Thomas Paine:

“Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

On the Limits of Toleration

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the struggle for enlightenment

      I am reminded of a public service ad I saw awhile back. I’ll call it the El Wheato Ad, because those were the offending words spoken in it by the lead character in the ad, a bigoted white guy, to the hapless Latino who was serving him.
      Mr. Bigot, frustrated by having received something other than the wheat bread he had asked for, and mocking what he thought must be the waiter’s ethnicity, said, to clarify as to the kind of bread he wanted, “You know, el wheato?” Then, noticing that the other diners were looking his way, he said something to the effect that if these people want to work here they should learn the language, adding, “You know?” So the diner he addressed responded, “No Sir, I don’t know,” with an unsympathetic look on his face.
      On one level, I liked the ad. It reinforced the notion that one should not give positive reinforcement to bigots. When you witness bigotry, you should do something, say something. The values of toleration and respect should be exercised whenever possible.
      On another level, however, I am not so sure. How much toleration should we extend, where those with different cultural values disrespect and even violate, for example, our core values of secularism, human rights, animal rights, equality and individual liberty? Does not toleration, a profound liberal value, sometimes go too far? Shouldn’t the case for education and cultural assimilation be made, on behalf of core American democratic values and the rule of law? Not that the bigot in the ad was correct to be rude to the waiter for not having learned to speak English yet. But, what is to be done in another situation, where, for example, a doctor finds that a female child has been “circumcised,” her genitals mutilated by way of traditional Islamic cultural practice? Is it bigoted to oppose the ways of religious and cultural communities, when human rights within those communities are being violated?
      Is it bigoted to require immigrant cultures to assimilate, to require a broad education of their members in the values of the enlightenment, rather than allowing communities to perpetuate crimped, backward and ignorant values, where children are hidden away in private religious schools, never to know human liberty, never to make progress in their lives toward civilization? Would it be bigoted to expect citizens to come out of the dark ages and comprehend the notion of freedom?

      Have I taken a wrong turn to the right? I don’t think so. I am making a case for progress, a case for balance, actually. Excessive toleration is an out-of-balance path away from progress, in support of all sorts of evils—oppression, ignorance, abuse.

      I am encouraged in these thoughts by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the author of the memoir, Infidel. Despite her having gone over to the mad-capitalist side in her fellowship with the American Enterprise Institute (sad, but I understand, now that I have read Infidel. She was vulnerable and frightened, when the Institute came to her “rescue.” It seemed like her only option, if she wanted to stay alive, to live and work in Holland. Perhaps someday she will see what they’re all about and find the courage to leave them), she remains an authentic voice for the enlightenment of Islam, for freedom and the emancipation of women, children, and even men within the Muslim community. She understands the necessity of confrontation and resistance to the oppression inherent in the religion; she objects to the role of tolerance by governments and Western culture in the horrific violations of human rights, of women’s rights, that Islam commits in the name of Allah.
      It is tolerance that tolerates the crimes of this religion; without tolerance, progress could be made toward freeing millions of women, children and free thinkers from the burdens they bear, within a culture that does not value freedom, equality, education, individual rights, or the pursuit of happiness here in this life.
      I do not mean to say I approve of intolerance, of violent, cruel or hateful behavior toward Muslims. I do not mean to say I approve of the Iraq war, or the “war on terrorism,” as it is being waged thus far. I do not mean to say I am in favor of obliterating Islam.
      I do mean to say Islam needs to have a mirror held up to it, so that it can see itself and recognize the truth; it must begin a questioning of its ways, to initiate its own enlightenment. Islam, after all, has never had one, an Enlightenment. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has lived within the confines of Islam, has studied it, and she knows— the religion is stuck in backwardness. According to her, this infant must not be coddled. It has become a tyrannical, tantrum-throwing brat. We need to tell it, as we would a misbehaving child, “I understand: you want to do these things; but you cannot do them, because you are hurting people.”

      The same thing needs to be said and done with the Bush Administration, which is another tyrannical brat. Toleration of their crimes by Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, who keep insisting impeachment is impractical, is a kind of permissiveness that can only lead to abuse and the entrenchment of anti-democratic rule.

      Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a great read. You won’t be able to put it down.


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