Monday, November 17, 2008

Common words, different meanings

This is a follow up to my blog last week regarding attempts by a number of Muslim countries to silence the criticism of Islam through the United Nations.  Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute has written an article entitled Worldwide Hate Laws? that addresses this and conference held last week between Muslim and Catholic scholars.  Here are some excerpts:

Two international meetings to promote interfaith harmony were held in the last two weeks, one in New York and one in Rome. The former, called by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia under the auspices of the United Nations, drew some 20 heads of state to discuss a "Culture of Peace." The latter brought together Muslim and Catholic scholars at the Vatican in the latest session of the dialogue called A Common Word. Both gatherings underscored the gulf between us. At both, all parties spoke for peace and tolerance, but they often meant different things.

As President Bush made clear in his remarks at the U.N. meeting, tolerance is understood in the West as respect for religious freedom. For the Muslim leaders in New York, tolerance means respect for religion itself, particularly Islam. As the astute Turkish political observer Ziya Meral pointed out, if Muslim leaders really wanted tolerance for different religious viewpoints, they would be holding similar discussions within their own societies. But no such discussions are going on.

Especially since 9/11, Islam has been publicly scrutinized, criticized, and sometimes ridiculed in the West to an extent never seen (or permitted) in Muslim lands. Many Muslims feel deeply offended by this, as well as troubled by the violent responses the criticism has sometimes drawn from Muslims--riots, death threats, even murders. Their leaders' solution is to try to halt the cycle by demanding an end to criticism of Islam, even in private speech.

For the past decade, the Saudi-based Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has pushed the U.N. to adopt a universal ban on defaming Islam. This measure would aim to curb the freedom not only of Danish cartoonists but also of scholars, writers, dissidents, religious reformers, human rights activists, and anyone at all anywhere in the world who criticizes Islam. This is already the effect of the domestic laws against apostasy and blasphemy that exist in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, and other states of the Islamic Conference.

To read the rest of this helpful article, click here

What I found most helpful about this article was the observation of the profound difference in how tolerance is viewed by Western and Muslim leaders.  For us in the West it means means the respect for religious freedom and values the right of people to differ and critique. For Muslims, tolerance means respect for the religion itself and protection from critique. A significant difference in worldview.  One demands the right to differ and disagree and invites scrutiny, the other demands the right never to subject one's religion to critical and public scrutiny. It matters little if the same language of tolerance is used if the intent is different.  How can there really be a "common word" if the only the same words are used but with entirely different meanings?

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