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Tolerance means thinking carefully before speaking

By Jennifer Sinclair - posted Wednesday, 8 November 2006

The government must be quietly relieved that furore surrounding Sheik Hilali’s outburst has been resolved, at least for now. The Prime Minister took the view that it was a matter for the Muslim community to deal with but perhaps he should have taken the opportunity to strongly reassert the importance of tolerance in a democratic society because this seems to me as important an issue as what has been called “the gender issue”.

Tolerance is sometimes belittled by conservatives as a wishy-washy virtue that stands for nothing, but the Imam’s comments show, by default, that tolerance is a practice that has to be learned and exercised in a democracy.

The practice of tolerance involves self-restraint and thinking carefully before speaking in public. It involves speaking in ways that take account of and display consideration for others whose views may differ from yours. The Imam’s comments indicate he has not yet grasped the importance of tolerance in a democratic culture.


Tolerance is a difficult issue for fundamentalist monotheistic religion in general. Tanveer Ahmed has recently argued that the problem with fundamentalist Islam is their literal interpretation of the Koran. This is no doubt part of the problem, but US religious and literary scholar, Regina Schwartz, identifies a different and thought-provoking problem with monotheism more generally, which suggests a lack of tolerance among fundamentalist religious groups to be a particularly intractable problem.

In her book, The curse of Cain: The violent legacy of monotheism, published some years ago and nominated for a Pulitzer prize, Schwartz suggested that the story of Cain and Able, rather than Adam and Eve, can be read as the primary tale for monotheistic religions.

She argues that the issue at stake in the story is that both Cain and Able seek divine favour and yet only one is granted it. The stories in the Old Testatment, Schwartz claims, work on a principle of “divine scarcity”. In this economy of divine scarcity only one person, one group, one religion can gain divine favour. And, as Schwartz notes, the god from whom favour is sought is a violent, jealous and vengeful god.

A theology of divine scarcity therefore seems to have an in-built antipathy towards, and competition with, “the other”. It’s a theology that draws its strength and identity from the construction and reinforcement of clear boundaries between the purity, holiness and acceptability of the one group, in search of divine favour, and the “others” who are deemed unworthy of it.

In the case of fundamentalist Islam, this can translate into a view that Western culture in general, and Western women in particular, are (some of) the “others” who fall outside the bounds of god’s favour.

The pursuit of divine favour is surely part of what drives Islamic suicide bombers. Divine favour is gained by showing their willingness to die in the defence of the purity and holiness of god and also gained by murdering “infidels”. This is why it’s a particularly disturbing theology.


Schwartz’s goal is not to condemn monotheistic religion - far from it - and she points out that the same texts and stories from which this divisive theology is derived also contain images and stories of another kind of god, a generous, loving god of abundance who freely gives to all and accepts others. Schwartz also points out, however, that interpretations that emphasise an exclusive, jealous and authoritarian god are unfortunately those that have gained most currency and tend to be more commonly authorised and promulgated in fundamentalist religious communities.

A principle of divine scarcity where only one group is acceptable, only one group is right and only one group capable of attaining divine favour is troubling for a democratic culture because it precludes the possibility of a diversity of opinion; a diversity of religious belief and functions to erect boundaries.

Central to democratic cultures is the practice of tolerance as a way of managing diversity peaceably and it’s this same principle of tolerance that enables fundamentalist forms of religion to be practiced, within certain bounds, even if the majority of the population sees things differently, hold different values and do not agree with fundamentalist religious values.

The Imam was correct, when in his defence, he claimed he is entitled to tell Muslim women how to dress. But he is not entitled to do it in a way that gives the impression of vilifying other women who live in the same community but who do not share Muslim views.

That fundamentalist Islam is not met with violence by the state is because we have a tolerant democracy that allows for a diversity of views. This is why tolerance has to be defended and reasserted when fundamentalist views appear to disregard it.

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About the Author

Jennifer Sinclair is a writer and researcher and Adjunct Research Associate at Monash University.

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