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Why Tolerate the Hate? By: Irshad Manji
NYTimes.com | Wednesday, August 10, 2005


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For a European leader, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain has done something daring. He has given notice not just to the theocrats of Islam, but also to the theocracy of tolerance.

"Staying here carries with it a duty," Mr. Blair said in referring to foreign-born Muslim clerics who glorify terror on British soil. "That duty is to share and support the values that sustain the British way of life. Those who break that duty and try to incite hatred or engage in violence against our country and its people have no place here."

With that, his government proposed new laws to deport extremist religious leaders, to shut down the mosques that house them and to ban groups with a history of supporting terrorism. The reaction was swift: a prominent human rights advocate described Mr. Blair's measures as "neo-McCarthyite hectoring," warning that they would make the British "less distinguishable from the violent, hateful and unforgiving theocrats, our democracy undermined from within in ways that the suicide bombers could only have dreamed of."

But if these anti-terror measures feel like an overreaction to the London bombings, that's only because Britons, like so many in the West, have been avoiding a vigorous debate about what values are most worth defending in our societies.

As Westerners bow down before multiculturalism, we anesthetize ourselves into believing that anything goes. We see our readiness to accommodate as a strength - even a form of cultural superiority (though few will admit that). Radical Muslims, on the other hand, see our inclusive instincts as a form of corruption that makes us soft and rudderless. They believe the weak deserve to be vanquished.

Paradoxically, then, the more we accommodate to placate, the more their contempt for our "weakness" grows. And ultimate paradox may be that in order to defend our diversity, we'll need to be less tolerant. Or, at the very least, more vigilant. And this vigilance demands more than new antiterror laws. It requires asking: What guiding values can most of us live with? Given the panoply of ideologies and faiths out there, what filter will distill almost everybody's right to free expression?

Neither the watery word "tolerance" nor the slippery phrase "mutual respect" will cut it as a guiding value. Why tolerate violent bigotry? Where's the "mutual" in that version of mutual respect? Amin Maalouf, a French-Arab novelist, nailed this point when he wrote that "traditions deserve respect only insofar as they are respectable - that is, exactly insofar as they themselves respect the fundamental rights of men and women."

Allow me to invoke a real-life example of what can't be tolerated if we're going to maintain freedom of expression for as many people as possible. In 1999, an uproar surrounded the play "Corpus Christi" by Terrence McNally, in which Jesus was depicted as a gay man. Christians protested the show and picketed its European debut in Edinburgh, a reasonable exercise in free expression. But Omar Bakri Muhammad, a Muslim preacher and a judge on the self-appointed Sharia Court of the United Kingdom, went further: he signed a fatwa calling for Mr. McNally to be killed, on the grounds that Jesus is considered a prophet by Muslims. (Compassion overflowed in the clause that stated Mr. McNally "could be buried in a Muslim graveyard" if he repented.) Mr. Bakri then had the fatwa distributed throughout London.

Since then, Mr. Bakri has promoted violent struggle from various London meeting halls. He has even lionized the July 7 bombers as the "fantastic four." He is a counselor of death, and should not have been allowed to remain in Britain. And thanks to Mr. Blair's newfound fortitude, he has reportedly fled England for Lebanon.

The Muslim Council of Britain, a mainstream lobbying group that assailed Mr. Blair's proposed measures, has long claimed that men like Mr. Bakri represent only a slim fraction of the country's nearly two million Muslims. Assuming that's true, British Muslims - indeed, Muslims throughout the West - should rejoice at their departures or deportations, because all forms of Islam that respect the freedom to disbelieve, to go one's own way, will be strengthened.

Which brings me to my vote for a value that could guide Western societies: individuality. When we celebrate individuality, we let people choose who they are, be they members of a religion, free spirits, or something else entirely. I realize that for many Europeans, "individuality" might sound too much like the American ideal of individualism. It doesn't have to. Individualism - "I'm out for myself" - differs from individuality - "I'm myself, and my society benefits from my uniqueness."

Of course, there may be better values than individuality for Muslims and non-Muslims to embrace. Let's have that debate - without fear of being deemed self-haters or racists by those who twist multiculturalism into an orthodoxy. We know the dangers of taking Islam literally. By now we should understand the peril of taking tolerance literally.

Irshad Manji is the author of "The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith."




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