The Limits of Religious Tolerance


BOB ABERNETHY, host: As the country observes the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there’s been an extraordinary national conversation about the challenges of religious diversity and the boundaries of tolerance. There were protests and condemnations from around the world over a small, independent Florida church’s threatened plan to burn the Quran. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called the plan “disrespectful and disgraceful,” and General David Petraeus, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates both said the act could endanger American troops. The debate came on top of another roiling controversy over plans to build an Islamic cultural center near the site of Ground Zero in New York. At a news conference on Friday, President Obama called for religious tolerance:

post01-limitsoftolerancePresident Barack Obama: “We have to make sure that we don’t start turning on each other, and I will do everything that I can as long as I am president of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation under God, and we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation.”

ABERNETHY: This week dozens of prominent Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders held what they called an emergency summit in Washington, DC to address the tensions. The group released a statement denouncing anti-Muslim bigotry and urging respect for America’s tradition of religious liberty:

Rev. Gerald Durley (Providence Missionary Baptist Church): “We are convinced that spiritual leaders representing the various faiths in the United States have a moral responsibility to stand together and to denounce categorically derision, misinformation, or outright bigotry directed against any religious group in this country.”

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick: “This is not America. This is not our country.”

ABERNETHY: Islamic Society of North America president Ingrid Mattson also had a message for Muslims:

Ingrid Mattson: “Don’t use these incidents, as hateful as they are, as hurtful as they are, to justify any kind of hatred against America or Christians, American Christians or Jews.”

post03-limitsoftoleranceABERNETHY: Meanwhile, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, organizer of the proposed New York Islamic center, said his mission is to build bridges between religious groups. In an op-ed column in the New York Times, he said interfaith support for the center is helping to undermine anti-American radicals who are trying to recruit young Muslims.

We get some perspective now on all this from Scott Appleby, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and an expert on interfaith relations. Professor Appleby, welcome.

PROFESSOR SCOTT APPLEBY (University of Notre Dame): Thank you.

ABERNETHY: Anti-minority sentiment and actions in American history have not exactly been unusual. Is what’s going on now different?

APPLEBY: I think it is different in two respects. First of all, stories like this are immediate. They are broadcast right away, and we quickly hear not only the story itself but the echo of the story, what other people are saying about it. It takes on a life of its own. The second quality is the pervasiveness. It’s everywhere, that is to say, a story that has this kind of charge to it, by that I mean anti-Islamic feeling of whatever type, can be broadcast in a way and the media covers everything in such a way that someone who really doesn’t have a great standing or any expertise or knowledge but who wants to stir the pot, wants to get some attention wherever they may be from, can attract attention by pushing the envelope, doing something outrageous, and the cycle begins again. Another story, immediate echo, and we’re in the middle of a controversy.

ABERNETHY: And the consequences when something like Danish cartoons or some burning of something, when that goes out the consequences can, as all the officials of the United States government have warned, can be very dangerous.

post02-limitsoftoleranceAPPLEBY: And the point is we all know that. Anyone who’s paying attention realizes that we are in such a charged atmosphere with this instantaneous communication that can be very controversial, that I have power now, the power to incite, first of all, attention for myself or my cause, but also the feelings of others, because everything has been raised to a level of a lot of heat and not much light.

ABERNETHY: What are the major causes as you see them of the anti-Muslim feeling that’s going on now?

APPLEBY: Well, we have to realize that one thing that’s similar to other periods in our nation’s history of nativism, of attacks against people perceived as foreign, whether they are from another nation or another religion, what’s in common is we’re in an economic crisis. These episodes flare up when Americans are feeling displaced or threatened that their economic well-being and even their citizenship is somehow called into question by a threatening minority. And, of course, Islam in America is a tiny, tiny minority. Why pick on Islam? Because for nine years, almost a decade, the popular mentality is we’re in some kind of war with Islam, which of course is a distorted reading that’s not sufficiently shouted down by the right people. We are not in a war with Islam. We are in a conflict with a tiny minority of radicals who are denounced by the majority of Muslim leaders and Muslims around the world.

ABERNETHY: Do you think that there is some justification, however, for thinking that there is something about Islam itself that condones or perhaps even encourages violence?

APPLEBY: No, there’s nothing about Islam itself that makes Islam stand apart from other religions. All the major world religions have texts and traditions that can be twisted, that can be interpreted to condone violence, including Christianity. Islam is not better or worse in that regard, that is, in what the sources of Islam say about violence. There are verses in the Quran and in the Hadith of the Prophet, the traditions of the Prophet,that can be read in either direction. Islam itself as a religion is in a different context today in the United States than Christianity or Hinduism in India, and so there are a lot of factors that make parts of the Islamic world and parts of the reaction in this country more vehement, more charged, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with the religion itself.

ABERNETHY: You have called “the biggest lie” what? The imagining that all Islam is—

APPLEBY: Rights, the assumption that Islam is inherently, that in its very nature Islam is violent, evil, that it’s a religion that produces murderers, liars, thieves, unpatriotic, etc., etc., etc. I’m a Catholic. The same thing was said about Catholics, and there are some parts of Catholic history, by the way, that can be interpreted as being antidemocratic and anti-American. The popes denounced religious freedom in the nineteenth century. So there are parts of a tradition, whether it’s Christianity, Islam, or Judaism that can be lifted up, twisted, and used as a cudgel, as a weapon, against people you don’t like because you are fearing them for a variety of reasons, and that’s what’s happened to Islam today.

ABERNETHY: Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame, many thanks.

  • Denny nielsen

    In all the rhetoric I do not hear any mention of how absolutely intolerant Islam is of other religions in many parts of the world. Yet America is expected to be absolutely tolerant o fall faiths.
    It seems to me such intolerance would explain why America views Islam in with such suspicion.

  • bill


  • Milton

    Gimme a nutter DITTO!

    No tolerance whatsoever when it comes to other religions verses Muhammadism.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Ask the Coptic Christians of Egypt how they have been and are treated under Islam.
    Ask the Armenian Christians about their 1.5 millton dead in the Holocaust they endured in Modern Times (1915-1920) at Moslem hands.
    Ask Assyrian (Chaldean Christians) about the genocide perpertrated against their people in Modern Times by Moslems.
    Of course to safe, smug American Christians in comfortable university endowed chairs the lives and rights of Christians in the Islamic world (most of which was stolen by bloody conquest from Native Christians in the Middle East) are never worth a word of compassion or interest..

  • WeNeedToBeWorried

    Simply idiotic. Notre Dame has fallen so far.

    The guy blames the cartoonists for the riots and murders that resulted from the publications of the cartoons. Simply delusional.

    One can read the first half of the Koran during Mohammed’s Medina years when he was not in power and find the “peaceful religion” quotes. However, during the Mecca years, we have the ruthless general come to the fore: take no prisoners…behead them instead …

  • rodger

    Did all of you sleep during government class in high school? The first ammendment freedom of religion. Do not compare America to other countries, we are unique in that regard that we do have the freedom to worship how we please. We should be a nation of leaders not followers, as leaders we should say that we believe every person in our country has the right to worship where ever they please without judgement or persecution. Our founding father believe in this great experiment why can’t we?

  • Channah

    It seems to me that most have commented on conditions around the world. We are concerned here with America. This is a government based upon our Constitiution and it gives freedom of religion. We cannot compare it with countries that are run by governments of theoracies. So, stop trying to do so.

  • Natalie

    I agree Channah. This all boils down to the fact that this is America and one of it’s perks is to worship as you please. No matter how unsympathetic we may feel this this decision is the fact remains the first amendment of the constitution supports this decision.

  • Tammy

    Please don’t confuse cultural issues with religious doctrine. While visiting a Muslim majority country (Pakistan), I was surprised to find an ancient buddhist site where followers kept an oil lamp lit. This site is protected by gov’t.Also saw churches, gurdwara (Sikh temple) and Christian schools. Islam absolutely gives freedom of religion, even if local population is mired in historical/ethnic differences. Dont feed the hysteria and dont hold up Saudi Arabia as an example! There is no kingship in Islam. This is the country that created Osama bin laden. Remember; he first rose up against his own

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Everything said about how great our freedom of religion here is correct. That is no reason for Christians, and all others concerned with human rights, to ignore the plight of persecuted Christians all across the Islamic world. Just this past week the Egyptian army attacked a Coptic Christian monastery and injured a number of monks. The monks were merely adding cells for the growing number of monks in their monastery. The government had refused to allow them to do so–as happens all across the Islamic world when Christians seek to build or expand edifices.
    In Indonesia this past week Christians praying in a field were stabbed and bludgeoned with boards. Why were they praying in a field?? Because the Islamic government boarded up their church.
    Try to find these stories in the mainstream media here though –Hah!–at least to give the Koran book burning story some balance. The lives and limbs of Christian human beings are just as important as a paper book.

  • Syrian Ahmad

    Scott Appleby is absolutely right about islam being persecuted as a whole. Very little of what is said in the media I would agree to as a muslim. Please read a copy of the quran and start dealing with these issues first hand. You don’t really need anybody to tell you about it. In the past most muslims were good representatives of the real faith unlike nowadays where very few are.

  • Steve

    Freedom of religion grants you the right to practice your religion here in this country as long as it doesn’t conflict with our laws. It however does not grant you the right to build a monument to a victory which is what is going on at ground zero. Requesting that it be moved is not a violation of their civil rights.

  • Alyssa

    While you make many valid points Steve, I must remind everyone that the monument is not going to be built at ground zero. No matter what side of the issue one is on, and what decisions are made, they need to be made on facts. And it is going to be 2 long New York blocks away in a different neighborhood. Now that is what people need to make their decisions about.

  • Mike McCants

    “as long as I am president of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation under God”

    Freedom of religion in the US also requires freedom from religion. We are not a nation “under God” – whatever that would really mean. We are a nation which should be free from “God” in our politics.

  • JohnBroadbent

    I am a Christian man I DO believe in a God in Heaven i do read his word that will not stop me Praying to him I can see the Truth in his eys and in the word it is called Holy BIBLE

    He Dose work in me my Spirit Dose not stops Sleeps at all he stays a wake with me
    he is so broud with me all the time