Religious intolerance in Afghanistan and Raleigh

by Rob Tiller

I’m not a big fan of either the Bible or the Koran, though I don’t think it’s a good thing to burn either of them. Burning any book as an expressive act seems angry, hateful, and benighted. I imagine that if I thought a book contained unusual insight or beauty that meant something to me, I’d be pissed off if someone burned it.

But I wouldn’t murder them! Much less join a mob to murder random people who had nothing to do with the burning! In Afghanistan this week, hundreds of Muslims have rioted and killed several United Nations employees and injured hundreds of westerners. The reason? First, a plainly disturbed fundamentalist preacher in Florida burned a copy of the Koran a couple of weeks ago. Then political and religious leaders in Afghanistan publicized the event.

What’s up with these rioting Afghanis and their random killing? Do they mean by this to show the world their love of Islam? Their hatred of invading westerners? Are they expressing their anger at the violence, corruption, and poverty that engulfs them?

Harnessing religious zeal, ignorance, and intolerance for political purposes is nothing new. In this case, it appears that Hamid Karzai, the beneficiary of billions of American taxpayer dollars, has again shown his appreciation for this benevolence by encouraging the most radical elements of his society toward anti-western violence. This raises yet again the good question: what in the name of all that’s holy are we doing sacrificing our children’s lives (1,521 so far) and almost $400 billion in Afghanistan? But I’ll shut up. Nobody seems to want to talk about this, I guess because it’s depressing. But isn’t the solution here really simple?

Moving on to more cheerful news: our local paper, the News & Observer, ran a front page, above-the-fold story this morning about North Carolina unbelievers coming out of the closet and attempting to build a more positive image. A billboard campaign with pro-humanist messages has been rolled out by the Triangle Freethought Society. A few local citizens who are otherwise unfamous have lent their names, photos, and four or five words, like “Science is my co-pilot!” or “Freethinking moves America forward!”

It will be interesting to see whether this helps promote tolerance, which would be good. It could certainly serve to smoke out intolerance, of which there is plenty. An example: the North Carolina Constitution officially disqualifies from public office any person “who shall deny the being of Almighty God.” This provision should be held invalid under the U.S. Constitution (Art. 6), though I’d hate to have to test that before a Bible-believing federal judge. The point is, there’s a long, strong tradition of intolerance in these parts for non-mainstream views on religion.

Hatred of atheists is almost certainly much stronger than, say, hatred of minority races or gays. And so it’s not surprising that most non-believers in these parts keep a low profile. But views on minorities and gays have changed in the direction of greater tolerance in recent years (which is not to say the work is done). It’s possible that there could be a quiet increase in tolerance for non-believers. Hats off to the brave souls willing to test that proposition with their own names on billboards. I hope they stay happy and safe.