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There is a touch of hypocrisy in Mitt Romney's strident defense of free speech. It is hard to imagine that "freedom of speech" would be the first words out of his mouth if Jesus Christ were the target of ridicule instead of Muhammad.
Still, though Romney and his supporters would surely bristle at an offensive caricature of Jesus, the ambassadors of Muslim nations have nothing to fear from mobs of Christian fanatics. The United States has its fair share of religious zealots, but they are not prone to rioting and violence when their sacred symbols are profaned.
Why is that? Why are the Middle East and Indian subcontinent so much more more susceptible to religious explosions of mob violence than Western countries?
Answers to this question tend to come in one of two flavors. Liberals often focus on anti-American hostility as a reaction to U.S. imperialism. According to this rationale, the "Innocence of Muslims" video catalyzed the simmering resentment of the Arab street, which has at its source decades of poverty, indignity, and repression.
Conservatives tend to contrast the cultural and ideological differences between Western countries and the Middle East. Such explanations often harbor a not-so-subtle hint that Islam is simply an intolerant religion.
Neither explanation is satisfying. The liberal answer might address anti-American reactions to the YouTube video and Qur'an burnings, but it does little to explain the far more common repression of "blasphemy" and "heresy" within intolerant Muslim societies. Before the attack on the American consulate, Pakistani mobs howled for the blood of a poor Christian girl accused of burning the Qu'ran, Libyan fanatics systematically demolished Sufi shrines, and an Egyptian court sentenced a comedian to prison for insulting Islam. What do such examples have to do with America?
On the other hand, the conservative answer ignores centuries of Western heresy trials, pogroms, and other examples of Christian intolerance, not to mention contemporary Christian bigotry in Africa. Even the United States, proud land of the free, evolved from a colonial foundation that included the famously intolerant Puritans. Anti-Catholic violence proliferated in the 19th century, and blasphemy laws survived in some states until the 1930s. If Western societies have lately become more tolerant than those of the Middle East, how did they become so?
It is tempting to look to advances in education. Religious violence is often associated with poor, illiterate subcultures--from historical Europe to the modern Middle East. Therefore, we might reason, the root cause of religious intolerance is ignorance.
But if accurate, this answer begs the question. Not just any education can cure a society of intolerance. A madrasa system, for example, can have the opposite effect. Education can only reduce intolerance if it teaches tolerance. So there had to be a more fundamental social shift that caused Western countries to promote education--specifically secular liberal education--in the first place.
Without attempting to present a definitive answer, I'd like to suggest a way of thinking about religious intolerance that may point the way. One intriguing aspect of such intolerance is that minority sects rarely practice it against the majority. Christian Pakistanis do not attack Muslims for blasphemy. Sufi Libyans do not desecrate Sunni mosques. Brooklyn Hasidim do not throw rocks at cars that drive on the Sabbath. American Muslims do not storm the White House when someone burns a Qu'ran. It is only when a religious minority approaches the majority in population and power that it becomes aggressive. And even then, it tends to follow a tit-for-tat formula, as occurs between Muslims and Hindus in India.
So why do minorities seem to be more tolerant than majorities? Some people suppose that the experience of persecution produces a sense of enlightenment. Jews, for example, often proudly cite centuries of Jewish suffering to explain their open-mindedness.
But more often than not, such tolerance only applies to outsiders. The Jews of Europe certainly did not prosecute Christians for heresy, but they did prosecute other Jews. Indeed, the smaller the sect, the more likely it is to execute cult-like reprisals against dissenters within its ranks. And when minority groups become majorities--like the Puritans in Massachusetts, the Mormons in Utah, and the Jews in Israel--they often become aggressive towards outsiders as well.
What does this mean? I suggest that religious intolerance is at its root a social phenomenon. The primary motivation behind religious violence--from the lynching of blasphemers to the storming of consulates--is neither resentment against imperialist repression, nor ideological commitments to brutal religious doctrines. These are simply the excuses, the rationales. Instead, I argue that religious intolerance is usually an attempt by one powerful segment of society to bully a weaker segment into submission. It can occur at the macro level, as when nations enact and enforce blasphemy laws, or at the micro level, as when Amish zealots cut off their neighbors' beards.
What the Western world has developed, gradually and often painfully, are societies that constrain and sublimate our bullying tendencies. We have laws against discrimination, schools that teach tolerance, and values that encourage diversity.
We have not eliminated intolerance of course, but we have repressed it and channeled it into less violent expressions. Some of Mitt Romney's supporters may dislike atheists or Muslims. They may bridle at perceived offenses against Jesus or Christmas or Christian values. But they will, for the most part, exercise their anger at the ballot box and obey the laws that protect religious freedom in the United States.
If history is any guide, the Middle Eastern countries that currently lack such constraints and protections will develop them eventually, but it will take time.