Encountering Racism while ‘Doing No Harm’

Raymond Scupin

In my 1994 ethnographic research on Muslim communities in Thailand I confronted an ethical dilemma that has never been resolved to my satisfaction. In 1976-77, I conducted dissertation research with Thai-speaking descendants of Malay, Iranian, Indonesian, Pathan, Indian, Cham, and Chinese (Yunnanese) Muslims who had migrated to Bangkok and other areas of Central Thailand. Most were Sunni, but some of the Iranian and Indian descendants were Shia. The mid-1970s was the height of the Islamic Awakening throughout the Muslim world, with the embryonic Iranian revolution developing alongside other forms of religious assertiveness. In my dissertation I discussed the different types of Islamic movements that were taking place — reformist, fundamentalist, and secular — along with the ongoing changes in ritual practices and beliefs within these various Muslim communities. Despite the assimilation or accommodation of many Muslims to the majority Thai Buddhist cultural environment, I witnessed an increase in ethnic and religious assertiveness that is still prevalent today.

I was not able to do follow-up research during the 1980s despite being awarded a Fulbright grant, because the Thai government would not approve clearances for Westerners wanting to work among Muslims. But finally, in 1994, through my Muslim academic contacts in Thailand, I was able to return. While conducting interviews with various informants, including Muslim university professors, I discovered that some of them were involved in translating Henry Ford’s “The International Jew” and the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in order to promote anti-Semitic views within the Thai-speaking Muslim communities. When I questioned them about their rationales, they answered that they wanted to demonstrate the true nature of the Zionist and World Jewry for the Muslim populace. Of course, I knew that these portrayals were widespread throughout the Middle East, but I was shocked that they had become an aspect of these Muslim activities in Thailand. I argued vociferously with the individuals who were involved in these translations and tried to reason with them about the negative portrayals of Jews that they intended to promote. Some did have second thoughts when I pointed out how the translation project violated the norms regarding the Islamic acceptance of Jews as “People of the Book.” Nevertheless, the project was completed.

I found the matter very troubling. While the majority of Muslims in Thailand played no role in translating the anti-Semitic documents, some of the Muslims involved were my close informants and friends. I viewed their activity as immoral, harmful, and a violation of basic human rights. However, while I considered reporting their activities to the Thai Buddhist authorities, I worried about the potential consequences. The Thai authorities tend to have negative essentialist stereotypes about Muslims, so the possibility of political repression or other repercussions for Muslims as a result of such a disclosure was very real. At the time I decided not to report. Since then, however, I have been haunted by the thought that I might have been able to prevent the distribution of these anti-Semitic documents had I tried. Recently, I wrote a chapter for a volume dealing with Buddhist-Muslim relations in Thailand that mentions the translation of the anti-Semitic texts. I reasoned that the Thai authorities were unlikely to ever read this academic research and so the publication would not have negative consequences for the Muslims in Thailand. Would reporting to Thai authorities when I saw what was happening in the 1990s have violated the principle that anthropologists should “Do No Harm”? Am I violating the “Do No Harm” principle by describing the Muslims’ activities in my chapter? Am I violating it by writing this blog post now? While I know no ethical principle can be absolute, this one seems to be a pervasive aspect of anthropological ethics. I just don’t know how to it apply it in this case.

Raymond Scupin, Director, Center for International and Global Studies, Lindenwood University. Rscupin@lindenwood.edu.