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The One True Faith: Is It Tolerance?

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  • The Muslim Chronicle
    Friend, Today s New York Times carries an interesting piece on the issue of religion and the consequences of one religion being considered superior and the
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 3, 2002
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      Friend,

      Today's New York Times carries an interesting piece on the issue of religion
      and the consequences of one religion being considered superior and the only
      valid one for the rest of the world. Thomas Cahill studies the role of
      Christianity through history and how it came to terms with accepting other
      religions as equally legitimate. He says that "over the ages, each religion
      learns — with many steps backward and sideways but, finally, with more steps
      forward — that it must find a way to live with its "heretical" offshoots and
      with other religions."

      In closing he wonders about Islam:
      "For Islam, seven centuries younger than Christianity and nearly three
      millennia younger than Judaism, to achieve such a relationship it needs a
      distinguished theoretical peacemaker like Courtney Murray and a
      warm-hearted, iconic peacemaker like John XXIII. If such figures emerge,
      they would stand on the shoulders of great theologians and saints who came
      before them in the rich tradition of Islam."

      Yes Mr. Cahill, such Muslims have emerged. One such Muslim is President
      Muhammad Khatami of Iran, but he was last week labeled as part of an "Axis
      of Evil." A democratically elected government with a mandate by 70% of the
      population, reaching out to the rest of the world's religions, but rejected
      and rebuffed by a man as evil as he is ignorant and corrupt; George W. Bush.

      Tarek Fatah
      ===========================
      February 3, 2002

      The One True Faith: Is It Tolerance?
      By THOMAS CAHILL
      The New York Times
      http://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/03/weekinreview/03CAHI.html

      ONCE upon a time, there was a religion whose adherents thought it to be the
      only true one. Because their God wished everyone (or so they thought) to
      believe as they did, they felt justified in imposing their religion on
      others.

      Toward those who refused to bow to the "true" religion, these true believers
      took different tacks at different times. Sometimes, they hemmed in the
      infidels (as they were called) with civil disabilities, limiting their
      license to practice their own religion, forcing them to listen to propaganda
      and otherwise restricting their freedom; at other times they became more
      aggressive, burning holy books, smashing sacred statues and even engaging in
      wholesale slaughter of infidels — men, women and children — as if they were
      rats carrying plague.

      The religion is not Islam but Christianity, whose dark history of crusades,
      inquisitions and pogroms lies not as far in the past as one might prefer to
      think.

      What changed Christianity? How did Christians learn the virtue of tolerance?
      Centuries of bloody religious wars and persecutions finally convinced most
      Christians that there must be a better way to organize society, a way that
      did not involve quite so many burning bodies, human charnel houses and
      corpse-strewn battlefields.

      The slow germination of this revolution in consciousness can be dated at
      least to the 18th century, toward the end of which a country finally
      emerged — America — that officially refused to play the old game of whose
      religion was true, and took a generously agnostic view of religious truth:
      you may believe what you like, and so may I, and neither can impose belief
      on the other.

      Is there an essentially different dynamic at work in Islamic countries that
      keeps them from arriving at the civic virtue of tolerance? The forces of the
      Enlightenment that exalted tolerance in the West were given their impetus by
      the European wars of the 16th and 17th centuries in which Christian was
      pitted against Christian — wars over points of doctrine that must have
      looked exceedingly abstruse, even absurd, to non-Christians, who could see
      only similarities between the warring systems. One might well wonder if this
      Enlightenment would have emerged with such vigor had the battles involved
      Christian against Jew — or, more exotically, against Muslim or Buddhist or
      Zoroastrian. Protestants and Catholics had to learn to be tolerant of one
      another — of different forms of Christianity — before they could learn to
      tolerate those whose religions were non-Christian.

      In a similar way, the Muslim world is more likely to develop the virtue of
      tolerance as it surveys the hopelessly diverse ways in which different
      communities and peoples have responded to the core insights of Islam. What
      do Turks have in common with Taliban, or Wahhabi Muslims with Sufis? Very
      little, it would seem at first glance. What do Sunni Muslims have in common
      with Shiites? If non-Muslims can see similarities, warring Muslim factions
      can often see only deadly differences.

      The West should not allow itself too many congratulations on its vaunted
      tolerance. In Northern Ireland, Catholic children are still unable to walk
      to school without hearing vile epithets hurled at them by foul-mouthed
      adults. In Britain, a Catholic may still not serve as prime minister or sit
      upon the storied throne of Edward the Confessor. The Vatican, for its part,
      first blessed tolerance as a civic virtue a scant 36 years ago — at the
      close of the Second Vatican Council. Prior to that time, the official
      Catholic position was little different from that of the mullahs of Kandahar:
      when we are in power, we will impose religion as we see fit.

      This new Catholic blessing of tolerance — which took the form of a
      declaration that religious liberty is the right of every human being — was
      made possible chiefly because of the life and work of two uncommon human
      beings. The first was the courtly Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray,
      who was able to reinterpret Catholic political theory to give theological
      primacy to freedom of conscience. Not incidentally, he was a 20th-century
      American, deeply in love with American political ideals.

      The other was John XXIII, the pope who convoked the council with the express
      aim of bringing the teaching of the Catholic Church up to date. John lived
      his life as a man of tolerance; he hated using religion to divide people
      from one another. Many historians today consider him the greatest pope who
      ever lived, a man beloved by people of all kinds throughout the world. As he
      lay dying, his secretary read to him from mountains of sympathetic letters.
      One correspondent wrote, "Insofar as an atheist can pray, I'm praying for
      you." Hearing this, John, despite his pain, smiled with delight. For him,
      the common bond of humanity was all that was needed for profound friendship
      and understanding — and a little humor always helped.

      Each of the great religions creates, almost from its inception, a colorful
      spectrum of voices that range from pacifist to terrorist. But each religion,
      because of its metaphorical ambiguity and intellectual subtlety, holds
      within it marvelous potential for development and adaptation. This
      development will be full of zigzags and may sometimes seem as slow as the
      development of the universe, but it runs — almost inevitably, it seems —
      from exclusivist militancy to inclusive peace.

      The tolerant Islam that in the 15th and 16th centuries let the Jews of
      Spain, expelled by Catholic tyrants, find homes in Arab lands has not
      disappeared. The peace-loving Islam that in the seventh and eighth centuries
      protected the world's oldest portrait of Jesus from destruction by Christian
      iconoclasts has not been erased. These humane responses are living seeds, a
      little buried perhaps but capable of a great flowering.

      The bloodthirsty Judaism of the Book of Joshua, in which God commands the
      Israelites to put all Canaanites, even children, to the sword, is hardly the
      Judaism of today, except perhaps at the extreme end of its spectrum — in the
      followers of someone like Meir Kahane or the religious fanatics who
      encouraged the assassination of the peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin. But in the
      same period as Joshua, or soon thereafter, when Gideon builds an altar in
      the desert to replace the altar of Baal, the god of thunder and war, he
      calls the new altar "Peace Is the Name of God." And the Christianity of
      13th-century Europe — a time of bloody crusades and inquisitions, when Pope
      Boniface VIII proclaimed that complete subjection to him was "utterly
      necessary for the salvation of every living creature" — is very different
      from the Christianity of John XXIII, who wrote in his diary that "the whole
      world is my family."

      At the extreme end of the Christian spectrum there are still intolerant
      bigots, as well as deranged militants who shoot up abortion clinics, but
      they are now far from the mainstream. And even in the 13th century,
      Christianity could bring forth an utterly pacifist figure like Francis of
      Assisi.

      Over the ages, each religion learns — with many steps backward and sideways
      but, finally, with more steps forward — that it must find a way to live with
      its "heretical" offshoots and with other religions. It can't have the whole
      world (as Boniface VIII imagined), except in love (as John XXIII intended).

      For Islam, seven centuries younger than Christianity and nearly three
      millennia younger than Judaism, to achieve such a relationship it needs a
      distinguished theoretical peacemaker like Courtney Murray and a
      warm-hearted, iconic peacemaker like John XXIII. If such figures emerge,
      they would stand on the shoulders of great theologians and saints who came
      before them in the rich tradition of Islam.

      In fact, Islamic peacemakers are already at work. There is, for example, the
      Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, who speaks repeatedly of the
      fruitlessness of violence and points to the irreducibly Judaic roots of
      Islam. Such people exist not just among the Palestinians but in countries
      throughout the Islamic world. At present, they may appear to be lonely
      voices — but not more lonely than Courtney Murray and Pope John once were.
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