What are the Limits to Religious Tolerance?

One of the greatest legacies of America’s Founding Fathers is the Bill of Rights which was made a part of our Constitution. Of particular note is the First Amendment which says,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

While those “rights” have over the years been bent and battered by authority, they remain an essential part of the mythos of America as a “free country.” In the first and second clauses, it was the intention of the Founders to prevent the federal government from establishing a “national religion.” This provision is generally described as requiring “the separation of church and state.” What that actually means in practice has long been a subject of debate and a matter for judicial clarification. People generally take it to mean that the government is prevented from favoring one religious institution over the others by prescribing particular religious practices or providing public (material) support to any particular religious institution.

Americans tend to forget that many other countries around the world do not adhere to the ideal of the state as a “secular” entity. Most, but not all of those that have a state religion are Islamic. Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Greece each have as their official religion some form of Christianity, as does Argentina, which happens to be Roman Catholic.

Islam has of late, for a variety of reasons, been the focus of greater scrutiny by both Americans and Europeans. Until recently, there had been little direct contact with Muslims. They were “those people, over there,” in the middle-east or Asia. But now they are coming here in greater numbers and their presence is being felt. Mosques are becoming increasingly common and Islamic practices are ever more noticeable. The city of Dearborn, Michigan, with a 40% Muslim population, is now known as “America’s Muslim Capital.” How has that impacted the lives of non-Muslims in southeastern Michigan? I’ve not done enough research to say, but I did find a video that disturbs me. It is titled, Arab Festival 2009: Sharia in the US, and shows what happened when a video crew sought to get some answers on camera.


Now I consider myself a social liberal. My personal philosophy is “live and let live,” and one of my primary personal goals is to promote human unity. It is an undeniable fact that religion has throughout history been one of the most divisive forces, and all manner of atrocities have been committed in the name of one god or another. The fact is that religion has always exerted political influence in one way or another.

Islam has been particularly assertive in that regard. When speaking of a particular religion, one must be careful not to over-generalize. Islam, like Christianity has its multitudinous sects and schisms, and more than its fair share of crazy clerics. But I have a distinct impression that for Muslims in general, religious tolerance is NOT a two-way street. It seems that most Muslim clerics have as their agenda the imposition of “Sharia law” upon civil society. It would be prudent for Westerners to learn about Islam, its agenda, and its methods. Bill Warner has provided A Short Overview of Sharia Law, which highlights a few items from the Koran that I find very disturbing.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Muslim countries, mostly in Malaysia, and had a chance to see the way things work there. Malaysia is probably the most moderate of Muslim countries. It is a federation of states, Sultanates, and former western colonies that was cobbled together in 1957. The official religion is Islam. Other religions are tolerated and freely practiced but they do not enjoy the same support as Islam. On the surface, there is the appearance of social harmony, but there is an undercurrent of tension that often bubbles to the surface. About two thirds of the population of the Malaysian Federation is Muslim. The remainder is comprised mainly of Chinese Buddhists and Indian Hindus, but the distribution of the minorities varies widely from one state to another. Some Malaysian states are overwhelmingly Muslim, and Sharia law tends to be more generally applied.

On my first extended visit to Malaysia I spent the first night at a guesthouse close to the beach. It happened to be located directly in front of a mosque and it was during the month of Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims. As you may know, it is Muslim practice to call the faithful to prayers five times a day. It would not be so bad if the call was not so strongly amplified electronically, but it was so loud, persistent and prolonged that it had to flee the area to find more peaceful surroundings in the city.

The sign pictured here was taken at a hotel where massage is offered, this in a state that is majority Chinese. Even there, Sharia law is enforced, but only upon Muslims. There are “religious police” that carry out unannounced inspections to assure that the HPIM6178SignCrp-300x208law is being complied with. How do they determine who is Muslim and who is not? In Malaysia, everyone has an identity card that specifies their religious affiliation. “Born a Muslim, always a Muslim,” is the official position asserted by Islamic institutions and culture. It’s extremely difficult for anyone to renounce that religion, and we’ve all seen how touchy and vengeful the Imams can be with their fatwas. One celebrated case of a few years ago was the “contract” that was put out on the life of Salman Rushdie because some Imams found his Satanic Verses to be “offensive to Islam.” They actually offered a cash reward to anyone who would kill him.

My experience with Muslims as individuals has been generally positive. My Muslim friends are warm, generous, and hospitable, but the institutions of Islam bear watching. The general assertion of any particular religious views and practices tends to repress others and create an atmosphere of fear and submission, and leads to widespread hypocrisy. Hence, the regular visits of Muslim men to neighboring Thailand where they can more safely pursue their carnal pleasures.

The most disturbing thing I’ve come across lately was a video so grizzly and repulsive that I even hesitate to mention it. It was sent to me by a friend and it shows the stoning of a young girl that occurred recently in some unspecified Islamic country. I’m still haunted by the image of the final blow, a young man smashing a cement block into the girl’s head. The girl’s alleged crime was her refusal of an arranged marriage to a much older man.

To my Islamic brothers and sisters I offer this bit of wisdom from an article that appeared recently in the Huffington Post. In it, religious scholar and former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong quotes “the great thirteenth-century Sufi philosopher” Muid ad-Din ibn al-Arabi:

“Do not attach yourself in an exclusive manner to any one creed, so that you disbelieve all the rest: if you do this, you will miss much good; nay, you will fail to realize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not limited by any one creed, for He says, “Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah” (Quran 2.109). Everyone praises what he believes; his god is his own creature, and in praising it he praises himself. Consequently he blames the beliefs of others, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance.”

The looming global economic, social, political and environmental transition is going to be difficult enough; we should not complicate it by too much mixing of divergent cultural and religious traditions. The future of civilization will depend upon those of us who can put aside religious, racial, cultural, and political differences to work together in common cause to create a sustainable, convivial, equitable and peaceful civilization.

I’m no fan of Newt Gingrich but I think he may be right on this point: Speaking at the Value Voters Summit, Gingrich proposed a federal law banning Sharia (Muslim) law in America. He said, “I am opposed to any effort to impose Sharia in the United States, and we should have a federal law that says under no circumstances in any jurisdiction in the United States will Sharia be used, in any court, to apply to any judgment made about American law.”

I think John Lennon had it right when he was inspired to write his song, Imagine. Note the phrase: …and no religion, too.

Here are the complete lyrics:

Imagine – John Lennon

Imagine there’s no heaven,
It’s easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace…

Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one,
I hope someday you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.

#     #     #

24 Replies to “What are the Limits to Religious Tolerance?”

  1. Who wouldn’t agree with John Lennon? It’s been the dream of a multitude of thinking and tolerant human beings. I share that dream but despair of ever seeing its realization. I’d be all to happy to tolerate a muslim and his bizarre way of life, but they have shown repeatedly that their leaders will never go for tolerating me and my “infidel” way of life.

  2. I’ve long believed that our own constitutional system of tolerance is capable of being exploited and ultimately thwarted by militant religions such as the Muslims. Right up until they take over with their Sharia law, we’ll be priding ourselves on our religious freedom, and will have naively protected these peoples’ “rights”, somehow having blinded ourselves to the fact that their goal from the very beginning had been one of conquest. We’ll look at the countries where terrorists threatened and tortured families who have sent their daughters to schools and colleges as having been unfortunate anomalies, and we’ll continue to downplay the outragious mutilation known as female circumcision.

    Up until the late 1960’s we had strict immigration laws, imposing limits beneficial to our culture on certain nationalities wishing to enter the USA. Those who came to us usually came at great price, and were willingly assimilated. No special allowances were made for Muslims in terms of designated prayer areas in our public schools, because this was the era during which Christian prayer was being systematically expunged from our schools. Cab drivers were not provided with special foot washing depots at work and at the airports, either. Amplified prayer at places of worship would have been treated much in the same way as the police would have treated my playing my Led Zeppelin records at concert volume in my apartment—–a public nuisance!

    I’ve known several people, and actually called them friends, who were originally from the Middle East. A couple of them were agnostic and rather hedonistic, some who were second generation had fully Americanized, and a few were devout Muslims. There are also members of the African American community who have converted to Islam as a way of rejecting the culture which was foisted off on their ancestors. Islamic African Americans have generally been very tolerant, and not wishing to impose Sharia law on the rest of us, but I cannot say the same about some of the Arabic Muslims whom I have known.

    So much comes to mind. One would just hope that our constitution continues to provide the freedoms and protections which our largely
    Christian founding fathers had in mind. Statistically, it has been demonstrated that when the devout Muslim population reaches the 20% level, changes to law and culture begin to be felt in significant ways. And, that is if the Muslims behave in a law abiding way. If ever we have guerillas roaming the countryside as happened in such places as Algeria, we’re in for some very significant problems.

    We should watch Dearborn very carefully, and should also be watching Europe, which is a bit further down the road than is the USA. I strenuously object to the liberal politicians who seem to want to mold the USA according to the European model. Allowing this, or giving more power to the United Nations would be a grave mistake!


  3. We have to be on our toes and not let our guard down in this hostile world. Our freedoms are hated by many others. I don’t condone what we indiscriminately did to Japanese Americans during World War II, but I understand the terror that led to it. Here we were, and ill prepared country, suddenly cast into a two front war for our survival by a terrifying sneak attack that left much of our Pacific fleet at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. We had reason to fear a population of those we regarded as inhuman fanatics following bushido. We had no way of survailing all those people while desperately trying to craft a military that could win out on two fronts simultaneously.

    We’re in a better position militarily now, but we’d better not underestimate the lengths fanatics will go to in their desire to overwhelm and destroy us, the great satan. Most muslims just want to get by and take care of their families, but they are constantly bombarded by those they look up to for guidance just as we were bombarded by HWA and his lackies. After being brainwashed from birth, they often don’t think very straight.

  4. And the American prejudice, hatred, and pure, blind ignorance, spews forth from the Painful Truth Privilege Pundits yet again.

    Yet again, I will say for the umpteenth time, I have worked and lived beside Muslims. They are not the terrorists that are currently engaged in jihad with the American Right (and if we didn’t have cult members in charge of the Canadian Parliament, my country wouldn’t be embroiled in this holy war, either). A war which, it must never be forgotten, the Christians started. (Mujahideen, anyone?)

    I am dismayed by the pure, blind hatred, that has spewed forth in the comments section here, over the past few months, against a religion that Bob, at least, should happily be calling his brothers and sisters (given that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, are all fruits from different branches of the Abrahamic tree). It puts me in mind of the documentaries and articles I have read, about the McCarthy Era, in the United States. (Another jihad witch-hunt, fuelled by pure, blind hatred, it must be noted.)

    Pull your heads out of your asses, Americans. The world no longer revolves around the United States.

  5. Purple, I’ll pull my head out of my ass, as you put it, when the muslims quit sentencing people to death for writing against islam and for publishing cartoons. These are barbaric people in barbaric societies, and they intend to destroy anyone who opposes them by whatever decietful means they have available. They won’t take criticism on any level. I don’t care how benign some of the rank and file may be, I see what their leaders intend and it aint some nice little interfaith picnic. Enemies are enemies, and we had better recognize who they are and take the steps to short circuit their clear intent.

  6. One other point, Purple. Did you listen to Ahmadinejad’s bullshit at the UN today? Oh, such a wonderful, truth loving, benevolent muslim!

  7. “I am dismayed by the pure, blind hatred, that has spewed forth in the comments section here, over the past few months, against a religion that Bob, at least, should happily be calling his brothers and sisters (given that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, are all fruits from different branches of the Abrahamic tree).”

    Yep, they certainly are different branches of the same rotten tree. No argument from me on that point. A tree based on a man who was willing to sacrifice his own natural son to his god but had a change of heart at the last minute that may or may not have been due to an animal getting caught in a bush. I wasn’t there, so all I have is the account currently extant. Then, that same god is now said to have deliberately donated his mythological son as a god-human sacrifice. Arghh! The tale tends to make me want to heave today.

    The jews, under their religion, have been very bloodthirsty and violent in the past (Ezra and Hehemiah remind me me Imams and Ayatolas), and we certainly know the nauseous history of Christianity and its holy wars and persecutions. Thankfully, the renaissance came along and triumphed after much bloodshed and suffering. Then, our forefathers suffered greatly to bring into being a nation not wedded to religious tradition.

    The abrahamic religions all make good bedfellows. I equally detest them all. Free at last! Thank reason and intelligence, FREE AT LAST! I give the abrahamic god the old one finger salute, no matter what religious tyranny champions him.

  8. Purple,

    I don’t suppose you’ve ever run across people who might tend to disguise their real feelings, beliefs, or practices in a manner soas to be socially acceptable to the mainstream, have you?

    These Muslim friends to whom you constantly allude might be better understood if you could be a fly on the wall in a room where they were conducting “private” conversations amongst themselves. I’ve had numerous friends from this background myself, and it is shocking what they sometimes have allowed to slip when their guard is down.

    I once knew someone who was somewhat tolerant towards these folks. She was engaged to a wealthy Arab and flew overseas to meet his family. He’d seemed somewhat normal here in our own environment, but once she travelled to his native country, she discovered that she was intended to become part of his harem of wives. She was on the phone immediately, begging her mom for a plane ticket home!

    I have met some formerly Muslim agnostics who were a bit more easily tolerated, but even they often had their own little lapses into the unthinkable. Muslims who have converted to Christianity, however, are the penultimate breath of fresh air! I really love such people!

    Lately, I’ve been reading Josephus’s Antiquities. In many situations, the Arabs of those eras were strong allies of the Jews, but this was prior to Mohammed’s institution of violent conversion as a tool in spreading Islam.
    I find it more palatable to side with God’s original chosen people, the Jews, because of their basic sense of humanity and justice. I can fully understand God’s attitudes towards Ishmael and his descendants, and towards the 7 Canaanite nations. Had the Israelites followed God’s instructions, we would not have all of the strife and terrorism of today!


    1. Bob,

      You wrote:
      “I find it more palatable to side with God’s original chosen people, the Jews, because of their basic sense of humanity and justice.”

      I must say that this sounds so much like British Israelism that it caused me to pause. The idea of one people chosen by a God over another reeks of Armstrong-ism. I can understand how he used this scripture to his own advantage for the expressed purpose of making people feel special.

      Rule #12 says “The cult and its members are special.” For example:
      1) They get a new identity based on their group.
      2) They receive unconditional love, acceptance, and attention.
      3) They are now special because of belonging to the right religion.
      4) We will be king’s and priests in the world tomorrow.

      The whole concept of a “chosen people” is psychological manipulation for the expressed purpose of controlling that individual. It is not done for the good of the individual. By the way, just how was that book we know as the bible put together?


  9. Bob says:

    I can fully understand God’s attitudes towards Ishmael and his descendants, and towards the 7 Canaanite nations. Had the Israelites followed God’s instructions, we would not have all of the strife and terrorism of today!

    Really? If the Israelites had wiped out the Canaanites as per God’s instructions there would be peace? According to the book of Joshua, they did that – more than once. I don’t know how they kept killing the same people (every man, woman and child) over and over again but that’s what the books says they did.

    Since Moses’ father in law (Jethro) was a Midianite and he had a Midianite wife and a Midianite son – why did he hate the Midianites? It’s a mystery, Bob, a mystery.

    Mystery aside, the Israelites were still in the wilderness at that time, therefore, they could not have been in the Midianite’s country. It’s kind of fantastic to believe that the Israelites fought with Canaanites before they even entered Canaan but that’s religion for you.

    1. Thanks for posting this. Jefferson was a wise and venerable man. I respect our founding fathers, and none more than him. I think you should include this in the body of The Painful Truth.

  10. Well, Corkster, my opinions these days are based on a wider reading plan than just the Bible. Over the summer, I’ve been reading translations of the works of some of the antenicene fathers, as well as Josephus’s Antiquities. From Josephus, I’ve learned that the various Canaanites made horrible problems for the Israelites throughout their history.

    You also have to remember the story of Queen Esther. Haman, who put the lives of every Jew in jeopardy due to his issues with Esther’s uncle Mordecai, was an Amalekite.

    I’d highly recommend a reading of Josephus for anyone who might have some unanswered questions, or nagging doubts.


    1. I don’t think I will go to the trouble of the “lost password” and “get new password” thing every single time I log in here (evidently my computer can’t remember my password here but can everywhere else, strange).

      Anyway, Bob, Josephus was a Pharisee and, of course, believed everything in the Old Testament – that’s where he gets his “history”, i.e., that’s his source. Not a very good source according to modern science and archeology. Being Jewish was not a racial thing, it was religious, “Jew” comes from “Judaism” and not from “Judah”. They were just as much “Canaanite” as the Canaanites were (as per modern genetics) it was the religion that made them different and not their race.

      The problems the “Jews” had with the “Canaanites” began when the elite of the new religion from Persia arrived from exile with Ezra and Nehemiah and they set about to become the rulers over them.

      You should read “The Invention of the Jewish People” by Shlomo Sand. It’s an eye opener. Of course, you have to be open to real history instead of just wanting to believe.

        1. I’m having trouble too. Second time I’ve had to log in in about a week and instead of my password being remembered as I instructed, I have to type it again. What gives? Why do I have to keep on logging in? I can do it, of course, but it’s frustrating.

            1. I sympathize. The world is full of these types of a-holes. I’m going to now log into my email and delete about 90% of the tons I get.

  11. “I think John Lennon had it right when he was inspired to write his song, Imagine. Note the phrase: …and no religion, too.”

    Looks like this was your last offering and I’m wondering who will be on for October.

    Anyway, John Lennon spoke my dream. Wherever I look in the world and in history, I see the stench of religion. It is the tool and the motivator of despots. It took an innocent ranch kid like me and turned me into a closed minded, rabid freak for over twenty years, and I’m still recovering. It sullies everything its slimy hands touch. It’s a power and wealth game, just like politics. I’m afraid it will destoy mankind and all the wonderful promise our species could enjoy. And, a fictitious Jesus isn’t going to return to prevent it. I truly detest all religions.

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