Limits of tolerance in liberal democracies

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zafar Bangash

Jumada' al-Akhirah 05, 1427 2006-07-01


by Zafar Bangash (Reflections, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 5, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1427)

The West's commitment to liberalism and democracy has always been a convenient façade that falls apart at times of crisis. People have freedom so long as they do not need it; the West is tolerant only to the point that people conform to its prevailing values and policies. Dissent is tolerated only to the extent that the dominant systems do not feel threatened, which is not very far when it comes to Muslims. Any talk about rights and freedoms immediately leads to accusations that Muslims are advocating extremism that threatens the rest of society. Muslims have lived as minorities in Europe and North America for decades, but they are still not accepted as equal citizens. In some European countries, foreign immigrants are denied citizenship rights; in others, where citizenship is granted, they are treated as second or third-class citizens. In the Netherlands, for instance, immigrants applying for citizenship are required to view pornographic movies to prove that they are sufficiently enlightened to qualify for the honour.

It would be tempting to blame 9/11 for this turn of events, but a systematic campaign to demonize Islam was under way long before that. It got into high gear when it became clear that Soviet forces were about to be defeated in Afghanistan and that the Soviet Union itself was on the verge of collapse. The West needed another enemy, and Muslims were the perfect fit: they were a soft target and thoroughly disorganized. The West, especially the US, found this most convenient as, with few exceptions, Muslim governments were also subservient to the West and the ruling elites were so alienated from the Muslim masses that they could not stand up to US/Western bullying. This still left the issue of Muslims residing in Western societies unresolved. They could raise embarrassing questions about the West's policies, but could not be singled out from the rest of the population in the application of law – until 9/11.

Since 9/11, Muslims have been transformed into the enemy within, with the media acting as cheerleaders for government propaganda. In the US itself, more than 5,000 people have been arrested and abused in detention. Few have ever been charged with any crime, but the image of a terrorist threat from local Muslims has been firmly established in the public imagination. The same has happened in other countries, including Canada, and in Europe. In Britain, for instance, last month the police terrorized a Bangladeshi family in East London, raiding their home and shooting one youth, before later acknowledging that they had no involvement in terrorist activities. This case hit the headlines because of the shooting, but hundreds of similar cases of police harrassment of Muslims in Britain go unreported. The situation is little better in the rest of Europe.

While the immigration of non-white foreigners to European countries has always been an issue, and the US is known for its long history of racism and bigotry against its own African-American population, Canada has traditionally had a reputation for fairness, tolerance and an easy-going lifestyle. It is not an imperial power and has no such pretensions; its policy of multiculturalism is the envy of many. But all this appears to be changing. The manner in which the case of the 17 Muslim youths has been dealt with raises troubling questions about tolerance and the rule of law in Canada. One must point out that Canadians in general are not racists; they come from all backgrounds and cultures, and even the notion of a “typical Canadian” is a little quaint. It is the government and the media that have whipped up a storm about the alleged "homegrown threat" from Muslims. Among the refrains that are being heard with increasing intensity is that Muslims cannot fit in Canadian society, and that Islam and democracy are incompatible. The Canadian government wants to appease Washington because of its economic dependence on Uncle Sam, while the media no longer feel any constraints about printing blatantly Islamophobic cant. The same goes for the broadcast media; on radio and television programmes, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial are no longer values considered worth upholding.

Perceptive Muslims living in the West have always understood that, as the West's conflict with the Muslim world intensified, they too would come under pressure. Few expected, however, that anti-Muslim feeling would erupt with such ferocious intensity or that they would be targeted so blatantly. Muslims have legitimate concerns about the West's policies vis-à-vis the Muslim world, to which Canada also now fully subscribes, as its military deployment in Afghanistan confirms. But this is not something peculiar only to Muslims; a majority of Canadians of all backgrounds are opposed to the West's aggression against Muslims. So the question arises: why are Muslims being singled out? The simple answer is that they are an easy target because they are disorganized and ill-prepared to respond to attacks on them. There is, however, an emerging realization among Muslims that unless they change this state of affairs, they will be crushed as a community, and their future generations are unlikely to survive as Muslims, if they are to survive at all.

What remains to be seen is whether Muslims are capable of rising to this challenge.

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