Thursday, August 13, 2009

Acceptance, Respect, and Toleration

This discussion will I believe, be greatly clarified by keeping the following distinctions in mind

1)ACCEPTANCE/AGREEMENT: I have certain ideas and values which I accept as true and right, and try to live by. I carefully select those from the thoughts of other people and texts I respect. But I create a unique constellation of beliefs from those sources which is designed to make sense of the world as I experience it. I don’t expect anyone else to accept or agree with all of the ideals and values I accept, because no else has had exactly my set of experiences.

2) RESPECT: There are many ideals I could never accept, but which I still admire for their generosity of spirit, or ingenuity, or their ability to help other people to live well in their worlds. Mohamed El-Moctar El-Shinqiti describes Muhammad’s view toward religious commitment in way that leads me to respect it.

It is the responsibility of the individual believer to adhere to this morality in his personal life - a responsibility before God, not before people. No coercive means are to be used to impose Islamic morality. 
This is because any coercion of this kind will have negative consequences; it will corrupt the moral conscience of the individual by transforming him from a God-conscious believer to a state-fearing hypocrite. 
Islam wants the individual to be a servant of God, not a slave of the state.”

For this reason, this author claims that so-called Islamic republics, which force people to follow moral rules derived from the Koran and the Hadith, are perversions of Islam. He says that traditionally Moslem governments have accepted a rather libertarian view that “the primary responsibility of governments is to protect people's lives and possessions”, and that everything else should be left up to individual conscience.

I respect this view as a tremendous step forward from the ideal of forced conversion accepted by the Christians of Muhammad’s time (and later). I think it’s far preferable to say, as Muhammad apparently did, that “I have the one true faith, but it is God’s job to punish you, not mine, so I will use only persuasion, not force, to convert you.” But I could never accept this position, even though I respect it. One objection (among many others) is that I don’t believe that there is one truth for everyone, and that if there were such a truth, I think it highly unlikely that it would be contained in a single book revealed to only one people.

3) TOLERANCE: There are certain views which I could never respect because I believe that they are confused, contradictory, mean-spirited etc. Even though I see Muhammad’s view towards other religions as a step forward from the Christian view, I don’t respect the implied residue of smugness in the assumption that “ God is going to punish you, so I don’t have to.” Another example is the use of veils and hair covers for women. I find them creepily oppressive, and counterproductive to their stated goals. If you can’t see anything but a woman’s eyes, you don’t stop thinking about women. You just become obsessed with their eyes. (In Taliban-run Afghanistan, where women were not even allowed to show their eyes, they were also not allowed to wear squeaky shoes.)

These are the sort of things I would say to a Moslem who was defending the use of veils. Nevertheless, I am willing to tolerate the voluntary use of veils by adult women, and I think I am willing to tolerate the compulsory use of veils for underage women. People do have certain rights to raise their children as they see fit, even when the rest of us disagree with their decisions. Nevertheless, it’s not easy to figure out where to draw the line between 3) and

4) REFUSAL TO TOLERATE: There are certain actions, and perhaps even certain beliefs, which cannot be tolerated under any circumstance. Blowing up buildings in the name of God, for example. Should we tolerate the BELIEF that one ought to blow up buildings in the name of God? Aljazeera appears to be willing to do this, for it broadcasts Osama Bin Laden’s messages. But it also publishes articles like the one by Mohamed El-Moctar El-Shinqiti I am quoting here. Perhaps Aljazeera has a broader criterion for tolerance than I do.

I think that the debate these topic could be conducted with a lot more clarity and a lot less heat if we kept those distinctions in mind. It is very easy to conflate 1) and 2) when praising a point of view , and even easier to conflate 3) and 4) when criticizing one.

Many liberal thinkers believe that it’s very important right now to find aspects of Islam which are worthy of respect, no matter how difficult a search that might be. This is because we feel that it is a mistake to assert that all of Islam belongs in Category 4)—a mistake motivated by the west’s conditioned reflex to fear an evil empire in the East that will supposedly plunge us into a second darkness. The most effective way of short circuiting that response, and substituting a response based on an informed analysis of the facts, is to find things in Islam that can be respected. The sentences designed to inspire respect for Islam would appear in other contexts to be implying agreement with the principles of Islam. This is particularly embarrassing for Liberals, because Islam has many characteristics that Liberals frequently criticize in western conservatives. But if we keep the distinction between agreement and respect in mind, there is no inconsistency involved here.

Islamaphobia also makes it very easy to blur the line between 3) and 4) above. Because we obviously cannot tolerate people blowing up buildings, it becomes very tempting to assume that anything Moslems do which we find hateful is one more proof that Islam itself cannot be tolerated. Osama Bin Laden blows up buildings and thinks women should wear burqas. We cannot tolerate the blowing up of buildings, therefore we cannot tolerate people who think women should wear burqas. This is fallacious reasoning, so you don’t have to prove that any of the premises are false to reject the conclusion. Unfortunately, some liberals don’t realize this, so they try to argue that maybe there are good reasons for wearing burqas, and end up feeling rather foolish.

I would suggest arguing that burqas are indeed a counterproductive idea, but that they are still an idea that we can tolerate. This is a very important point to emphasize. When you write a book, you naturally see yourself as sitting together in a room with individuals who all respect the principles of rational discourse. You thus naturally feel there is something wrong with those people who get offended when their traditions are criticized. But it is very natural for a Moslem to assume that when a westerner criticizes a tradition he means “this a custom we cannot tolerate” i.e. we may very well decide to invade your country and stop you from following this custom. If books like Sam Harris’ the End of Faith are taken seriously by enough people, this inference might even be justified. The last thing we need right now is to have rationalists develop their own version of a fundamentalist faith which declares “Unless everybody thinks the same way as my group, the world is doomed.” I think it very likely that the NeoCons who pushed through the invasion of Iraq will start quoting Harris soon, if they haven’t already. Perhaps I haven’t read Harris carefully enough, and he would not approve of his ideas being used that way. But my guess is the NeoCons won’t read him that carefully, either.