Tolerance is a flower that is slow to bloom

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Fill in the blank:

“The majority of Muslims _________________________”

are peaceful

are rational

are fond of Americans

want more freedom

Americans have been told over and over that the majority of Muslims are all of these things. And most Americans want to believe this to be true, if only to convince ourselves that the act of flying planes into buildings was an aberration of Islam, rather than the normality of it.

But watch the news this week and all you see are Muslim mobs, heaving with hatred, burning American flags and storming our embassies. Cable news network’s provide us with 24/7 coverage complete with expert analysts – most of whom labor to explain that the protesters represent a small percentage of the overall population, and that fringe elements were exploiting a situation (the posting of an inflammatory video about Islam) as an excuse for perpetrating violence against the west.
Although I believe there was an element of truth to the analysis – the most important lesson to learn from this week’s violence is this:

In Islamic nations, when it comes to blasphemy, almost all Muslims are in agreement. In other words, no one is free to speak out against the teachings of Mohammed. And if they do, violent retribution is deemed (in the hearts of many Muslims) an appropriate reaction that is in accordance with their teachings and belief system.

The idea of “I hate what he said, but I will defend his right to say it” is uniquely western. I think American’s forget, or get lost in the rhetoric about God given rights and American exceptionalism, that our ideas about freedom cannot be applied uniformly to all cultures. This is especially true of nations where Islam is the rule of law.

I am not saying that America should stop promoting western values like freedom and democracy, or not strongly condemn the violence that occurred this week.

I am saying that one of these values, the freedom of speech, have limitations (right or wrong), in countries ruled by Islamic law.

In America we have a saying that freedom of speech “does not give one the right to yell FIRE” in a crowded theater. I would argue that our world, made smaller by technology, has become a crowded theater – and that “FIRE!” is not the only word or phrase that can result in calamity.

So, how to coexist in this rapidly shrinking world of ours? Well first, all nations need to embrace tolerance and promote education about each other’s culture. Although this sounds simple and logical, tolerance is a flower that is slow to bloom

We sometimes hear from our own citizens that America is intolerant, but I think most of us recognize that America cultivates tolerance – providing a fertile environment where tolerance can take hold, grow, and spread. But here’s the hard reality; such an environment does not exist in nations ruled by Islamic law. Because this is the case, we should not expect tolerance to take hold, grow, and spread at the same rate in Egypt as it does in America. That would be like expecting corn to grow at the same rate in Antarctica as it does in Iowa. That said, we should resign ourselves to the fact that in Islamic nations, it could take generations before we see any significant changes.

President Obama was right when he said he did not know if Egypt and Libya were allies of America. Both these countries have governments newly born out of the Arab spring. Our alliances with these new governments will be formed (or not formed) based in part on how they respond to situations like this week’s outbreak of violence – only then will we know if they are truly allies of America.

The United States government should do everything in its power to persuade these governments to change. This includes putting conditions on the aid we send them. It is fair and appropriate to ask in exchange for our aide, that these governments commit to cultivating an environment in which tolerance can  prosper. Without such commitments, the violence will never end.

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