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Saturday, Jan. 24, 2004

Tolerance in the name of God

LONDON -- So many crimes have sadly been committed in the name of religion that many humanists reject religion while Marxists regard religion as the opium of the people. Humanists and Marxists who condemn religion fail to see the good that can flow from sincerely held religious beliefs, but the perversion of beliefs in many organized religions and the intolerance -- which some religious leaders preach -- engender hatred and contempt.

Islamic suicide bombers seem to believe that they are "martyrs" and will go straight to Paradise. Most people, including responsible Muslims, regard them as murderers who are damaging their own religion. The Quran condemns suicide as a mark of despair in God, but death in jihad is believed to earn eternal bliss. If Islam is to be recognized as a significant force for good in the world, Islamic leaders need to do more to make clear that terrorist acts cannot be seen as acts of jihad and that jihad is simply not acceptable in the modern world. They should also endeavor to explain that fundamental human rights, including the rights of women and of freedom of speech, are upheld within Islam.

Muslim leaders need to ensure that the traditions and ethics of non-Islamic societies are respected by Muslims who live within them. Some observers may think that the French government, by insisting on the banning of head scarves by girls in French state schools, is going too far in upholding the principle of secularity. But secularism based on anticlerical traditions has a long history in France and it behooves Muslims and Christians to respect French traditions and laws.

The French government's decision does not infringe any basic human rights and the anger of some Islamic organizations and teachers was not justified. The assertion that in accordance with Islamic precepts all women are obliged to cover their heads seems to some to deny equal rights to men and women. In any case, Muslims should respect French secular traditions.

Earlier this month Kilroy Silk, a BBC TV presenter who had formerly been a Labour Party member of Parliament, was suspended because an article by him had appeared in a newspaper attacking Arabs, because of Arab support for the Shariah code and discrimination against women.

He was tactless and probably expressed his views badly, but the attacks on him by Muslim organizations were unjustifiably vitriolic. His argument that he had the right to express his views in line with British traditions of freedom of speech should have been sustained by the BBC.

Unfortunately there is a tendency in Britain, as in the United States, to consider that "political correctness" precludes individuals from saying anything derogatory about another person's religion or ethnic background. Racism and racial discrimination are abhorrent, and incitement against other religions and races must remain a crime. But the concept of "political correctness" is sometimes taken too far in Western countries and can unjustifiably limit freedom of speech.

In this day and age, only Islamic fundamentalists can possibly try to justify the application of Shariah law with its barbaric punishments, including stoning of women accused of adultery and cutting off the hands of thieves. Nor in Western society, where equality of the sexes is regarded as fundamental, can we, or should we, tolerate the segregation and subjugation of women -- as happens in some Islamic countries.

Attacks have recently been made on the European Commission for allegedly anti-Semitic behavior. The grounds for this allegation were at best dubious. Some U.S. pro-Israel organizations seem to regard any criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as evidence of anti-Semitism. This is, of course, nonsense. Many British Jews, to say nothing of Israeli Jews, are very critical of Sharon's policies as they disapprove of the "targeted assassinations" and other aspects of Sharon's policies toward the Palestinians, which they regard as morally wrong as well as being counterproductive for Israeli interests.

We must all, of course, condemn terrorism and the terrorist tactics of some Palestinian groups, but we should be careful not to identify all Palestinians with terrorism, any more than we should identify all Israelis or Jews with Sharon. As moderate Israelis point out, Palestinian grievances have to be addressed before peace can be achieved. They are also critical of some of the demands and intolerance of Jewish fundamentalists.

It is an unfortunate fact of history that religion has rarely been identified with toleration (with the general exception of Buddhism). Certainly the history of Christianity in the West has been tarnished by intolerance. The worst example was the Inquisition, but Protestants in many countries were no better. Both sides executed or burned so-called heretics and in Japan Christians were crucified and tortured.

There is still more than a whiff of intolerance among fundamentalist Christians particularly in the U.S. The hatred between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland stems from centuries of strife and mutual intolerance.

In India the appalling massacres of Muslims and Hindus in 1947 resulted from centuries of intercommunal jealousies and strife as well as religious fundamentalism. At independence, India was careful to establish a secular state and secularity was a fundamental principle of Indian leaders, including Nehru. The governing party in India, the BJP, has been the party of Hindu nationalists, but the Indian prime minister has shown by his efforts to reach agreement with Pakistan that he will not be dictated to by religious fundamentalists.

Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right and can only be achieved by tolerance of other people's right to choose freely what they believe. Religious intolerance whether advocated by Islamic, Christian or Hindu fundamentalists undermines the human rights of others. Civilized governments everywhere should do more to promote religious tolerance. English satirist Dean Swift was sadly right when nearly 300 years ago he wrote: "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another."

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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