February 09, 2006

Should a tolerant society tolerate intolerance?

Warning: prepare for a long and rambling post…. I doubt the below makes sense.

I`ve been meaning to write this post for some time but can`t seem to find a way to properly write down what I want to say. Mostly because I just don`t know what I want to say.

This cartoon/integration/Muslim vs. Europe-and-the-rest/freedom of speech/freedom of religion-thing is really getting to me. The more I read about it and the more I think about it, I am realizing that this is one of the biggest issues facing our society at this moment. In the Netherlands, but also in the rest of the world.

Should a tolerant society tolerate intolerance? That question is a big part of it, isn`t it?
To what extent do you have to make allowances for religion? When does it go too far and does it interfere with society? Is this unavoidable? Is this the irony of globalization: that globalization is making the world such an open place that it, instead of the rest of the world being Westernized (with all its faults), has shifted to the West being Islamized?

I was reading a long piece in a Dutch opinion mag on the bus to work today where they listed all the ways in which Islam was ‘invading’ the Netherlands and society. Surprisingly, or maybe not-so-surprisingly, it went on for pages and pages. One of the points made was also that there is less and less opportunity for Dutch and immigrants (for lack of better words I’ll use these two ‘categories’) to come in contact with each other. There are halal butchers, Islamic hospitals, Islamic schools etc etc etc. One can really stay in his own world. And of course this doesn’t only go for muslim immigrants, but for ‘native Dutch’ as well. I mean, when do I ever do my grocery shopping at one of the tiny Moroccan shops?

The things that struck me in the article were for instance that some Dutch schools now have gym classes seperately for boys and girls again; that female muslim students in medical school refuse to practice with a male fellow-student; that muslim men are refusing to shake hands with women; etc etc.
These are the kind of things that shift the character of a society. And I am really struggling with the question to what extent this shift should be allowed to happen. I truly believe that the Netherlands is an open enough society for all religions to have their place but obviously it is impossible, unworkable to fulfill all the needs in society of all these religions.

Back to the cartoons. I really do believe that freedom of speech is ultimate in this case. Yes, respect is needed but you cannot force respect out of people by establishing codes of conduct for the media or for the general public. The BBC reported today that President Chirac had said that “any subject matter that could hurt other people's convictions should be avoided.” Well, mabye. But ‘hurting someone’s feelings’: that is an incredibly broad concept. And it would mean that you can’t publish anything which is even the tiniest bit controversial anymore because it will always hurt someone.Not to mention that regulating the media to prescribe what they are allowed or not allowed to say comes much much too close to a police state/dictatorship/Big Brother scenario. (I already think the Netherlands is moving there closer as it is.)

The EU cannot give in to the sense of fear that seems so pervasive at the moment. If you do not fight for the extremes, what else is worth fighting for? (I’m quoting this from somewhere, but can’t find the source...). The EU should have backed Denmark much stronger than it has.

Freedom of speech is, to me, the fundamental aspect of Europe and the Netherlands, of democracy. Yes, people will get hurt. But there are ways to defend yourself against this too. As there are ways to protest the publication of the cartoons! This should definitely not be violence though. Especially not if one of the images that the protesters want to avoid is the image of Islam being a religion of violence. Burning embassies and rioting and doing all the things which are going on in the Middle East at the moment is almost equal to proving the point the cartoonist was trying to make! (Speaking of the outburst of violence, the BBC just reported that the US has accused Iran and Syria of inciting the violence)

On the other hand, aren’t we merely trying to make our morality (of freedom of speech, seperation of church and state, democracy, gender equality etc) win? And isn’t that what ‘the others’ (whether this be other religions, or people with other political ideas, or even other groups) are trying to do as well? We all think we are right and the others are wrong. No matter how much you would debate and argue there is not a chance of changing your opponent’s mind. An unwinnable battle?

When I put it like that, how will it ever be possible to – even if not agreeing on everything – but at least live together peacefully? To respect each other’s ideology and religion but to be able to have basic values in common in order to have a common society?

I might fix this post in the morning. For now, I needed to get it written out.

The question in the title stuck in my head after reading it in a post at Classical Values...


bonny said...

Well, about westernized.
I talked about it with my foreign friends several times.
One Australian boy put it interestingly: "Hmmm, the world is not westernized, it's USlized." To some degree, it's true,Europe and other western countries don't still hold some of their beliefs, routines and morals any more!
In a modest way, we can say--we are globalized.
As to orientalize, check out Edward Said's Orientalism if you want.http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/039474067X/sr=8-1/qid=1139478736/ref=pd_bbs_1/102-6739641-8420925?%5Fencoding=UTF8

Globalism is a paradox.

bonny said...

Just now happened to read a news about cartoon and Muslims, http://www.expatica.com/source/site_article.asp?subchannel_id=1&story_id=27477&name=Call+for+cartoon+protest+in+Amsterdam

machiruda said...

'Orientalism' has been on my shelf for a long time now, and really should read it. Damn internet, it't unbelievably interfering with time for books and movies! ;)

And about globalization, I don't think it should be one-way traffic: the US influencing all other cultures out there. But also that Asia, Africa and so on have an influence on life in Europe and the US. And in a sense that is happening through increasing popularity of world music (in my experience at least), the availability of all sorts of exotic food, different styles of fashion and so on. And I love that about this world! And in large part it is what I miss when I am in Japan: the variety of people, of events, of culture out there.

The difficult part of it all is how to retain a personal identity. And to what extent this identity should be forcefully maintained, even when it starts clashing with developments elsewhere in society.

Thanks for the expatica-story. Silent demonstrations, that's what should be done to show disapproval about the cartoons. To be fair, the news is starting to show that not all muslims in the Middle East agree with the violent reactions to it, so it seems that the reporting is starting to become somewhat milder.
It is so difficult to judge how objective the news really is. It's easy to show lots of footage of burning buildings but is that really the majority of events? I came across this post the other day where Michelle Malkin, an American blogger (I think she's quite well-known, maybe an American reader can confirm?), describes her appearance on FOX TV.

Okay, I'll stop now. :)

Cookie time said...

I just put something similar on my blog on the weekend, not as long and well put but my general fear of what this will mean in the long run. I think we need to keep talking about these issues! Thanks for your perspective!

Jules said...

Everyone likes to talk about the "right" to freedom of speech, but no one wants to talk about the responsibilities associated with it.

Every day, editors make decisions about what is and isn't published, based on what they consider to be society's standard of decency. Editors might decide to omit expletives used in quotes, or to not print photographs/images that readers would find offensive/disturbing (eg, the Abu Ghraib prison photos; photos from war zones; photos from 9/11).

The cartoon was intentionally offensive to Muslims.

Given the reaction (ie, rioting) last year when Newsweek printed a story about the Koran being flushed in a toilet at Guantanamo Bay as a means of torturing Muslim prisoners, its no great surprise that this is the reaction to cartoon being published and republished.

Domichan said...

A bit late, but anywayz, my thoughts. Were respect is demanded, it should also be given, must it not? I am deeply offended, as a non-religious person, by quite a few things in Islam and religion in general. Islam's view on women and non-believers is not particularly friendly. But does this give me the right to burn down mosques and churches and threaten any believer with death and dismemberment? Muslims aren't demanding respect, they are demanding submission to their religion. I fear for the future when people start accomodating this aggresive stance.

machiruda said...

A bit late, but cookie, Jules and Domi, thanks for commenting! It's interesting to read the many opinions on it as in one way or another we'll need to find a way of dealing with it...