The deliberate dissemination of the now-infamous Danish cartoons in the Muslim world by a small group of hypocritical and treacherous Muslims living in Denmark has done the cause of religious tolerance throughout the world a great deal of harm. It has turned the willing suspension of the expression of religious and philosophical disagreement for the sake of harmonious social relations into an act of cowardice rather than of good manners. It has made even more difficult and unlikely the transformation of Islam into a private religious confession among many others that is the precondition of the successful integration of Muslims into Western societies. It has made an apocalyptic confrontation between whole regions of the globe more likely.
This is regrettable in the highest degree, of course. Whenever I write of Islam in the Western world, I have in the back of my mind the distress that my views, which under normal circumstances I would not express, might cause the Muslims whom I know and esteem. But I recall E. M. Forsters famous (or infamous) remark that he hoped that, if it ever came to a choice, he would have the courage to betray his country rather than his friends, a view that if generalized might easily have led to the establishment of total tyranny.
Of course, giving offense to others is justified only where something important, such as liberty of thought and expression, is at stake. The trivial, naughty-boy type of transgression that has long been the characteristic of much of the art world is reprehensible. Outspokenness, like originality, is not a virtue in itself: Its value depends on its subject matter and the circumstances in which it is exercised.
I learned early in life that tolerance and respect are quite different things. One does not have to respect a mans opinions to respect his right to have them: Indeed, tolerance would not be necessary if one respected everybodys views. It hardly takes tolerance to tolerate what one respects.
As a young child, I had a friend who lived nearby and from whom I was for several years virtually inseparable. His mother was a Christian Scientist, while my father, a secularized Jew and Communist, was militantly atheist. In the privacy of our home, he would deride the religious views of my friends mother, for which he felt complete contempt.
This grew all the stronger when my friends mother contracted breast cancer and she refused to receive any medical treatment for it. My father regarded having treatment as the only rational thing to do in the circumstances. I remember the room in which she died, darkened and hushed to the point of gloom by red-plush curtains. My father thought her death unnecessary and ridiculous, the direct consequence of her religious views.
But I understood that none of his derision was to be repeated in front of my friends mother: that there was a difference between what one thought and what one said. Tolerance did not require intellectual respect, it required tact. And in any case it very slowly dawned on me — not really until my adulthood — that my father was not wholly in the right. Reflection can alter perspective.
The operation performed in those days was radical mastectomy, which was horribly mutilating and quite possibly ineffective. At the time, there was no unequivocal proof that surgery prolonged life; and by a strange irony my father was to be offered surgery at the end of his own life, when he himself suffered from cancer, that would have prolonged his survival by a few months, but which he refused. By a different route, he had come to the same conclusion as the woman he had derided many years before.
There was another advantage to the views that my friends mother held. When my friend was six, very shortly before the introduction of the vaccine, he contracted polio, which paralyzed him permanently from the waist down. Because of the religious opinions that my father thought ridiculous, his mother refused in any way to mollycoddle him, with the result that he grew up with a sturdy lack of the self-pity that it would have been only too easy to instill in him. He went on to have a normal career, even becoming a foreign correspondent.
AN OUTSIDER AMONG US
At school, I was a militant atheist, at least whenever the subject of the existence of God, considered in the abstract, came up. But in fact religious tolerance was so taken for granted that there was absolutely no conflict between children of a very wide spectrum of religions and sects, and friendships existed without any religious barriers except in one case.
He belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, a small and puritanical sect. He was clever but ugly, and would have been a good athlete if his parents had not considered sports a heathen activity. He was allowed very little or no social contact with us, for we were not among the elect. His skin was pale, like that of a salamander that spends its life in a cave, for he returned home to a house whose curtains were always drawn against the prying, ungodly eyes of the unbelievers. Once the house swallowed him up, he did not reemerge until it was time to go again to school.
We felt no hostility towards him: rather a sense of pity. We found his parents belief that we were a satanically bad influence on him ridiculous rather than offensive, for we knew that we were more or less normal. We learned just to accept that there were strange ideas and people abroad in the world, and we did not taunt him.
Somewhat later in life, I read a book that made me think again of that boy with whom I might have been friendly had the religious views of his parents not prevented it: Father and Son by Edmund Gosse. This is one of the most beautiful of all childhood memoirs in English, or perhaps in any language.
Gosse, who became a notable literary figure, was the son of Philip Henry Gosse, a great naturalist and marine biologist who was also a Plymouth Brother, who attempted in 1857 to forestall Darwins theory of evolution — which was in the air, as it were — by publishing a book called Omphalos, in which he explained the presence of the fossil record, created coterminously with the world, as Gods test of mans faith. Gosses books of natural history, illustrated by his own most poignantly beautiful drawings and colored by a new printing technique that he invented himself, can be described only as works of the deepest reverence. It is impossible to read them or to look at them without loving the man.
Father and Son is a bittersweet account of how the younger Gosse grew away from his father, who was both a very tender man and something of a bigot. It is not a tale of enlightenment triumphing over ignorance, but of how gain is rarely accomplished without loss. One ends up thinking that a world in which there were no Plymouth Brethren would be a slightly poorer world than it is. If his religious upbringing did not altogether crush my fellow pupil at school, it would deepen his character.
My militant atheism softened over the years, with maturity and experience. Some of the best, most selfless, and kindest people I ever met were Catholic nuns working in Africa, the only people I have ever met, in fact, who genuinely loved humanity. There was an aged Irish nun in Nigeria, for example, who single-handedly prevented a large number of prisoners from starving to death by taking food to them every day. And for a time, I spent an afternoon a week in an African mission hospital run by an old Swiss nun whose unmistakable goodness was like a protective aura. She was not a dogmatist: She knew perfectly well that I gave mothers in heart failure contraceptive injections to prevent a tenth, eleventh, or twelfth pregnancy that might kill them, since it was she who obtained the injections in the first place. We simply passed over the whole subject in dignified silence.
I have gradually learned that views that appear to me intellectually ridiculous are not therefore to be mocked. Not far from where I used to live was a secondhand bookshop, whose owner thought that civilization had reached its acme in the Albania of Enver Hoxha. The owner had come by an entire library of spiritualist works from the estate of a man who, I suspect, never read anything unrelated to spiritualism. The books, mainly published in the 30s, 40s, and early 50s, bore titles such as Thirty Years Among the Dead (in two volumes), and it was difficult not to smile as one read them.
I bought a little volume informing readers how to get in contact with their dear departed dogs. It was published in 1940, and contained photographs of semi-translucent animals called forth from the “other side.” I bought it as an interesting specimen of mans folly, but quite by chance I happened to read soon afterwards that the first victims of the Second World War in Britain were dogs, 250,000 of whom were put down in the first months of the war because it was feared that there would not be enough food for them. When I considered how passionately fond I am of dogs, a passion that is shared by many who like me find relations with humans not entirely easy, I began to see in this book, published at the time of the slaughter, not something ridiculous or absurd, but something deeply tragic, a manifestation of an intense longing accompanied by a nagging guilt at having consented to the death of a loved creature that had nothing wrong with it. I would never now argue with a spiritualist unless he insisted upon it.
Or unless he insisted that his beliefs could not be publicly examined or even mocked, and threatened anyone who attempted to do so with all kinds of retribution, such as having his throat cut in Amsterdam. Then I would feel obliged to argue with him, to let him know that I was not intimidated by his threats, and thereby to preserve my own freedom.
A mullah in Pakistan has offered a reward of $1 million, with a Toyota thrown in, to anyone who kills the Danish cartoonists. The money, it is reported, is to come from many contributors, including the jewelers of Lahore. If the Muslim world had risen up against this revolting and crudely materialistic specimen of thuggery committed in its name, I would have seen reason for hope, as well as to hold our peace. But to hold our peace when such things go unremarked because they are normal and accepted would be the most abject and cowardly betrayal of the ideal of religious tolerance.