Learning tolerance from religion

15 January, 2017

Do you believe in democracy and gender equality? Even if you and I do, not everyone everywhere does.

Are you willing to accept that your position is just one among many, and that other people elsewhere are entitled to hold and pursue different values? Probably not.

Yet this is what many millions of religious people do all the time.

Today, on World Religion Day, it seems a good moment to explore the idea that contrary to common preconceptions, intolerance is not the prerogative of religion, nor is tolerance the prerogative of liberal secularism.

Many Christians believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Others, including many Muslims, believe that, if there is only one God, then Jesus cannot be God. These are passionately held convictions, yet, except for a vocal minority of fanatics, religious believers have learnt to accept that, for all their own fervour and zeal, the beliefs of others must be respected.

Liberal secularists commonly suspect religious believers of bigotry and intolerance, and sometimes rightly so. Even allegedly tolerant religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are capable of violent bigotry. On balance, however, most religious people are willing to accept that others are entitled to hold beliefs radically different from their own.

Liberal secularists, for that matter, all too often claim their values to be universal and hence not negotiable; in extremis, they want to impose them on others. The inability of many liberal secularists to accept that theirs is a fighting creed, like all others, can wreak considerable havoc. Western interventions to promote democracy have destabilized entire world regions.

Paradoxical as it may sound, such secular extremists may look towards religion to learn how one may hold sincere beliefs yet refrain from imposing them on others.

The Quran states that there is no compulsion in religion. It is disturbing that so many Muslims ignore this and rely on other passages, including more militant precepts from the Quran and the hadiths. Even so, most Muslims agree that true Islam can only be peaceful.

Christianity is all about spreading the word and winning converts. Nevertheless, Christ himself held that the truth can only be embraced but not imposed. Of course, historically, some self-declared Christians have struggled with this, from the Crusades to military interventionism under George W. Bush. But every Christian worthy of that name will agree that conversion hinges on conviction.

Why is it so hard for liberal secularists to practise the tolerance they preach by accepting that, while they are free to promote their values, change can happen only through conviction? Societies where liberal values such as democracy and gender equality are commonly accepted should enforce them domestically, but they should not impose them on other societies where they are not accepted.

This sounds straightforward, but the opposite happens under prevailing trends of multiculturalism. Where secular norms are accepted by some communities but not others, society finds it convenient to exempt dissident groups. At the same time, transnational links of such groups with their countries of origin mandate a foreign interventionism that belies such putative permissiveness.

Given these blatant contradictions, I would argue that avoiding too much multiculturalism appears wise. If that is not possible, then we may look at how people belonging to different religions manage coexistence. Such coexistence is possible, even though it is never easy. Realistically speaking, it will be difficult for multicultural societies to attain better results than multi-religious societies.

India is a case in point. Hinduism has a reputation for being tolerant, and Indian Islam is notoriously more open than elsewhere. Even so, there have been riots and there are significant problems. Nevertheless, the Indian example gives hope. A lot will have been achieved if relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the west turn out to be as manageable as Hindu-Muslim relations have been in recent years.

Respecting true believers is an important part of the equation. Consider the following excerpt from an interview with Farida Khan, who represents Muslims at the National Commission for Minorities in New Delhi. In the summer of 2015, I interviewed Khan in the context of my research on Hindu-Muslim relations. She is a staunch secularist herself, yet she respects unadulterated religion.

Khan: I can’t say that Islam is only good when it is syncretic. You can be a good Muslim of the non-syncretic kind, and you can still be a very good human being who can live with other people and accept other religions.

Friedrichs: Are you saying you can be a good orthodox Muslim?

Khan: Yes. You can be a good orthodox Muslim and a good orthodox Hindu. In India, you see much Hindu aggression. Muslims are victims here. It is always easier to see them as victims. But there are so many good Hindus who are very traditional.

Friedrichs: By “good”, do you mean good people?

Khan: Good people who wouldn’t promote that Muslims are terrible. You can be very conservative, you can have beliefs of a very conservative kind, and yet learn to live with others, behave as a good human being and live a good life within a democratic society, giving equal space to others. Maybe not in your temple. Do you understand what I mean?

Friedrichs: Well, I wouldn’t give up my religion. I am a Christian and I wouldn’t give up my religion.

Khan: That’s what I mean. Your religion shouldn’t have to bring everyone together before you can be religious. I don’t want to say that only if everyone became a Sufi then it is fine.

Friedrichs: As if the only purpose of religion were to make people live together. Certainly, living together is an important goal. But religions are about cosmic truths. They are about our place in the world, our relation with God. I also feel that this idea of “Let’s support this tradition because it is good for communal harmony” doesn’t do justice to religion.

Khan: Yes. I like Sufism. I like some of its rituals. The music associated with it. But I am weary of people saying: “Oh, Sufism is so great because Islam is so terrible.”

This sounds like a sensible attitude. Religion can be intolerant, but it is a mistake to reduce it to that. On the contrary, liberal secularists can learn from the ability of true believers to respect others.

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About the author(s)
Jörg Friedrichs
Associate Professor of Politics