26 African countries agreed yesterday to the establishment of a broad free trade zone that will stretch from Libya to South Africa.
What is most striking about this arrangement is its geography, consisting of every African state that boasts Indian Ocean coastline save the bitter failure of chaotic Somalia.
Thus, Africa leaps into the Indian Ocean Nexus* as a free trade collective, strengthening its negotiating hand (if used wisely) with the lead drivers of IO trade, China and India.
Martin Walker describes the Nexus and with it the importance of this free trade agreement :
“The new triangular trade of the Indian Ocean sees the Middle Eastern countries export oil to Asia, then use the proceeds to export capital to Asia and Africa. Asia sends cash, consumer goods, and remittance workers to the Middle East, and investment capital, skills, and aid to Africa, which in turn sells oil and agricultural products to Asia, investing some of the proceeds in new industries, from mobile phones to Nollywood films.”
If this agreement holds, a great deal of Africa will be experiencing a brighter future as a result, especially in fostering the kind of internal investment that will be key to building an Africa that exists in the 20th century, let alone the 21st.
* One of my great regrets is not following through with an idea that germinated while talking with Chirol of Coming Anarchy fame about starting a blog focused on the Indian Ocean. I called it the Indian Ocean Nexus, not realizing some 16 months later (2008) an author would write a very fine article about it with that very name. Perhaps this will become my future endeavor since the region and its rich history and future are endlessly fascinating to me.
After years of little progress restructuring its intelligence and police agencies to develop a formidable counter terrorism capacity, arguably a homegrown Islamic terrorism problem is developing in India that merits grave concern.
India’s Muslims are far from a monolithic group, differences in experience, culture and outlook shaped as much by geography and family history as religion. In the light of suspected homegrown terrorist attacks in the past few months, ominous signs loom ahead foreshadowing more for the future:
-the existent strain of violent Hindu nationalism that fueled pogroms such as the Gujurat riots
-the Indian government’s insistence on acknowledging and legalizing Islamic law and customs contrary to social order and basic human rights enshrined in Indian law (which help keep a sizable minority of Muslims in an isolated, backwards state)
-the status of a majority of Indian Muslims as the new “untouchables”, economically disadvantaged at unacceptable rates (often intentionally)
-the continued mischief (recruiting, planning and funding of potential Indian terrorists and fundamentalists) by rogue elements in the Pakistani ISI, groups based in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Saudi oil money. (often intentionally) at unacceptable rates
Reforms and initiatives adapted to address the worst of enduring social, economic and legal problems related to the various Muslim communities should be considered by states and the central Indian government. NGO’s that have refused to support projects conceived by local Muslims (such as building womens’ centers that stress job skills and womens’ rights with a touch of the Koran) must become a part of the solution and not a hindrance as they are now. Beyond the specter of terrorism, the economic and social dislocation experienced by many Muslim communities in India may become a drag on the country’s economy, its governance or even its social stability, something India’s leaders and elites must keep in mind for the future.
Commentators who speak of terrorism in India without recognizing these issues (or the most salient of all, that 150 million Indian Muslims are still suspected 60 years since Partition by far too many Indians to be Pakistani agents of some sort) are doing the public a disservice and further feeding simplistic narratives that bring little benefit to India or its friends.
“We think the Dalai Lama has been too peaceful,” he said. “There is a big discussion now about whether we should turn to violence.”
Another monk at Labrang Monastery here in Xiahe on the Tibetan plateau put it this way: “For 50 years, the Dalai Lama said to use peaceful means to solve the problems, and that achieved nothing. China just criticizes him.”
“After he’s gone,” the monk added, “there definitely will be violent resistance.”
Many observers say that a resurgence of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has played its part in several recent human rights violations.
Meanwhile, in the country’s south—where a Muslim insurgency has been raging for four years—many Thai Buddhists have taken matters into their own hands, forming paramilitary “self-defense groups” with the government’s help. These groups are nominally nonsectarian, but they contain few if any Muslim members, and they often use Buddhist temples as training grounds. Many of the 7,000 volunteers drill using sticks instead of guns, but one expert (who didn’t want to be identified to avoid compromising sources) says that the Thai government purchased a large number of shotguns from Russia last summer to arm them.
and the potential...
One of the most fascinating developments at the moment is the rising appeal of Tibetan Buddhist ideas among the ethnic majority Han Chinese of the People’s Republic. Most Han Chinese belong to the traditional Pure Land or Zen schools of their religion; for a variety of reasons, say experts, the politics associated with these flavors of Chinese Buddhism tends to be politically conservative, beholden to the state. Yet the esoteric Tibetan version of the religion is making notable inroads among non-Tibetan Chinese. Non-Tibetans tend to be fascinated by Tibetan Buddhists’ claims that their faith has a powerful and perceptible effect on their lives. When the Beijing authorities razed an unsanctioned Tibetan Buddhist academy in Sichuan province in 2001, they were shocked to discover 1500 Han Chinese monks and nuns in attendance.
A striking example is the Engaged Buddhism movement, which was founded in the 1960s by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who became an activist during the Vietnam War and was ultimately exiled to France by his country’s communist rulers. He’s since returned to his homeland twice, in 2005 and 2007; on both occasions his countrymen received him like a conquering hero. The movement, which emphasizes nonviolence and social action, has persistently lobbied for religious tolerance throughout the region—most strikingly in Sri Lanka, where members of the local Sarvodaya Shramadana organization hold regular, nonsectarian antiwar demonstrations. The group has also helped 15,000 communities build roads, find clean water and run preschools, says Sallie King, a religion and philosophy professor at James Madison University.
A new narrative may be forming about Buddhism among both Buddhists and non-believers. Long considered a religion of peace and reflection, Buddhists are flexing political and social muscles from India to Burma to Thailand. Its likely most of Asia will have substantial and influential Buddhist populations within the next decade, creating a new constituency for change, patronage and leadership. This is, especially in the case of the middle class adapting Buddhism from China to India, promising news for stability and a development of a social responsibility ethos that can help bridge the divide between the haves and have nots until development more balance.
Yet, as the Tibetans, Sri Lankans, Burmese and Thais know first-hand, Buddhism is also apparently under stress, perhaps even attack.
- Oppressive regimes stifle, censor and hijack Buddhist leaders, traditions and customs, using coercive policies which include violence. (Tibet, Burma)
- Fundamentalists from other faiths assault and kill Buddhists indiscriminately. (Sri Lanka, India, Thailand)
- Globalization and the spread of Western culture threatens cultural mores. (Thailand, Sri Lanka)
The widespread coverage of Muslims suffering in Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia, Chechnya and elsewhere in the 1990′s, as well as the violation of Muslim mores by the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia and Western culture’s spread, helped radicalize a small but potent group of malcontents and true believers. Will something similar happen for Buddhist causes in Asia? What form(s) could it take?
Buddhism joins the 21st Century religious enlightenment that pervades every continent but Europe. It will be marked by divisions and disagreements ranging from the social to the political, not to mention the religious. A narrative of Buddhism under threat will only hasten that divide. As Ralph Peters argues,
We are witnessing an inspiring reinvigoration of faith on one hand and, on the other, a redaction of faith’s complexities to exploit the fear and jealousy abounding — promising vengeance on this side of the grave. Twenty-first century religion will be caught between the saint and the suicide bomber. The nemeses of every faith will be those who can’t tell the difference.
Its obvious Buddhism will be no exception.