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August 25, 2012

Is tolerance for each others' beliefs too much to ask?

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The Daily Star

The Daily Star — After two years of legal wrangling, a 12,000-square-foot mosque opened Aug. 10 in Murfreesboro, Tenn., a city that has 104,000 people and 140 churches but only one mosque.

After outgrowing a smaller building, Muslims in Murfreesboro  purchased 15 acres in 2009 and began construction. But after overcoming vandalism, graffiti, torched construction equipment and a bomb threat, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro was stuck in limbo in June when Chancellor Robert E. Corlew III ruled its building permit was invalid. Federal judge Todd J. Campbell issued an order countermanding the decision July 18, and the mosque opened this month in time for the Eid celebration.

Of course the actions of a few shouldn’t tarnish Murfreesboro, a city described as welcoming by mosque board member Safaa Fathy.

“We are here 30 years and I never had a problem with the people here,” Fathy said to the Associated Press at the mosque’s opening. “It only started two years ago.”

But even though Rutherford County officials didn’t object to the mosque, it was held up by opponents who argued in court that Islam is not a valid religion worthy of First Amendment protection.

I’ll never understand this sort of intolerance. It’s the same sort of flawed logic behind the New York Police Department’s secret Muslim surveillance program — an effort that the NYPD acknowledged in court testimony unsealed this week never resulted in a single lead or terrorism investigation.

Those who consider Islam an inherently dangerous religion like to cite passages of the Quran that condone armed conflict, such as verse 8:12, which urges followers to “cast terror into the hearts of those who are bent on denying the truth; strike, then, their necks!” They tend to ignore the many similar passages from the Old Testament, such as Deuteronomy 20:16-18 and Joshua 8 and 10, which describe acts that would be classified today as war crimes.

But cherry-picked lines from a holy text can’t be used to define an entire culture. History offers numerous examples of Muslims living peacefully alongside followers of other faiths. Perhaps the most notable of these is La Convivencia, the era of early medieval Spain in which Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together under Muslim rule in a vibrant, flourishing society free from the persecution of the region’s earlier Roman and Visigothic rulers.

One doesn’t need faith in God to understand that religious persecution has no place in a just and civilized nation. As one raised by a secular family, I never embraced religion, but I learned that faith is often an integral part of others’ identity that fosters a deeper understanding of the human condition, and that such belief systems deserve respect.

As a young adult trying to make sense of an often tragic and volatile world, religion seemed to offer no solace, so I turned instead to the Stoic thinking of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, who believed that living a virtuous life alone was sufficient for happiness. The Stoics contended that by managing our most visceral reactions, we can become immune to misfortune and attain peace of mind — hence the term “stoic calm.”

Life’s fleeting, precarious nature was made reconcilable for me by modern philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Marshall Berman. Sartre argued that with no God, our existence will be defined entirely by the legacy we leave behind — and that alone should be sufficient for eternal peace.

“In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but the portrait,” Sartre said in 1946’s

Existentialism is a Humanism

. “No doubt this may seem comfortless to one who has not made a success of his life. On the other hand, it puts everyone in a position to understand that reality alone is reliable; that dreams, expectations and hopes serve to define a man only as deceptive dreams, abortive hopes, expectations unfulfilled; that is to say, they define him negatively, not positively.”

I generally keep my views on God and human existence to myself. But when asked, I can tactfully exchange ideas with the faithful — a touch apparently lost on comedian and fellow atheist Bill Maher.

In his 2008 film “Religulous,” Maher reciprocated the hospitality of seven truckers who welcomed him into their North Carolina rest stop chapel by heaping scorn and mockery on their beliefs. Their brief, terse chat enlightened neither side and accomplished nothing, aside from producing footage of Maher’s barbed one-liners eliciting stern glares.

What Maher doesn’t realize is that believers and non-believers aren’t as far apart as one might think. We’re all just trying to make sense of an existence that is often, as Thomas Hobbes said: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

JUSTIN VERNOLD

is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Email him at jvernold@thedailystar.com