No to Tolerance, Yes to Citizenship
Most religious discourse about the other is dominated by the concept of “tolerance.” Religious jurists and thinkers never tire from repeating and popularizing the story about Islamic tolerance over the ages for those belonging to the “People of the Book.” We may concede, for the sake of the argument, the textual and theoretical truth of this story, even though its truth is weakened if we look at some periods of Islamic history when religious extremism dominated and the other was rejected to the point of total annihilation.
In our critique of the concept of tolerance, we cannot ignore a basic question that is connected to tolerance being imposed under certain unjust conditions concerning the right and freedom of groups. At the head of these conditions come things related to the building of churches and the role of worship, the exclusion from certain positions in the state, mixed marriage, and everything resulting from it. If we look back at times when extremism grew strong, we can mention poor treatment of dhimmis who were required to wear specific types of clothing and to carry weights around their necks, and were not allowed to ride horses as a form of humiliation and insult.
Then they never tire of talking about tolerance! Their evident proof is that non-Muslims were permitted to practice their rituals and worship and to have their personal status regulated by according to the rules and customs of their religious communities on the condition that they paid the jizya in exchange for not entering the army for the protection with Muslims of their homes. Any person who strives for full citizenship will reject this tolerance. It is not acceptable to any person who rejects conditions that fall short of complete equality for individuals within a single society, without any distinction on the basis of religion, creed, ethnicity, or sex.
Even if this tolerance was useful in bygone days, it is still something that belongs to bygone days. Our societies cannot remain backward relative to a modernity whose most important components include respect for the individual as a basic social value for human society, without which no society can stand. In our countries, the individual still has no value. He is incorporated, whether he likes it or not, into his religious, sectarian, or ethnic group. No weight is given to this individual unless he is included within his group and his weight comes from its weight. Whatever he may create or express within his field, he will remain relegated and marginalized within the boundaries of his group.
A healthy society is based on mutual rights and responsibilities among all its individuals, without dismissing any of them. In our age, it has become harmful to use an expression like “religious or ethnic minorities” and to negotiate over their rights and responsibilities and over tolerance for their existence and their religious practices and worship. Those who belong to these “religious minorities” long for a state in which they can live as individual citizens on the basis of equality with their partners in the nation, without pleading for tolerance or terms resembling it.
Islamic thinkers continue to approach the topic of the state and society through the lens of relations between religious and sectarian groups and not through the lens of the individual citizen and they still approach it through the lens of the majority’s toleration of the minority. This will return us to the era before the modern state, to the age of tribes and clans and ignorance.
Citizenship is what we desire and it requires universal respect and total equality without legislative or judicial reservations. In his book “Islam is Freedom and Dialogue” (Dar an-Nahar, 1999, p. 95), the Tunisian thinker Muhammad el-Talebi says, “Religious freedom is not a gift of charitable or benevolent tolerance that we grant to people who are in error.” We hope that we will arrive at a day when no citizen grants another citizen tolerance as an act of charity on account of the predominance of his religious or sectarian group.