Monday, May 24, 2004



Nearly two millennia ago, the Roman poet Juvenal in his fifteenth satire described the hatred that existed between two Egyptian villages, which culminated in a horrible incident of cannibalism in 127 A.D. Here are lines 33 to 38 of Juvenal's satire:
Between the neighbors Ombi and Tentyra, there is an old and deep-seated feud. Undying hatred and an incurable wound still rages. On either side, the mob's great fury arises from the fact that each place despises its neighbor's gods, since it believes that only those gods should be respected which it itself worships.
inter finitimos vetus atque antiqua simultas,
inmortale odium et numquam sanabile vulnus
ardet adhuc Ombos et Tentyra. summus utrimque
inde furor volgo, quod numina vicinorum
odit uterque locus, cum solos credat habendos
esse deos quos ipse colit.
It is depressing to reflect on how little things have changed since Juvenal's day. In fact, it could be argued that the ancients were in general more tolerant about such matters than we are today. Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (chapter 2) thought so, during the age of the Antonines at any rate:
The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
When religious hatred did break forth into open conflict, at least that conflict was minimally destructive. Juvenal's intolerant villagers fought at first with fists and stones, then with arrows and swords. Today's hate-filled fanatics crash airplanes loaded with flammable fuel into skyscrapers. Current events have made Gibbon's remarks (chapter 58) on Muslims obsolete:
A pernicious tenet has been imputed to the Mohammedans, the duty of extirpating all other religions by the sword. This charge of ignorance and bigotry is refuted by the Koran, by the history of the Musulman conquerors, and by their public and legal toleration of the Christian worship.
The practice of any religion except Islam is forbidden by law in the present-day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and in 2002 two Filipinos spent a month in jail, were given 150 lashes, and were deported for holding a Catholic prayer service in a private home.


Update -- In an email responding to my last point, Andrew Criddle writes:
I have no particular wish to defend the policies of Saudi Arabia but it has been long held by Muslims that the passages in the Quran which seem to require only Islam being permitted refer to Arabia strict sense, (the land of the two great Mosques), while the passages seeming to support peaceful coexistence with other 'Peoples of the Book' apply everywhere else.
Hence the policy of Saudi Arabia with respect to non-Islamic religion is not simply a result of the generally illiberal nature of that country, it does involve the special status of Arabia in Muslim thought.

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