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Ian Buruma–Jamyang Norbu: an Exchange
New York Review of Books

Thursday, Oct 4, 2001
No Comment

4 October 2001, New York Review of Books

To the editors:

Ian Buruma in his article “Tibet Disenchanted” (20 July 2000) states that “Muslims had been persecuted in the past by Tibetans who wanted to keep Tibet ‘pure’, that is purely Buddhist.”

Nowhere in Tibetan history is anything remotely of the kind indicated. Muslims were a very small and peaceful minority in the Tibet of the past, mainly merchants settled in Lhasa and other major towns. Most of them were from Kashmir and Ladakh and came to Tibet during the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama. A history of their community published some years ago in Srinagar (Kashmir) relates how the fifth welcomed them and gave them land within the city to build their mosque and burial ground. Most Muslims in Tibet owned successful business and in fact one of them started the first cinema hall in Tibet.

Most of them now live as refugees in Kashmir and the Middle East. They still take extraordinary pride in their Tibetan heritage and their many contributions to Tibetan culture, in the way of cuisine, elegant conversation and music.

Quite a few of their educated young men worked for the Tibetan government-in-exile and some still do. There was also a small community of Chinese Muslims (Hui) who had their own mosque, and who ran the butcher shops. Not only is there no record of the persecution of Muslims in Tibetan history, but even in the few accounts by Muslim scholars nothing of the kind is hinted at.

In recent years, as a part of the Chinese population transfer program, there has been a large influx of Chinese Muslims from Gansu and Qinghai into Tibet, which has caused real hostility to break out between the two communities.

It is a pity that certain Western intellectuals writing on Tibet (one being Orville Schell), try to make up for their ignorance of Tibetan language, history and culture, by calling attention to the fact that they, unlike Richard Gere or other celebrity Buddhists, haven’t been taken in by the Dalai Lama’s charms or the current craze for Tibet. They usually demonstrate this in their writings by exaggerating the failings of the old Tibetan church and society, or in Ian Buruma’s case by insinuating that Tibetans were just as intolerant and violent as those suppressing them.

Jamyang Norbu

Jamyang Norbu would be quite right to criticize me if I had said that Tibetans were just as intolerant and violent as those suppressing them. However, that is not what I said. Quite evidently, they are not. I quoted a Tibetan Muslim who had told me that his father had suffered some persecution by Tibetan zealots. He was unclear about when this happened. But he added that things have been better for Muslims since the Communists took over in Tibet.

It is hard to assess the accuracy of such statements, but it is certainly not implausible. Trouble between Tibetans and Muslims goes way back at least to the early twentieth century, when there were wars in eastern Tibet between Tibetans and Chinese Muslims. And most Tibetans I have spoken to agree that Muslims were never regarded as fully Tibetan. In the tradition of all colonial powers, the Chinese often cultivated the minority as a way of controlling the majority. Muslims in Tibet were promoted to high positions, and so forth. This led to widespread resentment among Tibetan Buddhists, especially in the early years of the revolution. In 1959, for example, a mosque was burned down in Lhasa, because Muslims were accused of collaborating with the Chinese.

Ian Buruma

I think that a single confusion in terminology could be the source of the misunderstanding between Ian Buruma and myself. What I, and other Tibetans mean by Tibetan Muslims are the descendents of those who originally came to Tibet from Kashmir and Ladakh around the fifteenth century and who settled permanently in Tibet, mainly in Lhasa. Except for those imprisoned by the Chinese military authorities for participating in the 1959 uprising, nearly all Tibetan Muslims left Tibet after 1959 and resettled in Kashmir.

The people who Ian Buruma calls Tibetan Muslims appear to be Hui residents in Tibet, who originally came from Gansu and Qinghai. Tibetans always referred to them as Chinese Muslims and that is, incidently how all Hui, mostly those with the Chinese surnames of Ma (horse) are referred to generally in scholarship, whether they lived in Lanzhou or Lhasa.

Quite a few of them were permanent residents in Tibet, and even in the old days their relations with Tibetans were often strained. During the fighting in 1911 when Tibet managed to free itself of Manchu rule, the Hui community in Lhasa threw in its lot with the Manchus. In the fighting in Eastern Tibet from 1956 onwards, the Communists used Hui cavalry (formerly troopers of the Chinese Muslim warlord of Qinghai, Ma Bufang) against resistance fighters. Tibetans did not regard Huis so much as collaborators, but as simply Chinese. And indeed the Hui, even those born in Tibet, who spoke the language and some of whom may have married Tibetan women, regarded themselves as essentially Chinese.

The fact that Tibetans invariably got along fine with their own Muslim community and with Muslim Uighurs of East Turkestan would indicate that Tibetan animosity against the Hui was more the product of political than religious friction.

In the violent uprising of 1959 the Chinese Muslim mosque was only one of many buildings destroyed in Lhasa, largely by Chinese artillery fire. The old Medical School on the Iron Hill opposite the Potala was completely levelled. The Chinese Muslim Mosque could have been burnt down by Tibetans as Ian Buruma mentions, though there is no evidence to support this. But as the building was being held by Chinese troops and armed Hui supporters, its destruction was probably not so much an act of religious intolerance, as one of military necessity. Ian Buruma should also know that the other mosque in Lhasa, the Tibetan Muslim one, did not suffer any damage.

I may have probably been somewhat precipitate in holding Ian Buruma to task, the way I did in my first letter. The whole subject is a fairly obscure one, with little documentation, and it would be unfair to expect any non-Tibetan, even such an accomplished scholar and writer as Ian Buruma to be spot-on with his information and conclusions.

Jamyang Norbu

(This reply was not published)

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