Monday, August 22, 2011

Tolerance is not that hard: resolving the Muslim-Western divide

“Sharia: a law unto itself?” by Jonathan Wynne-Jones ( looks at the conflict that is causing so much anguish in the U.K., the West and around the world. It brings up a question most politicians, at least in the West, want to avoid: are these two worlds irreconcilable?

The article is about how Sharia Law has been allowed by the U.K. legal system for use in marriages and divorces and other “community” or “family” disputes, and how some in the U.K. are concerned that it is creating a parallel legal system that denies women’s rights and other human rights.

The article mentions posters that proclaimed some London neighbourhoods as “Sharia-controlled zones,” where gambling, alcohol and music were banned, and how some Britons complain that in their areas, they can no longer buy non-halal meat, and where swimwear ads are spray-painted.

While the article is even-handed, the response in the online comments is very negative and polarized. Many mention the origins of Sharia law and its links, or lack of them, to the Quran. They bring up the historical fairness and justice of Western/Christian societies, Muslim civilizations, mutual massacres in history and so on. It’s discouraging to read the knee-jerk vituperation on both sides of this argument.

I would like to move the discussion forward, starting with three assumptions:

1: there are profound differences between the Muslim and Western value systems, but there are profound commonalities, as well.

2: I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that peaceful accord is what most of us want.

3: we can’t change the past. If you look, you can find all sorts of evil in history perpetrated in the name of just about every religion. We can, however, choose what to do now and what kind of future we will strive for.

As far as I understand it, the British, and most Western, value systems and legal systems prize equality of all, coupled with accommodation for multicultural traditions and values. This occasionally conflicts with the values seen in the Muslim societies, especially those governed by explicit Sharia law. As Wynne-Jones points out, these conflicts are apparent in divorce and inheritance laws, among others.

Still, migrants from other countries to the U.K. came because, presumably, they thought they would be better off in the U.K. (in this case) than in their home countries. And part of what makes the U.K. more attractive, I would argue, is the social value and legal system, which includes equality of all before the law (and in commercial dealings, employment, etc.) Some of the values that make the West so attractive to so many include equality, tolerance of differences and freedom of expression.

Immigrants will change the society they come to. That’s neither good nor bad (personally, I like all the new restaurants), it’s a fact. An immigrant citizen is as much as citizen as someone born in the country, be it the U.K., Switzerland, Canada or the U.S.

Which means that, while I do not like the face veil, I won’t object if a woman wants to wear one. I have the right to say that it’s harmful to women’s rights, that it’s useless and that it opens a person to some pretty vicious criticism. But if you want to do it, fine. (But not for I.D. , in court or to vote.)

And if you only eat one kind of meat, that’s your choice. And if you do not want to drink alcohol, by all means. But at the same time, no one should be preventing me from walking around without a face mask, or buying pork or alcohol or both together. (Yum!)

This is where, I think, many people in the West feel threatened by the influx of Muslim immigrants and their invoking of tolerance and anti-discrimination laws: they’re afraid of losing some of their choices. But the solution is not name-calling, dredging up ancient conflicts that really don't involve anyone today or repeating extremist ideas. Nor is it insisting that others adhere to our own ways of doing things. As I said, if you don't want to drink alcohol, that's your choice. But you should not stand in front of someone else choosing to do so, as long as he or she is not hurting or endangering anyone. We need to tear down borders, not put up higher ones.

I know, it sounds so trite. But it's really simple. We can get along.

So I am asking all who read those, and those who don’t as well (pass this on!) to move on from the knee-jerk reaction and reminders of past massacres. To both sides: tolerance is not that hard. Now, how can we bring equal rights to all? Do Muslims want equal rights for women? Let me know.


  1. Theoretically, you're right--tolerance isn't (or shouldn't be) that hard, but realistically, it apparently is very difficult (if not impossible) for any extended period of time for any group of people (let alone different nationalities). Very thought-provoking article and I'll be back for future visits!

  2. Anonymous11:54 AM

    Scott- I agree with your article. So much of what is problematic in society in general is the direct result of the knee jerk, "my way or the highway" attitude. So often, there is an expectation of tolerance without a willingness to be tolerant of others. Excellent article!
    Lauren Gilbert

  3. Anonymous7:21 PM

    I really liked the article, and the very cool blog