A quote, attributed to Charles Colton at the entrance to the North Block, a part of the complex of government buildings constructed in British times constituting the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi, proclaims: “Liberty will not descend to a people. A people must raise themselves to liberty. It is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.”

It was obviously inspired by Europe’s struggle to move out of medieval barbarism to emerge as a more liberal and enlightened society, one in which people holding different views, beliefs and opinions could coexist harmoniously. That this did not happen overnight, or is not even a done job till today, is well brought out by the French scholar Denis Lacorne in his book, ‘ The Limits of Tolerance — Enlightenment Values and Religious Fanaticism .’

A huge price

The extent to which tolerance has taken hold in the West came, Lacorne tells us, at the end of a period of violent religious intolerance that swept Europe right up to the mid-eighteenth century. It was a time when brave men — and some women — challenged church directed orthodoxies, and were prepared to suffer the consequences for their defiance.

The price they paid was often high — being frequently subject to cruel trials, tortures and inquisitions, which in many cases led to public killings. Precursors to the enlightenment, though Lacorne does not dwell on them, were the likes of Thomas Cramer and Giordano Bruno. Thomas Cramer, a former Archbishop of Canterbury who was executed in Oxford on March 21, 1556, displayed a rare courage that shouts to us across the centuries. As he was tied to the stake which was set on fire in Oxford, he defiantly proclaimed: “And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished. For if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and anti-Christ, with all his false doctrine.”

The Dominican friar and philosopher, Giordano Bruno, executed on February 17, 1600, was no less bold. After being sentenced, like Cramer was, to be burnt at the stake, he boldly told his judges, “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”

It is such resolve that inspired philosophers and thinkers, chief amongst them John Locke and Voltaire, to turn the harsh light of logic and reason on the narrow values and beliefs prevalent in their times. Eventually these examinations contributed to the enlightenment in Europe as well as its extension to the US.

Such change was based on a broad societal recognition that it was absurd to believe that people, even as they differed in their beliefs and ways of living, could not coexist in an atmosphere of peace and mutual respect for one another. That this included the much-maligned Jews of Europe was a sign of how far the continent had overcome centuries of prejudice and hatred for the community. Lacorne does not ignore the fact that mercantile considerations contributed significantly towards the growth of tolerance. In fact, there is enough in his book on how business interests contributed to the emergence of toleration in Venice and the Ottoman Empire and further discussed in a chapter on multicultural tolerance.

A surprising member of the ‘toleration’ club, according to Lacorne, the Ottoman Empire, allowed non-Muslims enough space to go about their business undisturbed. But this came at a cost and ended with one of the earliest genocides of the last century, the wilful extermination of a million and half Armenians.

Faith in God

It is surprising that both John Locke and Voltaire, while unambiguously upholding the principle of separation of state and religion, held that faith and belief in God, not necessarily a Christian one, was unavoidable to keep order in society. It took others, Lacorne tells us, to challenge even this, rendering a French version, of secularism, laïcité , fiercely non-religious.

By positing the view that tolerant societies must indeed be accommodating of different value systems, Lacorne removed the stigma associated with the word, to mean one bearing, or putting up, with something disagreeable. Redefined today, toleration has a more positive connotation, that of ‘acceptance,’ as Lacorne states, ‘of a wide variety of beliefs and viewpoints where diverse communities respect one another and act collectively for the common good.’

‘Tolerance,’ Lacorne states, ‘properly understood requires the open acceptance of diverse religious communities that are not treated as “superior” or “inferior. They all possess equal rights and benefit from constitutional guarantees enforced by the courts and state authorities.’ In this regard, he brings out the absurdity of making unenforceable laws like the ‘veil ban,’ in France, even in the face of Islamic terrorism, stressing that these were contrary to the principles of toleration that had evolved in the West.

Threshold of tolerance

Lacorne’s book includes in-depth discussion on the limits of tolerance, sensibly concluding that though the threshold of tolerance may vary from country to country, ‘the enemies of tolerance will not be tolerated.’

Despite all the progress the West made in becoming more tolerant, it descends into paroxysm of intolerance frequently. Lacorne does not shy away from discussing these in some depth. The persecution of the Quakers and the Baptists even in the US right up to the end of the 19th century is one instance and the more recognised and still continuing racism there, targeting blacks and other non-whites, is another.

The most egregious example of intolerance is the persecution of Jews and the less known Romas of Europe. While Europe, on the whole, has got a whole lot more tolerant, the fact remains the seeds of intolerance sprout with alarming frequency in Europe.

The desecration of Jewish graves, the resurgence of far-right parties bordering on the fascist in Austria, and even in liberal Holland are some examples that need to be read as warnings. But much of the ire in Europe driving it to intolerance is Islamophobia and, oddly enough, its antithesis, a kind of self-censorship that many institutions in Europe needlessly exercise lest it remotely offends the sensibilities of Muslims.

Lacorne is, only in passing, complimentary of the kind of toleration practised by non-Muslim, non-Christian societies in India and elsewhere in Asia. The book could well have done with a more in-depth discussion of India’s emergence as a secular state in a time of acute inter-religious stress and the strain this is under today. Unfortunately, subtly racist western scholars are largely dismissive of the biggest example of toleration and accommodation — the modern Indian State.

The ground covered by Lacorne in this short work and the in-depth discussion of not only tolerance but secularism as well makes it a very relevant read for us Indians. It is brilliant as it is profound and for an academic work, highly entertaining as well.

Since a significant portion of our constitution, like our fundamental rights, is based on western values (The Rights of Man, for example) it makes sense for us to understand their historical underpinnings and Lacorne’s book does the job very well. It is a pity then that it is so steeply priced making it unaffordable for most of us.

The reviewer teaches at IISc Bengaluru

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