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War Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card August 26, 2002

Religious Tolerance

When President Bush said, in the aftermath of September 11th, that our enemies hated us because they hated freedom, he was right.

But it was not the freedom of democracy, of representative government, that they hated. They don't mind democracy at all. Indeed, Islamicists embrace democracy, at least on a one-time basis: They are happy to take part in elections, with the exception that the election that brings them control of a government is the last free election that country will ever have.

No, the freedom that they hate happens, by sheer coincidence, to be the freedom that is most beleaguered in our own country. Here, where it already hangs by a thread, we were attacked because we have not yet snipped the thread.

I speak of the freedom of religion -- the fact that the Bill of Rights forbids the government to establish any one religion above all others.

I think it is fair to say that, viewed on a worldwide basis, Islam is today the least tolerant religion.

Historically, this was not always so -- not because Islam used to be more tolerant, but because all the others used to be even less so.

The idea of religious tolerance as we understand it is relatively new. Throughout human history, it was always taken for granted that people of the same village or city would worship the same god or gods.

Travelers from strange places might worship their own gods privately, but they had to be respectful of the public religion of the place where they sojourned.

There were attempts at religious tolerance. Alexander the Great tried to combine Persian and Greek public religions (and there are those who think that this might have led to his being poisoned, though most historians accept his death as being of natural causes). The Romans simply matched their own gods up with the Greek gods and declared them to be "the same," so that Greek religion could be tolerated.

Indeed, the Romans created the most religiously tolerant society up to their own time, by allowing all their provinces to continue to worship their ancient gods, as long as they added to their rituals the public worship of the emperor-as-god. That way, there would be a shared public religion throughout the empire -- one which nobody actually believed in, but which would unify the people and make it seem as though they were one nation.

This worked well enough with most conquered lands. It was only the Jews and, later, the Christians who refused to fit in. And since the rejection of the public religion was viewed as treason, not just heresy, these noncompliant, intolerant religious "fanatics" either rebelled and had to be re-conquered, or were persecuted.

And when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, that was the end of religious tolerance of any kind.

Religious tolerance was not rediscovered until after the bloody Thirty Years War ravaged Europe and the Inquisition made religious intolerance seem worse to decent people than the "treason" of rejecting the state religion.

Ironically, during the long centuries when Christian nations were violently intolerant, Muslim nations were much more open. While idolatry was ruthlessly stamped out, Christians and Jews were allowed to live and even practice their religion within Muslim lands, as long as they paid extra taxes and did not attempt to make converts.

But Islam held still while the rest of the world moved on. By the 1780s, when America was forming itself, the idea of religious tolerance was just beginning to take hold. Our rejection of a national church was only the first step along the road to real religious tolerance. It took a long time for tolerance to extend to anything but Protestant churches. Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and atheists were all persecuted in America, to one extent or another, until relatively recent times.

For instance, there are Jews still living who were barred from certain lofty universities because their "Jewish quota" had been filled. And there were thousands of Jews who died because America would not allow Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to land on our shores. The distaste for Jews was simply taken for granted among the upper classes; they were an "undesirable element" for no reason other than their religion.

That's how recently religious intolerance was socially acceptable in America -- and we were the most enlightened nation in the world on this issue.

So we can hardly blame Islamic nations for not having kept step with us on our very recent journey toward religious pluralism.

Still, the fact remains that there is no such thing as a Muslim nation that embraces religious pluralism.

The most religiously diverse Muslim nation, Indonesia, is riven by religious hatred, which erupts every now and then in bloody rioting by Muslims against nonbelievers.

The most westernized Muslim nation, Turkey, barely maintains a precarious balance between the government and military on one side, and the imams on the other. There is no chance of true religious pluralism there.

And in the other Muslim nations, tolerance has actually decreased. After the state of Israel was formed in 1948, Jews, who are specifically tolerated by the Quran, were expelled from many Muslim nations. And some Muslim nations are actively hostile to the practice of Christianity by foreign visitors, to the point that religious services have to be kept secret. The presence of Jewish soldiers among the American troops protecting Saudi Arabia from Iraq was considered to be an outrageous offense against Islam.

Against this background of intolerance, Al-Qaeda is not more intolerant than the rest of Islam -- it is merely more violent and provocative, taking its intolerance to foreign shores, insisting that the whole world should be put under Islamic law or be punished for their disobedience.

The religious intolerance of Muslim nations is probably the most important reason why those nations continue to be overwhelmingly poor and ignorant and powerless in the world at large. Their educational systems are crippled by the insistence of the imams that the only learning that matters is to learn the Quran. Any idea that departs from the imams' version of the Quran is a crime, and if you teach forbidden ideas you will be lucky if the worst that happens to you is to lose your job.

In such a climate, it's hardly likely that there will be any original contributions to science and technology. Muslim nations will continue to be intellectually parasitic on the rest of the world, importing technology because they deliberately keep their own people too ignorant to develop anything of their own.

The most religiously tolerant people in the Muslim world are those who, in Iran and Afghanistan, have actually been ruled by Islamicist governments. They are overwhelmingly in favor of letting people make more choices about their religious life -- because they have seen what it is like to live in a land where total obedience is enforced.

The saddest thing about our war against Islamicist terrorists and the nations that support them is that, because we are religiously tolerant, when we defeat a terrorist government as we did in Afghanistan, we cannot make the one change that would do the most toward helping raise them out of the squalor that afflicts most of the Muslim world: we cannot break the power of the imams; we cannot force them to allow real, open-minded learning to reach the common people.

For it is the imams, not the governments, that cause the hatred of so many Muslims toward the West. They stir up the fanatical hatred that sparked the explosions of 9/11 and the slaughter in the streets of Israel. And yet the one thing we cannot do in our war is hold these men responsible for the bloodshed they have provoked.

I believe that if the Muslim world embraced religious tolerance -- and I mean truly embraced it, allowing their citizens to learn about other religions and join other churches freely -- they would find that Islam was as vigorous and competitive a religion as any in the world. Islam would thrive everywhere, by virtue of ideas rather than suicide bombs. Worldwide there would be more Muslims, not fewer, if Muslim nations were granted freedom of religion.

In America, most Muslims have adapted to our culture and embraced religious tolerance. In the West, Muslims already win converts to their faith.

But even here, religious tolerance is still new and precarious. It is assaulted from the Christian Right, which demands, for instance, the "right" to force schoolchildren to listen to prayers that are offensive to them and their parents. And it is assaulted from the atheist Left, which seeks to expunge all favorable mention of religious ideas from the schools and enforce an even more rigid uniformity of thought than the Christian Right dares to dream of.

It's hard to get people who have not been religiously oppressed to recognize the value of religious tolerance. Religious freedom can only be defended by people who have a healthy fear of its opposite -- and judging from what I see within our own borders, there are precious few people who are really comfortable with the idea that those who disagree with them about the nature of God are actually as good and intelligent as they are, and as deserving of the right to put forth their ideas and win converts to their cause.

But our Constitution still manages to keep a fragile peace within our society, and religious ideas are still able, despite ever-higher barriers, to form a part of the public conversation of America.

It is vital that we preserve and even enhance our own religious freedom. For if we don't stand for religious freedom in this war against religious terrorism, then we have no cause at all beyond merely punishing our enemies for attacking us.

And Americans fight best when we fight for a noble cause.

Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.

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