Striving for religious tolerance

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Friday, September 17, 2010

In his Sept. 11 PostPartisan commentary, "Obama and the right to burn books," Charles Lane looked to the wrong 21st-century administration for an example of how a president's warnings can exert a chilling effect on speech. President Obama's argument that burning Korans is counterproductive is a far cry from, say, Ari Fleischer's warning after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that Americans need to "watch what they say."

Mr. Obama was highlighting a legitimate threat to the safety of American soldiers that could stem from burning the Koran; more important, images of Americans burning Korans would contribute to the widespread misconception that America is engaged in a war against Islam, rather than a war on al-Qaeda, undermining the distinction that President Bush took pains to draw.

Mr. Obama did not insinuate that the power of the state would be used to infringe Mr. Jones's freedom of expression. Mr. Lane was troubled by Mr. Obama's "efforts to hector Jones into changing his mind." Such hectoring is, in fact, the best response to hate speech. It is precisely what I admire about the United States: The right to express unpopular and ugly opinions is protected as an absolute, but there is a civic duty among citizens and elected officials to counter such views and make them unacceptable in the public sphere.

Anthony Cantor, Toronto

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In his Sept. 12 Outlook essay, "Even now, Muslims must have faith in America," Tariq Ramadan wrote: "American society, including Muslims, faces a choice: It can be driven by mistrust, fundamentalism and populism, or it can rely on constructive religious and civic organizations working for a better common future."

The day after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Imam Shamshad of the Ahmadiyya mosque in Silver Spring reached out to the Rev. Liz Lerner, our minister at Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring. In the spirit of healing, Imam Shamshad presented the Rev. Lerner with a Koran. They became friends, and in the years since, members of our congregations have joined one another at services.

On Sept. 12, 2010, the Rev. Lerner -- in an effort to stand up to the religious intolerance of Florida pastor Terry Jones -- presented the Koran to our church as the first volume in a new scripture library, dedicated to religious understanding and tolerance. In her dedication, she asked: "What better way to start this library, what better way on this day, than by starting with this Koran, given as a token of esteem by a Muslim friend?"

I suspect that others responded similarly in affirming their belief in the importance of religious tolerance. And I wonder whether the Rev. Jones's efforts to inflame hatred of Islam served instead to galvanize the forces for love and inclusion.

Maybe God does indeed move in mysterious ways.

Bob Hirshon, Takoma Park


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