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Nidhi Eoseewong: Islamophobia in the Upper North

I was surprised and disappointed at a recent statement opposing plans to site a Halal industrial park anywhere in Chiang Mai. The statement was issued to the Governor in late January by a group of Buddhist monks and laity including the head of the Chiang Mai Sangha and members of the Association of Village Heads of Chiang Mai. Similar opposition had previously forced the cancellation of plans for a Halal industrial park in Doi Lo District.
 
The opposition itself is not surprising given frequent reports of Islamophobia in the North, such as opposition to the construction of mosques and longstanding complaints to officials that Islamic calls to prayer disturb peace and happiness.
 
I was shocked, however, that the meeting included not only the Association of Village Heads but also, among the 11 other organizations, the Chiang Mai sections of the Buddhism Protection Centre, the Centre for the Propagation of Dhamma, the Buddhist Association, the Young Buddhist Association and Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University.  These are organizations representing every facet of institutional Thai Buddhism, including even an academic institution and lay organizations involved in spreading Buddhist teachings. 
 
The statement of opposition reads: “The project would have multiple negative impacts on the area, with pollution, noise and environmental problems generated by manufacturing, but more especially, with the divisiveness and dissension arising from the differing life styles of the Buddhists of Chiang Mai and the Muslims flowing in from every direction. The Islamic prohibition of non-Muslims doing Halal work means that the project will not create employment opportunities for locals.”
 
It is evident from this statement that the opposition is rooted in Islamophobia more than in any real understanding of Islam. That is no surprise given the last 10 years of polarization and the ascendancy of bigotry over understanding among Thais generally. I may not be able to reduce the levels of bigotry, but I am interested in what is fuelling Islamophobia in Thailand, particularly in the Upper North.
 
Before addressing that question, I want to show that the above statement is biased in that the 12 organizations failed to learn or to consider what Halal really means. 
 
It is true that industrial parks produce pollution and waste detrimental to the environment. That is the case with any industrial park, and has nothing whatever to do with Islam, but rather with the fact that the laws and the oversight of industrial parks at the national level do not ensure effective management and control.
 
“Halal” refers to what is permitted Muslims, from food to behaviour, and whatever is not forbidden is permitted. But “Halal” is typically used to refer to food, drink and consumer items like cosmetics and drugs that may include ingredients from animals or animal products which Muslims are forbidden to ingest or use on their bodies. Examples include substances and even vaccines extracted from pigs.
 
Animals killed for consumption must be ritually slaughtered in a certain way. Importantly, the animal must not be made to suffer; thus a sharp knife must be used and plunged deep into the throat, rapidly severing the windpipe and arteries. For health reasons, the meat of animals that die on their own may not be consumed. Similarly, among other requirements, animals that have been beaten to death or killed by other animals may not be consumed.
 
It is true that slaughterhouses in Thailand, Halal or otherwise, often carelessly dump waste into the environment. This is true even of large well-funded operations. Again, such dumping is the result of inadequate legislation and oversight.
 
There may be a problem with Islamic regulations for slaughtering animals, in that the practice of sedating the animal with drugs or electric shocks before killing is forbidden. Such practices are used to spare the animal torment, but the Islamic prohibition does not reflect brutality but rather a concern that the practices may affect the healthfulness of the meat. Some Western countries require that animals be sedated before slaughtering, thus outlawing Halal slaughterhouses.
 
It would be difficult to apply this objection in Thailand, since most slaughterhouses here do not sedate the animals. Anyone who has lived near a pig slaughterhouse has heard almost every day the screams of pigs being slaughtered.
 
To meet the requirements of Halal, the animal must be slaughtered by a Muslim, but further processing of the meat may be done by non-Muslims as long as it is assured that no non-Halal ingredients, such as oil from pigs, are added. 
 
A Halal industrial park would not require a large influx of Muslim workers; most would come from Chiang Mai and nearby provinces.
 
The production of foodstuffs certified as meeting international Halal standards feeds into a wide export market. I have purchased canned food from nearby countries and marked Halal that was actually produced in Pathum Thani, exported to the other country where it was labelled, and re-imported. It was good, tasty Thai food!
 
There is currently no organization in Thailand able to issue internationally recognized Halal certification. There is a debilitating contention among the various agencies competing for the great benefits to be had. But if some organization gains that authority and functions with integrity, domestic Halal certification would significantly boost Thai exports, not only of food, but also of such goods as cosmetics and medication that must be certified Halal.
 
But I don’t really want to argue the material benefits of allowing a Halal industrial park. That debate ignores the element of religious bigotry, my main interest.
 
To explore the issue, I’d like to respond to two related questions: First, why are Muslims singled out for bigotry? Second, why is this happening in the North? We can identify a number of causes of religious bigotry. Prevalent religious teachings may contain the germs of mistrust, there are people inciting fear and there are conspiracies to misdirect the public and disseminate misinformation. That may be accurate as far as it goes, but I suspect that whenever a movement arises involving a large number of people, when a social movement appears, there must already have been forces within society itself such that incitement, teachings, conspiracies and the like are able to motivate large portions of the population. My interest is in identifying those prior social forces.
 
The research needed to give a definitive answer is beyond my capability, but I’ll make a few observations.
 
1. I don’t know what proportion of the population of the Upper North is Muslim, but I understand that it is lower than in other regions of the country and that most migrated here from Yunnan. That in itself is not as important as the fact that in the Upper North, Muslims can hardly be found at all among the upper classes, as they are in the Central and Southern regions where they are represented in the business community, in cultural organizations, among the cultural leadership, and in academia and professional associations.
 
In the Upper North it is easy to see Muslims as “other”.
 
The situation comes into sharp relief when contrasted to that of Protestant Christians in the Upper North. Other than Bangkok and nearby provinces, the North has the longest experience of Protestant missionaries. Wherever the first generation of Christians came from, they, along with local and recently arrived Chinese, were the first in the Upper North with modern education, the first professionals and the first group of modern entrepreneurs. 
 
Thai Buddhists, however, do not feel threatened by Christianity, in spite of the fact that there are organizations visibly dedicated to the propagation of Christianity, much more so than is the case with Islam.
 
2. It seems to me that Buddhism as a Thai institution is in decline. This is partly because the state, in its role as promoter and protector of Buddhism is weak as well, and partly because official Buddhist organizations have not been able to adapt their teachings to the modern world.
 
Those in the Central and Southern regions were the first to be forced to change their way of life and have for a long time had to make a living in the market economy, in the process bringing religion more into line with the desire for worldly success. Examples include the popularity of amulets, various rituals, and belief in the sacred items of other religions, in effect integrating them into Buddhism (Ganesha, Kwan Yin, Rama V, Jatukham Ramathep etc.).
 
Ways of life in Isan have also modernized as the people have been pulled into the market economy. But Isan is a huge region with a large population and changes have been balanced. For example, the region is recognized for its forest monks, yet retains a deep belief in widow ghosts and, more importantly, local traditions continue to hold sway in the lives of the people, though with changes. For example, gambling on bang fai rockets gives the rockets a role among the urban population who have no place to launch them. But the festival persists in spite of such innovations, whereas they are no longer observed in the Upper North.
 
The Upper North has undergone rapid changes as well, probably more quickly than Isan. It also looks like the shortage of monks will lead to vacant temples before that happens elsewhere, as few want to ordain and study for more than a year. At times Northern temples must request monks from Isan.
 
In the Upper North, the community relates to the temple through the monks. When there is no monk for the people to associate with and reinforce belief, the former religiosity of the urban population fades. The faith communities around many temples have largely lost their relevance. I remember 50 years ago these communities having a significant role in many ceremonies, with traditional dancers from the community participating in processions of Buddha images, and participating in other religious ceremonies. Today, unless you go out into the countryside you’ll rarely encounter community-based religious festivals.
 
From the perspective of how religion responds to social change, I understand that in the Upper North we have fewer keji achan, monks acclaimed for supernatural power or rather famous, than do the Central and Southern regions. The most widely respected monks are Si Wichai teachers and their disciples, not keji achan with nationally recognized amulets. The forest monks of the Achan Mun lineage in the North have all died out and his monastery there is falling into ruin.
 
In short, and to put it simply, on top of the overall weakness of Buddhism as an institution, Buddhism is weakest the Upper North and Buddhists there are more likely feel vulnerable than those of other regions. It is natural then that the Buddhists of the Upper North might easily come to feel threatened by the “other”, in turn making it easier to frame Muslims as the “other” and to oppose anything to do with Islam as a way of feeling more comfortable and less vulnerable. 
 
I believe that in today’s society, opposition to another religion, whether Buddhist against Muslim or Muslim against Buddhist, arises from insecurity within the religion itself. This observation includes the new religions of Secularism, Democracy, Free Enterprise Capitalism and the like. Advocates of these also oppose other religions because they are unsure of themselves or of the value of their own religion