America is basically a tolerant nation. There are individual Americans, and some groups, who are less tolerant than the norm. But, overall, Americans tolerate a wide range of individual choices, as long as those choices do not bring harm.
Even most religious people in America are tolerant of other religions. Sure, there are those Pat Robertson disciples who reek of intolerance for anyone who is not a Christian fundamentalist. But even they aren’t calling for the destruction of an entire nation.
No, unlike the Muslims in many Middle Eastern countries who are up in arms because of some newspaper cartoons, Americans of all religious persuasions, even Muslims, are rather tolerant.
And that’s why it is so difficult to understand what’s going on in the minds of those Middle Eastern Muslims. Muslims in America claim their religion is one of peace and most do not condone violence, let alone terrorism.
But violence is often encouraged as a matter of course for many everyday people in Islamic nations. That became readily apparent last week as tens of thousands of Muslims swarmed in protest of a Danish newspaper cartoon that depicted a caricature of the profit Muhammad.
Islamic law prohibits any depictions of Muhammad, even positive representations. So the caricatures, one of which showed Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, really provoked reaction.
The cartoons appeared late last summer in a Danish newspaper, but were reprinted recently in other European newspapers. They were, admittedly, in poor taste. And it is understandable how those of the Muslim faith would view them as blasphemous.
Perhaps that’s why one Muslim worker in the West Bank called for an execution. “Whoever defames our prophet should be executed,” the worker said.
And you see, that’s what separates Middle Eastern Muslims from the religious people in America and most other civilized nations. The Muslims over there don’t care that other people in other countries may not share their faith. Other faiths are irrelevant to them.
If Muhammad is blasphemed, the perpetrator must be dealt with harshly, even if he or she doesn’t believe Muhammad was anybody special.
Several years ago, there was an epidemic of church fires in this country and in Northern Europe. The fad of burning churches actually began in Norway as a protest against Christian encroachment on the ancient native belief system of that country.
And, although the church burnings were illegal acts of arson and quite deplorable, American Christians responded with prayer and pleas for justice through legal means. There were no widespread calls for the overthrow of Norway or for vengeance against pagan groups.
But, in the Middle East, the streets are crowded with thousands of everyday Muslim citizens calling for vengeance and executions. They’re boycotting Danish goods, and that’s fine. But their pleas for vengeance go well beyond boycotts.
The Danish prime minister said he had no power to stop his country’s news outlets from publishing the cartoons. He said he does not, himself, approve of them. But his country has freedom of the press and of speech.
The Muslims in the Middle East have no sense of how important freedom of speech is to us in the West. Nor do they care. Their world is small and isolated, but their voices are loud and far-ringing, and sometimes scary.
They are calling for limits on freedoms of the press and speech. They say if such freedom results in what they consider blasphemy, it should not be tolerated.
And that’s another reason why one of the other guarantees of our First Amendment is so precious. Freedom of religion is guaranteed in America. That includes the freedom to worship whatever god you want, or not to worship any at all.
In America, some of us don’t like it when our religion is attacked or made fun of, but unlike those in the Middle East, we generally tolerate it as an act of civility. It’s unfortunate that so many millions of people in the Middle East have not learned to be civil yet.