When “Tolerance” Is Disrespect: Islam and Unexplored Assurances of a “Religion of Peace”

It must be frustrating to be a Muslim in America.

I’m not talking about the obvious frustrations: being in the minority, being members of a faith tradition that’s associated with terrorism, or even being generally misunderstood.

I’m talking about the frustration of being analyzed and interpreted by people who won’t take the time to understand. More specifically, I’m talking about being the subject of liberals’ “tolerance.”

I’ve been thinking about this since the San Bernardino shootings in December. It’s hard to put San Bernardino out of my mind. My wife lived in San Bernardino while we were singles dating each other. I was living in Pasadena at the time. Waterman Avenue was very familiar ground to me. I’ve never been to Paris, but the attacks there are also on my mind.

Anyway, after the San Bernardino shootings President Obama said, “It could be terrorism, or it could be workplace related violence.” We would not know until much time had gone by and many interviews had been done.

He did not say, and he has seldom if ever said about any incident, that it could be Islamic terrorism. In that reticence he is following a well-established tradition. From the first days following 9/11, when President Bush described Islam as a “religion of peace,” American leaders have been loathe to explore the possibility that the global surge of violence committed by Muslims could be a global surge of Islamic violence, directly connected to Islam’s beliefs.

They’ve meant well. They’ve tried to respect Islam. What’s missing from such respect, however, is the aspect that takes Islam seriously enough to look deeply — and  publicly — into what its beliefs actually are.

Think of it: can you remember a time when any leader has said, “Islam is a religion of peace, and this is how we know it is“? Can you think of any Western leader who has said, “Islam is a religion of peace — in spite of its founder’s warlike ways — because it clearly and deeply teaches such-and-so”? Has any leader actually inspected what Islam is about, and explained to us what they found there?

To respect a religion requires taking it seriously. Taking it seriously means looking into its beliefs.

I’ve done some of that kind of research, and I’ve drawn certain conclusions from it. Those conclusions are no part of my argument today, however. My point here is specifically to criticize the practice of speaking “tolerantly” about Islam without bothering to show that we know (or even care to know) what we’re talking about.

I could take this a step further. If I were a Muslim, I would see men, women and children day by day sacrificing their very lives for our shared faith — or at least ostensibly so — and I would hear Westerners writing it off as the fruit of economic and political conditions, or Western oppression of immigrant communities, or Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, or psychological weakness, or even too many guns in America.

That is, I would see Westerners explaining fellow Muslims’ actions in terms of Westerners’ actions. I would see the West preening itself over its tolerance toward my religion while treating my fellow believers as mere pawns of some external force beyond their control. I believe that to me that would seem entirely too Western-centric, possibly even smug, self-referential, self-centered, self-satisfied, know-it-all Western-centric.

I don’t know how I could see it as respectful toward Islam, when every explanation of Muslims’ activities is given in terms that pay no attention, good or bad, to Islam’s teachings.

Still some call that kind of explanation “tolerance.” It isn’t tolerance, it’s dismissiveness. It isn’t compassion, it’s condescension.

When have Western leaders shown any real willingness to put Islam’s beliefs to the test? Now that would be true respect. If Islam is what it claims to be, it should (and I’m sure it does) welcome that kind of challenge. Instead we treat it tenderly, cautiously; one might even say babying-ly, as if it were fragile: “Don’t touch it! You’ll hurt it!” What could be more disrespectful? What could be more intolerant?

Given its history, both ancient and modern, there’s plenty of reason to wonder about Islam and its peacefulness. Maybe we want to believe it’s a religion of peace, but what we want doesn’t determine what’s real.

We need the freedom to conjecture aloud, “We don’t know. It’s possible this was workplace related violence. It’s possible it was terrorism. It’s even possible it was Islamic terrorism.” If we don’t explore the possibility, how can we know the reality? And if we can’t know the reality, then which “Islam” are we pretending to respect and tolerate? Some invention of our imagination, or our wishful thinking? Is that what

So I’m calling on Western leaders to stand up and make their case based on Islam’s realities. I’m calling on leaders to say (if they can), “Islam is a religion of peace, and this is how we know it is.” Either that or if they can’t do that, then to quit making empty claims to that effect.

Because even though claims can be empty, major world religions never are. They have substance. Islam is no exception: it has its own unique reality. It is what it is, not what some Western leader proclaims it to be.

So let’s explore Islam for what it is: not in terms of Western categories, but Islam’s own realities. What we find as we do that might be deeply discomfiting. We might discover that this idea of its being a “religion of peace” is non-Islamic, Western-centric wishful thinking. We owe it to our Muslim brothers and sisters, however, to take that chance. We owe it to them to find out one way or another by looking into Islam on its own terms.

Our “tolerance” must be frustrating to Muslims, and here in a nutshell is the reason why: It’s a poor substitute for the respect Islam really deserves.