In the May 30th issue of the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg’s “Comment” piece on the Newsweek incident contains the following phrase that caught my eye: We have to be respectful of Muslim sensibilities and Muslim beliefs…
Which brings me to a single, simple question: why? Is it because Islam is a religion? Are all religious beliefs worthy of respect, no matter what they are?
I seem to recall that the Aztecs had a religion that required them to rip the living hearts out of human sacrifices. The Aztecs would undoubtedly have called the belief system that required them to do this a religion, and they would have been correct. The ancient Greeks murdered little girls for similar reasons, as I recall (Iphegenia comes to mind). The Hindus had the quaint custom of requiring widows to be burned alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres. Which brings us to my next point.
Here’s a favorite story of mine (I hope it’s not apocryphal, but it doesn’t really matter if it is):
When General George Napier was governor of Sind province in India in the 1840s, he vigorously enforced the ban on suttee, the practice of throwing a Hindu widow on to the funeral pyre of her husband. A delegation of Brahmins came to him to explain that he must not prohibit the practice at the funeral of a particular maharaja, as it was an important cultural custom.
“If it is your custom to burn a widow alive, please go on,” Napier responded.
“We have a custom in our country that whoever burns a person alive shall be hanged. While you prepare the funeral pyre, my carpenters will be making the gallows to hang all of you. Let us all act according to our customs” The Brahmins thought better of it, and the widow lived.
I actually have nothing against a custom that says that a Koran, or any holy book, shouldn’t be desecrated (leaving aside the question of whether this actually happened at Guantanamo). But I have no problem whatsoever with saying not all customs of a religion, or a culture, need be respected just because they are under the protective penumbra of the words “religion” or “culture.”
I’ll respect those aspects of any religion or culture that are worthy of respect. Those that are not, I do not. How do I make those decisions? I use my sense of what is admirable in human beings–based on, of course, my own culture and my own beliefs, but taking into account certain universal principles of morality: respect for human life, for example, and the right to basic autonomy (both of these principles rule out suttee). One could restate these two principles as the right to “life and liberty.” Sound familiar?
I also have a simple rule about tolerance: it’s fine, but it does not extend to tolerating intolerance. On that score, Islam almost constantly falls short, so Islam’s intolerance is not to be tolerated.