by Nick Street
Nearly half a century ago—on September 11, 1963—the New York Times published a piece by David Halberstam that would, together with the rest of Halberstam's reportage from Southeast Asia, earn him the Pulitzer Prize a year later.
“The Buddhist Crisis in Vietnam: A Collision of Religion, World Politics and Pride” examines the conflict between the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam, which was dominated by the country's Catholic aristocracy, and an increasingly militant and politicized movement of Buddhists, whose cause grabbed international attention when a respected senior monk set himself on fire at a busy Saigon intersection three months before Halberstam filed his story.
What makes Halberstam's article worth revisiting is not only his thorough sourcing within both the government of Ngo Dinh Diem and the Buddhist movement but also his clear-eyed analysis of the forces at play in the unfolding drama.
“What caused the Buddhist crisis?” Halberstam wonders, along with his reader. “How political was it? What were the issues? What went wrong? First, the Buddhist protest, observers say, could not have taken place unless the climate for some sort of dissent had been ripe, unless there had been deep and latent dissatisfaction in many areas of the country. Second, the lasting impact of the crisis will not stem from who was right and who was wrong…but from how the Government handled events.”
We learn that the country's minority Catholic government, bolstered and emboldened by the American aid it was receiving to support its war against communist insurgents from North Vietnam, had become increasingly unresponsive to the desires of the Buddhist majority. In March 1963, the government denied a request to fly the Buddhist flag in Hue, the seat of Vietnamese Buddhism, on the Buddha's birthday. Subsequent protests in that city drew thousands to the streets, and the government broke up the demonstration by firing into the crowd, killing nine.
Over the next few months, the U.S. attempted to broker a settlement, which ultimately satisfied no one, and the Ngo government's increasingly brutal acts of suppression transformed the younger Buddhist clergy into an organized resistance movement.
“[The protest] was a complicated force,” Halberstam concludes. “It was in small part Buddhist against Catholic; it was in much larger part the protest of a large segment of the people who happened to be Buddhist against an authoritarian Government that happened to be Catholic-dominated. It was also, in small part, have-nots protesting against haves; it was in much larger part 20th-century Asians protesting against older Asians molded from a mandarin past.”
What lessons does Halberstam's reporting on the nexus of religion, politics and hubris in Southeast Asia offer those of us who are attempting to make sense of an increasingly politicized, conservative Protestant-dominated movement against Islam, both here in the U.S. and abroad? Again, the first strength of “The Buddhist Crisis in Vietnam” is its humanizing of both the Ngo government and the opposition by thorough sourcing. A number of recent articles have offered a counterweight to abstractions about Muslims and Islam by illuminating the efforts of American Muslims to be seen as they really are. Several exemplary pieces look at an impromptu PR campaign at the Minnesota State Fair; a video project depicting Muslims in everyday life; an Islamic charity drive in Detroit; and the lost Muslim culture of the Twin Towers.
More difficult to find are pieces on our current moment that match Halberstam's careful delineation of the forces, interests and policies—both Vietnamese and American—that hardened the Ngo government and radicalized the country's Buddhist clergy. Jane Mayer's New Yorker profile of the Koch brothers and their connections to the Tea Party movement points the way, but it remains to be seen whether her example will be followed by others in the mainstream media.
We should hope so. Understanding who profits from stoking the animus some Americans feel toward Muslims and Islam will only become more important should conservatives, as expected, gain control of one or both houses of Congress in November. To paraphrase Halberstam's conclusion, the lasting impact of our supposed Muslim crisis will have less to do with who's right or wrong than with how our government handles events from here on out.
Nick Street has worked as a contributing editor at Patheos.com and Religion Dispatches. His writing on science, religion, sexuality and culture has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, the Jewish Journal and the Revealer. He is a resident priest at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles.