The violent response to an anti-Muslim movie has cast the subject of religious tolerance into the limelight. Is Islam a religion that can tolerate criticism? Can Muslims bear up gracefully when their religion is insulted? As I wrote last week, when it comes to Islam as practiced and understood in much of the Middle East, the short answer to these questions appears to be "no."
As Pastor Brian Lee points out in his article "Freedom of Religion Requires Freedom to Offend," to be a person of faith in America means being a person who is prepared to have his or her most cherished beliefs and convictions criticized, challenged, or ridiculed. Turn on your television or your radio, log on to your favorite social media website and odds are there will be content calculated to outrage and offend you. As Americans, we tolerate such indignities because we believe that free speech is a liberty that is fundamental to a free society. As the saying goes, "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." To many in the Muslim world, however, this appears to be an utterly foreign concept. Having never lived in America, they assume that the American government regulates political speech and artistic expression like their own governments do. In their societies, there is no separation of church and state. The state is viewed as an instrument of their faith. Thus, they cannot understand why the American government would "allow" such offensive material to be produced, and they demand that the American government punish the offenders.
American Muslims should recognize that such demands are ridiculous, and I'm sure that most do. Having personally enjoyed the fruits of freedom, they realize that's not how things are done in America. In America, you have the right to express your beliefs and the right to criticize the beliefs of others. That's true whether the objects of your criticism are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, Sikhs, Wiccans, you name it – just ask Bill Maher.
Religious tolerance affirms that members of society have a right to decide for themselves what they will or won't believe about God. One's religious sensibilities are one's own and ought not to be the subject of coercion by the state or one's fellow citizen. In America, we are free to believe or not believe in God as we see fit. That doesn't mean, however, that one's ideas about religion can't be challenged or criticized by others. Here in America, the marketplace of ideas is open for business, and any idea – religious or otherwise – is subject to examination, evaluation, and criticism.
It should be understood, however, that religious tolerance is not the same thing as religious relativism. Religious relativism affirms the notion that all religious views are equally valid. That view is nonsense, since most religions assert one or more truth claims. For instance, Christians maintain that faith in Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation and that there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12). Jesus himself maintained that he is the way, the truth and the life and that "No one comes to the Father, except through me" (John 14:5). Now these claims are either true or they are not, but it is silly to say that Christianity is no more or less valid than any other religion. If the claims of Christianity are true, then no other religion, including Islam, is valid. If they are false, Christianity is not valid. But true or not, in America we tolerate Christians and non-Christians alike, leaving each free to contend with the other in the marketplace of ideas.
Can Islam tolerate other religions? Can it assert its truth claims in a religiously diverse world without resorting to violence? Can it do battle in the marketplace of ideas using words as its weapons, risking the criticism of those who disagree with its claims? Are its truth claims powerful enough to prevail without resorting to the sword?
If so, American Muslims should lead the way and set the example for the rest of the Muslim world to follow.