Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Should We Tolerate Intolerance?

For the sake of our allies and our more sensitive citizens the White House has chosen to describe the current geopolitical environment as a war on terror.

But it is not a war in a conventional sense. It is more of a test of our culture.

The liberal tradition of tolerance, equality and freedom has prospered and expanded around the world for hundreds of years. It has been challenged by fascism and socialism and has emerged as a near universal aspiration.

Today, that liberal tradition is again being tested by a repressive opposite political force. A radical movement within the Islamic world has hijacked a proud culture and distorted its legacy. Rather than a tradition of peace and tolerance, radical Islam is fomenting a new tradition of violence and intolerance.

What is a tolerant society’s response to extreme intolerance? What does the liberal tradition teach us about understanding reactionary traditions? In short, we’ve talked about tolerance and freedom, now events are forcing to act on our beliefs.

This is one of those situations in which inaction is itself an action. Either you believe in absolute tolerance and ignore the most heinous violations of human dignity on the planet, or you believe in judgmental liberalism which recognizes that tolerance, freedom and openness are superior organizing principles and that flourishing intolerance is a threat to those principles.

In the United States, we have enjoyed so much freedom, and so much peace that it is difficult to take responsibility for making the more critical judgment. I think Sheryl Crow said it best last night when she blurted out during a music awards ceremony on television:

"I think war is based in greed and there are huge karmic retributions that will follow. I think war is never the answer to solving any problems. The best way to solve problems is to not have enemies."

These are the words of a person who has never faced a fundamental challenge. I’m sure she struggled before getting her recording contract but has she ever experienced a life without the benefits of our liberal tradition?

I don’t think so. If she had she might express herself a bit more like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the daughter of a Somali dissident who sought refuge in The Netherlands on her way to her arranged marriage in Canada. Today she is a Liberal Party candidate for the Dutch Parliament and very likely to win a seat. She is also being kept under armed guard because Dutch Islamofascists have threatened her with assassination.

The radicals want her dead because she has embraced the liberal tradition that has given her life hope and meaning. She says she came to understand liberalism in a Dutch school:

"I learned that people in the West value the autonomous individual. They understand the importance of science, knowledge. They are capable of criticising themselves and there is an ability to record history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. It is exactly the opposite in Somalia where all the institutions of record are missing, and my grandmother's memories of the clan wars will die with her."

Hirsi Ali is about ten years younger than Sheryl Crow yet she has the wisdom that comes from enduring life not just going along with it.

I doubt that Hirsi Ali would say something as meaningless as “war is not the answer.” Indeed, in some awful circumstances, war is the only answer. In many instances, there are no “karmic retributions” for victory only the opportunity to live your life in peace. In most cases, you do not get to choose your enemies and often the reason they will not accept you as a friend is because you are a woman, or a non-believer, or simply born in a different village.

Our liberal tradition is faced with extreme intolerance and our response will demonstrate what we have learned about the true meaning of liberalism.

Will we demonstrate the superficial understanding and withhold judgment . . . or will we recognize that all humans, not just white European ones, deserve hope, dignity and the freedom to fulfill their potential?

The difference is as stark as the choices voters face in the Dutch elections next month versus the ones decided by the American Music Awards last night.

No comments: