Tom Gilson

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.

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

  1. No.

    If y9u find one who says he thinks it’s more respectful for Westerners to explain what Islam is all about, without bothering to show us they have any clue what Islam is about, then I’ll say it’s high time someone explained that to us.

    If you find one who thinks it’s more respectful for us to explain Muslims’ actions in modern Western liberal terms than on Islam’s own terms, then that should have been explained to us sooner, too.

  2. Or suppose you find one who objects to standing up and explaining simply and clearly, “Here’s why you’re wrong,” after some leader floats the possibility that the San Bernardino or Paris events might have been Islamist events. I’ll want to ask why they think it’s a bad idea to raise a question they can answer that easily.

    It’s not as if no one thinks that’s a possibility, after all!

  3. The Sine Qua Non of Tolerance:


    It is okay to disagree.

    Disagreement, even strong disagreement, is not, indeed cannot be, what constitutes the essence of “in”-tolerance. In fact, to approach one another and reality with such a premise is to end up, finally, in an array of reductio ad absurdums of our own making which transport us inescapably into the pains of a deflationary view of worth when it comes to one another and into the pains of a deflationary view of truth when it comes to all truth predicates whatsoever.

    The presuppositional composition embedded in Tolerance amid all the affairs of the question, Are There Objective Truths About God? carry us, necessarily, into objective truth as the bedrock buttressing the essence which constitutes tolerance.

    An excerpt:

    “If this weren’t bad enough, it seems to me that Radical Pluralism is also self-refuting. We need only ask ourselves, “Is Radical Pluralism objectively true?” It claims that “There is no objective truth about the word;” but that statement purports itself to be an objective truth about the world. It says that “Each individual constitutes reality,” so that there is no objective reality; but that is itself a statement about objective reality. It states that the proposition “Truth is pluralistic” is objectively true, which is self-refuting.

    The Radical Pluralist cannot escape this incoherence by saying that it is only from his perspective that there is no objective truth about the world. For if that is true only from his perspective, that does not preclude that there is objective truth about the world, in which case his perspective is objectively false. If he replies that it is only from someone else’s perspective that there is objective truth about the world, then it follows that all truth is perspectival, or that Radical Pluralism is objectively true, which is incoherent.

    Why is it, then, that in our day and age so many people seem attracted to pluralistic and relativistic views of truth, despite the fact that they are both preposterous and self-refuting? I believe the attraction is due to a misunderstanding of the concept of tolerance. In our democratic society, we have a deep commitment to the value of tolerance of different views. Many people have the impression that tolerance requires radical pluralism with regard to truth. They seem to think that the claim that objective truth exists is incompatible with tolerance of other views because those views must be regarded as false. So in order to maintain tolerance of all views, one must not regard any of them as false. They must *all* be true. But since they are mutually contradictory, they cannot all be *objectively* true. Hence, truth must be relative and pluralistic.

    But it seems to me pretty obvious that such a view is based on an incorrect understanding of tolerance. The very concept of tolerance *entails* that you disagree with that which you tolerate. Otherwise, you wouldn’t tolerate it; you would agree with it! Thus, one can only tolerate a view if one regards that view as false. You can’t tolerate a view which you believe to be true. Thus, the very concept of toleration presupposes that one believes the tolerated view to be false. So objective truth is not incompatible with tolerance; on the contrary the objectivity of truth is presupposed by tolerance.

    The correct basis of tolerance is not [and indeed cannot be] pluralism, but the inherent worth of every human being created in the image of God and therefore endowed with certain God-given rights, including freedom of thought and expression. That’s *why* Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The basis of tolerance is not relativism, but love.” (W.L. Craig, emphasis added)

    It is the case that [A] tolerance itself presupposes objective truth and [B] loving one’s enemy – the sine qua non of tolerance – obtains in and by the transposition of Logos – in and by love’s eternal sacrifice of self – in and by “…… the God who is glorified by sacrificing Himself for creation and not by sacrificing creation for Himself…..” (Fischer) instantiating within time and physicality in and by the many corridors of correspondence seamlessly converging in the singularity that is Christ.

  4. Tom’s approach is interesting.

    It employs a proper definition of both tolerance and of respect and is not constructed in a consequentialist frame. That is to say that *regardless* of any particular view and any particular conclusion which may emerge the format necessitates expunging from all dialogue [1] moves which force us into a deflationary view of worth when it comes to one another, and expunging from all dialogue [2] moves which force us into a deflationary view of truth when it comes to our conceivable truth predicates – whatever they may, in the end, be.

    Disagreement isn’t driving the move into dialogue.

    Agreement isn’t driving the move into dialogue.

    Rather, as the earlier comment touched on, the driving force is [A] the inherent worth of each individual and the natural extension of that which manifests in [B] that which is the sine qua non of tolerance vis-à-vis love, respect, and self-sacrifice.

    Respect me enough to suffer over a distance both for me and mine and also with me and mine before any conclusion is made. Respect me enough to know me and mine before any conclusion is made.

    And so too me towards you in offering you, not this or that version of me and mine, but, simply, me and mine.

    Christ patterns it for us: love those who on whatever level reject or harm you – dive into their world – suffer both with and for them – know them. That is God’s warfare. High on a Hill. All Sufficiency Himself pouring Himself out for the beloved, pouring Himself into the beloved. Ultimately the many pains of Man’s privation and the many pains of Man’s insufficiency are, therein, annihilated. By Him. For us. Full stop.

    Where Islam lands theologically as it seeks the Kingdom of God is a conclusion which is *irrelevant*. “What’s that you say?” Well, see, the horse must come before the cart. Therefore, the method of exchange, of defining, and of dialogue is indispensably relevant.

    By that we mean that if it is the case that Islam:

    [A] Diverges away from Christian metaphysics and collapses the natural and material order into the immaterial and supernatural order such that the Kingdom of God eschatologically instantiates in and by natural/physical conflicts and in and by natural/physical means as the Adamic thereby fully actualizes inside of a world such as ours – and thereby such metrics truly do define the state of affairs

    or instead,

    [B] Converges towards or into Christian metaphysis such that the Kingdom of God eschatologically instantiates in and by weapons *not* made with human hands as the Adamic thereby fully actualizes in a world quite different than a world such as ours – and thereby subsumes a very different set of metrics

    ……….. is simply irrelevant to the point at hand – which is to allow such theological contours amid such metaphysical truth predicates to fully and completely emerge, arise, and appear in the clarity of the light of day. It is the case that genuine tolerance, love, respect, and self-sacrifice by their very natures in fact demand said clarity and also permit said clarity and also defend said clarity. It is not “A” or “B” which matters here, but, rather, it is the move to establish the fact that whether it be “A” or whether it be “B” that all players on the stage would do the hard and tedious intellectual and theological work of expunging from all dialogue [1] moves which force us into a deflationary view of worth when it comes to one another and expunging from all dialogue [2] moves which force us into a deflationary view of truth when it comes to our conceivable truth predicates – whatever they may, in the end, be.

    Yes, clearly “A” and “B” need to come into the light of day as such relates to the hard and tedious intellectual and theological work which all must embrace, and declare, in their own analyses and commitments. Hence how and of what we construct the frame wherein all of that is to manifest is highly relevant. It is unfortunate that many Non-Muslims do not with clarity ask for A or B, and, it is equally unfortunate that the Muslim Community does not with clarity offer A or B.

    Given the metaphysical contours of immutable love amid necessity inside of “[B]”, there are many conduits whereby reason as truth-finder encounters the pains of an array of reductio ad absurdums within the corridors of “[A]” as such ultimately conflates natural and supernatural and as such incoherently collapses one into the other, and so on, but all of that comprises a very different tangent or discussion then the current theme.

  5. Tom,

    Would you mind clarifying this statement:
    “If I were a Muslim, I would see men, women and children day by day sacrificing their very lives for our shared faith …”

    Who are those men, women and children that you are referring to?

  6. No, I don’t.

    I’m guessing either muslim terroists or the muslim victims of terroism. Or is there a third option I am overlooking?

  7. Well I’ll address both interpretations then.

    The Muslim friends and family members I know don’t consider the terrorists to be sacrificing their lives for a shared faith. They look at them as evildoers who are betraying their faith.

    As for the latter interpretation, they see other Muslims taking the brunt of the violence at the hands of thugs and madmen. They don’t think it the result of Islam being a violent religion. They recognize that there are many factors – political, economic, historical – that are contributing to this horrible situation and not the nature of Islam itself.

    Of course the Muslims I know are Americans or on the way to becoming Americans. They tend to share the outlook of other Americans. They don’t see their religion as antithetical or incompatible with Western values.

  8. It’s fine for you to look at it that way. Look more carefully at my argument and conclusions, and you’ll find that what you wrote is perfectly compatible with what I wrote.

    If our leaders agree with you about the nature of Islam with respect to violence, they ought to be willing to address the question publicly and explain their reasons. I’m not complaining here about their conclusions. I’m complaining about their total avoidance of the process.

    Please re-read the article. It isn’t what you seem to think it is. It isn’t an argument claiming Islam is violent. It isn’t an article claiming that Muslims are victims of “many factors.” It isn’t an article denying either of these things, either. It’s an article encouraging us to face those questions publicly, responsibly, and openly, with evidence for whatever conclusions we might draw.

  9. Well, there are over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. The vast majority living peaceably in a wide variety of different cultural and political situations. What are the number of terrorists claiming to be Muslims?

    Why would one even suspect that Islam is an inherently violent religion given that empirical evidence?

  10. Tom, I think you’re being a bit overly critical of Hal here. Everyone already knows that the peaceful Americanized version of Islam is not prone to anti-American terrorism. But the fact is all mid-eastern Islamic states/countries consider themselves truly Islam and violently reject Americanized Islam as in keeping with the will of Alah. If the only peace that so called “true Islam” offers is in the annihilation of all that does not submit to the will of Alah, then how on a world wide scale can western culture not at least try to be tolerant? And if that tolerance is insulting to western Islam then why don’t “THEY” exercise their constitutionally protected freedom and right to object? You’re right to bring this difficult situation to light, but it’s not America that’s forcing Islam to choose sides.

  11. Here is an interesting observation by a former Muslim:

    Even though at one time the religion associated with Jesus had become violent and intolerant, there is nothing violent and intolerant in his teachings. The Crusades were the response of Christendom to jihad, and the Inquisition was the copycat of mihnah, a practice started by Caliph Ma’mun, which means “inquisition.” They have no basis in the teaching of Christ.

    In other words, to reform violent Christianity what you have to do is go back to the original teachings of Jesus. But if you go back to the original teachings of Mohammed in the Koran you have violence being taught, justified and exemplified from it’s very founding by its founder. Can Islam ever be truly reformed?

  12. They look at them as evildoers who are betraying their faith.

    Well, there are over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. The vast majority living peaceably in a wide variety of different cultural and political situations.


    I hopes of both answering you and staying on topic I think that though your Muslim friends may well believe what you say they believe and that the vast majority may well live in peace there is something else to be said about this. If you compare the reactions of the Muslim community and religious leaders to say the reactions of The Christian community and Christian leaders to acts of extremism (say anti abortion violence) there is a big difference.

    In the Christian community acts of violence are condemned by everyone from the Pope to the street corner preacher. They are rejected as antithetical to the faith and that rejection is tied directly to the tenets of the faith and teaching in Scripture. On the other hand, Islamic violence is actually encouraged by the religious leaders of Islam. Mosques are hotbeds of Islamic extremism and rarely do Islamic organizations or Muslims issue condemnations. Shouldn’t we listen to what they say and their reactions and take seriously what we are hearing and not hearing.

  13. And if the only peace that Islam offers is in the annihilation of all that does not submit to the will of Allah, then how can tolerance of their freedom to practice such a faith possibly be considered disrespectful?

  14. There is also the empirical evidence (to remind Hal of his own terms) of the manner in which Islam was founded and spread over the course of its first several centuries.

    In other words, it isn’t out of order to raise questions about Islam’s relation to violence.

  15. Let me clarify the question I asked above @ #15: ”Can Islam ever be truly reformed?” Of course, I was thinking in terms of a modern Westerner. ISIS, the Taliban and the Ayatollahs of Iran no doubt think of themselves as reformers from an historic Islamic perspective.

  16. Indeed JAD, ISIS and such consider themselves to be traditionalists and western Islam to be an abomination. This definitely puts Americanized Islam in a very precarious position, but western culture does not force Islam to choose sides. The problem is in western culture/politics trying to redefine traditional Islam as radical.

  17. I’m having trouble understanding what you’re trying to say anyway. In 21, for instance, you say that ISIS and such consider themselves to be traditional, and you also say that there’s a problem in Western culture trying to define traditional Islam as radical.

    Clearly if ISIS defines itself as traditional, in that respect it’s not Western culture defining traditional Islam as radical. ISIS is defining traditional Islam as radical.

    Assuming that what you were trying to say made sense in your mind, it’s going to take another try before you communicate it successfully to me. I didn’t get it this time.

  18. Wow Tom, thanks for the shout out! Yea, this is Anthony 🙂

    Actually, I’m just trying to stay on point with your original post. It’s American Muslims that need more consideration and understanding…….. unless “I” misunderstood.

  19. Agreed on American Muslims. We need to understand better. Consideration flows from understanding; understanding flows from a willingness to practice consideration, especially listening. That’s rather orthogonal (unrelated) to my OP, but it’s true. No dispute there.

    Deception, however, is no release from banning on this blog. Goodbye again, for the reasons previously stated.

  20. JAD,

    In your #15 you stated:

    and the Inquisition was the copycat of mihnah, a practice started by Caliph Ma’mun, which means “inquisition.”

    Given that the Christian inquisition was centered in Spain and Spain was once occupied by Islamic forces, has anyone been able to draw a correlation between mihnah as and where it was practiced and the influence it may have had on the Christian (Spanish) inquisition?

  21. The Protestant Reformation adopted the Latin expression Ad fontes, which means “back to the sources” or literally “to the fountains,” as one of its unofficial motto’s.

    In other words, according to the reformers (like Luther and Calvin) to reform the Christian church you have to go back to the original writings of Jesus and Paul—the writings of the New Testament. And what do we find when we do this? A message of “peace on earth, good will towards men,” a message of grace, hope and forgiveness, a message that all men are equal in the sight of God—equally fallen and sinful but also equally redeemable.

    What do we find when go back to the original teachings of Islam? The comparison is not exactly an inconsequential apples and oranges comparison. In other words, when you try to reform Islam in the same way you reform Christianity you end up with a radically different result. You don’t need to talk to someone of the Muslim faith to come to this conclusion, you just need to know the history and read the original or founding documents.

  22. BillT,

    Given that the Christian inquisition was centered in Spain and Spain was once occupied by Islamic forces, has anyone been able to draw a correlation between mihnah as and where it was practiced and the influence it may have had on the Christian (Spanish) inquisition?

    The statement you alluded to is from a former Muslim, Ali Sina, in an op-ed he did for the Jerusalem Post.

    No doubt there was an influence, for both good and evil. Jews and Christians had lived for centuries in Moorish dominated Spain. While they were tolerated as fellow “people of the book” (Islam does recognize our Bible as part of its heritage) they were treated as second class. In fact, the word caste which we ascribe to Hindu culture is actually a Portuguese word that originated during the Moorish reign of the Iberian Peninsula. However, despite being treated as a lower caste, Christians and Jews had, to a large degree, assimilated culturally into the Moorish society. You would have to just for economic reasons.

    On the good side the Moore’s and Arabs had a treasure trove of ancient Greek works which they had translated into Arabic. After the re-conquest began in the 11th century, Christian scholars from all over Europe traveled to Spain to study and copy works of Greek science and medicine, which they translated from Arabic into Latin. According to the University of Indiana historian of Science, Edward Grant, these translations + the rise of the universities + the patronage of the medieval church are the roots of the modern scientific revolution. Of course, we should also give credit where credit is due to Islamic Arab scholars, who did original work in mathematics, astronomy, optics, medicine and alchemy (chemistry and metallurgy.)

    My point is that it should be no surprise that native Spanish Christians appropriated some bad and evil things along with the positive and good from what had been their only culture. However, this is supposition on my part. But on the other hand, I don’t believe the inquisition originated in Spain. At least that is what this source seems to be saying:

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