The New York Times

March 24, 2002

Other People's Religions


Americans don't like religious intolerance, and who can blame them? When backed by state power, it can lead to murder and mayhem, which is why our founding fathers insisted on the separation of church and state. People who disparage other faiths no longer come off as commendably pious, as they did centuries ago; now they just seem boorish. So naturally, when Los Angeles school officials discovered anti-Semitic commentary in an edition of the Koran donated to school libraries last fall by a local Islamic foundation, they pulled the books off the shelf. Then, to emphasize that they weren't discriminating against Islam or protecting the feelings of Jews only, they announced the formation of a committee to review the commentaries accompanying all religious texts in their collection. The idea is to get rid of ''any matter reflecting adversely on persons because of their race, color, creed, national origin, ancestry, sex or occupation.''

Here's the problem with the Los Angeles school district's fair-mindedness: It fails to grasp an inevitable part of religion. Most world religions originally preached intolerance of other religions. To take its mission statement at its word, the committee would have to expunge from school libraries the holy books of at least the three major creeds in this country, since their primary texts and annotations thereof are often suffused with antipathy toward unbelievers, as well as toward such nationalities as, say, the Egyptians and the Canaanites, and occupations like prostitute, moneylender and tyrant. To scrub even the footnotes to Scripture of intolerance, you have to erase religious history.

Consider the Koran. The offending commentary accompanies the second chapter, in which Muhammad, speaking for Allah, reviews the history of monotheism up until his day so as to demonstrate the superiority of Islam to Judaism and Christianity. He embraces the prophets of those religions, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but rejects their followers, who in his opinion misunderstand the prophetic messages. What's his evidence? The backsliding chronicled in biblical texts, for one, and the Jews' refusal to embrace Islam for another.

This sounds self-serving, but you have to see it from the perspective of the believer committed to the truth of the new religion. He would consider deliberately obtuse a person who recognized the one God but denied his latest revelation. "If God is one and His Message is also one and fundamentally indivisible, surely mankind should be one community," wrote the University of Chicago scholar Fazlur Rahman, explaining that the Koran condemned Jews and Christians -- but particularly Jews -- as sectarians who betrayed the universal nature of monotheistic truth.

In the edition banned by the Los Angeles school district -- one of the most popular translations of the Koran in the English-speaking world -- the translator, writing in 1934, expounds on the troubling verses in ways that seem in no way out of keeping with their denunciatory tone. "The Jews in their arrogance claimed that all wisdom and all knowledge of Allah were enclosed in their hearts," he writes. "Their claim was not only arrogance but blasphemy. In reality they were men without Faith."

You'd have to be pretty thick-skinned not to bristle at this, especially if you were Jewish, but Jews who don't want their own sacred writings removed from library shelves should probably remain calm. Founding religious documents almost always disparage previous or competing religions in order to prove the need for the one they are trying to establish. This holds especially true for monotheistic religions, which assert that they are in possession of unique knowledge about God. A footnote to an edition of the Torah used in most Conservative synagogues until last year, for example, explains that Canaanites had to be conquered "because of the savage cruelty and foul licentiousness of their lives and cult." When it comes to speaking ill of Jews, the New Testament is at least as bad as the Koran; so is some modern-day Christian exegesis.

One way to deal with unpalatable remarks in sacred books is to frame them with the kind of scholarly commentary that puts those remarks into a safely historical perspective. (This seems particularly prudent when the people attacked are still extant today, as is the case with the Jews.) Some scholars who support the Los Angeles school board's decision say that what's called for is a more responsible -- meaning historical -- edition of the Koran. Theirs is a well-intentioned but also presumptuous demand. Not all religions are willing to distance themselves through scholarship from their own literature, and it seems intolerant to insist that they must. Judaism, though it backed away from much of its xenophobia during its rabbinic period, did not welcome what 19th-century German historians of religion called Wissenschaft des Judentums -- the scientific study of Judaism -- until the 20th century, and even now many Orthodox Jews reject it. Mainstream Christian commentary on the Old and New Testaments remained openly anti-Semitic until almost as recently. In 1974, the Roman Catholic theologian Rosemary Ruether wrote that Christian seminarians were learning a religious history that "negates ongoing Jewish existence. . . . This selective ignorance is then passed on in the teaching and preaching of Christianity in the churches in a way that continues to inculcate the myth of the carnal, legalistic and obsolete 'Jew.'"

There aren't many editions of the Koran that could satisfy Los Angeles school officials. If we want to understand how the faithful perceive their faith, we would do better to look at how they represent it to themselves than to demand that they undergo a crash course in Enlightenment thought for our benefit. Our laws do not require that religions sanitize themselves so as to suit our modern sensibilities. John Locke, in his "Letter Concerning Toleration" (1689), still the best manifesto on the division of church and state, says the civil authorities should forbid only that which is "not lawful in the ordinary course of life, nor in any private house." To attack someone physically because of his religion, or blow up a building in which he works, is a punishable offense. To denigrate that religion is not.

And thank God for that! If we weren't allowed to disagree violently about our beliefs, what could we disagree about? Our hairstyles? Religious freedom requires as much elbowroom as intellectual freedom, notwithstanding the intensity of feeling aroused by theological debate. Maybe the Los Angeles school officials were right to think that such discussions don't belong in public schools. But I'm skeptical. Young people are at least as intelligent as the rest of us. With instruction, they ought to be able to grasp that systems of belief can be at once appealing and repugnant, and that the student's job is to discriminate between those qualities. That's what discrimination -- the good kind -- is for.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company