Defining Tolerance

August 15, 2010

I feel as if I can only write well/a lot when I’m writing about something political.  Bear with me here.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines tolerance as “The action or practice of tolerating; toleration; the disposition to be patient with or indulgent to the opinions or practices of others; freedom from bigotry or undue severity in judging the conduct of others; forbearance; catholicity of spirit.”

Intolerance is similarly defined as “The fact or habit of not tolerating or enduring (something); inability, or unwillingness, to tolerate or endure some particular thing; incapacity of endurance.”; “Absence of tolerance for difference of opinion or practice, esp. in religious matters; denial of the right to differ; narrow-minded or bigoted opposition to dissent.”

The Ground Zero Mosque is quickly becoming a prime example of how people can talk out of both sides of their mouths on the tolerance/intolerance issue.  Surprisingly (at least to me), Atheists are showing more difference of opinion on the issue of the mosque than any other group.  In my mind, Atheists should have a more-or-less unified opinion on the issue, but then again, getting Atheists to agree on something is like herding cats.  However, I still feel as if Atheists would either be completely for it on the basis of “We want to be tolerated and we should tolerate others as well”, or completely against it on the basis of “Islam is a horrible religion and why should we cater to them?”.  I’ll get to my opinion and my explanation for it in a second, but first I’m going to look at what both Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens feel about this issue.

Sam Harris is against the mosque because “the erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory—and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.”  His main argument is that while moderate Muslims may exist in the United States, Islam is not a religion of moderates or of peace, as is so often claimed.  And in this point he is very much correct.  He also says at the beginning of his article that to deny the building of the mosque would be illegal and that it should be illegal.  This is also true.  To say that it would be wrong simply because of what the religion is and because of how it is linked to 9/11 is wrong, and to object to the mosque purely on this basis is just as wrong.

Christopher Hitchens, while being wary of the Imam at the proposed mosque, feels that the objections to the mosque on the basis of it being a mosque a la Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and now Sam Harris, is wrong and is intolerance at its worst.  He boils down objections to the mosque to lacking substance and to being similar to how many Muslims approach issues: it’s offensive to us, so don’t do it.  He calls it “cultural blackmail”.  As Hitchens points out, one of the opponents to the building of the mosque acknowledges on his own that the opposition is “irrational and bigoted”, but should be respected nonetheless.  Why?  Because we should be sympathetic to the feelings of the victims of 9/11 and their families.

Here is my take on the whole thing.  1) Islam is not a religion of peace or tolerance, at least not as it is practiced outside of the United States.  Sharia Law is both brutal and disgusting, and Islam as a religion is notorious for its views on and treatment of women, for its command to kill apostates and infidels, and for the command to take over the world as a religion.  I will never argue that Islam is tolerant or peaceful in its original and most-commonly-practiced form, but that its current incarnation in the US, barring a few notable exceptions, is much more palatable, even to me.  2) 9/11 should never be forgotten.  This country has a bad habit of letting things disappear into the background when they shouldn’t, and even if they never truly disappear, the event itself loses all meaning and importance.  How many Americans who are around my age wake up on December 7th and actually recognize what that day is, much less attribute it importance?  Probably a both shockingly and scarily low number.  How many people do the same for April 19th, or even April 20th, both dates which are much more recent than Pearl Harbor?  On top of that, who out there is reading this and simultaneously scratching his or her head/Googling the dates to figure out what I’m talking about?  My point here is that 9/11 is in this weird National Memory limbo; it’s not quite gone, but it’s given an importance that is incomparable to how people both feel about it and remember it.  Much less, we place an importance on the day and on the families of those involved that is never extended to other tragedies or terrorist acts.   3) Making exceptions for a certain group of people to single them out based on who they are is wrong, no matter what.  While Michelle Malkin may feel that Japanese internment during World War II was justified and that the same actions should have been taken against people of Middle Eastern decent, while SB 1070 and Sheriff Joe Arpaio may feel that just because one speaks Spanish, listens to Spanish music, and is brown means that he or she is illegal and should be deported, and while Sam Harris may claim that Islamophobia does not exist, all three opinions are wrong.  The fact is that one bad apple does not always spoil the bunch, no matter what the situation.  Just because Japanese obliterated Pearl Harbor does not mean that every Japanese person is a kamikaze pilot hell-bent on destroying America, just like every American is not an Atomic Bomb dropping pilot cerca 1945.  In this vein, not every German is a Nazi, much less an Aryan or a racist, not every brown person who speaks Spanish is an illegal immigrant,  not every white person in a trench coat and combat boots is going to shoot their school, not every Christian is going to blow up a Federal Building (or the Olympics, for that matter), and not every “Arab-looking” person is a terrorist, much less a Muslim.  And to crown this point, not every Muslim is a terrorist, much less an extremist, and lest we forget, NOT EVERY MUSLIM PLAYED A PART IN 9/11!.  Sadly, Islamophobia does exist, even now nearly 9 years later.  People who wear “Middle Eastern Garb” or people who look Middle Eastern or who speak something even remotely similar to Arabic are looked at differently and are treated differently, especially near Airports or large buildings.  Why?  Because what people will always remember about 9/11 is that it was part of a jihad, which instantly, in some people’s minds, implicates every Muslim.  It doesn’t, for the record.  But people are Islamophobic, just as many of those same people are xenophobic.  Neither is or ever will be justified.  To think this way is to represent the acme of ignorance and intolerance, which is precisely what opposition to the mosque embodies.

Should we be sympathetic to the feelings of the victims of 9/11?  In part, yes, but we should never be sympathetic to hypersensitivity.  I can understand that repeatedly showing footage of 9/11 on TV is insensitive and even psychologically damaging to people who lost loved ones, but that doesn’t mean that said footage should never be shown.  I can understand also how some people may feel that having a mosque near Ground Zero is just as damaging.  While I understand this, I don’t agree with it one bit.  First, it has been 9 years, and I see it as more offensive and damaging that all that has been done with Ground Zero is to make a large pile of dirt.  Two, there is already a mosque that exists 4 blocks away, and it has been there for years.  Where are the screams to remove it from the site?  Better yet, where were those screams 9 years ago?  Third, to single out Muslims because of the connection to 9/11 is fundamentally wrong and intolerant.  It would be understandable if the Imam of the mosque was Osama bin Laden himself, or a super fundamental and radical Imam who laughs about the ruins of the World Trade Center and advocates more violence.  Yes, that would be offensive, insensitive, and I would protest that.  But to say that a mosque shouldn’t be built just because it is a mosque is wrong.  If it were synagogue or a megachurch, there would be no controversy.  But as soon as it involves Muslims, it becomes a controversy.

While I understand where the arguments against it are coming from, I personally feel that it is wrong to single out Muslims and Islam.  The same logic should be used across the board, i.e, no churches near the site of the 1996 Olympics bombing or the Oklahoma City Bombing, no American Cultural Centers in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, etc.  As an Atheist, I feel that for tolerance to be demanded of myself or other Atheists, we also have to extend tolerance.  Sam Harris, I’m talking to you.  Tolerating, as was pointed out by South Park, doesn’t mean agreeing with or even respecting, it just means tolerating.  Don’t hold other people to a different standard.  Don’t single people out.  The minute you are intolerant of others, you open yourself to intolerance as well.  This applies to everyone.  If you expect tolerance, be tolerant.  I may not respect Sarah Palin and those that agree with her, and I may criticize them both publicly and privately, but you will never see me telling any of them that they can’t speak, or that they can’t voice their opinion, or that they are banned from building something.  Why? Tolerance.  Tolerance should be a universal virtue, just like altruism: everyone should practice and strive for both, regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic background, or religion.


5 Responses to “Defining Tolerance”

  1. blackwatertown Says:

    I understand that there is no law against this mosque, therefore to block it would be an act of intervention – and, as you say, intolerance.

  2. swingeth Says:

    First of all, I completely agree with you. Right on. I wish more people in the country were thoughtful enough to be able to explain their views in the way you often do.

    That being said, I’m not sure I completely agree with you professing tolerance but then calling Islam “not a religion of peace or tolerance.” Yes, obviously the religion has been perverted into a violent form in some regions of the world, but to generalize this to an entire faith is unfair.

    People make these choices, not the religion itself.

    Christ preached peace, but Christianity was never “a religion of peace” until fairly recently – how many people did the Crusades slaughter? No one would claim that Judaism is a religion of violence, but the Old Testament has some of the most violent passages I’ve ever read, things that depict Jews crushing their opponents mercilessly, and on top of that it’s incredibly misogynistic. Islam is no different except for the fact that there are far more (for lack of a better word) radical and fundamentalist Muslims today than crusaders. I believe calling the religion that (I think, correct me if this number is wrong) millions of American citizens practice “violent” is a cruel blow to the religious equality our nation was founded on. And beyond that, there are plenty of Muslim countries in the world that are not governed by extremists. So yes, Sharia law can be violent. Yes, Muslim extremists are violent. No, Islam is not violent.

    Maybe this is a minor diction quibble, but to call a form of a religion “palatable” doesn’t seem like “freedom from bigotry or undue severity in judging the conduct of others.” To be palatable implies that even in its best form, something is inherently unwanted. I hope that never becomes the case for any descriptor – race, religion, creed – in America. (Okay, admittedly any non-violent descriptor.)

    Please don’t think I’m calling you intolerant – I hope that at this point you know that I respect you a great deal, and I know you’re the farthest thing from it. But I just feel that anytime one attacks a group of people based on the actions of another group – be it larger or smaller – an injustice is being done. That’s the idea behind letting this mosque be near Ground Zero in the first place.

    (As a side note, I also think it’s a tad unfair to pull those April dates. Of course I remember Columbine and the Oklahoma City bombing, which is what I assume you’re referring too, but yeah, I had to look that up. Just because the Columbine massacre isn’t referred to by the date it occurred on, as 9/11 is, doesn’t mean it’s absent from the national psyche. It’s just not linked indelibly to a date.)

    • Eric Says:

      Oh Seth, I have to say that I really appreciate your comments and input in this. So, granted my comment about Islam as not being a religion of peace was more me not being very clear in what I was writing, and I think that what I was aiming at was more along the lines of what you wrote. Bear in mind my blog posts are always a once-through-no-edit-bang-this-out-in-30-minutes ordeal, so I tend to generalize in haste. Please excuse me in this, because I thought I was being more clear than I was. In the interest of clarity, however, let me posit the idea that while Islam is inherently no more or less violent than Judaism or Christianity, it is arguably the only religion that still maintains and upholds the violence in the Koran, whereas modern Christians and Jews try to justify it, etc. Again, not to say that EVERY Muslim is violent or takes the Koran at its word, because that’s not true. There are a great many moderate and even liberal Muslims who would never dream of killing an apostate, much less an infidel, but the sad truth is that these ideas are very much mainstream in more heavily Muslim countries and regions and are not limited only to the extremists, as the similar ideas found in Judaism, et al, are. Even in Britain, there exists 40% of the population that wants to see Sharia Law instated, which includes stoning apostates to death. And it is this same idea that has kept Salman Rushdie and Aryaan Hirsi Ali either underground or in the constant company of a bodyguard. It’s the fact that it has yet to be left in the fringe that brought me to say what I said. I hope now I’m being more clear, if less concise. As I said in the post itself, I in no way feel that Moderate Muslims, much less most Muslims, participated in 9/11, nor should they be punished or singled out for that or anything related. I was instead commenting on what I see (and many see) as the majority thought within Islam as a whole. On that note, however, I have criticized both modern and less-modern Christianity for atrocities and intolerances on its part (such as the Blood Libel, among numerous other things). Also, this is a whole topic in and of itself, and I could go on about how many Biblical scholars feel that Jesus didn’t preach peace that much anyways. Again, another topic for another day, and one that is usually better had with a drink or two and face to face.

      Also, not that they are forgotten, because they aren’t, but it’s the difference in attitudes toward each event and how they are remembered. While 9/11 is one of few events that I remember very vividly from my childhood, I sometimes feel as though it is exalted at the expense of other tragedies and their respective memories. 9/11 was atrocious and had a larger toll and many more victims, but compare it to Oklahoma City, or the first World Trade Center attack, or the USS Cole bombing, or embassy bombings… my point being that there are numerous attacks, an insanely large body count when combined, and yet only one stands out and is ever used, either for good or bad, as a tool. I brought up Oklahoma City because that was religiously motivated (how much can be argued, but it was religiously motivated), as was the 1996 Olympic bombing; the difference was those were Christians committing acts of terror against US citizens on US soil, and there is not an equal reaction, nor was there. When those happened, the people who committed the crimes were brushed off as being extremists and not representative of the whole, and America went on about their day to day, but when Muslims said that the 9/11 hijackers were extremists, it wasn’t allowed to be brushed off, and it was remembered as a distinctly religious act, when the other bombings were as well.
      Obviously, I could go on and on about this, and I will if you want me to. But I’m going to bring this reply to a close before it becomes another blog post of its own. I hope I’ve made things slightly clearer, at the least.

      • swingeth Says:

        Forgive me, then, for having a knee-jerk reaction to the phrase “Islam is a religion of violence.” Obviously you don’t agree with that completely, I know. The phrase just seems like such a write off of a vibrant culture to me, something akin to calling the Native Americans “savages.” Sure, some of them were violent. But the Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn. If it seemed like I was picking on your syntax, well, language is a powerful weapon. Those who wield it well (like yourself) should make sure it’s sharp.

        On that note, I think it’s unjust to phrase things such that one singles out out the sane, non-violent Muslims as exceptions, not exemplars. There won’t be meaningful dialogue about Islam in America until these people who have faith without intolerance are referred to as the mainstream, regardless of what demographics say. And call me naive, but I believe – I have to believe – that the majority of Muslims are not extremists.

        (I’m curious about that British 40% figure, incidentally. Is that 40% want to see British law replaced with Sharia law? Where did that number come from? And is the entirety of that 40% arguing for the “stoning of apostates” or for a much more moderate form? Forgive me if I find it hard to believe that a staggering number of people like that endorse extremism.)

        I definitely agree with you on the hypocrisy present in contemporary politics when it comes to religion, by the way. Well said.

  3. Eric Says:

    I completely understand and again, I may be slightly generalizing. I’ve always taken a large interest in Islam because I feel that it is a very beautiful religion (as beautiful as one can be, anyways) and a beautiful culture. The sad fact, though, is that often the culture dictates a lot about what becomes of the religion. That being said, it is a great hope of mine that moderate Islam, such as what exists in most parts of America today, becomes mainstream. One of the aspects of Islam that make it seem extreme, at times, is the way that it almost necessitates and puts in place a theocracy. Granted, were Christianity to become the basis of a Theocracy, there would be violence and extremism given a strict upholding of Biblical Law. That Islam exists so often in theocratic states and that the Koran and the Hadith can be so violent in execution of law is what brings about things such as Sharia Law. But this is only me commenting on why there exists a more extreme and violent mainstream of this religion. Part of me also wonders if the fact that it is Islam governs how much we hear about violence related to it. It’s quite possible that Christians are out raping and pillaging and Crusading again, but that it’s being left in the shadows because of suicide bombings and “jihad”.

    Also, like all good people in Academia, I let others do the research and I take all the credit. Only slightly kidding there. So the 40% comes from The Telegraph, and it refers to 40% of British Muslims wanting Sharia Law in at least parts of the UK, as the article says. But you can read it for yourself:

    I think that one of my main points that I was trying to flesh out and was only able to through dialogue was that the hypocrisy is a very large factor in this issue. Like I said in the post, there is no “across the board” with anything like this.

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