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About tolerance, 2007

Religion hasn't been responsible for a lot of peace this year. Still, hope appeared in some unlikely places.

December 25, 2007

On a day when American Christians celebrate one of their most cherished holidays, the rest of our citizens cherish their freedom instead to rejoice in a day free of toil, traffic or the tyranny of 24/7 connectivity. This year, it is clear that protecting the freedom of belief -- and the freedom not to believe -- will require not merely a vigorous defense but a good offense. Religious intolerance is flourishing around the globe, and in 2007, the world witnessed fierce outbreaks of repression and violence, hatred and bigotry.

In the U.S., the GOP presidential contest features a disturbing contest between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee over who is the better Christian. Huckabee asked disingenuous questions designed to fan doubts about Romney's Mormon theology, suggested that religion is a suitable test for public office and said that Americans should choose a president who speaks "the language of Zion" as a mother tongue. Romney warned against those "intent on establishing a new religion in America -- the religion of secularism." He went on to assert that "freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom." These statements betray a militant theism that has become alarmingly common in our national dialogue.

But why is the intersection of religion and politics generating fresh tensions, here and in so many other parts of the world? It has long been observed that religious revivalism and ethno-religious political conflicts flourish during epochs of rapid change, social dislocation and uncertainty about the future. Today, the challenges of globalization, overpopulation, migration and competition for scarce resources are blowing through many lives with hurricane force. And when hurricanes rage, most people run down to the basement and cling for dear life to the oldest, strongest foundations -- usually their family, tribe, ethnic group or religion.

And so in 2007, Christians and Muslims clashed in Egypt, Ethiopia and Lebanon, while Shiites and Sunnis battled in Iraq. Horrific car bombings in northern Iraq killed more than 500 Yazidis -- ethnic Kurds who practice a pre-Islamic religion that some consider devil worship. China continued to attempt to control Tibetan Buddhism with the absurd decree that it would not recognize as genuine the reincarnation of any lama born outside the territorial borders of the People's Republic of China (a swipe at the Dalai Lama, who has said he will seek to be reborn outside Beijing's clutches).

Anti-Christian assassinations blighted Africa and the Middle East, and anti-Semitism erupted across Europe. In Odessa, Ukraine, a Holocaust memorial was defaced with a swastika and 300 Jewish graves were desecrated. In Sudan, mobs demanded the execution of a British teacher who allowed her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad. Her pardon did not mitigate anti-Islamic sentiment in the West. This month in Canada, a Pakistani immigrant was charged with murdering his 16-year-old daughter, who had refused to wear the hijab, or traditional head scarf.

The West was horrified when the "girl from Qatif," Saudi Arabia, survived a gang rape but was sentenced to six months in jail and 200 lashes for having been in a car with a man who was not a relative. Her pardon by King Abdullah, who upheld the court's decision as valid, did not mollify many. Columnist Anne Applebaum suggested that had the woman been a black man, Americans would be calling for a boycott and sanctions like those levied against apartheid South Africa. She has a point.

What these sorts of culture crashes reveal is the tension between religious tolerance and human rights, two revered principles that sometimes coexist uneasily. Many Americans experience disgust at the Saudi oppression of women that is enshrined in tradition and Sharia law, and at the genital mutilation of women that is traditional in many parts of Africa. Many Muslims, meanwhile, experience disgust at Western pornography and our tolerance for the sexual exploitation of women for profit. Defending the purity of Muslim morality against Western depredations has become a rallying cry for Islamic fundamentalists. Defending the basic human rights of the oppressed in any culture has become a rallying cry for liberals worldwide. Western societies will continue to assert the right to punish wife-beaters and genital-cutters in their countries, and Islamic societies will continue to assert the right to punish adulterers, converts and blasphemers on their soil.

And yet there were glimmers of hope in 2007 that globalization could also bring different faiths together, if only for mutual commercial gain. The Muslim nation of Kyrgyzstan, for one, is throwing out the welcome mat to Christians. The former Soviet republic previously named some of its snowy peaks for Vladimir Lenin and Boris Yeltsin, but it now has decided to christen a "Mt. Santa Claus" in hopes of attracting tourists.

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