Politics & Policy

Tolerance, If Not Respect

Living with the beliefs of others--even Danish cartoonists.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the February 13, 2006, issue of National Review.

The deliberate dissemination of the now-infamous Danish cartoons in the Muslim world by a small group of hypocritical and treacherous Muslims living in Denmark has done the cause of religious tolerance throughout the world a great deal of harm. It has turned the willing suspension of the expression of religious and philosophical disagreement for the sake of harmonious social relations into an act of cowardice rather than of good manners. It has made even more difficult and unlikely the transformation of Islam into a private religious confession among many others that is the precondition of the successful integration of Muslims into Western societies. It has made an apocalyptic confrontation between whole regions of the globe more likely.

This is regrettable in the highest degree, of course. Whenever I write of Islam in the Western world, I have in the back of my mind the distress that my views, which under normal circumstances I would not express, might cause the Muslims whom I know and esteem. But I recall E. M. Forster’s famous (or infamous) remark that he hoped that, if it ever came to a choice, he would have the courage to betray his country rather than his friends, a view that if generalized might easily have led to the establishment of total tyranny.

Of course, giving offense to others is justified only where something important, such as liberty of thought and expression, is at stake. The trivial, naughty-boy type of transgression that has long been the characteristic of much of the art world is reprehensible. Outspokenness, like originality, is not a virtue in itself: Its value depends on its subject matter and the circumstances in which it is exercised.

I learned early in life that tolerance and respect are quite different things. One does not have to respect a man’s opinions to respect his right to have them: Indeed, tolerance would not be necessary if one respected everybody’s views. It hardly takes tolerance to tolerate what one respects. . . .

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Theodore DalrympleMr. Dalrymple, a retired doctor, is a contributing editor of City Journal and The New English Review. He is the author of False Positive: A Year of Error, Omission, and Political Correctness in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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