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Buddhism in Colonial Contexts  

Douglas Ober

Scholars have long recognized the transformative impact that colonialism had on Buddhist institutions, identities, thought, and practice. The period marked the rise of politicized identities linking Buddhism to anti-colonial nationalist movements alongside boisterous discussions about reforming Buddhism to its “innate” humanistic, scientific core. For many decades, histories of Buddhism under colonialism generally subscribed to a singular narrative in which colonial forces leveled such monumental changes that almost all forms of modern Buddhism were seen as derivative of ideologies introduced by Western colonial regimes. These narratives, however, only tell some of the story. Beginning in the last decades of the 20th century, scholarship has increasingly shown how Buddhists responded in a multitude of ways to colonial influence. There was resistance and collusion as well as instances where colonial systems had only minimal impact. Numerous ideas about Buddhism which for most of the 20th century were taken for granted—that the text is closer to “true” Buddhism than contemporary practice, that texts composed in “classical” languages are more authoritative than those in the vernacular, that Buddhism is not really a religion at all but more like a science of the mind or philosophy, that Buddhism is less ritualistic and more rational than other religious traditions, and so on—have their roots in the colonial encounter with Buddhism. Any student wishing to understand the place of Buddhism during the colonial period must consider the multiple trajectories and plural histories rather than singular, monolithic narratives.


Media Muslims and Telenovelas: El Clon  

Silvia Montenegro

The analysis of representations of Islam and Muslims disseminated in the literature, academic papers, and mass media involves a large tradition of studies and discussions that have highlighted categories such as Orientalism, neo-Orientalism and post-Orientalism. The Brazilian telenovela El Clon, released in October 2001 by Rede Globo and recreated in a new version by the Telemundo network in 2010, conquered the audience not only in Latin America but worldwide. In the creation of the original project, leaders of Islamic institutions played a role as advisors, but the way in which the religion was portrayed satisfied only part of the Muslim audience. In the analysis of the fictionalization of Muslim identities presented in El Clon, it is possible to identify: (a) the earlier examples of telenovelas aimed at Latin American audiences portraying the Arab-Islamic culture, (b) the significance of its release in the context immediately following 9/11, (c) the way of presenting the “core” of Muslim culture, (d) the integration of the telenovela in the wider process of commoditization of Arab-Islamic exoticism, (e) the dissimilar impact on the Muslim audience, and (f) the search for visibility by Islamic communities through a depiction that would not juxtapose Islam and terrorism. Exoticism, magic, and mystery as components of the soft Orientalism present in El Clon attracted the curiosity of a mass Latin American audience, becoming a milestone in the increasing visibility of Islam.


Media Interactions with Muslims  

Nofret Berenice Hernandez Vilchis

The so-called “Global War on Terror” shows the tense relationships between mainstream media and Muslims around the world. Islam and Arab culture serve as a contrasting otherness in the construction of Western identity. Orientalism allowed first Europe and then the United States to carry on their civilizing missions and expand their culture through the Arab and Muslim world. Since the 19th century, an Orientalist narrative was built to describe an “oriental other” that justifies domination. This tense relationship can be seen in the way mainstream media reproduces an Orientalist narrative that has “migrated” from the global North to the global South. Here, “mainstream media” refers to the most prominent European and American media, including newspapers, TV broadcasting, and news agencies with global reach such as: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Independent, The Guardian, Le Monde, Figaro, CNN, the BBC, France 24, DW, the Associated Press (AP), Reuters, and Agence France Press (AFP). Since the beginning of the 21st century the Orientalist narrative in mainstream media changed from being discriminatory speech into hate speech or Islamophobia. Peripheral media sources reproduce this narrative, as is the case with Mexico’s leading newspapers El Universal, Reforma, and La Jornada. Analysis of the treatment that these newspapers have offered of specific events such as the Second Intifada, 9/11, and the American invasion of Iraq illustrates how the Orientalist-Islamophobic narrative from mainstream media is reproduced to a large degree in the global South. Findings from a current postdoctoral research study involving interviews of Arabs and Muslims living in Mexico make it possible to establish how and to what extent the Orientalist-Islamophobic narrative spread by the mainstream media from the global North affects Arabs and Muslims in the global South.


Imperialism, Mission, and Global Power Relations in East Asian Religions in the United States  

Connie A. Shemo

The history of East Asian religions in the United States is inextricably intertwined with the broader history of United States–East Asian relations, and specifically with U.S. imperialism. For most Americans in the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, information about religious life in China, Japan, and Korea came largely through foreign missionaries. A few prominent missionaries were deeply involved in the translation of important texts in East Asian religions and helped promote some understanding of these traditions. The majority of missionary writings, however, condemned the existing religions in these cultures as part of their critiques of the cultures as degenerate and in need of Christianity. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the women’s foreign mission movement was the largest women’s movement in the United States, women missionaries’ representations of East Asian religions as inherent in the oppression of women particularly reached a large audience. There was also fascination with East Asian religions in the United States, especially as the 20th century progressed, and more translations appeared from people not connected to the foreign mission movement. By the 1920s, as “World Friendship” became an important paradigm in the foreign missionary movement, some missionary representations of East Asian religions became more positive, reflecting and contributing to a broader trend in the United States toward a greater interest in religious traditions around the world, and coinciding with a move toward secularization. As some scholars have suggested, the interest in East Asian religions in the United States in some ways fits into the framework of “Orientalism,” to use Edward Said’s famous term, viewing religions of the “East” as an exotic alternative to religion in the West. Other scholars have suggested that looking at the reception of these religions through a framework of “Orientalism” underestimates and distorts the impact these religious traditions have had in the United States. Regardless, religious traditions from East Asia have become a part of the American religious landscape, through both the practice of people who have immigrated from East Asia or practice the religion as they have learned from family members, and converts to those religions. The numbers of identified practitioners of East Asian religions in United States, with the exception of Buddhism, a religion that originated outside of East Asia, is extremely small, and even Buddhists are less than 2 percent of the American population. At the same time, some religious traditions, such as Daoism and some variants of Buddhism (most notably Zen Buddhism), have exercised a significant impact on popular culture, even while a clear understanding of these traditions has not yet been widespread in the United States. Some understanding of Confucianism as well has recently been spread through the propagation of “Confucian” institutes in the United States. It is through these institutes that we may see the beginnings of the Chinese government exercising some influence in American universities, which, while not comparable to the impact of Christian missionaries in the development of Chinese educational institutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nonetheless can illuminate the growing power of China in Sino-American relations in the beginning of the 21st century. While the term “East Asian” religions is frequently used for convenience, it is important to be aware of potential pitfalls in assigning labels such as “Western” and “Eastern” to religious traditions, particularly if this involves a construction of Christianity as inherently “Western.” At a time when South Korea sends the second largest number of Christian missionaries to other countries, Christianity could theoretically be defined as an East Asian religion, in that a significant number of people in one East Asian country not only practice but actively seek to propagate the religion. Terms such as “Eastern” and “Western” to define religious traditions are cultural constructs in and of themselves.


Buddhism in Film  

Sharon A. Suh

Film serves as one of the most recent contributions to the variety of Buddhist visual forms that can offer a perspectival shift in interpretation for its viewers akin to other meditative devices such as mandalas. As a relatively recent subject of study, Buddhist films present innovative opportunities to visualize the Buddha, Buddhism, and the self in nuanced ways. Buddhist film can be understood as a spiritual technology that reshapes vision, and the act of viewing becomes a ritual process and contemplative practice. Ranging from films with an explicitly Buddhist theme and content to more abstract films without obvious Buddhist references, Buddhist films have become the subject of scholarly studies of Buddhism as well as occasions to reimagine Buddhism on and off screen. Buddhist films found in Asia and the West have proliferated globally through the rise of international Buddhist film festivals over the past fifteen years that have increased both the interest in Buddhism and the field of Buddhism and film itself. Most studies of Buddhism in film indicate that what constitutes a Buddhist film continually evolves and, as such, can be seen as a contemporary instantiation of the skillful means of the Buddha.


Islamic Women’s Organizations in North America  

Samaneh Oladi Ghadikolaei

Muslim women are an integral part of North American society. However, these women face challenges as they expand on their identities independent from the ones delineated by Western and Muslim communities. Muslim women across North America face multiple tiers of discrimination rooted in patriarchy, Orientalism, and challenges associated with migration. On the one hand, they are confronted with neo-Orientalist portrayals of Muslim women that reduce their identities to submissive subjects and their religion to violence and extremism. On the other hand, these women encounter different intersections of oppression, including sexism and racism, both within and outside of their religious communities. Muslim women have responded to these challenges by actively participating in North American civic and religious discourses. It is crucial to acknowledge that Muslim women’s civic participation is not merely a reaction to the challenges posed by Orientalism, sexism, or racism, but it is also driven by their religious beliefs and values. Muslim women actively participate in civic affairs as a means of fulfilling their faith commitments, and they are active agents of change, motivated by their faith commitments to create a more just and equitable society. The current article examines women-led Islamic organizations in North America that provide services and support Muslim women in the region in different capacities. These women face unique challenges that are not adequately addressed by Muslim and non-Muslim civil rights advocacy groups and women’s rights organizations in North America. By establishing such organizations, women-led Islamic organizations are attempting to fill this gap and offer interventions in support of Muslim women that disrupt the popular discourse of representation and interpretation of Islam in North America. The services offered by these female-led organizations range from battling sexism in their communities to supporting domestic and sexual abuse survivors to offering Islamic education to Muslim women regarding their rights with the aim of advancing gender justice. The rise in Muslim women’s activism is redefining and paving the way for the emergence of new identities that bring aspects of these women’s Western and Muslim identities into conversation. While women have contributed to their communities in a myriad of ways without necessarily adopting a reformist agenda, there is a visible increase in activism and involvement in civil society organization that can be interpreted as an emerging impetus for reform in traditionally male-dominated spaces of leadership. Considering that Islamic scholarship and leadership has traditionally been governed by men, women’s activism unsettles normative assumptions about gender hierarchy and marginalization of women in Islamic organizations and communities. By actively engaging in the formation and restructuring of these organizations, Muslim women advance gender justice, both intentionally and inadvertently, in the Islamic tradition and their communities. In a departure from the approach adopted by secular organizations that support women, Islamic women’s organizations regard religion as a means to empower women and an alternative frame of reference for understanding and addressing their unique needs. By addressing women’s issues within an Islamic framework and tackling the central causes of women’s disempowerment and grievances, women’s organizations informed by Islamic principles empower Muslim women to actively participate in constructing their identities and meaningfully contributing to society. Muslim women’s activism and their exercise of authority as leaders of organizations and interpreters of religious knowledge have left a mark on the civic, religious, and political landscape of North America. A steady surge in women’s involvement in Islamic organizations is taking place organically, and women’s contributions to Islamic knowledge carry important implications for societal development and gender relations.


Islam and Pop Culture in North America  

Sophia Rose Arjana

Islam and popular culture constitute an area of scholarship that explores how Muslims are represented in popular culture. Historically, in the European and North American contexts, products attached to Islam and Muslims have often reflected Orientalist and Islamophobic themes. The study of these items has often focused on negative imagery and pejorative themes attached to Islam and Muslims. In the 21st century, scholars have shifted their attention to more nuanced portrayals of Islam, including those produced by Muslim writers, artists, and musicians engaged with forms of popular culture, such as music, literature, television, and film, through their own creative expressions. In North America, Islamic popular culture features a rich mosaic of music, art, literature, and other forms of expression that challenge the negative portrayals associated with Orientalist and Islamophobic discourse.



Todd Green

“Islamophobia” is a modern word for a prejudice that dates back to the Middle Ages and that permeates Western societies in the 21st century. It refers to the fear of and hostility toward Muslims and Islam, as well as the discriminatory, exclusionary, and violent practices arising from these attitudes that target Muslims and those perceived as Muslims. Islamophobia is best understood as a form of cultural racism that instigates animosity based on religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and ethnicity. The historical roots of Islamophobia are found in the political rivalries between Islamic empires and European Christian kingdoms and empires dating back to the Middle Ages. During this period, both Christians and Muslims depicted one another in unflattering terms, conceiving of the other religion as inferior and a distortion of God’s true revelation. By the 19th century, European empires gained the upper hand in this rivalry and imposed some form of colonial rule across vast swaths of the Muslim-majority world. To justify imperial expansion, Europeans developed Orientalist narratives that frequently cast Islam as a backward, uncivilized, and barbaric religion, at odds with European civilization. This narrative found new life as a “clash of civilizations” framework was deployed after the Cold War and particularly after the 9/11 attacks to explain both the rise in Islamist terrorism and to justify ongoing Western military intervention in Muslim-majority regions under the guise of the War on Terror. Islamophobia is exacerbated by the fact that Muslims often lack the power to control the narrative of Islam in the modern West. What most non-Muslims “know” about Islam often comes from one of two sources: the mass media, which frames Muslims primarily through the lens of terrorism and violence; and a professional Islamophobia network, a cadre of right-wing bloggers, activists, authors, and politicians who make a living demonizing and dehumanizing Muslims. Decades if not centuries of Islamophobia have had a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of Muslims living in the West. Since 9/11, Muslims have been subject to intrusive government surveillance and profiling programs, detentions and deportations, registration systems, hate crimes, and infringements on freedom of religion in the form of antisharia laws, hijab and full-face veil bans, and localized and political resistance to the building of mosques and minarets.


Western Buddhism and Race  

Joseph Cheah and Sharon A. Suh

The phenomenon of Western Buddhism has its roots in colonial encounters in Asia and began in earnest with the translation, study, and transmission of traditional Buddhist texts by Western linguists and classicists. Western Buddhism refers to both the study and practice of Buddhism outside of Asia, predominantly in Europe and North America. It therefore refers to a field of study and denotes non-Asian convert Buddhists in the West. The term itself can best understood, on the one hand, within the systematic study of Buddhism in Europe beginning in the 19th century and, on the other hand, in light of the impact of race, racialization, and Whiteness in defining Western Buddhism. Thus, any discussion of Western Buddhism would do well to proceed with a discussion and analysis of race as they are inherently intertwined. Buddhist studies emerged during the height of European colonization and imperialism in Asia, and the scholarly study of Buddhism became a focus and product of colonial discovery and political reshaping. Studies of Western Buddhism and their contemporary manifestations have their origins in the efforts of Western linguists and historians who relied upon and contributed to the process of Orientalist knowledge production, epistemologies, and methodologies to translate and interpret Buddhist texts. Directly linked to colonial policy and power, Orientalist scholarship directly shaped Western perceptions of Buddhism which, in turn, also shaped Asian realities, whereby Asian forms of Buddhism, and Asian Buddhists, were filtered through and measured against prevailing Western ideological and political agendas. Western Orientalist scholars translated Buddhist texts and presented Buddhist philosophy and religion through a distinctly modernist lens that prioritized individual meditation over ritual, Buddhist cosmology and devotional practices. By prioritizing the scientifically “rational” aspects of Buddhism and meditation as a primarily psychological practice, Western Buddhism also favored a narrative of “pure origins” that emphasized the search for a “true Buddhism” beyond its purported Asian cultural accretions. Thus, much Western scholarship produced during this time period emphasized the search for an “ancient” Buddhism wisdom that could hold its own against Western enlightenment ideals. Such modernist agendas thus shaped the formation of Buddhist studies as a scholarly discipline, whose merits were measured according to textual translation and the veracity of purportedly original texts. The development of Western Buddhism is not only shaped by forces of Orientalism, Protestantization, and modernism but also by the historical context of race and racialization. Therefore, to study Western Buddhism without paying attention to its entangled history of racialization and racism would be inaccurate and incomplete. Today, several Euro-American convert Buddhists continue to hold up meditation as the most authentic component of Buddhist practice at the expense of the devotional religiosity. In so doing, this valorization of meditation reproduces the very same devaluation of devotional practice that was rendered backward both in Orientalist scholarship and its modernist inflections in the United States. Western Buddhism continues to be largely defined in the American context primarily through an Orientalist lens and has become enmeshed and nearly synonymous with largely White convert Buddhists’ focus on meditation and the continued exertion of authority within convert communities. With the primacy of meditation as the most authentic form of Buddhism and the power to continue to define the contours of legitimate practice, White convert Buddhist lineages have retained the authority to determine what counts as real Buddhism. In turn, Asian American Buddhists have been promoted in the scholarly literature as overly immersed in popular religion and therefore less capable of determining what constitutes authentic Buddhism. Historically, Western scholarship avoided utilizing race as a category of analysis in the study of Buddhism in the United States and tended toward more generalized terms such as “American Buddhism” and “ethnic Buddhism” to signify the difference between White and non-White practitioners. While these terms have certainly transpired over time and have received an increasingly healthy dose of backlash from marginalized Buddhists and White Buddhist sympathizers, in the unfolding narrative of Western Buddhism and race, labels matter; and the residue of Buddhist Orientalism remains to the degree that “ethnic Buddhism” has become a term synonymous with nonmeditating, superstitious, and overly popular forms of religion practiced primarily by Asian Americans. Through the racialization of Asian and Asian American Buddhists, Western Buddhism continues to reproduce the White privilege and White supremacy operative in earlier scholarship; however, there are many notable challenges to the problem of Buddhism and Whiteness that this article will discuss.