Religious intolerance makes progress difficult

This article appeared in the Patriot News, Oct. 3, 2010.

We live in an age where religious sensibilities are easily offended. And, depressingly, some religious leaders appear to be doing their best to offend.

An obscure Christian pastor in Florida with a congregation of 50 — 50! — creates a worldwide furor with a threat to burn the Quran. Military officers are alarmed — they fear their already difficult task to win minds and hearts in Afghanistan and Iraq will become more daunting still.

Robert Gates, secretary of defense, calls up the pastor to ask him to abstain. Even President Obama issues an appeal to the pastor. Democrats and Republicans briefly put aside their differences to offer rebukes.

Ultimately the pastor relents, but the damage is done. In countries with large numbers of poorly educated people susceptible to fire-breathing mullahs, many do not distinguish between the acts of a solitary American and those of the government.

If a religious leader in America was going to burn the Quran, why, the government of America must have acquiesced in the act. Why does the American government not stop the man from carrying out the act, they say — why doesn’t the government arrest him?

Notions of freedom of expression, constitutional niceties sorely lacking in their countries, elude them. And so, protests break out in Afghanistan and Pakistan, leading to burnt vehicles and damaged buildings. In some cases, the police resort to firing to maintain calm, with further tragic consequences. And all because of the utter foolishness of a Florida pastor.

Taslima Nasrin, a visiting Woodrow Wilson scholar at Elizabethtown College, was forced to leave her native Bangladesh after her publications, depicting the link between religion and the subjugation of women in society, caused an uproar among the more fundamentalist Muslims in the country. She fled to neighboring India, to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), a famously tolerant city with Hindus and Muslims living cheek by jowl in relative amity.

But even a city where women have traditionally been treated with respect (Mother Teresa, a devout Christian, worked with the lowliest of society here) Nasrin found herself unwelcome. The more rabid religionists conspired to make life difficult for her — and Taslima was on the run once again, this time to Delhi, the capital city of India, where she has temporarily found refuge (albeit grudgingly, from a nervous Indian government that does not wish to deal with further religious controversies.)

But during her time in India, Taslima became the target of a fatwa issued by the leader of a little-known Muslim organization. A reward of $10,000 was placed on her head — and though leading Muslim clerics denounced the action, the threat to Taslima’s life cannot be discounted. Once again, the actions of an obscure individual, this time a fundamentalist Muslim driven by a dangerous vision about an ostensible threat to his religion, have put an individual’s life at risk and deepened divisions within society.

In a democratic society such as ours, the right to express one’s opinions, however odious (or foolish), is enshrined in the Constitution. But Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, also notes that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Six decades later, that right is still lacking in many parts of the world — and while the blame for this appalling state of affairs rests on many shoulders, religious zeal and intolerance remains a primary and particularly obdurate culprit.

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