For decades a persistent image emanating out of Iran has been that of a bearded cleric, clad in long robes, railing against the Western threat to Islam. They fear us. We fear them. Their "orthodoxy" is our "extremism." It's all quite intractable.

For decades a persistent image emanating out of Iran has been that of a bearded cleric, clad in long robes, railing against the Western threat to Islam. They fear us. We fear them. Their “orthodoxy” is our “extremism.” It’s all quite intractable.

Taking a view that swerves awfully close consequentialism, one might argue that for the gross oppression of the Church of England, the North America we now know would look much different. After all, happy pilgrims wouldn’t have left Europe. One could also argue that religious sentiment has been a moderating force, imparting the qualities of mercy, fairness and justice to state proceedings. It tempers the iron hand of state. It can be the catalyst for compromise or the anvil against which the hammer strikes.

When we hear the term, “religious extremist,” images of Islamic suicide bombers and the likes of David Koresh come to mind. Determining whether one has been a martyr to a proper cause or simply a murderous lunatic depends largely upon one’s perspective relative to the violence.

Recent events in a land not too distant from the seat of American wars turn this age old dynamic on its ear as the tiny Asian nation of Tibet faces absorption by Chinese invaders. Tibetan response has been unlike that of almost any other people in history. Since March 2011, more than 20 people have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese occupation. Rather than harm anyone else, these individuals, primarily Tibetan Buddhist monks, have publicly self-immolated to express their profound opposition to Chinese oppression. It is an act that encapsulates both political protest and religious ideal. It is somehow more intense than suicide bombing, even while claiming only one victim. It is an oddly defiant violence wrought of an exceptionally pacifistic people.

To understand how the situation could yield such dissent, a little history lesson is in order. Since 1949, the People’s Republic of China has occupied Tibet. This occupation resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans, the destruction of over 6,000 Buddhist monasteries, nunneries and temples, and the imprisonment and torture of thousands of Tibetans. Prior to occupation, Tibet had an established sovereign government, currency, postal system, language, legal system, and culture. The Tibetan government signed treaties and had diplomatic relations with other nations. Nonetheless, the Chinese government claims Tibet has always been part of China.

In its campaign to absorb Tibet, China severely restricted freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly. Arbitrary arrests and torture of political prisoners is common. “Re-education” is mandatory. What’s worse, the Chinese government has given Han Chinese strong incentives to relocate to Tibet — thus accomplishing through the cultural hegemony of numbers what military might has not. The Chinese argue they have merely “developed” Tibet. A Chinese scholar with whom I am acquainted insisted all of this was “for their own good… that the Tibetans are backward and needed modernizing.”

My acquaintance pointed out the railroads, factories and trappings of industrial modernity. There’s only one problem: The Tibetans didn’t want it, at least not on those terms. This gets to a point we confront again and again in world history — When we start exporting our ideologies “for someone else’s own good” they often end up worse off than before.

Interestingly, the international community has been largely mute on the issue. Since the 1990s era of Western “constructive engagement” with China began, the human rights situation in Tibet has deteriorated markedly. In 2008, the United Nations finally acknowledged torture is “widespread and routine” in Tibet. Then there’s the inescapable paradox. We want Chinese largess in the form of low wage laborers, lax environmental standards and opening markets. Why would we jeopardize all that just to appease a flyspeck country crammed in the Himalayas? As is well established, the glow of cheap smart phones and televisions is far more compelling than the sacrificial fires of a few oppressed monks. So much for exporting ideologies.

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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via