“You are right”, said Cardinal Archbishop Franz Koenig to the well-known historian Bernard Lewis in a meeting gathering Christians, Jews and Muslims in Vienna in the late nineties of the past century[1]. “I shall no more speak of tolerance; I shall speak of mutual respect”. This brief and simple statement summarizes the entire problem of religious minorities across the world: What are the source and nature of these rights and how to guarantee their ultimate respect.

Religious rights are an integral part of human rights as declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 18 reads “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.

This declaration came in rejection to the historical practice of “granting and bestowing” rights – rights in general and religious ones in particular – on people by rulers.

The Edict of Nantes[2] is a case in point, as it gave French Huguenots the right to live in France[3]. This edict was rescinded by the Edict of Fontainebleau issued in 1685 by King Louis XIV, that provided the suppression and revocation of religion’s liberties[4].

The adoption of the UDHR on December 10th 1948 brought to an end the philosophical and legal debate about the source and nature of human rights. Henceforth, rights are no longer gifts by rulers or any source of power to their subjects as was the case, but are an integral part of every human being in his uniqueness[5].

While religious rights and freedoms have been embedded in various international legal instruments[6] to ascertain their sanctity and guarantee their respect, the magnitude of violations across the world remains one step ahead: unnecessary bureaucratic restrictions; denial of appropriate legal status; structural legal and social discrimination and exclusion; acts of vandalism and desecration; disrespect of internal autonomy…

If Burma, China, North Korea, Somalia are distant and unfamiliar examples, Syria, Iran, KSA, Egypt, Bahrain and Lebanon are not. Political analysts, statesmen and diplomats can arguably advance socio-economic or political reasons for the present turmoil in the Middle East. However, a closer look reveals other dividing line in this part of the world: Alawites, Sunnis and Christians in Syria; Shia, Christians and Bahaai in Iran; Sunnis and Copts in Egypt; Sunnis and Shia in Bahrain; Sunnis, Shia, Christians and Druze in Lebanon.

It is true that religion was for a long period in the history of human kind the identity and source of rights and obligations. Yet, certain developments specific to the West[7], culminating with the age of enlightenment and the concept of nation-state, have substituted religion as a source of rights and obligation, with the State. However, the Middle East remains a part of the world where religious identities prevail over any other structural form; where rights and obligations are seen through religion’s binoculars. In Syria, the rights of the Alawite minority were secured through iron and fire for decades. In Bahrain, a Sunni minority defends its rights by monopolizing power. In Lebanon, Shiite claim against historical socio-economic marginalization is done manu militare.

In the face of this rising tension, some religious authorities and civil society entities have been advocating for mutual tolerance among religions in reply to religious discrimination and intolerance. They base their call on the shared values and beliefs between religions[8].

This approach can be criticized on two basis. First, commonalities between religions are neither proof of mutual tolerance nor similarity, for the sources of earthly problems, as described respectively by the Abrahamic religions, and their metaphysical solutions are not the same; for instance, Muslims do not practice baptism or Holy Communion, Christians do not go to Mecca for pilgrimage[9]. Common eschatological tenets among Abrahamic religions are the result of their competition over one client i.e. the human being. In addition to that, this approach fails to notice that these same religious scriptures also vilify the “other” in the name of God. Anyone who has doubts can simply consult any dictionary about the meaning of the words goyiminfidel or kafir. Ignoring this facet of religion as means of favoring the “common heritage” over “differences” does not make the latter a lesser truth in the eyes of believers[10].

Second, tolerance implies a compromise that is not conceivable in the case of religious beliefs as these are ultimate truths in the minds and hearts of their followers; and because ultimate truths deny each other. The concept of tolerance itself is not as civil as it may sound. If intolerance means “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to Hell[11]“ than tolerance is a more nuanced rudeness that reflects an attitude of superiority vis-à-vis the other: I’m right, you’re wrong, but you can stay and “I will allow you some, though not all, of the rights I enjoy as long as you behave yourself according to standards that I shall determine[12]“. The Arabic equivalent of tolerance is Tasamuh, a variation of the verb Samaha i.e. “to forgive”. Forgiveness means that a wrong has been committed, but no penalty is being inflicted “out of bigheartedness.” In other words, followers of any religion that is not “ours” are considered “guilty”. Accordingly, tolerance does not entail kindness and compassion but its absence[13], and offers an unstable pattern of relations with the “other”; a pattern deeply influenced by historical developments or by the character of rulers[14]. Henceforth, tolerance constitutes a partial and “voluntary” renunciation to one’s dominance over others. While it “bestows” some rights on the “other” as a favour, it does not “recognize” them i.e. rights, as being natural rights[15]“. The consequences of bestowing rights i.e. tolerance and recognizing them are very clear: in the first case, rights can be amended, suspended or even withheld. In the second, they are immutable.

One alternative – suggested in this analysis– to tolerance is mutual respected based on the recognition of a common essence to all human i.e. human dignity.

The recognition of rights as being “natural” – as expressed in the UDHR – automatically converts the utilitarian-based relation with the “other” to a humane one based on equality and mutual respect[16].

The recognition of the common dignity in every human being brings under focus the “essence” of every individual i.e. human dignity, at the expense of “accidents” i.e. religion, race, color… The need for recognizing others’ beliefs i.e. ultimate truths, which is completely different from embracing them, is due to the fact that rejecting any religions’ tenets will not make them a lesser reality and/or truth to its followers[17].

In the 21st century i.e. about 3000 years after the writing of the above-cited Book of Joshua, human beings have not much evolved as to their religious “we” vs. “them”; they still wage war, kill each other and declare divine victories in the name of God.

Now, if tolerance represented a form of minimum guaranties against rulers’ arbitrariness in epochs where Kings represented God on earth, evolution and developments at the level of laws, social relations and organizations have made this concept obsolete. No need to draw a list of examples: the existentialist school of thoughts with its famous motto “the right to become” and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are marking examples.

In his famous play “Dirty Hands”(1948) the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre notes “Quant aux hommes, ce n’est pas ce qu’ils sont qui m’intéresse mais ce qu’ils pourront devenir” i.e. as far as men go, it is not what they are that interests me, but what they can become.



Legal and Human Rights Consultant based in Beirut (Lebanon)



[1] Lewis, B. (May 2003), “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to Hell”, The Atlantic Monthly. http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/2003/05/lewis.htm.

[2] The Edict of Nantes was issued by the French King Henry IV in 1598

[3] Cfr. http://huguenotsweb.free.fr/english/edict_nantes.htm.

[4] Cfr. http://clc-library-org-docs.angelfire.com/fontainbl.html.

[5] ”All the privileges and spiritual immunities granted by my ancestors ab antiquo, and at subsequent dates, to all Christian communities or other non-Muslim persuasions established in my empire under my protection, shall be confirmed and maintained. Such being my wishes and my commands…” read the Hatt-Humayun of 1856, by the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid I. Cfr. http://www.anayasa.gen.tr/reform.htm. This document is part of the Tanzimat reforms aimed at introducing equality in education, government appointments, and administration of justice to all Ottoman subjects regardless of their religious belonging.

[6] Universal Declaration of Human Rights -1948 (arts. 2-18); International Conventions on Civil and Political Rights – 1966 (arts. 18-20); International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination – 1969 (art. 2); Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief – 1981

Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief A/RES/36/55 25 November – 1981; International Religious Freedom Act – 1998.

[7] The Age of the Renaissance, religious reform and counter-reform in Europe, the industrial revolution and the age of enlightenment.

[8] Judaism calls for loving and assisting strangers as oneself, and treating them equally (Exod. 23:9 reads “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt”; Lev. 19:13 “‘Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. “‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight”; Deut. 27:19 “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow. Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”) Christianity calls for love, mercy, peace and humility [Matt. 22:39 “…Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”- Matt. 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” – Matt. 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” – Matt. 11:29 “Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls”].

The Quran emphasizes the notion of justice, 8 cultural and religious diversity [Quran 4:135, “O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that ye do”].

[9] Prothero, S. (April 25, 2010), “Separate truths: It is misleading – and dangerous – to think that religions are different paths to the same wisdom”, The Boston Globe.

[10] For example, examining the example of Jesus as understood by Christianity, Islam and Judaism in the light of what has been already proposed could let us understand the difference between three religions belonging to the same Abrahamic stem. For Christians, Christ, The Son of God, is central to the faith. His incarnation, death and resurrection in particular constitute the pillars of the Church’s 2000-year religious dogma and traditions. For Muslims, Christ is only a prophet who was neither crucified nor did resurrect. With the de-divinization of Christ, and the denial of his death and resurrection, one wonders whether the Quran really describes the same Christ Christians know, and whether the Islamic religious truth does not challenge Christian’s one. To add to this complication, the Jews’ standpoint on this matter constitutes the cherry on top as their belief that Christ has not revealed himself yet! What about the claim of Islam that Mohammed is the seal of prophets? What if a new prophet is revealed to humanity? Would Muslims accept or embrace his revelations?

[11] Lewis, B. (May 2003). “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to Hell”. The Atlantic Monthly.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sezgin, O. and Biçer, R. (2006). “Foundations of Tolerance in Turkish Culture”. The European LegacyVol. 11, No. 4, 405-415.

[14] Wright, R. “Decoding God’s Changing Moods”. Retrieved March 11, 2011 from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1902851,00.html.

[15] In a letter addressed to the Jewish community of Newport in Rhode Island in 1790, George Washington noted that “it is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. Lewis, B. (May 2003), “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to Hell”, The Atlantic Monthly.

[16] The finest illustration of such metamorphosis marking the transition from tolerance to recognition is found in Martin Buber’s rule “I-It; I-Thou.” The “I-It” model is a relation of subject-to-object in which “individuals” perceive each other as consisting of “accidents” i.e. religion, color, race… Contrary to this, the “I-Thou” offers a subject-to-subject relation based on the “essence” of “persons” i.e. their common human dignity, through which they engage in a relationship of dialogue and reciprocity. Vatican II’s acknowledgement that every person or group are looking for salvation in their own way could be the closest to the “I-Thou” model; this, despite the Church’s firm belief that its way remains the most righteous. However, the flow of this “recognition” is the fact that it constituted a one-side commitment in a multilateral-party relation. Do Jews and Muslims adopt a similar stance? And for argument’s sake, even if they decide to do so, do their non-centralized structures facilitate such a task?

[17] “Then spoke Joshua to the Lord, in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stay thou in Gibeon, and thou moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the Sun abode, and the moon stood still, until the people avenged themselves upon their enemies: (Is not this written in the book of Jasher?) so the Sun abode in the midst of the heaven, and hasted not to go down for a whole day. And there was no day like that before it, nor after it, that the Lord heard the voice of a man: for the Lord fought for Israel”. From the book of Joshua, 10: 12-14