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.


  1. Being respectful and non-judgmental when it comes to religious beliefs and using only convincing words to convert others to your own beliefs are two ideas that might be easily accepted and implemented. But, while beliefs can remain private and non-obtrusive, customs, dress-codes, holidays, and other religious and non-religious displays are visible and may be perceived as obtrusive. Where to draw the line between people’s freedom so we can all live in harmony with different ways of life? Is it OK to walk naked in the streets? Is it OK to wear a veil? Is it OK to force people to wear a uniform? Is it OK to prevent people from smoking or drinking? Is it OK to prevent people from working on certain days? Etc.

    Now the veil question: I do not want to take position here because for me the question is not “the veil” but (i) whether people are free or not to dress the way they want and (ii) when do we decide that societal rules should be imposed to limit that freedom and why. Rather, I want to point out that the dress code of women is a long-time issue. Only recently have we embraced the idea of a unisex dress code. In particular, imposing a veil to women is by no means a Muslim tradition. It goes way back in History before the times of Muhammad. The first recorded instance of veiling for women is recorded in an Assyrian legal text from the 13th century BCE, which restricted its use to noble women and forbade prostitutes and common women from adopting it. Women in all around the Mediterranean (both in Orient and Occident), regardless of religious beliefs, wore a veil for centuries. The tradition has carried over to Christian women, who until recently always wore a veil in church (the nuns still do). Paul is credited for having written the first religious text linking women’s veil and religion (first letter to the Corinthians, excerpt below (source:

    11:1 Be imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ. 11:2 Now I praise you, brothers, that you remember me in all things, and hold firm the traditions, even as I delivered them to you. 11:3 But I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. 11:4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. 11:5 But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonors her head. For it is one and the same thing as if she were shaved. 11:6 For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. 11:7 For a man indeed ought not to have his head covered, because he is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of the man. 11:8 For man is not from woman, but woman from man; 11:9 for neither was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. 11:10 For this cause the woman ought to have authority on her head, because of the angels.
    11:11 Nevertheless, neither is the woman independent of the man, nor the man independent of the woman, in the Lord. 11:12 For as woman came from man, so a man also comes through a woman; but all things are from God. 11:13 Judge for yourselves. Is it appropriate that a woman pray to God unveiled? 11:14 Doesn’t even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? 11:15 But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her, for her hair is given to her for a covering. 11:16 But if any man seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither do God’s assemblies.

  2. A simple read through the Quran shows that ALlah has prescribed certain punishments for certain mortal crimes and a study of the prophet's [saw] biography and his sunnah shows that the prophet [saw] implemented theocracy in areas that were under Muslim control, hence the generality of muslims do not deny that shariah law [theocracy derived from the primary Islamic sources] is part and parcel of islam;

    it is wrong to say that this is forcing religion on people for the religion infact remains something personal for Muslims; it is between them and their Lord, but yet a country needs a just law to be governed properly and to deter people from unacceptable mortal crimes, thus Islam, rather than leaving this aspect of life to the whims and desires of whoever finds themselves in power, has included this in divine revelation too

    Thus basically what is implemented by law are Just laws by which people are governed and in a sense this is religion too as it is based on divine law, but in terms of beliefs and worship and refraining from sins, etc, etc, this is left to the freedom of the individual, but there may be aspects of clothing, such as hijab for women etc, that the law implements and if this is in accordance with Islam then it is to protect widespread sexual disorder in soceity, so for the benifit of soceity as a whole, some thigns just need to be implemented by law I suppose...

    Just like under secular law, how some? secular countries such as France is implementing secular colthing by law in schools and other offical places? and how the niqab [face veil] is bamblased almost to the exstent where it is virtually being banned, hence under theocratic law some from of clothing is implemented for the genral good of soceity

    And regarding the view that punishment should be left to ALlah; well I'd say that without punishing crimes there would be no deterrent for it and there would basically be anarchy in the world!

    now some may say, well acts such as fornication are not 'crimes' but sins and sins should be punished by God alone; well in Islam it is regarded as a crime too for [one reason may be that] such sins, if not deterred will lead to the corruption of soceity, for example we can see that altlhough in the pre-dominantly Christian West, fornication is a great sin in their religion, yet it has become an accepted part of their culture

    secondly sins like fornication can be addictive, hence it having the potential to utterly destroy a person in terms of chances of gaining salvation, hence a strong detterent is really a form of Mercy so that people would have a better chance of saving themselves

    thirdly, it is said that the punishment of this world gets that sin forgiven thus the perpetrator is saved from the punishment in the hereafter that is associated with that sin, and the latter is far far greater than the punishment of this world, thus once again this punishment acts as a great mercy for the mortal sinner

    forfthly, concrete evidence is needed, such as four witnesses etc, for hudood [corporal or capital punishment] to be implemented on a relevent criminal [not sure if it applies to all hudood crimes], hence such punishment/s are generally for deterrent purposes; there is also the leeway for a criminal being spared from certain punishments? if the victims [or relatives of the victim who has died] forgives the perpetrator...

    for more info see links:

  3. This blog is entitled "If I were a Muslim", because I know that if I were a Muslim, I would not be this sort of Muslim. Nevertheless, I do respect Abdullah's willingness to communicate his opinions in a respectful and patient manner--a difficult thing to do in these times. However, There is much in what he describes above which I cannot respect. If his phrase "Islam, rather than leaving this aspect of life to the whims and desires of whoever finds themselves in power", implies the right of Islam to force itself on other cultures, this is a position I cannot even tolerate.

    However, I will assume that Abdullah is merely asserting the right of Islamic societies to shape their own culture. This is an idea I have some sympathy for, within limits. However, it does give ample fodder to those who want to ban Muslims from coming to Muslim countries, for fear that Muslims might impose Sharia once they become the majority. I don't think most Muslims want that, and I'm also not at all sure that there is any real consensus on what Sharia is. One of the main themes of this blog is that there is no such thing as what Abdullah calls "a simple read through the Koran", or any other text for that matter. Nor do I believe that a particular group part of the Ulama has the right to call itself the majority position simply because they have the finances to spread their message to many places. What the majority believes can change, and I think it needs to if Islam is going to remain vital in this century. I think we can both agree, however, that the best way to implement that change is to go back to the Koran and Hadith, and try to find the wisdom there that is most appicable to our times.