Islam and Religious Tolerance

Last Thursday, President Obama gave his much-anticipated speech at Cairo University in Egypt. The speech was eloquent and powerfully given. The theme was a “new beginning” in the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world, and was well-received by its intended audience—building important bridges.

In it, the President spoke of the need to “speak the truth” and avoid a “self-defeating focus on the past.” Well, on that score I wish that the President had taken his own words more to heart.

The next morning, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote that the President’s speech combined “idealism” and “cunning,” and included “historical distortions, eloquent appeals and strained moral equivalences.”

Some of the President’s rhetoric was simply flattery, as when the president said that “Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation.”

Well, I know from my own experience that complimenting a person you’re trying to win over is part of diplomacy. Acknowledging a society’s achievements is a way of saying “we respect you.” Similarly, while the President made the Treaty of Tripoli sound much more important than it really was, this was part of an effort to put his audience at ease.

But more troubling is what the President had to say about Islam and religious tolerance. The President spoke of how Islam had demonstrated “through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance . . .”

Well, it’s true that some Islamic societies have embodied the tolerance the President spoke of. The 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar was so renowned for his commitment to tolerance and equality that he received a letter from Queen Elizabeth I of England telling him that reports of his “humanity” had reached her.

But folks, that was 400 years ago. Since then, you would be hard-pressed to find another instance of this kind of genuine religious tolerance in the Islamic world.

Take the President’s Egyptian hosts—persecution of Egypt’s Christians, the Copts, ranges from systematic harassment to murder.

An example of the former was Egypt’s response to the “swine flu” scare: It ordered the slaughter of its pigs—the only country to do so. Since Muslims don’t eat pork, the effect was to further impoverish the Coptic minority. As one Muslim Moroccan writer put it, “The Copts are victims of the flu without ever having been contaminated.”

Why? Many Arab intellectuals—Muslims and Christians—believe it was to appease the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposes raising pigs on “Islamic soil.” Then again, they’re not crazy about raising Christians there, either. Copts are murdered and seminaries are burned. The Egyptian government’s response has been less than vigorous.

Now to be fair, if you are a Christian, there are much worse places to live in the Islamic world than Egypt. But what does that say about Islam and religious freedom today?

“Speaking the truth” means acknowledging this reality. Avoiding what’s called a “self-defeating focus on the past” requires acknowledging that Akbar has been dead 400 years—and that it’s time for the Islamic world to demonstrate today “tolerance” in deeds, not just words.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Joe DeVet

    A very troubling speech, to be sure. Like all his speeches, it heaps edifices of glorious rhetoric on a crumbling foundation of distortions, twisting of history, and outright untruths. The beautiful edifices must eventually collapse in a structure of this sort.

    A foundationally evil man; the truth is not in him.

  • “Of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” — C. S. Lewis

  • John

    I’m waiting for Obama’s speech to the Catholic world…

    Oh, yeah, he gave that last month at Notre Dame. He said his views were “irreconcilable” with those of the Catholic world.