How Much Tolerance is Tolerable? The danger, disservice, and dishonesty of equating tolerance for people of differing faith with tolerance for religious beliefs and ideas

In the past two months alone, an abhorrent wave of terror has taken the lives of hundreds of people and left thousands feeling devastated. Mogadishu, Beirut, Baghdad, Paris, Mali, and San Bernadino, are just some of the places that felt that current wave of terror. The modus operandi of the terrorists in the Paris and Southern California attacks—targeting innocent civilians as they went about their daily lives—is the same that has been employed far more frequently for far longer in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

After the Paris attacks, Western nationalists, attention seekers, and demagogues on the political right reacted with hawkish xenophobia. Equally expected were swift reactions from the political left and liberal thinkers throughout the world who, rightly, established that the Parisian attackers were not representatives of the whole Muslim community. However, many have gone even further, condemning as intolerant or racist anyone who even remotely criticizes Islam or dares to connect these religiously motivated attacks with said religion. Lately, the term “regressive liberals” has been used to describe those who reject any criticism of Islam, presumably for fear of being seen as intolerant and politically incorrect.

The rejection of receptive religious critique and the damnation of anyone attempting it hinder honest and intellectually open debate about issues as important as the relationship our society has towards religions, to what extent society should be shaped by the influence of religious ideas and beliefs, and, yes, what dangers stem from religions.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, many so-called regressive liberals have pointed out that Islam is not to blame—that the attacks should rather be seen as a result of Western interventionism, colonialism, and recent wars fought primarily by the United States in the concerned regions. These issues are undoubtedly part of a complex problem and have a certain responsibility for the extent of radicalization we can now observe in the Middle East. Current politics are obviously a catalyst for at least some of the success that radical groups have in recruiting and garnering support.

That being said, completely removing religion from the equation is dangerously revisionist. The terrorists themselves tell us over and over again that their motivation is grounded in their religion and that their acts of terror are a consequence of their adherence to religious mandates. By negating these statements and conclusively denying the terrorists the capacity to express their own motivation, we not only belittle these dangerous individuals (and underestimating your enemy is always fatal) but also prevent ourselves from understanding the mechanisms behind radicalization and this current peak in terror—knowledge that could be helpful in the future prevention of the very same thing.

I am in no way condoning intolerance towards people on the basis of their individual faith. Rather, I am arguing that we should not equate tolerance for people of any background with an unreflective tolerance for religious ideas and beliefs, which is a disservice to all throughout the world who are experiencing emotional and physical distress and oppression because of religious ideologies.

It is contemptuous towards the victims of terrorist attacks to propose that their deaths were not the result of a radicalized religious ideology. It is a disservice to the women who are restricted in their individual, intellectual, and physical freedoms to deny that the justification of their misogynistic oppression does not originate from religion. It is a betrayal of the victims of homophobia to suggest that the justification of their suffering is not founded in religious mandates. It is despicable to suggest that the persecution of artists, writers, and activists in some Islamic countries does not originate in a doctrine that forbids a critical discussion of religious ideology and commands the death sentence for apostasy. It is reckless to deny the catastrophic results of the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception in the light of millions of deaths from AIDS in Africa. It is an illusion to assume that, at least to a certain extent, the conflict in Gaza is not exacerbated by ultra-orthodox Jews who believe in a righteous claim of ownership through a divine promise. The list could be continued easily but these examples of the disastrous consequences of strict adherence to, and conservative interpretations of, religious ideologies shall suffice here.

In the light of these still prevailing injustices, to deny their original sources, whether out of political correctness or due to misinterpretations of liberal principles, is to do a disservice to our society and makes a mockery of people’s pain and suffering.

As already said, the unreflective and undifferentiated contempt towards Islam, or rather Muslims, is not unexpected when it comes from nationalist movements and right-wing extremists; in a way they only stay true to their own bigoted worldview. However, the unreflective and undifferentiated defence of Islam by (for lack of a better term) the regressive left can only be seen as intellectually dishonest. Their religious sensitivities do not extend, for example, to critiques of Christianity. Surely, support of individual freedoms and condemnation of injustice directed towards women, the LGBT community, and minority groups in general should not become void simply because it includes critique of religious beliefs and ideas held by people who are themselves part of a minority group within Western society that is subject to racism and bigotry. Turning a blind eye towards the inequalities and injustices individual people within that minority have to suffer has nothing to do with political correctness. Rather, it is an unjustified suspension of the liberal principles the Left should stand for.

No one should be discouraged from defending other people’s freedom of religion or from condemning those who hold a specific religious faith. I myself am a firm believer in the freedom of religion and would defend it, and argue for it, on any given day. At the same time, though, let us be honest about the real dangers that at least some religious ideas and beliefs entail, and the actions they can inspire. Let our honest critique of such an undeniably fundamental part of our daily lives not be diminished by the fear to be politically incorrect or to express inconvenient opinions. And, finally, let us not limit our discussions to one specific set of religious ideas. From the havoc the caste system still wreaks on Indian society to the despicable dogma the Catholic Church holds on homosexuality, there is ample ground to scrutinize religious beliefs and to question their validity. As long as these discussions are based on reason and rational thinking there is no danger of being thrown into the same corner as nationalist, racist, xenophobic, or hateful demagogues. Because the real danger, disservice, and dishonesty to ourselves and to society is just that: not to think and not to apply the same principles of rationality indiscriminately.