“I can’t stand intolerance!” (funnier said than read, I admit). Voltaire disapproved of intolerance but did not, as is commonly believed, actually say: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. But what are the limits to tolerance? It is all very well having the right to say something but what about the right to put words into action? And where the words or actions concern religion, where is the boundary to be drawn and should the law make exceptions?
An illustration of the problem arose last week in Poland over the issue of ritual slaughter. Slaughter without prior stunning was made illegal in Poland from 1 January 2013. In July, members of the Polish parliament voted against a draft amendment to the law on animal protection that would have allowed the slaughter of animals without prior stunning, if the slaughter were carried out in observance religious customs. Before last week’s festival of Eid the chief mufti of Poland announced that the ritual slaughter of lambs would continue in the one village, Bohoniki, in the Podlasie region of north eastern Poland (home to Polish Tartars who comprise some 5,000 of the estimated some 25,000 Muslims currently living in Poland) in spite of the illegality whereas the leader of the Moslem community in a neighbouring village stated that they would be abstaining from the slaughter although it was a limitation on their religious rights. Meanwhile, the Polish Minister of Administration and Digitalisation let it be known that he had encouraged Poland’s Muslim community to file a complaint with the Constitutional Court as Poland’s Union of Jewish Religious Communities has already done (is it not ironic how much more easily folk are able to agree about killing than living?)
In a further twist, early last Wednesday morning the mosque in Gdansk was attacked by arsonists, an attack which the local imam believes to have been an act of revenge for the Chief Mufti’s pledge to continue ritual slaughter and following angry exchanges the day before between the Polish Tartars and animal rights activists in Bohoniki. It is not yet clear who the arsonists were but, judging by the UK experience, extreme violence and intimidation is not unknown amongst animal rights activists who, at the best of times, seem to have a very selective approach to animals and cruelty. This week the local prosecutor said that the case was still be treated as arson despite some reports that bomb had caused the damage. The mayor of Gdansk appealed to the citizenry of Gdansk to help to fund the repairs at the mosque saying that the moment has come for solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters and that Gdansk always was, is and will be an open, tolerant city that is respectful towards all people, regardless of their faith.
Be that as it may one man’s ritual killing is another man’s unspeakable cruelty and since unnecessary cruelty to animals is generally considered, in Europe at least, to be undesirable, should a religious practice which offends against the generally prevailing will and, indeed the law of the land, be tolerated simply because it is claimed that to do otherwise would be intolerant or a restriction on the freedom to practice one’s religion?
Of course, ritual killing is just one small example, the wearing of full face veils another, where there is a growing tension between a culture which is traditionally tolerant of other religions and a culture which in its modern militant manifestation (the Ottoman Empire was remarkably tolerant of non-Islamic religions) increasingly is not. Indeed the response of our politicians seems always to appease or excuse when it comes to Islam but to leave virtually no stone unturned when it comes – especially in the UK, much less so in Poland – to undermining Christianity which is, after all, the foundation of European civilisation. It is surely not incompatible with the Christian exhortation to love your neighbour as yourself or to turn the other cheek at least to defend the civilisation which provides the safe space for the loving and cheek turning. Indeed, it is the failure to defend Western civilization which gives encouragement to the extremists: after all, they reason, if the West does not respect its own civilisation, why should the extremists? It is surely no accident that while extreme Islam is being appeased in Europe, Christianity is being extinguished in the Middle East and anywhere elsewhere militant Islam is active.
It is surely not intolerant to say that while all are free to follow their religion free from persecution certain overreaching values – in this case the wish to prevent animal cruelty – must take precedence over particular religious practices such as ritual killing. It is precisely because we do have these values that there is space for toleration but it is not possible to offer unlimited toleration of everything for everybody.
And if one group is allowed to opt out of the law on the religious grounds this gives rise to general resent resentment, especially if that religion represent a culture which is perceived to be alien. It is no accident that we now face the rise of the extremist political parties in Europe which, as I have written here before (please see Things to Come), is I suspect not because folk really wish to support extremist views but because they are increasingly frustrated by the main stream parties’ failure to listen to and act rationally upon those concerns. Marie Le Pen is seeking to create an EU wide alliance of populist anti-immigrant parties to fight together on a common manifesto in next year’s EU elections and, although she is seeking to distance the grouping from the more extreme parties such as Golden Dawn, the climate is becoming more hostile. If we are to live in peace with our Muslim brothers and sisters in Europe we need more a more constructive approach from our politicians, an approach which acknowledges that toleration will only survive if we protect the foundations upon which that toleration is built, which include the rule of law. But, alas, instead of constructive action, the electorate is fed a diet of politically correct garbage while the politicians gorge themselves at the trough of public money, treating the populace, metaphorically speaking, as sheep to be fleeced if not lambs to be slaughtered.