September 27, 2012
Between Tolerance and Understanding: Clear Lines for Debate
by W Scott Thompson (09-26-12)@http://www.nst.com.my
AS a distinguished Islamic Professor from Kuala Lumpur said at my villa in Bali five years ago, “religion has gone from back to front burner in world diplomacy”. His last three words are key.
Once in a debate, his adversary said, “I can’t understand a word you are saying”.Hitch immediately shot back, “I fully anticipated that”. He went public in his opposition after 9/11 and then the Danish cartoons.
Well, one good thing is that secularism is deeply rooted in Europe. The French won’t tolerate women wearing the burqa — nor any other religion (especially Catholicism) with any such symbol that lessens the equality of all.
What could more underline the subservient role of women than their having to hide their faces? You want the benefits of French wealth and social welfare? Then play by its roles and rules or go to where the subservience is honoured.
It was only a matter of time before the French got around to it. North African men burn down the suburbs of Paris because they feel discriminated against. Well, they’re earning much more than they otherwise would have.
Understandably, they have a more difficult time getting rich, because they couldn’t have yet mastered the system.But I know a young Frenchman, now living in Bali with his Manado wife, who finished high school in Bordeaux, where about half his fellow students were born in a “coloured” country.
I asked him how he and his classmates felt about the non-French students.”Why you ask such a stupid question?” Robin replied. “No one considers them any less French than the others.”
Remember that before becoming President-for-Life in the Ivory Coast, Dr Felix Houphouet Boigny was a minister in the French cabinet, back in the 1950s.
My own reaction was that there is a thin line between tolerance and an understanding of the phase a belief system is passing through — in an unstable international system for all. This is now even more clearly the case, with fires around the world.
Christianity went through centuries of imposing its beliefs. Spain gave Jews and the “Moors” the choice of conversion or death. Even during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the inquisition led to thousands of deaths of “deviant” Christians.
Luckily, the world system was more confined in the 16th century, and aside from the Crusades starting in the 11th century, interfaith intolerance was localised. Jews in Germany before Hitler were more assimilated culturally than ever in any country.
I fought Hitchens on this. After three or four litres of booze, he got more eloquent, and demolished my argument. This in Bali in front of local royals, whose Hinduism wasn’t threatened thereby.
Choose your God in paradise, there’s a place for Islamic prophets and Christian ones, too.
But though freedom of expression must be protected, I’m not sure what good is accomplished thereby in pouring oil on the debate then lighting the fire. Maybe it’s needed to send the signal that we in the West won’t stand for abuse. But to what end? The French are closing 20 embassies anticipating attacks.
Do they enjoy masochism? Isn’t this the time to build more bridges, as President Barack Obama called for in Cairo in 2009?
I recall following September 11, Senator John Kerry came to my graduate school, which included numerous Muslims, to assure them that any necessary measures would be taken to protect them… proactively.
Let’s hope that within a century our grandchildren will live to see tolerance. And then attention can turn to some new intolerance, one hopes less built on fire.
And week by week, for Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, whose campaign’s centrepiece is intolerance, “it just gets worse and worse”. Follow not the money — but the American polls.
At this stage, six weeks before the election, it is hard to see any route to a Romney presidency, making my own belief in an Obama landslide more plausible.Romney strategists are no longer denying their anxiety.
W Scott Thompson is emeritus professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, United States