Understanding Islam and Tolerance

  In nearly every discussion about Islam we're told that Islam is, among other things, a "tolerant" religion. Is Islam really a tolerant faith? According to some historians, the historical record is far from clear on this score. One example of Islam's tolerance that is often cited is the treatment of Jews and Christians living in Islamic societies. We are told that Jews and Christians were freer to practice their faith in places like medieval Baghdad and Southern Spain than Jews were in Christian Europe. Now there's no denying Christians weren't as tolerant as they should have been. But this characterization of Islam's treatment of Jews and Christians, is, according to historian Bat Ye'or, "a radical distortion of what happened." In her book "The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam," the Egyptian- born Ye'or says that Islam's regard for its Christian subjects could best be described as one of contempt. How could be it otherwise? As she reminds us, Islam's spread was the product of a "military conquest," not peaceable conversions. The degree of massacre, enslavement, and other brutality exceeded any thing being done in Christian Europe. For those Christians who survived the initial conquest, life wasn't that much better. There were pockets of relatively good treatment. But on the whole, "tolerance" is hardly the word to describe the treatment. Hundreds of thousands of Christians and Jews were traded as slaves; they were required to wear distinctive clothing; and they were denied the protection of Islamic law. And the closer we get to our time, the worse things seem to get. In 1916, 1.5 million Christian Armenians died at the hands of their Turkish Muslim rulers. Many more went into exile in Western Europe and America. No less lethal is the treatment Sudanese Christians have received from the Islamic government since that government tried to impose Islamic law, or Shari'a, on them. At least 2 million have died, and thousands have been sold into slavery. Another place where Muslims are trying to impose their faith on their Christian neighbors is Northern Nigeria. There, three northern states, all of whom have a sizable Christian population, have followed Sudan's example and adopted Shari'a, the Muslim law. If you're looking for a place where Christians are doing the same thing to Muslims, you won't find one. In fact, the last time a non-Christian society volunteered to convert en masse -- Japan after World War II -- we opted to send Bibles and missionaries to encourage spiritual rather than cultural conversions. What accounts for the difference? Historian Richard Connerney recently wrote that in Islam, "the themes of religion, politics, and law are inseparable . . ." According to Connerney, conquest and jihad are woven into the fiber of the religion. Thus, belligerence towards people of other faiths and cultures is, arguably, inherent to Islam. In contrast, while Christians have mistreated non- Christians, a fair examination of Christian history and doctrine shows this conduct is in violation of Christian beliefs, not in their furtherance. I'm not saying Christians should regard Islam or Muslims as their enemy. We should respect and love Muslims in our midst. But we should insist on an accurate telling of the story. To do otherwise would be to fail to learn from history. And, we know what happens to those who do that. For further reading: Richard D. Connerny, "Islam: Religion of the Sword?," Salon Magazine. Bat Ye'or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude, Seventh-Twelfth Century. Trans Miriam Kochan and David Littman (Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1996).


Chuck Colson



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