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Can a tolerant country tolerate those who hate tolerance?

  • June 13th, 2016

Last month I had a short (3 weeks) and humbling look into the Central Asia that launched Tamerlaine and Ghenghis Khan and many other less well known but regionally devastating conquerors.
I had several weeks in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, taking advantage of an offer by friends working there to join them as they explored some of it.
Uzbekistand in particular was awe inspiring (though Astana, the new purpose-built Kazakhstan capital is architecturally fascinating).

In Uzbekistan 35m hard working though poor people offer a warm welcome to awe-inspiring Samarkand, Buhkara, Khiva and post earthquake reconstructed Tashkent. Good food, knowledgeable guides, interesting wines from a very large wine industry, comfortable hotels, reliable transport. Why is it not over-run? Borat may have a lot to answer for.

The two Central Asia countries offered none of the expected badgering by hawkers or anyone else. 70 years of Soviet atheism has given Uzbekistan what Turkey is losing (officially secular state power co-existing with a mild Sufi Islam).

They’ve stayed mostly secular, despite infiltration and threats from neighbouring countries. They beat out a determined mainstream Islamist challenge 10 years ago, with no apologies for seeing it as a life and death matter.

It is challenging to one’s liberal beliefs to work out how the relative freedom and security of such countries could survive with the religious tolerance demanded by “Western” values.
10 years ago I did a job in Pakistan. Its intellectual life is dictated by the risk of prompt death for anyone who challenges Islamic orthodoxy, even if the mullahs represent only a small percentage of the population , and few of the qualified people who keep the country running.

For how long can a country survive if it tolerates those who do despise tolerance. How does it stop gaining a critical mass (which may be less than 5%) people whose religion says toleration by a ruler is sinful, with death and martyrdom as the proper responses to deviation, heresy, apostasy?

I felt last week what I feel every time I walk from Auckland International to the Domestic terminal. It is a huge privilege to be here. And this was added gratitude that I do not have to reconcile the diametrically conflicting certainties that drive so many ignorant people in our countries.



Hi Stephen

Sounds like a great trip.

In the light of Orlando, your question around how a liberal society deals with religious/ideological intolerance takes on even more urgency.

How do we correctly understand these events, and avoid denial on the one hand, and stereotyping all Muslims as terrorists on the other? How do we place todays killings, and those of San Bernardino, Chattanooga, Fort Hood, Paris, and Brussels into any meaningful context?

How does a liberal society defend itself against these attacks and avoid becoming a total surveillance state? Even then could surveillance alone really protect us?

Are we allowed to talk about our immigration policies, or is that totally off limits?

I’m not sure we are yet ready to have an adult conversation about these questions, or if our politicians ever will be.

  • Martin Lally
  • June 14th, 2016
  • 5:25 pm

In response to your question, sure, so long as they don’t threaten violence. Pakistan’s problem seems to be that it fails to prosecute those who threaten violence (I assume it has laws against threatening violence). Same principle for dealing with badly behaving children: what you ignore, you will get more of.

Martin Lally

  • graham harford
  • June 15th, 2016
  • 12:42 pm

Stephen commenting on tolerance? – a tad rich !

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