Religious Tolerance and Collective Guilt

Religious Tolerance and Collective Guilt

by Sheila Musaji

The title of an article Religious tolerance should be a two-way street by Saritha Prabhu caught my attention.

The author discusses Islamophobia in the U.S. and her point of view that the U.S. overall does a good job of protecting minorities compared to many other countries.  Fair enough.  She then discusses only Muslim-majority countries as being “a different story”.  She mentions that some might consider her raising this issue to “be bigoted”, but “Actually, I think it is “the soft bigotry of low expectations” to not raise it.”  She then echoes the “some of my best friends are black” excuse of other bigots by saying that she is from India and has Muslim friends that she respects. 

And then she gets to her main point:

I once asked an American Muslim acquaintance if he didn’t consider it hypocritical for Muslim citizens here, many of them immigrants, to ask (understandably) for tolerance while their native populations continued to deny it to their minorities.

He replied that there are authoritarian governments across the Muslim world that oppress even their Muslim citizens, let alone their minorities. Hopefully, he said, there will more democracies post-Arab Spring, and more religious tolerance eventually.

This strange view that American citizens should somehow be considered “hypocrites” for expecting that as American citizens they will be treated with “tolerance” even though in some of the countries from which some of them come such rights are not granted to members of other minority religions is not a new argument, and, no matter how many Muslim friends the author has, it is a bigoted argument.  I have dealt with it before, and will probably have to deal with it again, as it is an argument that keeps rearing its’ ugly head.

In the article American Muslims must defend the Constitution of the United States, I wrote

America is a secular and democratic nation with a clearly marked wall between church and state (thank God!). One of the reasons America has been a beacon to the world is the freedom that all Americans have to practice any (or no) religion. As an American Muslim I don’t believe that America can be defined as anything but a secular democracy (secular meaning neutral towards religion, not devoid of religion or hostile to religion) in which all religions are free to worship.

I don’t want to see Shariah, or Biblical law, or any other religious law replace the Constitution, and I don’t want to see any kind of a theocracy in place based on any religion. I agree with Rabbi Arthur Waskow that “When those who claim their path alone bespeaks God’s Will control the State to enforce their will as God’s, it is God Who suffers.”

There have been some who have suggested that because some Muslim majority countries do not allow the same freedoms to Christians and other minorities, therefore American Muslims should not be allowed the freedom to practice Islam, or that if they are “granted this privilege”, they should be grateful.

I am grateful to the founding fathers and generations of leaders who followed them for establishing and protecting a system that gives this right to all of us and who set up and maintained a wall between church and state so that no majority can ever be in a position to control or decide who does and doesn’t have the right to practice their religion.

I owe no gratitude to those who think that my freedom and rights as an American are something they can give or take away because this is “their country”. My rights (and obligations) are granted to me by my citizenship. This is “our country”, all of us. Unless American Christians are to be held responsible for every country on earth with a Christian majority (for example Rwanda and Bosnia), then it is a little hypocritical to think that American Muslims have any control over what goes on in other countries. Like any other American I may have an opinion about events in other countries and may even work to make that opinion known, or to pressure other countries to change some policies, but I have no control.

I am not responsible for what happens in other countries, and whether or not there are injustices in other countries why should that make it necessary for Americans to commit the same injustices in order to even the score. I am an American citizen and a Muslim - and I have the right under the constitution to practice my religion (as does everyone else of every faith). If some countries do not give the same rights to others, shame on them, but to think that this would justify removing my rights is nonsense.

The Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights (first ten amendments to the Constitution) are the foundation of this country. They represent the ideal of America. America is a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic nation. That’s a fact. Members of many religious groups, races, nationalities, etc. are equally Americans, and none of them are going anywhere. We are all in this together, and as Americans are all protected by the Constitution and Bill of Rights of the United States. That is fortunate, and something we must all work together to protect, as it is obvious that some among us just ‘don’t get it’. It is obvious that our religious communities differ from each other, and that each of us feels called to observe their own faith. It should be possible to do this while recognizing that we do hold many values in common, and that we can build on these in order to work together for the common good. We can be good Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, etc. and also be fellow citizens of this great nation.

...  Truly, the best protection for everyone is to maintain America as a secular democracy under the Constitution. Anything else will lead inevitably to persecution and tyranny.

In the article American Muslims, First Amendment Rights, Reciprocity, and Collective Guilt, I said in response to similar comments:

Recently I published an article about the congressional race in Minnesota, Lynn Torgerson vs Keith Ellison: A Congressional Campaign Based on Religious Hatred discussing Torgerson’s position statement which states (among other things) that “Islam is not a religion recognizable under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution”.
She is not alone in this xenophobic worldview which would limit the Constitutional protections of American citizens to only those professing particular religions:

“Ultimately, it must be a matter of public policy in the West that Muslims will have the same right to practice their religion in western countries as Christians, Jews, and others enjoy in Islamic states. Nothing less will suffice. And if Muslims are unable to accept such reciprocity then we must be prepared to withdraw from them the First Amendment rights that they now demand.” Paul R. Hollrah on the Conservative Voice site.

... All Americans no matter what our religion, or lack of religion, are Americans and under the Constitution equal citizens of our country. Americans of Italian descent are not responsible for the fascists in Italy. Americans of German descent are not responsible for the nazis in Germany. Although both the fascists and nazis came out of predominantly Christian countries, American Christians are not responsible for these criminal regimes. American Serbs are not responsible for the attempted genocide in Bosnia, nor are all American Christians (although these atrocities were carried out by Christians) responsible for the genocide in Rwanda or the genocide in Bosnia. American Christians are not responsible for the actions or statements of extremists and terrorists who happen to be Christian. American Jews are not responsible for the Jewish Defense League or for the actions or statements of extremists and terrorists who happened to be Jewish. Russian Americans are not responsible for the atrocities committed during the communist era. Should Americans whose ancestry was South African have lost their civil rights until the system of apartheid in South Africa was dismantled? Should Americans of Swiss ancestry have lost their right to vote until women in Switzerland were given the vote in the 1970’s?

All Americans are not responsible for American soldiers who cross the line into abuse of civilians. For example, American soldiers behaving badly in Iraq, taunting Iraqi children, killing a shepherds sheep for no reason at all and laughing about it, making comments and behaving in a way that shows their total disregard for the humanity of the local people. Or the U.S. soldier who admits raping a 14-year old Iraqi girl and helping murder her and her family. Or the Abu Ghraib soldiers who pled guilty to abusing prisoners. Or the Blackwater forces who attacked fleeing Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. And, the only people in other countries who are holding all Americans responsible are groups like al Qaeda. Not exactly a role model.

This mentality is called “collective guilt” and it leads to “collective punishment”.

Where does this division into US and THEM lead us? Do we want to create an enemy or build bridges? Will it somehow lead us to a better place than it has ever led in our shared dismal past history? Is it possible for us to learn the lessons of that history and change our patterns of thought and behavior?

What sort of a country would America be if the rights of every minority were dependent on whether or not those rights were reciprocated in other countries. I for one do not think it would be a safe place for anyone to live.