The obnoxious Englishman abroad is a well loved story in the British press. The opprobrium once reserved for the British football hooligan abroad has now spread to his vacationing cousins. Cheap airfares and package holidays to the beaches of the Mediterranean, Florida and points East have given the Briton abroad a reputation for boorishness, lewdness, and alcohol-fueled vulgarity.
“They scream, they sing, they fall down, they take their clothes off, they cross-dress, they vomit,” the mayor of Malia, a popular Greek resort, told the New York Times in 2008. “It is only the British people – not the Germans or the French”.
Are the British the world’s worst behaved tourists? I think Americans can still give the Brits a run for their money. Let me note the annual horror of Spring Break here in Sunny Florida in defense of my claim of American exceptionalism. Aesthetically speaking the sunburnt, tattooed, shaven-headed, bandy-legged Briton abroad is an unpleasing sight. And the men are even worse!
The British government keeps track of the bad behavior of Englishman abroad, publishing an annual report on consular support given to jailed tourists, football hooligans and other assorted louts.The British press has a love hate relationship with yobos abroad. The Daily Mail and other popular newspapers will run stories bemoaning bad behavior and vulgarity with headlines like: “Beer-swilling Britishwomen are branded the ‘ugliest in the world’.” However, British television celebrates the bad behavior with documentaries and series like Channel 4‘s “What happens in Kavos” — an English version of the soft porn “Girls gone wild” films distributed in America.
The news that a British nurse vacationing in Sri Lanka is being deported from that country due to a Buddha tattoo that state officials find to be offensive to Buddhist sensibilities is being reported along these lines — the clueless tourist acting in a way that insults the locals. The Guardian‘s story came from the French wire service AFP, which stated:
Sri Lanka has detained a female British tourist for having a Buddha tattoo on her right arm and ordered her deportation, police said on Tuesday. The unidentified woman was arrested at the country’s main international airport on Monday and appeared before a magistrate, who ordered her deportation, police said in a statement.
The statement said she had an image of the Buddha seated on a lotus flower tattooed on her right arm. “She was taken before the Negombo magistrate, who ordered her to be detained prior to deportation,” it said, adding that she was arrested shortly after her arrival on a flight from neighbouring India.
It did not say what charges were brought against her, but Sri Lanka barred another British tourist from entering the island in March last year for showing disrespect to Buddhism by having a Buddha tattooed on his arm.
Subsequent stories in the Guardian and other Western news outlets reported the woman’s name and provided a photo of the tourist showing off her Buddha tattoo. The Guardian also ran an opinion piece noting that the Buddha tattoo was offensive to Sri Lankans arguing:
The arrest and pending deportation of a 37-year-old British nurse, Naomi Coleman, from Sri Lanka for sporting a tattoo of a meditating Buddha on her right arm has once again raised the issue of tourists being woefully unaware of religious and cultural sensitivities in places they visit.
While alcohol was absent from this incident, the photos of the tattoo and its wearer, coupled with statements that the tattoo was considered offensive by Buddhists, slots this story into the ugly Briton abroad category.
But … is this all there is to say on this story? Are Buddhists offended by tattoos of the Buddha? Why is this offensive?
Could this be political chauvinism disguised as religious piety?
The Western press appears to have accepted uncritically the argument that tattoos of Buddha are offensive on religious grounds. Yet no scholars of Buddhism are questioned on this point. In its opinion piece the Guardian cites a story in the Daily News of Colombo — one of Sri Lanka’s principle newspapers — in support of the offensive to Buddhist claims that also raises political questions. The Daily News article quotes a senior Buddhist monk demanding the government ban publications printing images of Buddha.
The Mahanayake Thera during a meeting with the President pointed out that the print media material bearing the images of The Buddha were even used as serviettes at eateries and also used to wrap various consumer goods by traders.
While noting the above, the Mahanayake Thera asserted that this amounted to an act of sacrilege.
Images of Buddha according to the senior monk must be protected from sacrilege. But again we do not have an explanation of why other than the monk’s assertion that this must be so.
In April of 2010, I wrote an article for the Church of England Newspaper reporting that:
Buddhist extremists have forced the cancellation of a concert tour in Sri Lanka by the pop singer Akon, after a mob ransacked the offices of his booking agent in Colombo for insulting the Buddha. … The protesters were offended by Akon’s latest video “Sexy Chick,” which shows bikini-clad women dancing at a pool party, while in the background stands a statue of the Buddha. Jathika Bhikku Sansadaya, a Buddhist monk organization affiliated with the Sinhala nationalist party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) demanded the government cancel the concert stating Akon had insulted Buddhism.
The government caved in to the demands of the rioters and refused to issue Akon a visa. The reason why the Church of Englan Newspaper ran the story was due to the intervention of the Anglican bishop in Colombo.
Bishop Duleep de Chickera of Colombo upbraided the police for their inaction. “Reports that the police failed to prevent the attack and did not object to some of the perpetrators of this offense being released on bail the same day, are worrying,” he said. “Such behavior implies political patronage in the attack and political interference in the investigations. When some who frame the laws of the land and some of those responsible for the enforcement of the law disregard the law, the plight of the people is critical,” he said in a statement given to the media.
The bishop argued the motivation for the protests were not religious but political. Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monks have a long history of political activism and in recent years have used perceived insults to Buddhist imagery — t-shirts, tattoos, music videos, a parcel wrapped in a newspaper that displays an image of Buddha — as a stick to beat the government and rouse their supporters.
How then should the Western press have handled the story of Naomi Coleman? Was it wise to assume that Buddhism is akin to Sunni Islam where images of the prophet or the enlightened one are forbidden? Should the assertion that this is offensive be tested by reference to a scholar of Sri Lankan Buddhism or a political analyst? Should we trust as true the statements made by the police?
The deeper story here is not the social or aesthetic faux pas of an English tourist, but the political activism of militant Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Religious offense may be the issue trumpeted by the Sri Lankan government, but could it really be Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism at play?