In “A Letter Concerning Toleration” from exile in the Netherlands, John Locke articulated a truly liberal view concerning freedom of conscious that he hoped might help resolve Europe’s raging religious war that had killed millions. Europe’s religious conflicts and Christian sectarian wars raged in the 16th and 17th centuries with tumultuous debates centering on claims by existing state-church infused institutions of exclusivity and dominion over society. What denomination should have the right to define religion within the state, and more importantly what was to be done with those citizens that ascribe to different sects other than the one sanctioned by the authorities at the time were the causes of strife at the time.
In “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” Locke critiqued the existing religious order at the helm, stating: “These are the marks of men striving for power and empire over one another than of the Church of Christ.” For Locke, religion and the church were “not instituted in order to the erecting of an external pomp, nor to the obtaining of ecclesiastical dominion, nor to the exercising of compulsive force, but to the regulating of men’s lives, according to the rules of virtue and piety.” More profoundly, Locke identified that the central calling for religion is to help mankind wrest control of its “own lusts and vices” and not in seeking worldly power and dominion.
Locke correctly argued that religious violence is driven by an attempt to arrive at and enforce by means of state power a single true religion on society. Religious zealots, according to Locke, deserve rebuke due to their “claim that they are acting out of love and care for men’s souls when they take their estates, maim them with whips, starve and torture them in stinking prisons, and finally kill them.” Indeed, zealots use violence and power to coerce religious uniformity in society, which for Locke leads to greater social disorder and disintegration. More critically, a striving for worldly power and dominion drives zealots to action.
What would a letter concerning Muslim toleration look like, and what elements should be critiqued in the existing religious-state order? Could it be that Locke was influenced by early Muslim conceptualizations of toleration that made it possible for different religious communities and sects to coexist and strive to achieve a collective public good? Whether Locke and Enlightenment philosophers were influenced or borrowed from Muslim thinkers is an important academic discussion to be had. However, what to do of the current absence of tolerance in Muslim-majority societies is the acute crisis that must be confronted so as to prevent further bloodshed and disintegration.
Muslim tolerance and embracing of religious, ethnic, gender and racial diversity has textual bases and emerges directly from the Quran and sound prophetic traditions. “No compulsion in religion” is a declaration in the Quran that is foundational to matters of belief and freedom of conscious. No state or religious institution has been granted the authority in the Quran or hadith to force conversion or enforce the adoption of the Islamic religious point of view favored by the existing authorities. Indeed, the Quran offers a positive and divinely articulated human diversity, “among the signs of your Lord are differences in your tongues and skin tones,” and affirming religious pluralism because God willed it to be the case as a tribulation for all. Consequently, the challenge is not in identifying the differences in each tradition, rather it is in understanding one’s own tradition in relations and in conversations with all others while striving to manifest the highest ideals contained therein.
Power, state and religion should not be confused to be one and the same, for each has its own constitutive elements and addresses particular needs of society. The current proclivity in the Muslim world to seamlessly infuse the power of the nation-state with exclusive religious identity in practical matters of statecraft is a problem that produces prolonged social disorder, fragmentation and violence. This infusion becomes more complicated when the state is narrowly constructed around a sect that pursues literalist and antagonistic religious discourses toward other sects within the fold of Islam and pernicious policies and attitudes against those outside the tradition.
Muslim zealots approach the nation-state as a tool through which they can produce publicly sanctioned exclusivist affirmation of their particular and narrow sectarian understandings and a means to exclude all others from society’s affairs. Members of each sect are 100 percent sure that their point of view is the absolute and only truth while all others are absolutely in error, which is an understandable position in matters of religion and belief. The problem arises when the sect populates the state structure and then directs its agencies to institute a religious litmus test against those who differ and use this as the basis to withdraw benefits and civil society’s protection. Muslim tolerance has to be centered on holding one’s position to be true with the possibility of it being in error as well as allowing for others to adhere to their own understandings while keeping civil society an equally open arena for all to participate and contribute to the betterment of society.