Islam and the Intolerance Problem

Comparing the attack on Gabrielle Giffords with the murder of a Pakistani politician


While the attempted murder of an American Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, has prompted an outpouring of grief and soul-searching, the fatal shooting of a prominent elected official in another country around the same time has provoked a very different reaction. After Salman Taseer, governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, was murdered by his own bodyguard, there was a wave of support for the murderer—from religious figures and ordinary citizens, from several political parties, and even from a group of lawyers. The reason? Taseer had spoken out against Pakistan's blasphemy laws and in support of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Such harrowing stories cannot be ignored in the discussion of Islam and religious tolerance. Last year, the controversy over Cordoba House, the planned Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero, turned into a debate about Islam and "Islamophobia." There is no question that some of the rhetoric in that debate crossed the line into anti-Muslim bigotry—the portrayal of all or most Muslims as "the enemy"—and that the self-proclaimed "anti-jihadists" who spearheaded anti-mosque campaign, such as bloggers Pamela Geller of Atlas Shrugs and Robert Spencer of JihadWatch, routinely traffic in gross caricatures of Islam as inherently and uniquely evil, oppressive, and violent. But all too many in the pro-mosque camp argued as if violent extremism in Islam today was as much of a fringe phenomenon as in Christianity or Judaism. This month's events in Pakistan remind us that is simply not the case.

There is not a single majority Christian nation today that executes or imprisons people for blasphemy or apostasy. Several leading majority-Muslim countries punish these offenses with death, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. The Aasia Bibi case is a frightening example of the precarious position of religious minorities under these laws. Bibi, a rural laborer, was asked to bring water to a group of other women with whom she was working in the fields. Some of the women refused to drink the water after it had been touched by an "unclean" Christian. Bibi got into an argument with them and defended her faith—and was reported for blaspheming against Mohammed. The mother of five was sentenced to death after a trial during which she apparently had no access to a lawyer. Leading Pakistani clerics have urged President Zardari to reject her clemency petition.

Even in some Muslim countries where such barbaric punishments do not exist, they have the support of depressingly vast portions of the public. In Egypt and Jordan, recent polls have shown, over 85 percent of the population supports capital punishment for anyone who converts from Islam to another faith. Many prominent Islamic religious scholars, including some reputed "moderates" such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, continue to defend the death penalty for apostasy.

Does this mean that intolerance and fanaticism are uniquely Islamic evils? Hardly. The Bible calls for blasphemers and idolaters to be put to death in language similar to that of the Koran. Capital punishment for offenses against religion was the norm in Christian Europe for much of its history. In France, as late as 1766, a 19-year-old provincial nobleman, the Chevalier de la Barre, was tortured and beheaded on charges of singing blasphemous songs and spitting on a crucifix. (Ironically, the case, like that of Aasia Bibi, involved claims of blasphemy laws being used to settle personal vendettas.) During the Middle Ages, most Islamic states treated religious minorities with considerably more tolerance than did Christian rulers, despite valiant attempts by Spencer and other propagandists of the "Islam is evil" school to deny or obscure this fact. Catholic-vs.-Protestant enmity led to deadly violence in Northern Ireland only a generation ago. Even today, violent extremism on the Indian peninsula comes from Hindu as well as Muslim militants; recent reports indicate that some of the terrorist attacks blamed on Islamists in the past decades were actually the work of a radical Hindu network.

None of this, however, negates the fact that at this point in history, extreme fundamentalism and violent zealotry in majority-Muslim countries—as well as Muslim communities in many other countries—are a particularly massive and severe problem. There are many reasons for this, some of them having more to do with the last hundred years of history than with 1,400-year-old religious tenets: In many parts of the world including Pakistan, repressive and corrupt regimes have for decades used Islamist indoctrination as a means of controlling the populace.

Even in modernized Malaysia and Indonesia, where the law formally guarantees religious freedom and equality and which have been touted by many (including Imam Rauf) as models of equal and peaceful coexistence between religions in majority-Muslim states, the picture is not as sunny as is often claimed: in practice, sharia courts have the power to place virtually insurmountable obstacles in the path of Muslims who want to convert to another faith or marry a non-Muslim.

Of course modern Islam is not monolithic. There are many Muslims who have condemned and stood up against terrorism, include those who have recently volunteered to serve as human shields for Christian churches in Egypt after church bombings by Islamist fanatics. There are Muslim scholars who are advocating a revision of Islamic orthodoxy on issues ranging from women's rights to blasphemy and apostasy and challenging the age-old clerical doctrine that the Koran's earlier, more peaceful and tolerant verses are nullified by the later, more militant ones.

Yet, for change to take place, the problems of the present must be recognized and honestly confronted. It is, of course, absurd to suggest—as Newt Gingrich and a few other opponents of the lower Manhattan mosque have done—that America should not allow mosques to be built until Saudi Arabia permits the building of Christian churches: such a position places us on a par with the very intolerance we oppose. But as long as murderous bigotry remains common in the Muslim world, opposing anti-Muslim bigotry in the West will be a difficult and graceless task.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.