Monday, August 30, 2010

Musings on tolerance and the so-called 'ground zero mosque'

It's perhaps not commonly known, but I occasionally take services at a Unitarian meeting house in South East London. I'm involved in the management there, albeit to a diminishing extent now I'm based in Birmingham.

For more information on Unitarians (like Quakers with hymns) see Our Meeting House is on the web here –

The theme of yesterday's address/sermon was religious tolerance and I include extracts below, as it's the first one I've been halfway to happy with.

I begin with a quote from the German Enlightenment writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Goethe wrote "Toleration ought in reality to be merely a transitory mood. It must lead to recognition. To tolerate is to affront."

I want to talk to you about this idea of reaching past the kind of negative toleration Goethe is criticising. I want to talk about a more difficult, but positive toleration of those of all faiths and of none based on reconciliation and recognition.

In recent weeks, some of you may have been following a controversy in the United States about an Islamic community centre in Manhattan. If you haven't heard, this is the story.

A cleric named Imam Rauf from the Sufist tradition of Islam is proposing to build a community centre with prayer rooms in Manhattan, some three blocks away, and out of sight of, from the site of the World Trade Centre. Some have compared it to an Islamic YMCA. No big deal, you might say.

Guess again. Irresponsible politicians have branded the project the 'Ground Zero Mosque' and moved to attack it as disrespectful to the dead of 9/11. Adverts have been run on the side of New York buses picturing a plane flying into one of the World Trade Centre towers and a mosque divided by the question: Why Here?

Sadly, all too many people seem willing to listen to these politicians. The German theologian Hans Kung wrote "There will be peace on earth when there is peace among the world religions." Hmm. Guess we're not quite there yet.

So, what should be a simple, local planning decision for the city authorities has become a national controversy in which the President has been forced to intervene, citing the first amendment rights of all US citizens to freedom of religious expression.

Here's what the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg has had to say on the matter:

Islam did not attack the World Trade Center-–Al-Qaeda did. To implicate all of Islam for the actions of a few who twisted a great religion is unfair and un-American.

I understand the impulse to find another location for the mosque and community center. I understand the pain of those who are motivated by loss too terrible to contemplate.

However, this is a test of our commitment to American values. We must have the courage of our convictions. We must do what is right, not what is easy. And we must put our faith in the freedoms that have sustained our great country for more than 200 years.

So, it looks as if the proposal for the community centre will go ahead. But it throws into sharp relief the limits of negative tolerance. The First Amendment or other forms of negative tolerance before the law don't require people to understand and accept the religious beliefs of others. To see things from another's perspective. A negative freedom cannot of itself create a positive understanding of others, only the space to allow us to cultivate this understanding.

Let's move back to this country and look at some of the readings we heard earlier. The French philosopher Voltaire, a noted Anglophile, praises eighteenth century Britain in his Letters on the English for its hard-won religious pluralism. In 1733, he writes of the equality of the stock exchange, "where the Jew, the Muslim and the Christian transact together as though they all professed the same religion … [where] the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist and the Churchman depends on the Quakers word."

Clearly, compared with the wars of the Reformation and with other eighteenth century states like France, where religious tolerance was seldom seen, this kind of economic pragmatism was a big step forward.

But, wind forward fifty years to the setting of Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, the 'No Popery' riots of the 1780's, and we find that this freedom has yet to turn into mutual understanding. We find burning churches, an intolerance of difference in the form of Catholicism, a latent violence which becomes active violence under the provocation of unscrupulous politicians.

The riots find their echo today in the actions of the far right, now organised into the English Defence League. The League march against Islam in cities like Birmingham and like the No Popery riots, they target places of worship. Not far from Birmingham, they left a pig's head on the wall of Dudley Central Mosque – an outrage not only to practicing Muslims but to anyone who takes freedom of religious practice seriously.

So we too in Britain have no reason to be complacent in our negative tolerance of other beliefs, other faiths. We too need to work towards not only maintaining what we have, but also work towards a positive recognition of the worth of all religious traditions.

As one anonymous but pretty wise person put it, "toleration [...]is the first step towards curiosity, interest, study, understanding, appreciating and finally valuing diversity."

We Unitarians have long been adept at incorporating elements of all religions, all philosophies into our worship. Within our walls, each of us brings our own combination of elements such as Christianity, humanist philosophy, Buddhism, paganism as well as the other Abrahamic religions Islam and Judaism.

For those of us who come from, or still feel attached to, the Christian tradition, the intolerance expressed in the Bible towards other faiths, other peoples, can be problematic. Thankfully, there are passages in the New Testament in particular which point in the other direction. In Romans 2, Paul points out that it's not what religion you practice, it's how you live your life which is crucial.

What the times now require – of everyone, and I would argue that this includes Unitarians - is taking that next step of religious tolerance. That which moves us further towards appreciating and valuing our diversity of belief.

Here we are in South East London surrounded by people of all faiths and of none. We've got Voltaire's Churchmen, Quakers and Presbyterians, Dickens' Catholics and Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus and much more besides.

Not all of them share all our liberal views on religion, but with most of them I would suspect we would find more to unite than to divide us. A commitment to truth and to peace, a love of friends and family, and a desire to leave the world in a better place than when we found it. By listening to and better understanding each other we recognise common ground and – in the spirit of Gandhi - begin to move towards a win-win situation for everyone.

For me, it strikes me that for a person who lives in one of the areas of Birmingham with the highest proportion of practicing Muslims, I know very little about my neighbours. So I'm going to make a small start by reading more about Islam and working to understand them better.

So, if you take one thing away from this talk, please do reflect on how we as Unitarians can play a role in fostering greater understanding and positive tolerance between faiths.

In closing, I want to leave you with two quotes. One is from the Prophet Muhammed himself, who said "You have two qualities which God, the Most Exalted, likes and loves. One is mildness and the other is toleration."

The second, longer quote is from Imam Rauf, the sponsor of the Manhattan community centre we began our address with.

At an interfaith memorial service for the martyred journalist Daniel Pearl, Imam Rauf said, 'If to be a Jew means to say with all one's heart, mind, and soul: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one. If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one.'

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