Tibet Can No Longer Stand Alone: A Call to Interreligious Solidarity

Jun 26, 2013 | Updated Aug 26, 2013

With each passing week, the situation in Tibet seems to grow increasingly dire. While the long list of Tibetan self-immolators screams out for attention, and while many of these self-immolations barely scratch the bottom of media channels outside of the Tibetan exile community, this alone is not what reveals the troubling situation of a seemingly forgotten Tibetan freedom movement. It is the complacency of the international community, forced to whispers by the growing economic and political influence of the Chinese state, and the crushing lack of international moral and visionary authority that is willing to stand firm on issues like Tibetan self-determination, that paint a bleak portrait of affairs.

While the Dalai Lama remains a popular international spiritual leader that is able to maintain advocacy for the Tibet issue globally, the wrinkles on his oft-smiling face do not go ignored. For many in the Chinese establishment, the imminent demise of His Holiness in coming decades gives hope that the Tibetan freedom movement will fizzle out. Despite rumors of China's easing on restrictions of followers of the Dalai Lama in Tibet, the Dalai Lama is still widely regarded as a "separatist force" in China that must be dealt with rather than negotiated with. For Tibetans and international supporters, the loss of an enduring moral authority is a fear that looms deep. Regardless, the question has been considered and discussed by scholars and activists before -- will the Tibetan freedom movement end with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama?

While argument and speculation will keep this question suspended, the leadership of the global Tibetan community must take renewed steps if they want to ensure that their struggle against ethnic and cultural cleansing, religious repression, and economic imperialism remains firm and unwavering. What such steps should be taken? The Tibetans must seek new allies in unexpected place -- within China itself.

The role of religion in Tibetan culture and politics throughout the long history of the Tibetan people is an intricate and intertwined narrative that would not receive justice in this particular forum. Despite this, it is irrefutable that the religious heritage of Tibetan Buddhism remains an integral aspect of Tibetan identity in Tibet and in exile. As such, this unique contour of Tibetan identity often sits at the forefront of the call for Tibetan freedom. With the religious culture and history of Tibet facing steady destruction and disappearance, and with monastic and lay communities facing continue repression within Tibet, it is this religious identity - and the need to engage and honor this identity authentically and holistically without hindrance or intervention - that remains as an integral prism through which to channel the efforts of the Tibetan freedom movement.

It no longer comes as a surprise that human rights are often abused in China; and religious freedom, considered by international bodies as a basic human right, is a right that is severely abused within China. The Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, whose masjids and leaders must be state-approved, the Falun Gong movement, whose members face severe discrimination and persecution, and Protestant and Catholic Christians, who must flee to underground Churches to avoid the ideological stranglehold of the state-sponsored Churches, all face significant religious repression within China.

The Tibetan freedom movement and exile community has often failed to explicitly and deeply connect with these communities in greater China. While I often hear about the abuse and torture of monks and nuns in prison, the surveillance and ideological reformation campaigns in religious communities in greater Tibet, and the slow and steady destruction Buddhist history and artifacts, I have not often heard Tibetans speak about other oppressed communities across China.

The Central Tibetan Administration has never made an official declaration of support for other religious communities in China, and integral NGOs such as Students for a Free Tibet have failed to make similar wide statements of solidarity. An understanding of the scope and breadth of the violations of religious freedom in China will be invaluable to the survival and, indeed, the growth and maturity of the Tibetan struggle for freedom. The Tibetans must recognize the universality of this abuse in China, and see themselves not in a solitary context, but in a greater web of oppression that demands interethnic, interreligious solidarity.

While Tibetans may rightly fear that their cultural identity and the particularity of the struggle in their own land would be diluted if they expand their awareness and calls for freedom to include these communities, the silence and deafness of the international community should ignite deeper fears. If the Tibetans want to add increased legitimacy to their struggle in a time of waxing uncertainty, Tibetan leadership must stand firmly in solidarity with other religious and ethnic communities across China.

All dimensions of Tibetan leadership must participate in this recognition -- the Dalai Lama from a spiritual and moral standpoint, the Sikyong and the exile Central Tibetan Administration through political and cultural efforts and initiatives, and community leaders, such as the Tibetan Youth Congress and Students for a Free Tibet, who have the potential to directly shape the educational and direct action efforts of activists around the world. While this may, in many ways, exist primarily as a symbolic gesture, such gestures made in sincerity may prove more powerful to the millions of Tibetans, Chinese, and international supporters yearning for authentic challenges to political status quos than anything else.

With this, the leadership of the Tibetan exile community will broaden its vision to embrace the universal reality of the right of religious freedom, and thus stand proudly in moral authority where so few remain. This will ensure that the Tibetan freedom movement, whose perseverance proves needed in an age of great deception and failing, stands firmly against that which is not strictly a Tibetan issue, but a human issue. Such interreligious, interethnic solidarity is vital to the survival of Tibetan freedom movement.

The support of the international community in such a matter, particularly from Christian leaders like the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the new Pope Francis, and Muslim leaders like Mirza Masroor Ahmad and various ulema, would prove to be a great contemporary recognition of the interconnectedness of human suffering, the universality of oppression in all corners and in all times, and of the great dangers and fears that accompany misguided movements that stand alone in the fight for justice and human freedom globally. Whether international spiritual and political leaders would move to such support, however, is the question.

The Tibetan freedom movement has the potential to stand as the defining movement for human rights and renewal in the 21st century; to stand as a meta-narrative to redeem the dozens of struggles, campaigns, and battles in which we have failed to be human, where we have let our greatest vices define our greatest ambitions, and where the forceful efforts of the moral leaders of history have fallen on deaf ears and bloodbaths. It is a matter of whether or not the Tibetan community is willing to embrace such a task, to risk the fate of Tibet for the fate of all oppressed peoples in China and around the world. Perhaps this is where the freedom of Tibet truly lies.