In the modern West, Islam is thought of as a violent religion, and Ive done my part, along with some fanatical (but not necessarily typical) Muslims, to reinforce this view. Its fatally easy to mistake the nuts for the norm. But I think there may be a better way to look at the situation.
Error has no rights, said Pope Pius IX. And in the primary sense, this is not only true but self-evident. The difficulty lies in the practical application. Should the power and authority of the state be used to combat error? Should heresy be a crime?
Most of us would now say no, of course not. But this is a novel view, historically speaking. Most men have always felt instinctively that a public orthodoxy about essential things, chiefly religious things, is necessary for social order, and in some sense they have been right. Tolerance sounds like a fine thing, but how much error is tolerable?
If you assume that tolerance should be limitless, you should read Samuel Johnsons comments on the subject in Boswells great biography. Johnson was not against tolerance, but, like the great lexicographer he was, he insisted on defining it precisely.
Most religions, at some point, have been spread by the sword, and both sides in most religious wars have felt that no compromise is possible. At the frontiers, spreading a religion may be hard to separate from defending it. Unless it spreads. it may be extinguished. The modern idea that every individual should be free to choose his own religion is a very recent one, which most people in the past would have found both impracticable and far from ideal.
What is government for, they would have asked, if not to promote true religion? Can the state just stand idly by as heresy is propagated and countless souls are lost? We have to remember that Christians used to regard heretics with the same horror with which we now regard child molesters. The primary role of government was to protect the spiritual environment.
The first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, features a long flashback to the early days of Mormonism, in which the Mormons are depicted as fiercely intolerant. Whether this is historically accurate I dont know, and most Mormons today might dispute it, but such things are not rare. If Islam has sometimes been like that, so has Christianity, even in this country. Tolerance is more often a necessity than a principle.
Everyone likes to think of his own religion as essentially peaceful, conquering by the irresistible persuasion of its inherent truth. We tend to forget, or write off as minor aberrations, the periods when it was otherwise, when men saw nothing wrong with forcing their enemies to submit to their gods, making them adopt their rituals, and even felt a duty to do so. This isnt just a thing of the remote past: today the god or the public orthodoxy may be democracy. And the sword may be a nuclear weapon.
President Bush and others see nothing problematic about democracy no possible incompatibility between it and Islam, even when Muslims themselves are bitterly divided between Sunni and Shiite forms of Islam. Why cant we all just get along?
Such a situation is hard for Americans to understand, because our civil religion, as it is often called, has long since tamed our many faiths into easygoing denominations. But our Puritan forbears would have understood it very well, and they would have seen our tolerance as the mere spiritual sloth of people who no longer take religion seriously. They would say, not without reason, that our spiritual environment has become horribly polluted.
And that is how many Muslims, not without reason, also see the modern West. If democracy means the kind of hedonism we now take for granted, they want no part of it.
Recently our attention has been fixed on the most extreme Muslim reactions against the West, and we may choose to dismiss Islam as a violent religion. But this is a sort of optical illusion. We ignore, at our peril, the quiet revulsion felt by ordinary Muslims who dont express their feelings with beheadings and car bombs. I could name a lot of American Christians and Jews who feel the same way.
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