When John Locke wrote his Letter on Tolerance in 1689, he argued for the necessity to accept religious plurality (apart from atheism seen as unacceptable and dangerous). He meant to distinguish the authority of the State and that of the Church: Temporal power, the State, drew up laws and managed the social contract and civil peace between citizens, who must be free to choose their religion and dogmas. Locke addressed the two powers and developed arguments from the standpoint of powers: The State must manage the citizens’ diversity and protect their individual and civil freedom, and the Church must also inside civil society ‘tolerate’ other religions and recognise their individual freedoms. Tolerance is thus seen as a means to distinguish and restrict powers, which are sometimes merged and exclusive, and prone to excess.
A century later, Voltaire was driven by the same intention: The Treaty on Tolerance also sets out to resist power abuses and appeal to men’s conscience. It addresses the State, the church and God, so that all those instances of power may promote accepting differences and tolerance as a principle of humanity. Its reflections and arguments are based on a conception of man and of human relationships devised and defended on the basis of demanding rationality: Here again, power abuses must be resisted and authorities must be sent a strong, well-argued message, based on the power of reason and common sense, in order to refuse intolerance and the ensuing wars, deaths and injustices. Autonomous critical reason speaks out against absolute authority, its imposed dogmas, its blind certainties and human claims to the absolute. It means to remind men who have the power to take themselves for God or to act in God’s name that they are but human beings and that claiming to hold the only truth leads to unacceptable horrors and miscarriages of justice contrary to the messages of goodness that they claim to defend. Like Locke, Voltaire (together with Enlightenment philosophers) assails the citadel of a political and religious authority that must — from where it decides and acts — make the choice of tolerance.
In the primary rational, social, religious and political sense, power must learn to tolerate the other’s existence, to literally ‘suffer his presence’, and to put up with plurality.
What used to be an act of resistance in the face of powers (who can also be represented by the majority, the elite, wealth, etc) and a brave, determined appeal calling them to tolerance, takes on a new meaning and substance when what is involved is equal relationships, free human beings, citizens in civil society or even relationships between different cultures and civilisations. Calling powers to tolerance consisted in asking them to measure their strength and limit their capacity for harm: This implied accepting a power play, a potential authority relationship such as could exist between the state and individuals, the police and citizens, the colonisers and the colonised. Deviances, misbehaviours and a few differences can be ‘tolerated’ — they are ‘suffered’. But when the issue is no longer resistance and limiting powers, the positive dimension of tolerance is inverted: It becomes gratuitous generosity from those who dominate and hold political, religious and/or symbolic authority, the authority of number and/or of money. Tolerance is the intellectual charity of the powerful. On an equal footing, one does not expect to be accepted or tolerated: That others should ‘suffer’ one’s presence is insufficient for oneself, and unsound for them.
In relationships between free and equal human beings, between autonomous, independent nations or between civilisations, religions and cultures, one can no longer call for tolerance of others. On equal terms, what matters is no longer to concede tolerance, but to raise and educate oneself to respect.
Then, the disposition of the heart and mind is quite different. This begins with recognising the fact and necessity of the other’s presence in my own conception of the world. The earliest African and Asian traditions as well as Hinduism, Buddhism then monotheisms, explicitly or implicitly recognise the necessity of other ways: Either because they state that there are several ways of leading to the truth or because that presence influences and shapes my own way of conceiving my own relationship to my truth.
Pluralism is here a condition of humility and a protection against potential excess. Islam confirms this transversal teaching by synthesising the two dimensions. The verse Had God so willed, He would have made you a single community is echoed by others which reveal the essence and finality of this diversity: ‘Had not God checked some groups of people [nations, societies, religions] by means of others, the earth would have been corrupted and monasteries would have been pulled down as well as synagogues, churches and mosques.’ Diversity, balance of powers, indeed involve a risk of conflicts and strife. Yet, it is for all men a condition of survival and an education to measure and humility. Thus looking out to consider the world and societies as they are brings the conscience back into itself and compels it to reassess its own tendency to believe that its own truth alone is true: We are forever lured by the sirens of the dogmatic mind, with its haughty complacency, which determines that one’s relationship to others is only meaningful when one tries to convince them of one’s single truth. Holding a dialogue then consists in speaking, never listening: The other is the privileged scope of my proselytism. My truth has thus become a blind, blinding passion: It imprisons me; it was supposed to liberate me; an alienation.
An act of reason is therefore necessary, first of all, to teach us how to become reasonable. Recognising the diversity of paths and the equality of all human beings are the first two conditions of respect (through which the power play involved in the relationship of tolerance can be overcome). To this factual, objective recognition, one should also add a disposition of the mind: If I can tolerate and suffer the presence of what I do not know, I cannot respect others without trying to know them. Respect, therefore, calls for an attitude that is not passive but active, and proactive, towards others: Being curious of their presence and their being and attempting to know them after recognising them. Recognition, active curiosity and knowledge bring our intelligence and our hearts into the universe of the other’s complexity: We can thus gain access to his principles, his hopes, his tensions, his contradictions, as well as the diversity of trends which run through his universe of reference. Tolerance can reduce the other to the simplicity of his presence; respect opens us up to the complexity of his being. As in a mirror, it means recognising the other to be as complex as oneself: He is the equal, the mirror, the question; the other in me and myself in him.
Yet, nothing is ever fully achieved. Rejection, intolerance, xenophobia, individual and institutionalised racism, missionary proselytism, colonising temptations, imposed truths and collective, passionate, if not hysterical and deaf complacencies will never stop threatening men, rich or poor, and societies, industrialised or not. Human beings will never be totally safe from that dark side of their humanity. Spiritualities, philosophies and religions run through History to remind us of those fragilities, those vulnerabilities, those risks — they are so many reminders along the road, as their own excesses must also be. One should observe the world, and observe oneself, with the humility of those who feel and know, deep within themselves, how important it is to engage in a continuous, perpetually renewed education to humanity; to learn to listen and listen to oneself, everyday, always. This is a truth: Nothing is ever fully achieved — neither respect, nor love.
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of Islam and the Arab Awakening.