Is tolerance political?

In his book, The Limits of Tolerance, Columbia University Press, 2019, which is intellectually very inspiring because of the many questions it addresses and raises, Denis Lacorne traces the emergence of the notion of tolerance from its early thinkers to the Age of Enlightenment and finally questions the notion and its various understandings through more recent events in France and the United States. The interview was conducted at Sciences Po, Paris.

Tekst: Miriam Périer  Foto:  Gallimard

What is “genuine” tolerance?

There is no “genuine” tolerance, but several forms of tolerance and several definitions of the terms which may conflict with one another. The latin root of the term, the verb tolero, means to accept, put up with or bear a burden. Politically it refers to a prince or a sovereign who accepts, permits or recognizes as legitimate a minority religion, without giving it the same rights as the official or established religion. This permission is always conditional and could be withdrawn at any time. This is what I call the “old definition of tolerance”. There is also a different definition, which does not see tolerance as a burden, but as the acceptance of a wide variety of viewpoints and beliefs, without establishing a system of domination. No church, no religion can be viewed as superior or inferior to another. Believers and non-believers alike possess equal rights and benefit from the same constitutional guarantees enforced by the courts. This is what I call the “modern definition of tolerance”. The important point is that members of minority religions, dissenters, heretics, schismatics, etc. are to be respected even though their beliefs do not have to be approved. In this case “all should live in peace like brothers, friends and citizens” as the Edict of Nantes once proclaimed.

There are also distinct regimes of tolerance which I define in the chapters on the Ottoman Empire, the Venetian Republic and Eighteen century North-America: an “Imperial- bureaucratic” regime of tolerance in Turkey, a “mercantilist” regime of tolerance in Venice and a “religious and colonial” regime of tolerance in North America.

I also discuss the rise in the 1980s, particularly in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom of “multicultural tolerance”. This type of tolerance tends to privilege the group over the individual and values the preservations of traditions and rituals considered essential for the identity of the group. It is often conflictual, particularly when demands for exemption from general laws are expressed by non-mainstream religious groups such as Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Amish.

Is tolerance a political act and has it always been?

Religious tolerance, the center of my interest, cannot be separated from political considerations. Before the French and American revolutions, tolerance mostly depended on the will of a ruler according to the old principle Cuius regio, eius religio (“he who governs the territory decides its religion”) established after the Peace of Augsburg (1555). With the rise of liberal, constitutional democracies at the peak of the Enlightenment, tolerance implied the defense of new rights and principles: the equality of all citizens, whether believers or not, a genuine separation of Church and State, the complete neutrality of state authorities, the free exercise of religion in the public sphere, and by implication a complete freedom of expression (which led to the abolition of anti-blasphemy laws). Tolerance became inseparable from what Tom Paine called a “universal right of conscience”. Critics of the concept of tolerance have often argued that tolerance is a mask for hidden power relations, the expression of a discourse of domination. For these critics, ethnic minority and non-traditional gender groups are only tolerated because they are not recognized as full, equal participant in the community of citizens. Such critiques are in certain ways justified, but they only apply to the old concept of tolerance as I define it, and they also tend to exaggerate the differences between a supposedly tolerant West and an intolerant non-West. Intolerance and religious fanaticism are very much a part of Western history as illustrated by the Crusades, the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the short term triumph of Savanarole in Florence, the Thirty Years War or the execution of young Chevalier de La Barre for the crime of blasphemy in the France of Louis XV.

A few years ago, in France, the use of a “burkini” by a few women on several beaches in the south of the country triggered “an absurd and sterile debate in the media” you write in the epilogue to this English edition of your book, “about the dignity of women and the place of religion in the public sphere.” A few weeks ago, early 2019, in France again, a sportswear brand renounced selling a sports hijab due to political and public pressure. Do you think the gender issue can be used as a way of hiding religious intolerance?

Modern Tolerance as I understand it implies that religious minorities are not discriminated against and that the public square is open to all, including those who wear religious clothing. It is often difficult to differentiate between cultural and religious traditions, but state officials are not theologians and it is not up to them to permit or ban Islamic veils, burquini or sports hijab. The Conseil d’Etat in its decision against the burquini ban on French beaches reaffirmed strong constitutional principles (principes généraux du droit) with which I fully agree: one should be able to “come and go” in the public sphere as he or she wishes; choosing a dress or a sports hijab is an essential personal freedom that should not be restricted by an arbitrary and discriminatory public policy. In my view personal freedom, religious freedom and freedom of trade and industry trump other principles such as dignity and equality between men and women which remain poorly defined by French courts with regard to allegedly religious clothing. In 1905, when Charles Chabert, a French deputy from the department of the Drôme proposed an amendment to the famous 1905 Law on the Separation of Church and State, banning all priests’robes in public, Aristide Briand, the law’s principal sponsor denounced a measure which would expose the government to the “reproach of intolerance” and to a much greater danger: “ridicule”. From the viewpoint of a Muslim woman, the burquini, like the sports hijab signify leisure, fun and fitness. Objecting to such clothing can only tarnish the legitimacy of French secularism (laïcité).

Should the defence of free speech mean that we should tolerate the intolerant? Does free speech have limits?

There are indeed limits to free speech and they vary from country to country. In the United States, hate speech, i.e. speech that can be hurtful or can create harm is protected by the First Amendment. This includes speech that can be perceived as offensive or racist or which stigmatizes a person because of his/her race, religion or gender. The only limit is a speech causing a person or a group of person to fear for their safety. The only red line is “imminent lawlessness” or imminent violence. A neo-Nazi demonstration, the use of anti-semitic, racist or homophobic slogans are acceptable as long as they do not create a situation of imminent and intentional violence. In Europe, according to a famous decision of the European Court of Human Rights (Handyside v. United Kingdom, 1976), opinions that “offend, schock, or disturb” a fraction of the population are acceptable as long as they do not disturb the public order. For most European countries, the defamation of religions does not constitute a crime. Mocking religious beliefs in works of art, cartoons, or films is acceptable as long as it expresses a robust debate of ideas, fully compatible with “the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness” (ECHR). But there are subtle variations from country to country. Germany and France, for instance, have adopted laws that penalize the denial of the Holocaust. But there are other limits to free speech. In France, religious beliefs do not constitute a protected form of speech: there is no right to the respect of religious beliefs.  Offensive or insulting caricatures such as Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of Muhammad are accepted as a legitimate expression of free speech as long as they do not target the whole Muslim community but a fraction of it: a small group of extremists. Hate speech or insults that are not aimed at beliefs as such, but at believers are prohibited and can be penalized by the courts if they constitute a provocation favoring discrimination, hatred or violence against a group of persons on account of their ethnic, national, racial origins or religious affiliation (Pleven Law of 1972 modifying the French Press Law of 1882). Tolerance when pushed to its limits is dangerous and can have unpredictable consequences. Such a danger should be recognized and accepted: it is what democracy is all about. But physical violence (or imminent violence) exercised by fanatics cannot be accepted.


Denis Lacorne is senior research fellow with the CERI (Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales) at Sciences Po, Paris. His books in English include Religion in America: A Political History (Columbia, 2011) as well as Language, Nation, and State: Identity Politics in a Multilingual Age (2004) and With Us or Against Us: Studies in Global Anti-Americanism (2005), both coedited with Tony Judt.

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