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VIII. Tolerance and Politics

For a very long time, religion was considered as a State matter; priests were part of the political system. And no one could profess a religion which was not agreed by the State. In ancient times, no religion could be conceived as a matter of individual free choice. The king, or the emperor was in the same time the high priest of the official religion. Even in antique "democratic societies," religion was considered as part of the political system. In Athens, Socrates was condemned to die by drinking a poison because of blasphemy . In Rome, which had a very flexible conception of religion, any god could be adored at a condition that his statue be authorized to be placed in an official temple. Unicity of belief was considered as part of the necessary conditions for the stability and the survival of the State.

Such situation did not change much in the middle ages in Europe. All the kingdoms followed the motto:" one king, one religion."(unus rex, una religio). Religious minorities were simply slaughtered. Charlemagne, the founder of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire forced the Saxons to convert to Christianity; and those who refused to renounce paganism were sold as slaves to the Moors of Spain. The Teutonic Order converted the Poles and the peoples of the present Baltic States to Christianity by the use of violence, confiscated their lands and transformed them in "semi-slaves" attached to these lands. Spaniards, who had converted to Islam (the Moriscos) were expropriated , then massively expelled from their country at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Muslim Sicilians were first gathered in a narrow part of Southern Italy, then slaughtered in the thirteenth century. Jews were the subject of expulsion and expropriation whenever the official authorities and the church deemed it useful for their political, religious or economic purposes.

Referring to this lack of tolerance in Christian Europe, Fernand Braudel, a French historian, writes:

Christian intolerance... did not welcome strangers. It repelled them. And all those expelled from its lands- the Jews in 1492, the Moriscos of the sixteenth century and 1609-1614 - joined the ranks of the voluntary exiles, all moving towards Islam where there was work and money to be had. The surest sign of this is the wave of Jewish emigration, particularly during the second half of the sixteenth century, from Italy and the Netherlands towards the Levant.(1975, p 800)

The movement of Reformation of the Church, which started in the fifteenth century, was finally tolerated after nearly two hundred years of wars of religion which did not spare any of the European countries. And yet, in Germany, for instance, the political entities which emerged from these wars were established on the basis of religion. In France, the Edict of Tolerance adopted in the beginning of the Seventeenth century by the king Henry IV, who had converted to Catholicism to be able to take over the throne, lasted less than one century, and was abrogated by King Louis XIV, who led a particularly cruel war against the French Protestants.

Islam had a less strict policy as far as religious unity in Muslim-dominated political entities was concerned; while Muslim traders could not go beyond the ports in Christian countries and had to spend the night in their boats, local Christians were allowed to have Churches ; foreign Christians were allowed to travel freely in Moslem countries and even to have permanent compounds; even the mercenaries who were at the service of Muslim kings could practice their religion; by the same token, the Christian prisoners were free to organize masses every Sunday, Jews, who generally were descendants of local people converted to Judaism, were sufficiently well integrated in the Muslim societies so that when their communities were expelled from Spain and Portugal, most of them, as reminded by Braudel, chose to emigrate to Moslem countries.

Of course, freedom of creed was not as firmly established as now; there was no concept of "human rights", which is very recent, has emerged from the cruelties of the Second World War, (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10th, 1948)(Martin, 1998, p. c2) and has become only lately a "mantra" of international relations.

But at least, rights of religious minorities were not totally ignored or systematically violated in comparison to what was happening in Christian countries towards their religious minorities. Whoever wanted to practice his religion was not considered a rebel deserving immediate death. Islam is based on the principle: no coercion in religion, and the adage " you have your religion, I have mine."

Moslem rulers, who were not examples of good governance, because of the general absence of an institutional definition and limitation of their powers, generally respected these principles.

Another French scholar, Salomon Reinach, who does not give a very flattering description neither of the Quran nor of the prophet Mohammed who, according to him was :" subject to epileptic or hysterical attacks, which he almost simulated at convenient moments"(1930, p.173), recognizes, nevertheless, that :"whenever Islam has been introduced by conquest, as a rule the native populations have neither been massacred nor forcibly converted."(p. 177) and, about Jerusalem, writes that:

When Omar took Jerusalem in 636, he ensured the free exercise of their religion and the security of their persons and their goods to the inhabitants, both Jews and Christians. But when the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, they massacred all the Musulmans and burnt the Jews alive; it is said that seventy thousand persons were put to death in less than a week to attest the superior morality of the Christian faith.(p. 177)

Christianity in Europe has learnt to separate religion from politics relatively only recently in history; and maybe this country would have never existed if it were not for European fleeing religious persecution, who had nowhere to settle except this far-away land.

Can the explanation to this situation be found in the political strength of the Catholic Church which , as a counterpart to its support and its legitimization of the kings, refused any competition from other creeds? Or , as explained by Sweetman are these excesses due, "in Europe particularly, to an incomplete acceptance of Christian standards, with the consequent moral lapses which Peter Damian and others vehemently denounce"?(1955, p.4)It must be recognized that the Christian faith doesn't condone intolerance, and that Jesus was a man of peace who was loath to use or encourage violence against his opponents, in spite of some ambiguous sentences in the New Testament, which were interpreted by Catholic theologians as legitimizing coercion against sinners, thus against non-Christians.


Braudel, F. (1975).The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II- Volume 2( S. Reynolds, Trans.) New York: Harper Torch

David E. Martin: How Rhetoric became rights, in The Washington Post(Sunday November 1st1998, p. C2, Outlook section)

Reinach, S.(1930). Orpheus, a history of religions (Florence Simmons, Trans.).USA:Liveright Publishing Corp.

Sweetman, J. W.(1955). Islam and Christian theology-Part Two. London: Lutterworth Press