Having just listened yesterday to a series of speakers examining the difficulties of Living While Black in these United States in 2015, Your Intrepid Reporter suggests that a historical perspective will provide some balance to the constant drumbeat of media claims that, somehow, the West originated the idea of tolerant acceptance of cultural and racial difference and struggles to uphold this value (and need only harken to its own values to improve the lives of its citizens).
Readers of the Old Testament, the Jewish Bible [almost if not quite the same thing], may recall the gratitude with which the tribal authors described the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great in Chapter 45 of the Book of Isaiah, responding to the conqueror of the Babylonian Empire giving the Jewish exiles in Babylon his permission to return to Jerusalem. Upon the occasion of return, basically, the religious authorities of the Jews then compiled and edited the religious and historical texts which we have today. Shortly after 550 BC, that is, the Jewish writers described Cyrus as “The Anointed One,” the Messiah, about whose return the Christians and Jews subsequently focussed a great deal of attention.
Higher estimation could hardly be provided to the Persian Empire’s founder, because of his practice, unusual (at least in the Middle East) in his day, of tolerating all sorts of different cultures, languages, and rites, so long as the various people of the Empire paid their taxes and provided soldiers for the army.
Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor who made Christianity the official religion of his empire — and began the long association of Christianity with so-called Western Civilization — was, by contrast, engaging in a movement away from toleration of different religions, standard practice in the Roman Empire until his day, toward intolerance and insistence upon a single religion for all subjects of the Empire of Rome. The Roman Pontiff, the Pope, then claimed for a good many centuries to be the Representative of God on Earth, Who demands fealty of all Christians, everywhere. An example of this conception of pontifical claims is the establishment of the Inquisition, under Pope Innocent III, during the Albigensian Crusade in southern France in the early 13th century.
So eight hundred years ago there was no such thing as toleration of different religions in Europe. Asia, however, where Cyrus had had his empire, was now the scene of the largest empire in the history of the world, that of the Mongols. How did the founder of this empire treat subjects’ religions? According to the encyclopedia, “To avoid strife, Genghis Khan set up an institution that ensured complete religious freedom, though he himself was a tengrist. Under his administration, all religious leaders were exempt from taxation, and from public service.”
In 1250 AD in the West, massive bloodshed by authorities demanding religious uniformity; in the East, “complete religious freedom.”
Ah, but that’s all so long ago. Still, it’s a pattern, eh? Let us move along, to the Renaissance and Reformation: the cities of Northern Italy, Venice in particular, were resistant to claims of the Roman pontiff; from Venice Marco Polo set out to visit the Mongols, with their religious toleration; in Venice Galileo, who subsequently was found guilty of theological error by the Roman Inquisition, spent happy years advancing the modern scientific view of the natural world.
The religious reformers of the sixteenth century in Europe, however, had no appreciation whatever of religious toleration. On the contrary, the Reformation was the start of over 150 years of religious wars all over the European continent [in England, it was the Anglicans against the Catholics during the reign of “Bloody Mary,” and then the Anglicans against the Puritans during the Civil War]. The Roman Catholic Church rigidified its doctrine in response. The only way the wars ended was when political leaders agreed with the formula, laid down in the Peace of Augsburg, cuius regio, eius religio: the religion of the ruled is that of the ruler.
At that time the Ottoman Empire ruled the territory over virtually all of the Near East. It was an Islamic regime; the sultan was the Defender of the Faithful, faithful Muslims, of course. As Burbank and Cooper, historians of world empires, point out,
In religious matters, Christians of various rites, Jews, and other non-Muslim subjects were under the legal authority of their own communities’ leaders. . . . The protection and use of clergy of different faiths, a practice of Mongol and other empires in the region, became part of the Ottoman regime.
Four hundred years ago — bloodshed over religious doctrines in the West, and complete religious freedom in the Middle East. The religious toleration of Middle Eastern rulers had a very long history by that time.
Admittedly, during the eighteenth century, during the Enlightenment period of the history of Europe, religious toleration emerged, at least as a desirable goal. But look at the twentieth century: the National Socialist government of Germany in the 1930s and 40s launched a campaign of genocide against Jews, while the equally bloody regime of Communist Russia, under Stalin (personally an anti-Semite), offered safe haven to the persecuted German and Polish Jews fleeing Hitler.
You may recall Hitler’s claim, when attacking Russia, to be the protector of “Western civilization.” How interesting. The Russian Empire, which had preceded the Bolsheviks, extended religious toleration to its Muslim and Jewish population; the Holy Roman Empire of the German People, which the Nazis promised to renew, purged its Jews so often that they moved, pretty much, all to Eastern Europe.
It is not Western Civilization that devised and practiced religious toleration. Au contraire.