Friday, September 13, 2013

The pervasiveness of religious intolerance

Religious intolerance can be found everywhere, all over the globe. If you think there is no religious intolerance in your own country, you haven't been looking very hard. It is easy to wag your finger at other countries, but such intolerance is present in every country. Bigotry knows no boundaries.

Recently I wrote about how politicians can misuse religious symbols. I wrote specifically about the Canadian province of Quebec, where the minority government of Premier Pauline Marois wants to ban the use of all "ostentatious" religious symbols by everyone who is paid from the public purse. This week her government introduced the necessary enabling legislation under the guise of a charter protecting Quebec values.

The negative reaction was immediate, predictable and loud. Ostensibly secular in motivation, the politics of this ban is obvious: Marois hopes that this ban will deflect the attention of voters in the next election from the less than sterling economic policies of her government. Instead, it is threatening to blow up in her face, but it may also hurt those whose cherished religious symbols-- hijab, kippa, turban, or cross -- are threatened.

The Quebec Charter of Values is not only a political ploy but also a crude racist and sexist document that appeals to some elements of Quebec society and ostracizes certain minorities, especially Muslims. For public workers, wearing a hijab will no longer be permitted. In other words, Muslims are not welcome in Quebec, although no one will put it quite so bluntly.

Poster illustrating symbols that are permitted (top) or not permitted (bottom)

A Bloc Québécois member of parliament in Ottawa has appropriately called this "ethnic nationalism." Her forthrightness, unfortunately, led to her immediate expulsion from her party that is overtly separatist and thus supportive of the provincial Parti Québécois.

The federal government also practiced religious intolerance when it did not allow certain potential immigrants to enter Canada, but did open the doors to anti-Muslim spokespeople. That made it very difficult for Prime Minister Harper to respond immediately when the charter of values was first announced.

Other counties are equally guilty. France, as is well known, has almost a decade banned headscarves as well as other religious symbols. But clearly this ban is directed against Muslims who want to wear the hijab.

Many xenophobic right-wing parties in Europe target Muslim immigrants in order to harvest votes. They have become popular not only in France but even in the Netherlands, which has had a centuries-long reputation for tolerance. Eurabia is the term that describes the fear of many Europeans, who see their countries being flooded by Muslims.

Russia, on the other hand, has always been xenophobic. Thus it is hardly surprising that in one of the southern republics where there are many Muslims the principal of a village school banned the hijab. This prompted President Vladimir Putin to explain, "There are no hijabs in our culture."

In Russia not only Muslims are under attack. Every dark-skinned person in that country reports being beaten regularly by skinheads. While this is not religious intolerance, it is an example of the blatant xenophobia that often expresses itself in attacks on people of other faiths, even other Christians.

I experienced this religious intolerance personally while teaching philosophy at Moscow State University. I had some Russian Orthodox colleagues who were priests and who objected to my presence there. Their attitude was aptly expressed in a comment that was overheard at an Orthodox school where I was invited to teach  a course, but that invitation was later rescinded, "What can we Orthodox learn from Protestants?" These priests were in part instrumental in forcing my departure from the university.

Religious intolerance is practiced by adherents of every religion. In India Hindus have destroyed mosques, while in Egypt Muslims have burned down churches. Religious minorities that are victims of intolerance in one country or region, often become intolerant when they form the majority in an other.

In Nigeria religious intolerance peaked with the reintroduction of sharia in many northern states. Under sharia, all women, including Christians, had to have their heads covered in public. While some countries banned the hijab, Nigeria insisted on it, at least temporarily, in some parts of the country.

Even the US, which prides itself as a bastion of freedom and religious tolerance, was shamed with the arrest of Pastor Terry Jones, who had threatened to burn 2,998 copies of the Qur'an -- one for every victim of the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Israel, which was founded as a refuge for Jews after the Holocaust, has reduced the Palestinians, whether Christians or Muslims, to second-class citizens solely because of their ethnicity and religion. A people that should practice religious tolerance because of their history have become intolerant of another people whom they are unwilling to acknowledge as a people. It is ironic, but sad.

Throughout the Middle East religious intolerance has become the norm it seems. Except for the Christians there, who constituted the majority before the rise of Islam, but have now been reduced to an ever-dwindling minority, the majority religion in each country, whether Judaism in Israel and Islam in the rest, demonstrates its intolerance, even of fellow believers who happen to belong to another sect.

I could provide many more examples of religious intolerance, but these will suffice to prove the point.

The chief problem with religious intolerance is that, sooner or later, it explodes and a lot of innocent people are hurt. Not only those who practice intolerance but especially those who are the victims. The world needs to stand up and condemn this intolerance and protect those who have been hurt.

In Quebec it is extremely unlikely that the newly introduced legislation will pass without major changes. Yet serious damage has already been done. The provincial Parti Québécois has damaged the cause of separatism, but it has done even greater damage to many minority groups who will now become even more reluctant to stay in Quebec and integrate into Québécois society. The cause of immigrant women especially has received an unintended setback.

This is a tragedy that could have been avoided, if Marois and her government had not been blinded by the prospect of short-term political gain. The same sad story can be repeated in countries everywhere. Religious intolerance is tragic for everyone concerned, not only the victims but also those practice that intolerance. Let us stop religious intolerance and instead work together for the common good.



  1. It is human nature to be intolerant of other people, whether individuals or other groups noticeably different from 'us'. What's ironic here is that I am aware that the Quebec French see themselves as a persecuted minority in Canada and the French in France are often very vocal about their own rights and expression of their culture, but are stopping another group doing the same. But, such is the nature of people.

    The fear indeed for many Western Europeans as in Britain at the moment, is that our European cultures are disintegrating and that multi-culturalism is being forced on everyone from above when many people are uneasy about it, when often immigration is only ever about filling low paid jobs, and has the secondary advantage for business owners and rich farmers of keeping wages down. That's where some of the fear comes from. It has an economic angle. Another problem for the UK, being mired in political correctness, that nobody including politicians of any hue could speak in any way about immigration without being seen as racist, therefore no one talked about until it festered like an abscess and people had to.

    'I experienced this religious intolerance personally while teaching philosophy at Moscow State University. I had some Russian Orthodox colleagues who were priests and who objected to my presence there.' And another point so ably commented on by you, is the fact that most religions are supposed to be about peace and love and having tolerance and behaving amicably to other people. What Christian love these Orthodox priests showed you hey?!

    'The world needs to stand up and condemn this intolerance and protect those who have been hurt.' I agree with you. We need to be intolerant of intolerance! But I fear all our words of reason will be drowned out in the latest call to arms or bloodletting or general spreading of 'peace and love' leaving scores dead and many more wondering what it's all about anyway. It's a mad old world out there.

  2. Here's something I came across regarding religious intolerance at the world's largest mutual fund company -

    1. This blog has been updated greatly in the last week.