The Words of the Eby Family

Viewpoint: Religious Tolerance Vs. Muslim Rage

Lloyd Eby
Published February 28, 2006
Special to World Peace Herald

WASHINGTON -- A newspaper headline today says that some 1300 people have been killed in the present religious war in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites, following the bombing of the sacred golden Shiite temple in Baghdad by Sunni extremists a few days ago.

Those events and others - including rioting and burning and even killing by Muslims because some published cartoons are deemed to be blasphemous to Islam and the Prophet, and killings of Christians by Muslim extremists in Africa and elsewhere - raise the problem of the lack of religious tolerance in Islam and the Islamic world.

None of the religions I know - certainly none of the monotheistic religions - was tolerant in either its original form or in any of its various fundamentalist or ardently evangelical forms. In both their original form as well as any fundamentalist form, such religions hold that they are right and that everyone else is wrong and that it is the duty of everyone else to convert to their view. Moreover, they hold that those who refuse to convert should be shunned and marginalized. Sometimes they have even gone to the extreme of holding that all who refuse to convert should be killed, as was sometimes done to Jews by Christians.

Judaism has the original Passover and Exodus story and the journey of the Jews from Egypt to Canaan. On the way they received the Ten Commandments, of which the first says, "You shall have no other gods before me," meaning that all forms of religious syncretism were expressly forbidden. When they were in the process of settling in Canaan, their leader, Gideon, destroyed the altar to Baal, one of the Canaanite gods. Still later, King Saul was commanded by the Israelite God to utterly destroy the Amalekites, but he did not do so, and therefore lost his standing before the Israelite God as king of Israel.

Whether or not these events actually happened as historical facts, they do show that the writer(s) of these scriptures understood that the God of Israel and the Jewish religion did not tolerate anything other than complete devotion and obedience.

One can find other voices and attitudes in the basic texts of Judaism: calls against the exclusivism and triumphalism of Jewish religion and attitudes, and suggestions that all the peoples of the world were included under the purview and beneficence of the Israelite God. Ruth, for example, was a non-Jew Moabite woman who nevertheless became the wife of the Jewish man Boaz and an ancestor of King David. Some of the prophets and some of the leaders of Israel call for religious universalism and for acceptance of other religions and forms of worship that were derived from or at least consonant with the religions of neighboring peoples. The prophet Jonah - the one caught in the great fish - was sent to Nineveh, a non-Jewish city, to cause it to repent and thus avoid God's wrath and punishment. Some of the Psalms as well as other writings have universalistic views and attitudes.

Those universalistic texts and voices are offset, however, by calls by Jewish prophets back to a non-syncretistic, non-diluted, exclusivistic form of Jewish worship and attitude, and a strong condemnation of anything else.

With Christianity, Jesus himself is recorded as having declared that "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father [i.e. God], but by me." (John 14:6; Revised Standard Version). He also is recorded as having declared, "All who came before me are thieves and robbers..." (John 10:8)

This exclusivism and triumphalism of Christianity runs throughout the New Testament scriptures. The book of Hebrews, speaking of accepting the gospel of Jesus as the Christ, says, "How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?" (2:3), meaning that there is no other avenue to salvation. The greatest Christian evangelist, St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, made it clear that he held that there was no other true gospel other than the one he had taught, declaring, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel - not that there is another gospel.... But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1:6-8) In many of the writings of Paul there are similar warnings about accepting any other teaching or gospel; Paul clearly thought that there was no other way of salvation.

Jump forward to the 7the century A.D. and the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad, his receiving the Qu'ran, and the founding of Islam. Islam too is exclusivist and triumphalistic. The view in the Qu'ran is that Islam is the right or true way, and that others that came before - especially Judaism and Christianity - while they may have had legitimacy in their time and are still to be respected, are nevertheless lesser and not final. "There is no God but God (Allah), and Muhammad is His [last or most complete] prophet."

From the time of their origins, both Christianity and Islam thought that they had to battle against other religious movements and forces and attitudes. Christianity had to deal with Gnosticism, Montanism, Docetism, and other views that were deemed heretical; rather than tolerating those views, the Christian leaders and Fathers strenuously rejected them. After the death of Muhammad, Islam split into versions, now known as Shiite and Sunni, and those two have sometimes hated and fought against each other even more than they fought against non-Muslims. Sometimes these struggles were so fierce that they resulted in bloodshed and killing, as is seen in events of the last few days of February, 2006.

If we skip forward to the sixteenth century, Christian Roman Catholic Europe went through the Protestant Reformation, led by Zwingli, Calvin and others, and especially Martin Luther. The result was a huge split within Christendom, with each side - the Catholics and the Protestants - holding that the other side was not just wrong, but a damnable menace that needed to be resisted. The immediate political problem left by the Reformation - what to do about the political implications of people taking one side or the other in this conflict and how their political interests and allegiances should be dealt with - was solved through the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 which adopted the principle known as cuius regio, eius religio ("he who rules, his religion", or "in the Prince's land, the Prince's religion"). This meant that the religion of the people would be the religion of their prince, so that if the prince of a region remained Catholic, then the religion of that region and its people would be Catholic, and likewise if the prince became a Protestant.

That did not, however, solve the problem of religious conflict between different princes or leaders, with their people in tow, so that a series of bloody but mostly inconclusive religious wars sprang up throughout Western and Central Europe and wracked the continent, lasting about 100 years. These wars were ultimately ended by the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. This has sometimes been said to have "initiated modern diplomacy, as it marked the beginning of the modern system of nation-states (or "Westphalian states"). This was caused by the first-time mutual acknowledgment of each country's sovereignty. Subsequent European wars were not about issues of religion, but rather revolved around issues of state. This allowed Catholic and Protestant Powers to ally, leading to a number of major realignments." (Wikipedia)

This meant that a notion of religious tolerance had now been put into place. A weariness of war and its horrors caused the two sides - Protestant and Catholic - not to love or accept the other, but to recognize that they could not win ultimate victory and thus had to get along if religious war was to be avoided. Tolerance does not mean love of the other or acceptance of the beliefs and practices of the other. It means, instead, that despite their continuing hatred of each other, the two sides nevertheless agree that they will not go to war about it and that each will allow the other to exercise its beliefs and practices within its domain. In addition it means that at least to some extent religion and politics will be separated, with each being given its sphere of influence, and with religion not allowed to dictate political affairs. Different states and parts of states still retained their state churches with government sponsorship of a particular religion, and that remains the norm in most countries in Europe to the present day.

At about the same time, the secularizing forces of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment swept through Europe. Both of those championed a good and robust humanism against the evil forces of religious intolerance and religious extremism, and both had a considerable amount of success in challenging, dislodging, and even trouncing religious attitudes, the certainties claimed for religious knowledge, and the heights of religious fervor.

In their original and strong form, instead of prizing tolerance, religions actively abhor and reject it as inimical to the religion and its interests. In Christianity, for example, there are the admonitions and criticisms given to the seven churches in Revelations 2 and 3 in the New Testament. The church at Ephesus is chastised because they "have abandoned the love you had at first." (2:4) The church at Pergamun is scolded because some there "hold the teaching of Balaam," and some "hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans," i.e they accept syncretistic tendencies. (2:14, 15) The message to Sardis is that "I have not found your works perfect in the sight of God." (3:2) The most scathing comment is given to the church at Laodicea, "I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth." (3: 15, 16) In all those cases, we can say that the one who spoke to John - presumably the resurrected Jesus - was bemoaning the present state of the various churches and scolding them for becoming less fervent and more syncretistic and tolerant in their beliefs and practices.

Religions and religious people are able to become tolerant only when they depart from their original fervor, triumphalism, and anti-universalism. In order to avoid war and bloodshed and intolerance, people and cultures need to become to some extent anti-religious. Religion, in its original and fervent form, makes it impossible to achieve tolerance, human well-being, and human efforts to avoid war and bloodshed. Religions and their fervent adherents claim that this would all be solved if only everyone were to convert to whatever religion is making the claim. But that is not possible because there are different religions, each of which has scriptures and other reasons declaring it to be the only right one.

In early colonial America, the principle that a given political unit - a colony - should have a single religion that all the people in that colony subscribed to was mostly still upheld. The notion that there should be freedom of religion for both Calvinists and Catholics would have been unthinkable to Jonathan Edwards; in fact he supported military efforts against Catholic settlements in Canada because of what he regarded as the demonic and fatal heresy of Roman Catholicism. William Penn and the Quakers of Pennsylvania did allow a measure of religious tolerance for others, especially for the Mennonites and Anabaptists. The Massachusetts Bay Colony expelled Roger Williams because of his religious nonconformity, and he went on to found Rhode Island, the first colony with full religious freedom.

When it came time to establish the Constitution, however, the principle of complete religious freedom and complete freedom of speech and assembly was embodied in the First Amendment, making for the first time a strong separation between church and state at the national level. This separation should be understood as the good fruit of the Reformation and the Enlightenment: the development of humanism as a necessary antidote to the dominance and evil power of religion, and the growing awareness that making a state religion or state church is to the advantage of neither the religion nor the state. As a matter of fact, the United States, with its complete freedom of religion, is far more religious today than any of the European countries in which there is still a state church.

For whatever reason, Islam has not gone through this process of religious and political development that leads to the notion that there should be separation between church and state. Instead, Islam still has and holds to the concept of sharia law, meaning a more-or-less complete melding of religious and political law. All this may have a great deal to do with the fact that Islam has never had its version of a Protestant Reformation with the ensuing religious wars, and then a peace built on the notion of tolerance and on a humanistic and secular Renaissance and Enlightenment. One does not wish such a bloody and inconclusive war within Islam, but it may be the only way that the Islamic world can emerge from its present-day malaise of religious fervor and fundamentalism, a malaise that is resulting in looting, burning, and killings based on religious differences. Such lootings, burnings, and killings were once as prevalent within Christendom as they are now in the Islamic world. But they no longer occur in Christendom, even in Northern Ireland, which could be understood up until very recently as a Reformation-era conflict brought into the present age.

There are, of course, moderate voices and voices calling for religious tolerance and even for freedom of speech and freedom of religion within Islam. Perhaps even the majority of Muslims throughout the world hold to such views. But in the public realm those moderate voices are mostly silent and unheard, and they do not have a large enough following to greatly influence public behavior. Instead, the public realm in the Islamic world today is dominated by the Islamic extremists and terrorists and those who proclaim fatwas against anyone who deviates from their view of proper belief and behavior.

Today Christendom and Judaism have both grown accustomed to enduring and even overlooking the most disrespectful and even obscene depictions of Christian and Jewish symbols in print, on the media, and in public life. Examples are the "Piss Christ" sculpture of Andres Serrano and the utterly obscene and vile depictions of Judaism and Jews almost daily in the Arab press. Today it is almost unthinkable that Christians or Jews - even the most ardent and fundamentalistic ones - would riot in the streets or burn buildings or engage in killing and looting because their religion or its symbols or prophets have been disrespected or blasphemed in even the strongest way. Christians and Jews often make jokes about themselves and their religions. Islam, however, is far from having achieved those measures of tolerance. It is as if Islam is so unsure of itself and so weak in its own self esteem and self control that it cannot brook any outside or inside disrespect; such disrespect throws many Muslims into a frenzy of violent reaction, much like a person who has no control of his emotions and responses may lash out in fury if cornered or disrespected.

Can a notion of religious tolerance be developed within Islam and among Muslims, along with strong commitments to freedom of speech and freedom of religion and separation of religion and state? Can Islam reach the place where Muslims no longer react with rage and violence to perceived slights and disrespect? What will it take for that to occur? In Christendom, it took at least six hundred years of religious, political, cultural, philosophical, and other struggles so that the evil forces of religious fervor could be countered by the good forces of tolerance and secular humanism. Can that occur in the Islamic world among Muslims? Will it take an equal period of similar struggles? No one knows, but present news reports suggest that the Islamic world is now in the grip of wars and fights similar to what consumed Christendom for several centuries. One hopes otherwise, but maybe the only way that a good end for Islam and Muslims can be achieved is through that awful means carried on for a similarily long period of time.

Lloyd Eby teaches in the philosophy department of the George Washington University in Washington, DC.

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