Religious Tolerance
By Syed Osman Sher
 Mississauga, Canada


These days religious intolerance is in the air. Though it is not dominant over human feelings and behavior of the world at large, yet it seems to manifest in more ways  than one. Let us first try to understand tolerance and religion, both.

Of the various elements which constitute, influence and shape human history, tolerance is by far one of the most important. It is the hallmark of civilization, and a bulwark against injustice and belligerence. It opens up the possibility of cooperation among divergent peoples. Presupposing the existence of differences in a society, tolerance thwarts potential chaos and conflicts, and provides harmony and happiness. It stands for liberalism, positive feelings, open-heartedness, forgiveness,  feeling of togetherness, putting up with one even when he is not liked, settling for less than what one wants, and giving support to the rights and liberties of others. In short, tolerance refrains us from taking any action against a person or a group of people pursuing different sets of values.

According to Arnold Toyanbee, 'The differentiation of life into different species has brought with it both competition among some species and cooperation among others. Which, if either, of these two antithetical relations is the paramount law of nature? In the relations of non-conscious species with each other, neither cooperation nor competition is an act of deliberate choice; but the choice is deliberate in human beings, and in us it is bound up with the human sense of the difference and antithesis between right and wrong and between good and evil’. 

When it comes to religion, it too focuses on creating coherence in human behavior, respect for social order, and rational outlook for self-denials. Human beings have embraced religion at all times and in all climes, because spirituality it is intrinsic to human nature. Even those who do not confess any religion, in fact, do embrace certain basic commitments towards others. They accept some values as being of ultimate concern, and apply certain principles in organizing their lives. They do know what makes life valuable and meaningful. And this is their religion.

Religious phenomena are generally culture-specific with their own challenges, experiences and the constellations of meaning they generate in the lives of individuals. Each culture is sui generic, one-of-a-kind. It implies that their meanings will be lost when they are transposed to an alien context of meanings. Religion is basically a quest for spiritual fulfillment, which man seeks beyond his own physical self, beyond his tangible world, in the mist of his fancies, in a world which he cannot hold and touch, and which carry magical, mysterious and overwhelming power over his senses. To achieve that he adopts different-ways according to his own situation, although the goal seems to be identical to the extent that one religion seems to be as true as another. When each in the array of religious beliefs is leading its adherents to the desired destination towards the Truth or the Supreme Being, why only one of them should be termed as wholly true and the others totally false? Why all men should have one belief and adopt the same methods to satisfy their senses, when the senses themselves differ from each other in the way they have been fashioned by their peculiar circumstances?  A person of one cultural background is unable to perceive the spiritual feelings of another person who belongs to a totally different society, and is thus not competent to comment on the other person’s religion.

The annals of the world are full of wars and bloodshed in the name of religion. Religion stands as a culprit for spreading intolerance. Prima facie it seems a valid proposition. It also seems ironical that whereas religion focuses on creating, wholesomeness in human lives and coherence in human behavior, its followers indulge themselves in brutal acts. It also seems strange that nobody wants to share his material wealth with others. If somebody tries to take it away, he would not agree and would fight to the end.  As for his spiritual asset, that is, his religious belief, he is generous to the extreme and always preaches "Take it by all means. And, if you do not accept it, you are a brute and an uncivilized person, and not even worthy of living in this world. For this purpose I would even wage a war against you”’. Why it is so? If we find the answer to this puzzle, the onus of brutalities would not be on the shoulders of religion.

We all agree that a human being is, by nature, selfish. He believes basically and primarily in his own good, even at the cost of others. It was to rein in this very trait that religion was invented. As his wealth provides him material strength, so he considers that as long as others will have different beliefs, his own faith may be doubtful. Acceptance of his belief by others would be an attestation to the truth of his own belief. It would make him spiritually strong and wealthy.  Thus, the culprit is human selfishness, not the religion. It is ironical that religion was brought forward to defeat human selfishness, but was itself overcome by its nemesis.

Let us touch now upon the seemingly religious intolerance of these days, created in the wake of destruction of the World Trade Center in the United States . It was said that Osama bin Laden had worked to perpetuate this crime. To go in depth of this phenomenon, we have to consider the following facts. First, Osama was never considered a religious zealot. Second, as an  individual he had his own political grievances, like he did not approve of the hegemony of the United States and the West over the countries of the Middle East; their patronizing the dictatorial and monarchical regimes there, specially in Saudi Arabia; of the military presence there; and the West’s unflinching support of Israel against the local Palestinians. There was nothing religious in such complaints, which incidentally came from a Muslim who was a Saudi.

When the 9/11 attack occurred, and was declared to be carried out by bin Laden, there seemed to be no necessity of convening immediately a high profile Faith meeting, attended by the incumbent President and the ex-Presidents of the United States, and addressed by top clerics of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, announcing that there was no conflict between the three religions. The attention of the world was thus diverted from the political aspect of the tragedy, and was deliberately colored with religion.

  The incumbent President of the United States vowed to wage a war on terrorism, and termed it as a ‘crusade, which sprang naturally from his heart. But being offensive diplomatically he withdrew it later. To demonstrate to the world that Islam was the culprit, not Osama as an individual, various administrative measures, singling out the Muslims, were taken. The United States, destroyed Afghanistan, and Iraq for no reason, and was about to do the same with Iran and Syria .Such measures, coming from the sole Super Power, electrified the whole world. It was then a free for all. The highest and the lowest from the clerical and political hierarchy, the media, the writers, the cartoonists, and the man on the street, were all swept away, in degrading Islam, its Prophet, and its followers by whatever means were available to them.

 The natural corollary was to produce a reaction. If a party is attacked and is weaker, it can make only sneak attacks, which we term as terrorism. Of course, it is so. But how it has cropped up all over the world, like in Spain, UK, Yemen, Bali, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; and how it is still going on despite the war of many years, need to be analyzed. The truth is that this war was unleashed by a coterie of religiously fanatic neo-cons. The reaction has also come from a handful of Islamic fanatics, who might have led to believe that an attack has been made by the World on Islam.

But it is not true. It was started by a handful of men. And, the fanatics from both sides are now fighting this war, both active and cold. Otherwise, in this age of enlightenment the vast majority of followers of all religions are liberal and pluralistic in their thinking and approach. The fatwa of the last month of the Canadian and US clerics has admitted that there is “no conflict” between the values of freedom and justice and Islamic values, A recent research study of the United States too has found that the vast majority of Muslims reject violence.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.