Commentary Magazine


The Toxicity of Tolerance

In an article at the Daily Beast about the Cordoba House mosque and Islamic community center, Sam Harris wrote, “It goes without saying that tolerance is a value to which we should all be deeply committed.” Does it? Tolerance is not, in fact, a value at all. If Sue tolerates a kindly bore during a brief conversation is she employing the same moral standard as Tom who tolerates a stoppable violent crime in his presence? Moreover, does this standard qualify as one to which we should all be deeply committed?

By the way, Harris goes on to make some insightful points. But first he has his own faiths to defend—liberalism and atheism—and the above comes from early on in the piece, where he strives to distance himself from “those sincerely awaiting the Rapture, opportunistic Republican politicians, and utter lunatics who yearn to see Sarah Palin become the next president of the United States (note that Palin herself probably falls into several of these categories).” Tolerantly put, no?

That Harris is incapable of practicing in one sentence what he preaches in the preceding one should come as no surprise. Tolerance is not a context-free virtue; it is a simpleton’s word, an artificial political term used to indict those we cannot tolerate.

Tolerance scenarios are not merely hypothetical. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the New York Times that the mosque near Ground Zero will be “a monument to tolerance.” If by tolerance, Mayor Bloomberg is referring to the fact that the planned mosque’s Imam, Faisal Abdul Rauf is not judgmental of terrorist organizations, he is correct. Asked by WABC radio’s Aaron Klein if Hamas was a terrorist group, Rauf responded, “Look, I am not a politician. The issue of terrorism is a very complex question.” He hemmed and hawed and when the question was posed again, said, “I am a peace builder. I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy.”

Sam Harris—still struggling with his own advice—writes in the Daily Beast of “religious stupidity.” But aren’t Rauf’s words the very embodiment of Harris’s exhortation that we commit deeply to the value of tolerance?

While Harris toils away at the intellectual knot tied from strands of his religious liberalism and his religious atheism, Bloomberg is gathering fellow travelers. Former speechwriter for George W. Bush, Michael Gerson praised President Obama’s tolerance of the mosque, noting that “the way to marginalize radicalism is to respect the best traditions of Islam and protect the religious liberty of Muslim Americans.” In itself, this is true. But are we now saying that an Imam who refuses to call Hamas a terrorist organization represents “the best traditions of Islam”?

There are those of us who have been hoping for the institutional influence of a truly moderate Islam; of an unequivocal anti-terrorist leader and a mosque to temper what is obviously an urgent crisis in the Muslim world. For us, the election of a Hamas-indifferent Imam as the paragon of Islamic moderation is dispiriting. But for the West’s individual moderate Muslims–and there are many–who have been waiting desperately on a modern, welcoming house of Islam, one in which to practice their religion alongside the like-minded, it is absolute invalidation. Rauf and Cordoba House, say tolerant Westerners, are as good as it gets.