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Madlen Krüger—Narrating the Other: Buddhist-Chrisitan Dialogue in Myanmar as a „Contact Zone“ in Constructing Religious Identity

The rising tensions between different religious groups in Myanmar, particularly after 2012, has interfaith dialogue established as a tool to negotiate and build peace and harmony between religions. Ever since the number of interfaith dialogue groups and councils supported by the government have increased and conferences as well as workshops of faith-based groups are taking place throughout the country. Therefore, interfaith dialogue is generally seen as an instrument to discuss similarities and to create a common ground between religions.

I argue that interreligious dialogue is part of a discourse field on religious identity. As an interface or „contact zone” in this discourse field interreligious dialogue is a center of various assumptions and perceptions of religious identity as mirrored in different public discourses. Participants in interreligious dialogue who are ascribed as specialist of their respective religion have an significant impact on shaping the discourse. Therefore, interreligious dialogue constitutes narrations in which a certain religious history in relation to each other is constructed and presented. Focused on the well-established Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Myanmar this paper outlines through the analysis of ontological and public narratives the religious and hierarchical structures of several leading interreligious dialogue groups centered in Yangon. And answers the following questions: How is religious identity especially Buddhist identity temporally and relationally constructed? What are taboos and limitations in presenting themselves and the Other? What kind of stereotypes are produced and established in the process?

Alexandra de Mersan—How Did Arakan’s Muslims become Arakan’s Foreigners?

In June 2012 as Burma (or Myanmar) launched into its political transition, the State of Arakan (or Rakhine State) became embroiled in an outbreak of murderous violence between Muslim and Buddhist population groups. Understanding the cause of such inter-community violence that has re-occurred over the course of the twentieth century demands a review of colonial sources and a detailed re-examination of terminology used in defining groups and populations.
My presentation stresses the process and effects of localization and appropriation of notions and race and nation in Burma as applied to Arakan. This started during the colonial era. It attempts to clarify how the Muslims of Arakan (or kala in the vernacular) became progressively marginalized in Burmese social space till they began to incarnate one of the figures — if not the figure – of the foreigner in contemporary Burma, an aspect intensified recently. To do this, the presentation goes back over the process of population differentiation at whose conclusion race (as defined by criteria of language and religion) becomes a decisive aspect of Burmese national identity more mobilized in the political domain than in other ones.

Esther Tenberg—Other(ing) Women, Other(ing) Muslims: Misogynistic and Islamophobic Narratives in Myanmar

Despite the dominant narrative of the „free and equal women of Burma“ there is a persisting belief in moral and intellectual superiority of males as opposed to females in Myanmar. Furthermore, women are held to be dangerous to men because of their „sexual viles“ and their means to destroy a man’s moral power (hpoun). Another marginalized group of Myanmar society are Muslims. They are said to be violent, untrustworthy and intent on destroying Buddhism by population growth. By contrasting these prescribed characteristics with narratives about Buddhism as an inherently peaceful religion intent on detachment and spiritual enlightenment, similarities in both narratives of Othering become visible.

In my presentation, I will bring the two processes of Othering together with the aid of Melford Spiro’s „Cultural Ideologies“. During his fieldwork in upper Burma in the sixties, he encountered narratives about male superiority being endangered by females. Though these narratives were demonstrably false, they were still held in strong conviction by males and females alike. In the first part of my presentation, I will present dominant misogynistic and islamophobic narratives and compare their structure. In the second part, I will show how measures aimed against the Rohingya partly follow gendered lines. As the society changes, perceptions of masculinity and femininity, as well as those of religious and/or ethnic identities are put under strain by an influx of alternative ideas through social and conventional media. I provocatively argue, that the current upsurge of nationalist sentiments and the subsequent targeting of Muslims can partly explained by a crisis in Burmese Buddhist masculinity.

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