GINTOTA, Sri Lanka: The Buddhist abbot was sitting cross-legged in his monastery, fulminating against the evils of Islam, when the petrol bomb exploded within earshot. But the abbot, the Venerable Ambalangoda Sumedhananda Thero, barely registered the blast. Waving away the mosquitoes swarming the night air in the southern Sri Lankan town of Gintota, he continued his tirade: Muslims were violent, he said, Muslims were rapacious.
Minutes later, a monastic aide rushed in and confirmed that someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail at a nearby mosque. The abbot flicked his fingers in the air and shrugged.
His responsibility was to his flock, the Buddhist majority of Sri Lanka. Muslims, who make up less than 10% of Sri Lanka’s population, were not his concern. Incited by a politically powerful network of charismatic monks like Sumedhananda Thero, Buddhists have entered the era of militant tribalism, casting themselves as spiritual warriors who must defend their faith against an outside force.
Their sense of grievance might seem unlikely: In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, two countries that are on the forefront of a radical religious-nationalist movement, Buddhists constitute overwhelming majorities of the population.
Yet some Buddhists, especially those who subscribe to the purist Theravada strain of the faith, are increasingly convinced that they are under existential threat, particularly from an Islam struggling with its own violent fringe. As the tectonic plates of Buddhism and Islam collide, a portion of Buddhists are abandoning the peaceful tenets of their religion. During the past few years, Buddhist mobs have waged deadly attacks against minority Muslim populations.
Buddhist nationalist ideologues are using the spiritual authority of extremist monks to bolster their support.
“The Buddhists never used to hate us so much,” said Mohammed Naseer, the imam of the Hillur Mosque in Gintota, Sri Lanka, which was attacked by Buddhist mobs in 2017. “Now their monks spread a message that we don’t belong in this country and should leave. But where will we go? This is our home.”
Last month in Sri Lanka, a powerful Buddhist monk went on a hunger strike that resulted in the resignation of all nine Muslim ministers in the Cabinet. The monk had suggested that Muslim politicians were complicit in the Easter Sunday attacks by Islamic State-linked militants on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, which killed more than 250 people.
In Myanmar, where a campaign of ethnic cleansing has forced an exodus of most of the country’s Muslims, Buddhist monks still warn of an Islamic invasion, even though less than 5% of the national population is Muslim. During Ramadan celebrations in May, Buddhist mobs besieged Islamic prayer halls, causing Muslim worshippers to flee.
Because of Buddhism’s pacifist image — swirls of calming incense and beatific smiles — the faith is not often associated with sectarian aggression. Yet no religion holds a monopoly on peace. Buddhists go to war, too.
“Buddhist monks will say that they would never condone violence,” said Mikael Gravers, an anthropologist at Aarhus University in Denmark who has studied the intersection of Buddhism and nationalism. “But at the same time, they will also say that Buddhism or Buddhist states have to be defended by any means.”
Thousands of people gathered in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, in May as Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who was once jailed for his hate speech, praised the nation’s army.