AAR2018 Panel: Buddhism and National Security in 20th Century America

The North American District of the IASBS will be hosting the following panel at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Denver, CO, November 18, 2018, from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. The panel will be held at the Embassy Suites, Crestone A (Third Level).

The event is free and open to the public. Registration for the AAR meeting is not required, though it is encouraged.

Please visit the AAR Online Program Book for detailed information on the AAR annual meeting.

Buddhism and National Security in 20th Century America

This panel explores the intersection of Buddhism, national security, and government intelligence organizations in the United States. Spanning the interwar and early Cold War periods, the papers collectively explore the ways in which America’s changing national security concerns shaped the lives of American Buddhists and the emerging discipline of Buddhist Studies. We take a special interest in issues of identity: how was racial and religious identity defined and policed by American government institutions? What was “Pan Asian Buddhism” in U.S. government research, and how did it differ from “ethnic” Buddhism? Our case studies are diverse: early twentieth century African American Buddhist activists, Japanese Buddhists incarcerated during World War II, and a CIA-front organization that supported Buddhist cultural programs in Asia.

Presider and Respondent: Richard Jaffe, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Duke University

Adeana McNicholl, Ph.D. Candidate, Religious Studies, Stanford University

“Sufi Abdul Hamid and the ‘Black Buddhism Plan’: Buddhism, Race, and Empire, 1900-1945”

This paper examines the entangled histories of the transmission of Buddhism to the West, the African American fight for racial equality, and the juxtaposition of Pacific Empires in the inter-war period through the life of a single figure, Sufi Abdul Hamid (1903-1938). Hamid, known to contemporaries as “Black Hitler,” mixed Buddhism with metaphysicalism and Islam. While living Hamid adopted an Oriental persona and used his Buddhist temple to promote racial equality. Once dead, his unique religio-racial situation as a black Buddhist implicated him in a World War II conspiracy theory that was part of the wider surveillance of African Americans.

Duncan Williams, Associate Professor of Religion and East Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Southern California

“Military Intelligence Agencies, Buddhism, and the Wartime Incarceration of the Japanese American Community ”

Based on previously classified documents, this paper describes the surveillance of Buddhist temples and the placement of Buddhist priests onto lists created by the Office of Naval Intelligence, Army G-2, and the FBI in the years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The paper argues that the World War Two incarceration of over 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry was based not only on racial animus, but religious animus. The so-called “internment”, which is often framed as a result of racial prejudice and wartime hysteria, is better understood as the culmination of decades of exclusionary practices predicated on a White and Christian supremacist view of the intersection of race, religion, and American belonging.

Laura Harrington, Visiting Scholar/Lecturer, Department of Religion, Boston University

“Making the Dharma Safe for Democracy: Buddhist Studies and the CIA in Cold War America”

The Asia Foundation (1951-1967) was a CIA front organization to fund cultural initiatives that would discourage ‘neutral’ SE Asian nations from entering Communism’s orbit. TAF employed American scholars of Buddhism to pursue programming which would 1) to “insulate” Asian Buddhists from Communism, and 2) foster a “Pan Asian Buddhism” compatible with free world values. “Making” explores two TAF surveys of American Buddhist scholars and their resulting programming. It illuminates links between the government’s national security objectives, Buddhism scholarship, and the public-private networks through which they worked.