Misunderstanding Muslim “Tolerance”

by Bruce S. Thornton


Our understanding of modern jihadism has been compromised by a false narrative in which a noble religion has been “hijacked” and distorted by extremists.
These Muslim renegades, so the tale goes, are just old-fashioned totalitarians who warp Islamic doctrine in order to justify their violent grab for power. Accompanying this story is the parallel historical myth of a pristine Islam that allowed Christians and Jews to practice their faith, thus demonstrating tolerance at a time when Christian Europe was mired in anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and bigotry. Andalusian Spain has particularly been evoked as an example of an interfaith tolerance unknown to Christians, as President Obama claimed in his June 2009 speech delivered in Cairo, when he extolled Islam’s “proud tradition of tolerance.”

As many historians have shown, the historical facts of Islamic rule in Spain and elsewhere belie these claims. The “proud tradition” would have surprised the several thousand Jews massacred in Grenada in 1066, or the 300 Christians crucified, per Koranic injunction, in 818 during a three-day rampage of killing and pillaging in Cordoba, or the 700 Christians slaughtered in Toledo in 806. These are just a few examples of numerous Muslim massacres of Christians and Jews in Spain, whose lives were circumscribed by prohibitions on everything from the sorts of animals they rode to the height of their houses.

Apart from these inconvenient facts claims of Muslim tolerance suffer from a failure to consider more thoroughly the very notion of tolerance. In fact, there are two kinds of tolerance: the tolerance of principle, and the tolerance of expediency. Confusing the two, as both apologists and propagandists for Islam do, amounts to a rhetorical bait-and-switch.

The tolerance of principle is an ideal that took centuries to develop, for it runs counter to the more usual human habit of distrusting and excluding those who are different. Its origins lie in the intellectual curiosity of the Ancient Greeks. Despite their chauvinism and disdain for “barbarians,” the Greeks nonetheless were curious about peoples different from themselves in a way impossible to document elsewhere at that time. Indeed, the “Father of History,” Herodotus, later earned the scornful nickname Philobarbaros (barbarian-lover), because of his interest in the customs and culture of other peoples. Later, such curiosity evolved into an acknowledgement, evident in Stoicism, of a universal human nature more essential than differences of custom or language. This recognition in turn made easier the “live and let live” attitude that characterizes true tolerance. It holds that the strange differences among peoples are not as important as the similarities of human nature.

Such is the idea most of us mean when we speak of tolerance. It rests on a philosophical principle: people share a human nature that entitles them to certain rights, one of which is to live according to their lights without interference from others who live differently. The only restriction is that their way of living doesn’t interfere with other ways.

The tolerance of expediency is quite different. Over the centuries, many rulers have found that from time to time some measure of tolerance is more efficient at maintaining public order and protecting their power than oppression or violence. Particularly those who rule over polyglot multicultural subjects frequently find that it is more cost-efficient to allow some latitude to minorities in their private lives than to destroy them. The Roman Empire was brilliant at this sort of tolerance, allowing subject peoples to worship as they please as long as they paid their taxes, acknowledged Roman power, and kept quiet. When they didn’t, then the Romans would employ brutal violence to restore order and protect their power, as they did against the Jews in the 1st and 2nd centuries.

Islamic tolerance, whether Arab or Ottoman, was like Roman tolerance: an expedient method, useful for keeping order, but discarded when more brutal methods were called for. Islam divides the world into two mutually exclusive categories, believers and infidels. It is the destiny of the latter to convert or, if they refuse conversion, to be destroyed or sold into slavery. The “People of the Book,” Christians and Jews, may live and even practice their faith, but they will do so at the indulgence of their Muslim overlords, subject to restrictions on their lives and the payment of a tax.

This is codified in Koran 9:29  which instructs, “Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book [Jews and Christians], until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.” And Muslim rulers can unilaterally end this “truce” at any time, at which point Christians or Jews are legitimate objects of conquest, plunder, slaughter, or enslavement. This happened numerous times in Andalusian Spain when Muslim rulers perceived a threat to their power or to the faith.

American tolerance has been a mix of principle and expediency. Expediency was an important factor, at first because of the variety of Christian denominations in the colonies, and later because of immigration. As someone once put it, early America comprised “islands of intolerance in a sea of tolerance.” Yet the tolerance of principle, an inheritance of Classical civilization and post-Reformation Christianity, has always been in our cultural DNA, no matter how frequently it was violated by bigotry and prejudice. Despite these failures, we managed to achieve the ex pluribus unum, a civilization that accommodates a great variety of differences while demanding only that we all adhere to the rights and rules of the Constitution.

But this American ideal of tolerance drew the line at including any ideology or group identity that challenged the rights of others to their way of life, or that contradicted the fundamental political principles of the Constitution. However, contemporary identity politics and the multiculturalist fetishizing of cultural difference have combined to redefine tolerance in America. Today our traditional toleration of other ways of living has morphed into the demand that we approve of them, foster and support them, and even acknowledge their superiority, no matter how inimical to the American order or our Constitutional rights. Also, tolerance has become a convenient rationalization for those whose beliefs have atrophied into indifference. Because they stand for nothing, they demand we tolerate anything and put up with everything.

These distortions of traditional American tolerance have characterized our encounter with Islamic jihad, most recently in the “Ground-Zero mosque” controversy. The traditional Muslim tolerance of expediency has been repackaged as the tolerance of principle, despite the fact that Islamic doctrine does not allow for that principle and indeed scorns it. The American tolerance of principle has degenerated into the demand for approval, easy to extort from people who have no core beliefs worthy of defense. Worse yet, we acquiesce in Muslim demands that we show a tolerance for Islam that Muslims rarely if ever extend to Christians or Jews, and we afford Islam a protective sensitivity and respect never allowed to Christianity or Judaism. This is the cringing appeasement that people like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg dressed up as “tolerance.”

This debased tolerance of principle becomes a disguise for a shortsighted tolerance of expediency and becomes extortion. We put up with jihadist aggression and Muslim chauvinism so that they don’t blow us up, even though our serial appeasement insidiously chips away at our foundational beliefs, and cedes more and more of the public square to an Islam that does not recognize any separation of religion and politics.

The net result is a failure to understand accurately the ideology of those who want to destroy us, at the same time we send them a message that we are weak and vulnerable, unwilling to defend our beliefs with the same passion that they use to advance theirs. In the end, our contemporary notion of tolerance is neither principled nor ultimately even expedient. It is just a form of cultural suicide.

©2010 Bruce S. Thornton

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