A Chinese official said the Dalai Lama supports the Islamic State. Ridiculous — and telling.

Çar, 12/09/2015 - 19:45 -- Kanat
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama speaks at a peace conference in Bangalore, India. (AP/Aijaz Rahi)

By Emily Rauhala
​December 9 at 6:22 AM

It's no secret that China's leaders dislike the Dalai Lama. Over the years, Communist Party cadres have denounced the exiled spiritual leader as a "separatist," a "splittist," and a "wolf in monk's robes."

On Tuesday, the chairman of China's top religious affairs committee, Zhu Weiqun, extended that war of words, telling a Chinese reporter that the Dalai Lama sympathized with the Islamic State.

"While the whole world has reached a preliminary consensus on fighting against IS and its cruel, violent behaviors, the Dalai Lama suggested  listening, understanding and respecting them," read an account of Zhu's comments published by the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper known for its strident nationalism.

"This shows that the Dalai Lama, deep down, sympathizes or approves of ISIS."

The interview came two days after the Dalai Lama told an Italian newspaper that dialogue was necessary to defeat extremists.

To tackle the Islamic State, "there has to be dialogue," he told La Stampa on Monday, according to a report by the French news agency, Agence France Presse.

“One has to listen, to understand, to have respect for the other person, regardless. There is no other way.”

Zhu's attempt to cast a call for dialogue as an endorsement of violence is telling — for two reasons.

First, it calls attention to the Chinese government's ongoing effort to tarnish the Dalai Lama and, in so doing, try to nullify Tibetan demands for autonomy, religious freedom and human rights.

The Dalai Lama was born in what is today Qinghai province, moved to Lhasa as a child and, after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule, fled over the Himalayas to India, where he has lived in exile ever since.

In the late 1980s, he publicly abandoned the pursuit of Tibetan independence in favor of what he calls "the Middle Way." The strategy, which is unpopular among some Tibetans, seeks greater autonomy within the People's Republic of China, not a new state.

But the central government insists the Dalai Lama is a determined separatist who works to divide China from abroad. They blame him — not economic, religious and cultural discrimination — for the riots that swept across the plateau in 2008, as well as more than 140 Tibetan self-immolations since 2009.

Indeed, in his interview with Global Times, Zhu reportedly said the Dalai Lama "incited" Tibetans to burn themselves to death. He called this "a form of violent extremism," rhetorically linking public suicides in Tibetan areas to acts of terrorism committed by the Islamic State.

Second, and in a similar vein, Zhu's comments come amid a post-Paris push to tie what is happening in China's west to a global war on terror.

In the aftermath of the deadly attacks in Paris last month, China's top leaders were quick to denounce the violence, but also used the moment to remind the world that, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it, China is "also a victim of terrorism." There should be no "double standard" in how we think about terrorism, he said — a sentiment later echoed by Xi Jinping.

The notion that the West dismisses China's terror problem is popular here.

In 2014, attackers with knives slaughtered 29 people, and injured more than 100, in an attack at a train station in Kunming. Blocked from reporting at the scene, many foreign  reporters avoided using the word "terrorism" or "terrorists" or did so quoting state media — a linguistic hedge that outraged many Chinese.

The same sentiment proved salient after Paris. "In their eyes, only terrorist attacks that happen on Western soil can be called acts of terrorism," read a China Daily editorial.

The challenge for those researching or writing about mass violence in China is that the word terrorism — tough to define in any context — is used in an extraordinary range of ways here.

China's top leaders have long warned against the "three evil forces"— terrorism, separatism and religious extremism — and use the words in almost  interchangeable ways, observed Australian scholar James Leibold in a recent piece for the National Interest.

Acts of mass violence by Han Chinese are not treated as terrorism, he noted, but for Tibetan and Uighurs, a wide range of non-violent acts seem to count.

"The line between peaceful political activism and violent acts of terror is frequently blurred in China, as the sentencing of Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohtiand the Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche on charges of terrorism and separatism suggests,"  Leibold wrote.

"In Chinese discourse, terrorism is employed exclusively in reference to Tibetans and Uyghurs."

That means that a Nobel Peace Prize winner like the Dalai Lama is an advocate, by Zhu's count, of  "forms of violent extremism." And so is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Emily Rauhala is a China Correspondent for the Post. She was previously a Beijing-based correspondent for TIME, and an editor at the magazine's Hong Kong office.