims.
“In their view, they see that the population of Muslims in the country is increasing faster than the Burmese Buddhists are increasing,” he said.
There are minority Muslims that are not a concern, he said, citing the Rohingya population along the Burma-Bangladesh border.
“They’re no threat to the state because they’re isolated,” he said.
“The other group is the group of Muslims whose members are scattered in the centers of trade and commerce in the country. They’re maybe 4 percent of the population, and they’re seen to be richer to the Burmese and have undue influence,” Steinberg said.
Islam analyst and Jihad Watch publisher Robert Spencer says that the Burmese government is right to be concerned about the growing prosperity of the Muslim population.
“They have reason to be concerned about Muslims who are successful, because contrary to the popular dogma that poverty causes terrorism, which Barack Obama and John Kerry have repeated, in reality jihadis are generally more affluent and better educated than their peers.
“The Economist reported in December 2010 that high-profile terrorism suspects ‘boast plenty of middle-class, well-educated people.’ The Economist wrote about the Times Square bomber, ‘Faisale Shehzad, boasts an MBA,’ and was the son of a Pakistani Air Force officer,” he said.
“Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, accused of lighting a makeshift bomb on a transatlantic flight, had a degree from University College in London and is the son of a rich Nigerian banker,” Spencer said.
Spencer also cited a Danish study that showed that radical Muslims were well-educated and performed better economically and socially, which allows them to live the “double life.”
International Christian Concern Southeast Asia analyst Sooyoung Kim says that Burma has a relatively small Christian population, but Burma’s Christian tribes are also concerned about the law’s impact.
“Even though the law draft mainly targets [Muslims], it is widely agreed that the proposed laws would further fuel intolerance and hatred toward religious minorities and contribute to intra-ethnic conflict,” Kim said.
“Not only Christian Karens, but Chin and Kachin people are also showing great concerns toward the proposed bill,” Kim said.
Kim said the best explanation for the Burmese government’s concern is that most of Burma’s institutions are centered around Buddhist culture and thought.
“Burma is a Buddhist-majority country and Buddhism and nationalism have long been connected. Burma’s Buddhist Sangha (the community of monks) has evolved into a strong institution in the country’s politics and social life.
“The Sangha thinks monks are responsible for protecting the country’s Buddhist identity. The Sangha is able to play a leadership role for the monks and also has an overwhelmingly influential role in Burmese Buddhist society,” Kim said.
“The laws were first proposed by a group called the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, which has alleged links to the extremist nationalist Buddhist ‘969’ movement,” Kim said.
Steinberg confirmed Kim’s analysis and said a major reason for Burmese President Thein Sein’s government proposing the law is that the Burmese people believe their country is “fragile.”
“They believe their Burmese Buddhist culture is threatened and they’re very conscious of the fragility of their culture. They’re defensive of their majority Burman values as they see them,” Steinberg said.
He said a belief in the fragility of the country is held by the majority even though the nation mostly is Buddhist.
“Eighty-nine percent of the country is Buddhist and they fear their fragility. They point to India where one of the greatest kings in India was Buddhist, but they say there are almost no more Buddhists in India. They’re either Hindu or Muslim,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg said another key reason for the government to propose this law is “political legitimacy.”
“The country’s political institutions, foundation, and its political culture are intimately interconnected with Buddhism. It’s very important that we understand that political legitimacy in Burma is so intimately tied to the Buddhist religion and culture.
“That’s why any discussion of whether Buddhism controls the military or the military controls Buddhism in Burma. Power is intimately associated with Buddhism. The two are inseparable,” Steinberg said.
Kim says the provisions of the law are clear and very restrictive.
“The interfaith marriage law makes it illegal for a Buddhist woman to marry a non-Buddhist man unless he converts to Buddhism. Violation of this proposed law could lead to imprisonment of up to 10 years and confiscation of personal property,” Kim said. “The religion conversion law requires a series of official permissions from government before a person can convert – including the Ministries of Religion, Education, Immigration and Population, and Women’s Affairs. Under the law, people found proselytizing or insulting another religion could face up to two-year prison sentence.”