Yesterday, I had a discussion with a friend of ours and had the opportunity to tell her a little bit about our organization. While she had no disagreement with our organization in principle, she was curious to know if there was still religious intolerance in the world. At first, I thought that this was a somewhat naive question, but it dawned on me that in certain circles within the U.S., we are sheltered from the tremendous intolerance in the world, and even right here in the U.S. By the end of the conversation, she was reminded of all the intolerance that certain religious communities (sometimes minorities and sometimes not) have to experience on a daily basis.
Among some of the first major instances of religious intolerance that I can remember in recent years was the Taliban government’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhas_of_Bamiyan These centuries old monuments to the pre-Islamic presence of Buddhism within Afghanistan were deemed to be “idols” by the Taliban government and were demolished despite widespread worldwide condemnation of the action. This was seen as an example of the intolerance of the Taliban regime.
There has been a variety of incidents in the newly liberated Egypt in which Muslim fundamentalists have committed senseless acts of violence against the Coptic Christian minorities that have lived in Egypt since the earliest times of Christianity, since before the prevalence and proliferation of Islam.
Lest one think that intolerance is the franchise only of Muslims, I must remind the reader of the recent destruction of Korans by U.S. forces in Afghanistan (whether deliberate or careless) and the subsequent murders of 17 innocent civilians committed by Staff Sgt. Robert Bates. Allow me to remind the reader also of the many incidents in which civilian contractors, such as those employed by Blackwater, have gone unpunished for the random massacres of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rampant torture and murder of Iraqi and Afghani people by U.S. forces over the last decade of warfare in both countries has unfortunately become programmatic and emblematic of our presence there, despite widespread efforts by the U.S. military hierarchy to curtail this lawless and religiously unjustified violence. It may appear to some as if the benefits of allowing soldiers to express themselves in violent ways outweigh the flak generated by the incidents—at least in the eyes of the “powers that be”.
In China, a lack of religious freedom has become standard and programmatic for their nation since the Communist takeover in the early part of the twentieth century. People are regularly jailed for seeking religious freedom. An entire country—Tibet—has been conquered and denied its religious freedom, all for the sake of Communist ideology. I had a student, hailing from North Korea, that had been jailed for many years in a Chinese Prison for seeking to investigate various religious ceremonies while on tour as a professional musician. Her husband and son were subsequently jailed as well. After many hard years, her freedom was won by Christian missionaries in South Korea who labored successfully to reunite her family in freedom. They now reside here in the U.S., her having then become a student of mine.
Lest one think that Christians have been innocent of the crime of intolerance, I remind the reader that it has become a general war cry in the U.S. to deny Islamic Americans the right to have a house of worship anywhere near 9/11 Ground Zero, as if no Muslims were killed in that disaster; as if that attack were foisted corporately upon the Christian world by the entire Muslim world. This is tantamount to denying German and Polish Christians the right to have churches anywhere nearby the sites of former Nazi concentration camps, interpreting the Holocaust corporately as an act of Christian violence. In addition, the intolerance embodied by Pastor Terry Jones, who has called for the burning of Korans, is by no means an isolated sentiment. Many conservative and fundamentalist Christians today seem to have a very uninformed attitude toward Islam, their fellow Abrahamic faith, as if they did not worship the same God.
Many Jews today, both inside and outside of Israel, seem to think that the Palestinians who for over six decades have fought for their right to exist in the nation of Israel, are interlopers, intruders, invaders, when in fact, there is strong genetic and anthropological evidence that the Palestinian people are genealogically and ethnically related to the Jews—that many of them are descendants of Jews who remained in the land of Palestine during the many expulsions and diasporas in which the majority of Jews migrated to Eastern and Southern Europe. That is to say, the Muslim and Christian faith of many of these Palestinians is a recent change of identity of these long lost brethren—children of Jacob and Abraham.
And needless to say, Jews themselves still suffer sometimes overt and sometimes subtle oppression and anti-Semitic behavior all around the world. It was only a few years ago that one could see commonly posted backlash against the Jews as “Christ killers” right after the premier of the film, The Passion of the Christ”, whether intended by the filmmaker or not. Churches in random places proudly presented their anti-Semitic sentiments on their billboards and marquees: “Jews killed the Lord Jesus”. http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/2873395/detail.html As a secular Jew, my father used to remind me often that “you can forget you are a Jew for only so long in this world, until there is an anti-Semite there to remind you.”
So, is there a need for tolerance in our world? Does an organization that promotes religious tolerance still have a place? Or are we merely barking up a tree that has already been cut down or replanted? Is it a vain argument or a moot point, such as the outcome of the Civil War? Or do we have a job to do, mandated not only by a benevolent and tolerant God, but also by human decency? You better believe we do. I’m devoting my life to it. Who’s with me? Volunteer to help the Institute and other tolerance-oriented non-profits. Stand up and be counted!