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2007 07 06
Culture & Multiculture 9: What the Meaning of Tolerance Isn’t

Part of an ongoing series interrogating cultural issues in light of Toronto’s unsurpassed multiculture –- and Canada’s role as one of the world’s most free and democratic societies.

Happens sometimes. We get lots of premises all right –- yet the conclusion wrong as can’t be. Not just sometimes. Happened to me plenty times. On March 8th, 2007, it happened to Haroon Siddiqui. Someday it’ll happen to you. If it hasn’t yet. So, no particular intention targeting Haroon Siddiqui. Would not have read his March 8th article -– Don’t give in to prevailing prejudices -– were the Toronto Star not available free up at York University. Would never even have heard of him. No big deal. Happens. Happening right now to reputed professionals at locations near you.

Better address his argument, though. Not because he got everyone so wrong when it came to banning hijab wearing from some Quebec soccer tournament. Water under the bridge gone way out to sea. That’s not why. Rather, because his argument is hazardous in and of itself. Hazardous as false bridges over heaving troubled waters.

Culturally troubled waters. Unlike most, Siddiqui gets that. Gets it just fine. That the trouble in the world today is not between materially conflicted nations and peoples seeking subjugating each other to any material advantage. He gets that the trouble is between cultures clashing over ideas, ideals, ideology and intangible principles. Cultural principles. Clashing to potentially universal terminal disadvantage.

Nor does Siddiqui deny or lament cultures clashing over mere intangibles -– over ideological opiates. He seems to appreciate that ideas are not mere reflections of the world in human minds. That ideas, ideals, ideology and intangible principles counterfactually shape the world, define us as peoples and -– when clashing in fundamental principles –- ever too often launch us at each others’ throats. Siddiqui gets how mere ideas bind community, root identity, trigger and inflame conflict regardless material commonality or difference. How paramount pivotal imagination and ideas are in foundation of society, of culture, of any and all significance whatsoever.

Siddiqui very much seems to appreciate all that. No surprise, then -– his urging we don’t give in to prevailing prejudices. His urgent headline to that effect. Why not? He gets the significance of cultural principles. He, far more than most, seems to appreciate our vital cultural principle of tolerance -– so amply expressed by Canadian democracy, Toronto multiculture and what Siddiqui refers to as “the honourable Canadian tradition” of “finding reasonable accommodation for a myriad of minority practices.” So why not? Uniquely appreciating as he does our principled tolerance defining the Canadian way –- why should he not stand guard for that?

Not that he just stands around guarding. Not when he writes,
The world looks up to Canada for its multicultural achievements. Here in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Commission, people routinely invoke Canada to counsel member-states to learn how to achieve integration the Canadian way.
That’s right. The world looks up to Canada. Our principled tolerance –- the Canadian way. Siddiqui’s not just standing guard. He’s declaring the world would do far worse than realizing and attaining for the Canadian way. Siddiqui’s suggesting bridges ought get built. Bridges aiding other societies over culturally troubled waters. Bridges getting the Canadian way across.

Everyone could –- and should –- pursue the Canadian way. Even among the world’s freest, most democratic and multicultured societies –- as in the European Union. Since Canada does it better. So Siddiqui, quoting Jan Niesen, confirms:
Canada does this much better… You have done very well in getting past issues of race, skin colour, ethnicity and religion -– something Europe is yet to fully come to terms with but simply must.
Canada does it much better. Makes nothing but sense –- Siddiqui looking to get the Canadian way across. Just one problem.

One fatal problem. Those particular bridges Siddiqui’s suggesting get built -– to get the Canadian way across? They’re all false. Each and every one of them. Apt only to collapsing underfoot. Soon as feet get stepping. Soon as some breeze blows in dispute. Pitch us headlong in the thickest heaving troubled waters. Because, much and uniquely as Siddiqui appreciates and guards the Canadian way -– he doesn’t get it. Doesn’t understand the meaning, significance, source and origin of that which defines it. Our principled tolerance.

Happens to everyone. To me, to you -– to reputed professionals everywhere. On March 8th it happened to the Star’s editorial page editor emeritus. Got it all wrong. Got the meaning of our principled tolerance all wrong. So -– what did Siddiqui profess the meaning of our tolerance? He didn’t. Said nothing whatever about it. But he must have got it all wrong. Must have. Since his claim concerning what it is we don’t tolerate was false in all particulars and every regard.

Siddiqui claimed we no longer tolerate Muslims since 9/11. Claimed we’ve become Islam-phobic. That we got so freaked, we can’t help ourselves from discriminating and interfering with Muslim religious freedom. According to Siddiqui, it’s “.. the panic that’s driving our democratic societies in this post-9/11 era.” That post-9/11 panic making us “..rationalize discrimination..” and making us “.. routinely invoke contrarian Muslim voices to lecture Muslims on how they should practise their religion.”

What unmitigated nonsense. In all particulars and every single regard.

We haven’t become Islam-phobic since 9/11. That myth becomes increasingly absurd each day it persists. In the relatively tolerant West –- nevermind in Canada –- we don’t go around mistaking or stereotyping all Muslims as the militant fundamentalists responsible for (not only) 9/11. We know far better. But since 9/12 through 9/whenever -– that’s different. We’ve seen the collective 9/12 dancing in the Middle-Eastern Muslim street. Seen it on T.V. Seen it on Al-Jazeera and CNN. The 9/12 collective rejoicing. We tried laughing it off –- like with those non-Muhammad cartoons. Tried laughing Islamic fundamentalism off as we would Christian fundamentalism.

There’s no laughing off Islamic fundamentalism. We get it. Still doesn’t mean we stereotype all Muslims as militant fundamentalists. Not since 9/11, not since 9/12, not since 9/whenever.

Sure we flinch from burqa –- even hijab –- at times. But not because we have become Islam-phobic. Just because some of the hatred we’ve heard expressed on the subject of feminine modesty is so nauseating. As reported in The Australian on October 26th, 2006: Muslim leader blames women for sex attacks. About when Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, senior Muslim cleric mufti of Australia –- not Iran –- declared:
If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat?
That damned, spoilt, impure, rotten meat. According to Sheik Hilali, of course the blame lies with the meat. With the uncovered female meat. “If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.” Otherwise -– serves her right. Women are “weapons” of “Satan” used to control men.

So. Australia’s Sheik Hilali taught his followers that as uncovered meat is eaten by cats, so uncovered women are raped by Muslim men. And no doubt hatred such as his contributed to our flinching from hijab or burqa. But for hatred such as his, hijab or burqa might yet denote tolerance and good-will. But for hatred such as his we’d welcome hijab or burqa. As we welcome sari. As we welcome even the worst habits of nuns. Like we welcome Santa Claus –- and he dresses funnier than the Grim Reaper. But, other than in jesting, we don’t much welcome the Grim Reaper. Grim reaping costumes do not denote tolerance.

Sure we flinch from such hatred. But panic to the point of rationalizing discrimination and hysterical stereotyping? No way. No Canadian way. We haven’t become Islam-phobic. Not ever -– nevermind since 9/11. We can’t even begin believing anyone would follow Sheik Hilali’s thinking. Of course we don’t give in to prevailing prejudices. The prejudices prevailing with Sheik Hilali. We can’t conceive how anyone could be persuaded by such ravings. Therefore we do not conclude that as cats eat meat, so Muslim men rape –- or maim or murder –- whomsoever offends them. We do not conclude that all Muslims are militant fundamentalists or that any Muslims actually follow Sheik Hilali. As Canadians we know way better.

We are not phobic and we are not hysterical. Nevertheless, there are definitive limits to our principled tolerance. Precisely because our tolerance is principled. Case in point -– When rights collide with freedoms -– reported May 28th in the Toronto Star. Adi Abdul Humaid killed Aysar Abbas. Stabbed her in the neck 19 times with a steak knife. Subsequent to conviction for first-degree murder, he appealed –- on rather outlandish grounds. Argued his wife had been unfaithful. Not that he’d intended divorcing but mistakenly killed her, though. His appeal was more outlandish than that. Her adultery wasn’t grounds for divorce. Far as he was concerned, it was grounds for murder. Because he was a devout Muslim and had to protect his family’s honour.

Perhaps Mr. Humaid’s argument might have found merit elsewhere -– under Sharia law. Perhaps. No point even speculating if so. The extent to which Muslim wives constitute chattel under Islamic law. Whether first-degree murder can mean anything in relation to chattel. No point speculating, debating or even acknowledging Mr. Humaid’s argument. Because no speech purporting to justify crimes against human beings on grounds of their -– sufficiently or entirely -– lacking humanity qualifies as argument. Such speech qualifies as hate -– not argument. And, as hate, it was properly rejected by the Ontario Court of Appeal.

Of course it was rejected. The point, though, is what Superior Court Justice J.A. Doherty wrote about Mr. Humaid’s religious beliefs:
The alleged beliefs are premised on the notion that women are inferior to men and that violence against women is in some circumstances accepted, if not encouraged. These beliefs are antithetical to fundamental Canadian values…
Antithetical to the Canadian way. Antithetical to fundamental Canadian values. Values including –- but not limited to –- gender equality, reasonable accommodation, Canadian freedom and democracy or multiculture as in Toronto. And what defines the Canadian way? What distinguishes values which are fundamentally Canadian from those which are inconsistent – contradicting the Canadian way? Our principled tolerance, that’s what.

That’s what Haroon Siddiqui doesn’t get. The meaning of our principled tolerance. For if we apply Siddiqui’s reasoning to this case in point, we must conclude Justice Doherty panicked. That the Justice rationalized discriminating Mr. Humaid’s avowed devout religious beliefs, denying his religious freedom because of “.. the panic that’s driving our democratic societies in this post-9/11 era.”

Intolerant panic? Absurd. How could Justice Doherty not have rejected such beliefs as antithetical to the Canadian way? Not conceivable, tolerating such intolerant beliefs and actions. By the very meaning of our principled tolerance, there’s no tolerating such hatred-verging intolerance. Not without losing the Canadian way as if we’d never found it.

What does Siddiqui think the meaning of our tolerance is, anyway? What does he (mis)take our tolerance for? Weakness? Putting up with just anything? Submission to all with stronger religious beliefs –- regardless how hateful? No point speculating. Point is, he’s obviously wrong when it comes to tolerating Mr. Humaid. There’s no conceivable Canadian way to reasonably accommodate Mr. Humaid. Beliefs and actions that intolerant contradict the meaning of our principled tolerance intolerably – and absolutely are antithetical to the Canadian way.

Very doubtful Siddiqui would argue we ought to tolerate and accommodate Mr. Humaid. Fair enough. However much a case in point, that’s a special criminal case. Could Siddiqui be right in some more general sense, then? That we’re in some sort of panic to discriminate against how Muslims practice their religion? Is he right declaring we wouldn’t dare criticize Christians –- of whatever stripe –- or Jews as we criticize Muslims?
While we dare not cite, say, dissident Catholics or Jews to rationalize discrimination against practising Catholics and Jews, many people routinely invoke contrarian Muslim voices to lecture Muslims on how they should practice their religion.
Not right in the least. For not only aren’t we in any panic to discriminate. We are way past unconcerned with how anyone practices their religion. We take religious freedom as a right. We take lack of concern with religious practices as basic common sense. However. When religious practice grows so intolerant to verge active and aggressive hatred –- we do start getting concerned. Not because we care how religion should be practiced. Be difficult us caring any less about that. We care only how religion ought not to be practiced. That it never be practiced in active aggressive hatred. That it not threaten us with militant fundamentalism.

And it is utterly, ignorantly false that we take greater liberties lecturing Muslims how they should not practice their religion. Precisely the reverse is true. We hesitate to criticize militant fundamentalism in Islam as we would never hesitate with Christian militant fundamentalism. Of whatever stripe. Fact is, we don’t much wait on militant fundamentalism in order to criticize Christianity. We remember how militant fundamentalist Christianity turned on us. Back in our darker ages. And ever since we started following the chief materialist prophets of our enlightenment –- Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Darwin –- we’ve pretty much criticized Christianity to death. Criticized Christianity so thoroughly we’ve killed god and destroyed the temporal power of the Christian church.

We’ve been –- more or less politely –- ridiculing Christian fundamentalism for hundreds of years. Laughed it out of governance. Out of schooling. Laughed it right out of competent society. Mostly we don’t bother even thinking about it any more. No longer relevant. But there’s no laughing off Islamic fundamentalism. We get that.

As with Rosie O’Donnell’s view –- “radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam” –- Siddiqui couldn’t be more wrong. Radical Christianity used to be just as threatening. It no longer is. Nor has been for hundreds of years. Not after the Christian church got laughed into oblivion so profound it hardly dares peek noses into public affairs – nevermind threaten. Unlike O’Donnell, however, there’s plenty Siddiqui gets right. And the particular way he’s wrong supplies an essential clue to the meaning of our principled tolerance.

Siddiqui appreciates our principled tolerance entailing the Canadian way. But he does not get the meaning of our principled tolerance -– maintaining, falsely, that we are too critical of Islam and accepting of Christianity. Truth is, it’s particularly Christianity we’re grown so at ease criticizing. Particularly Christianity we’ve criticized near to death. What better question to ask, then, than how our criticism of the Christian church has entailed the meaning, significance, source and origin of our principled tolerance?

That’s the question. But before asking it, there’s something we should know no questions asked. We did not directly inherit our principled tolerance from the Christian church. As if Christian heritage entailed love and peace -– while that of other religions entails hate and war. Totally not. That much we ought to know no questions asked. Rosie O’Donnell knows that much.

Next segment: personal anecdotes on the hazards and rewards of confronting Christian fundamentalism.

[Peter Fruchter is a part-time faculty member in the Division of Humanities at York University. He writes about the nature of truth (and truths of nature). North America is his third continent. Toronto Culture and Multiculture is an ongoing series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8]

[Against fundamentalisms image by ma neeks and used via Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 07/06 at 11:42 AM

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