Religious tolerance a passing phenomenon

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(c) Jim Fesler

Bilal Cleland discusses the Ottoman roots of European tolerance.

[November 22, 2011] A few years ago Muslims used to hear a lot about how Islam as intolerant of different religions and of diversity in general. There is now greater community awareness of diversity amongst Muslim groups so we hear less and less of that kind of ignorant drivel. What we are hearing more about each day is rising Islamophobia in Europe and in the USA. It is noticeable that much of it comes from countries which either gave rise to Nazism or collaborated with it like the Netherlands and France. Although Muslims are the focus of the new bigotry rather than the Jews, the phenomenon can be just as lethal. Demonisation of a community can be a foreword to attempted destruction.

In Germany in the past few weeks there has been a lot of publicity about the murder of 8 Turks by a secretive neo-Nazi group with apparent links to German Intelligence. An Intelligence operative with right-wing views was even present at one murder. This adds to the sad history of recent European Islamophobic murders in Norway and of course the Serbian murder of 200,000 Bosniaks in the 1990s.

Perhaps we should not be too surprised at such hatred and bigotry, as religious tolerance is but a relatively recent phenomenon in Europe. It may not yet be part of the deep culture and under the stress of economic decline, we may witness a return to the culture's Roman roots.

The Rev. Dr Susan Ritchie in her paper 'The Pasha of Buda and the Edict of Torda'. Traces the roots of religious tolerance in Europe to the Kingdom of Transylvania, ruled by John Sigismund, the only Unitarian king in modern history. The 1568 Edict of Torda was, according to Ritchie, 'the first European policy of expansive religious toleration'.

Europe at that time was a narrow, religiously and scientifically backward place where unorthodox ideas could get one burnt alive for heresy. Protestant rebels against the Roman pope were regularly exterminated by Catholic governments and thinkers with radical ideas were usually killed by Protestant governments.

Why was Transylvania different?

The history taught to us is a story told by those who dominate discussion at any particular time. What we have been taught as 'Truth' has come, in western society, via the books the Catholic Church did not burn, along with their authors, at some time in the past. Professor Ritchie is striving to adjust this imbalance with her research into European-Ottoman cultural enmeshment over the centuries. She claims that there is "a direct relationship between Ottoman rule and culture, Islamic theological commitments and the development of the Unitarian articulation of religious tolerance."

This turns much of the history of this period on its head. The Edict of Torda, as the first step towards religious tolerance in Europe, is rooted in the example of the Ottomans in Hungary. Nationalist historians portray a uniquely negative view of Ottoman rule in that land, but evidence points in another direction.

The Catholic Hapsburg Monarchy targeted Hungary for annexation in 1540 but was thwarted by the arrival of the Sultan Suleiman in Buda, who arrived to support the claims of the then baby John Sigismund to part of his lands. The Ottomans asserted control over Hungary but Transylvania was ruled independently, under Ottoman protection from Hapsburg annexation. When the Hapsburgs took Transylvania much later in history, they exterminated the Unitarian adults and brought up their children as Catholics.

Ritchie points out that the Ottoman lands were open to different religions and that non-orthodox Christians found a haven from persecution under Muslim rule. Anti-Semitism was rising in the 1500s and 1600s in the Christian countries but a historian of the Jewish people, Salo Baron, describes the learned Jewish community of the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s as enjoying one of Judaism's Golden Ages. Unitarians, hunted down in all of Europe, were free to study and preach in Ottoman lands.

Christians living in Ottoman lands were not necessarily as tolerant as their Muslim compatriots. On August 24 1548, a Hungarian Protestant pastor, Imre Szigeti, was accused of heresy by the Catholic authorities in the Hungarian town of Tolna. They demanded of the Pasha of Buda that he be either exiled or killed for his heresy.

The Pasha reacted by issuing an Edict of Toleration, declaring that "preachers of the faith invented by Luther should be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere to everybody...freely and without fear..." Professor Ritchie points out that this is similar in terms of imagery and intention to the later edicts of toleration to come from the court of King John Sigismund.

The Edict of Torda asserted the freedom of the individual conscience "because faith is a gift of God, it springs from listening, which listening forwards to the word of God." The Pasha's edict of 1548 establishes an even earlier connection between true faith and free listening.

The court preacher of King John Sigismund Ference David, had studied in Wittenberg as had Imre Szigeti, the cause of the 1548 Edict. We know of the edict from a letter Imre wrote to Flacius, another preacher known to Ference David. In the year of the edict, both Imre Szigeti and David were serving in Lutheran churches in Hungary and David was elected superintendent of Magyar Lutheran churches in 1557, so he must have been well aware of the edict under which he operated.

The Edict of the Pasha of Buda may not only have influenced the Edict of Torda. Professor Ritchie points to the likelihood that the English philosopher John Locke, of tremendous importance for his well argued defence of religious toleration, was directly influenced by the Edict of Torda and Unitarian thinking of the period. His library contained many works from this school of thought and he held discussions with Transylvanian and other Unitarians. İt is hardly possible that his writing was not influenced by the Edict of Torda.

Thus we see that it is very likely that the notion of religious toleration in Europe was rooted in the Unitarian Edict of Torda, which itself was based on the Ottoman Islamic principle of religious inclusion, as exemplified by the 1548 Edict. The dominant Roman–European attitude was bigotry and exclusion of "the other" until quite recently. Some places have never come out of this period.

What we may now be witnessing is the passing away of this relatively recent feature of European culture, along with respect for a broad range of human rights and even democracy itself. As several commentators in the Turkish media have recently argued, the "technocratic" governments being brought in to replace democratically elected politicians in Greece and Italy is a sign that real rule may not be with the 'demos' but the financial institutions.

Our emphasis upon the human rights explicitly established in Islam will become even more important as respect for these rights declines in the West, of which we are part.

Source: Al Wasat, Australia. The author is a prominent Australian Muslim scholar and activist.