Should the West Tolerate Islam?
By James M. Arlandson
Danish translation: Bør Vesten tolerere islam?
Source: Jihad Watch, September 30, 2012
Published on October 28, 2012

Thomas Jefferson said, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my legs.”

This means that beliefs and practices that do not harm us monetarily or physically can be tolerated.

But at what cost? How far do we take tolerance?

The answer to those complicated questions is found in another Jefferson document.

The Declaration of Independence proclaims, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But this answer is not as simple as it first appears, for how do we apply those three self-evident truths to an aggressive religion like Islam?

Three Universal Rights

The three universal rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have penetrated our psyche whether we acknowledge them or not. By them, we can discern which rules in shariah are harmful or harmless. So let’s unpack the three rights.

Happiness appears at first glance to be so subjective and so open to a wide interpretation that it is impossible to nail down. However, it is not as subjective as it first appears. At bottom, it depends on life and liberty.

Happiness means functioning in excellence and fullness, living to the highest potential and freedom. If one’s life and liberty is restricted and oppressed, then one cannot be happy, even if he thinks he is.

Pursuing happiness means that an individual creates his own utopia, as he lives in society and follows basic laws, like honoring contracts and respecting other people’s property and person. The government does not create utopia for him. Government is formed to ensure the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government clears the path and creates a safe environment for people to be free and have a high quality of life and pursue their own happiness, as they define it.

Life and liberty, though they have a subjective feel to them, are not entirely subjective. Extreme behavior or policies do not lead to life and liberty, whether an individual or an entire society believes this or not, and whether a religious system teaches the opposite – they do not lead to life and liberty and happiness. Despite their belief or religious system, when an act or policy does not actually promote life and liberty, then a person cannot be happy by definition, because happiness is built on life and liberty.

A person living under oppression, religious or atheistic, cannot be free and have a high quality of life; therefore, he cannot be happy, even if he thinks he is. He is not the best judge of what happiness is because he does not have a broad perspective.


Specific examples can be tricky. Sometimes we all sense people choose self-imposed oppression and restriction (e.g. the headscarf), but this does not harm society at large, so their choice can be tolerated. Other examples, however, are obviously bad, because they oppress all or many in society (e.g. the second-class jizyah or submission tax), so those shariah laws should not be tolerated.

One man gets revelations that tell his followers how to dress, how to believe, and how to pray. A prophet can teach these things, if he wants. He’s within his political right of religious freedom. If people choose freely to follow them and are allowed freely to walk away from them, then the religious laws do not pick the pockets or breaks the legs of the larger society. These religious rules can be done in private or at the mosque (or church or synagogue).

Yet, a strong case can be made that an extremely large number of religious laws also restricts life and liberty excessively, and therefore they do not lead to the pursuit of happiness. Nonetheless, these religious laws that do not harm the larger society monetarily or physically can be tolerated.

However, if the same revelator gets an allegedly divine message that orders him to impose, by government decree or armed struggle, these beliefs on everyone or to restrict and punish nonconformist beliefs, then religious freedom is not promoted, and this harms society. His religion picks our pockets and breaks our legs.

And certainly a religious theocracy does not create utopia for all of society, to make people conform to a theocrat’s vision of the ideal world. A theocracy works overtime to remove all imperfections. That is why sexual sins are turned into crimes. If corporal punishments need to be applied, even up to execution, then so be it. Those imperfections must be removed. But a theocracy breaks our legs and picks our pockets.

A small-scale example is a woman who believes that wearing a veil that covers her face, except the eye slit (either a burqa or niqab), makes her happy. That’s part of her utopia. Who are we to interfere in her pursuit of happiness? Never mind that vitamin deficiencies can happen from underexposure to the sun, as the article on the veil in this series documents. Though she may not (yet) have come to the realization that a burqa or niqab is an extreme restriction on her liberty and highest quality of life, it still is such a restriction, objectively speaking. Deception does exist, which can be defined as believing or thinking you are right, while in reality you are wrong. And beliefs can be wrong.

Nonetheless, if she still freely chooses to wear a burqa or niqab and can freely choose not to wear it, then her belief should be tolerated. [1] If someone wants to persuade her with words alone, not by force or government fiat, then he can try. But her personal liberty must be respected, after the discussion ends.

However, if a government passes laws that force all women to wear certain religious clothes, then these laws are unjust, because they violate liberty, and violated liberty does not lead to the highest quality of life. And a degraded life does not add up to happiness – or the pursuit of it. In such a repressive environment, individuals cannot create their personal utopia as they define it.

Another example of how shariah restricts life and liberty: shariah today still imposes a submission tax on Jews or Christians or other religious minorities who refuse to join Islam. Defenders of this policy say that it is designed to offer them protection for the privilege of living under Islam.

However, a second-class submission tax based on religion violates the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence. It does indeed harm us monetarily and legally. Everyone should be equal before the law; no one is to be discriminated against because he or she may be a religious minority living in an Islamic country.

And now we can judge that this Islamic rule about a religious submission tax is a bad one, for it is incompatible with the progress of humanity. The tax degrades the life and liberty of Jews and Christians and other religious minorities because they become second-class citizens and are deprived of some of their lawful earnings by a specialized religion tax, just for them. When their life and liberty are restricted, they cannot pursue happiness, as they define it.

The foundation of advanced societies is equality before the law. But Islam teaches a religious hierarchy before its shariah tax law.

One major reason Americans fought the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was to free ourselves from taxes imposed on us without our consent. Why would we consent to a second-class religious submission tax, even if the government claims it came from Allah himself?

In all these examples, the general principle is Jefferson’s: if an act or policy does not harm us monetarily or physically, then it should be allowed. But if it does harm us in those two ways (or is on the verge of doing so), then it should not be allowed.


The shariah laws listed in Thirty Bad Shariah Laws – however culturally insensitive it may seem to hear – need to be rejected, because they are aggressive and oppressive, not peaceful or benign. These practices are themselves intolerant or fail to respect all humans with full dignity.

They are extreme and thus deny life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Therefore, these harmful shariah laws are wrong. They (should) have expiration dates on them – back in the seventh century.

However, we need to be sensitive about benign customs like prayer, diet (e.g. not eating pork), reading or carrying a holy book in public, washing properly, or wearing a headscarf, even a burka or niqab. None of these things break our legs or pick our pockets.

But we must be hypersensitive about excessive and harsh shariah rules that we can judge by these three principles – life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. By those standards many of shariah rules come up short. We must pass judgment on them.

The West is accused of arrogance, and maybe the charge is sometimes valid. However, the refusal to learn from the West is also a sign of arrogance. We have learned our lesson about our three rights, after centuries of mistakes.

Until Islam genuinely reforms on these matters and follows the ten suggestions of reform and builds up a long track record, intellectual elites in the USA and elsewhere around the world must use extreme caution in assuming that shariah is perfectly harmless or is just misunderstood. They must not form any policy, write any school curriculum, issue any ruling, or pass any law based on or referencing shariah. Islam must bend towards us, not we to it.

The elites must stick to or return to the Declaration’s three principles, which guides (or should guide) the USA and has served us so well: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our civilization will stand on them.

And our civilization will also stand by our outspoken courage to promote them, even if they deny shariah, even if they appear intolerant. But our civilization shall fall by our cowardly silence.


[1] I am not referring to a woman wearing a veil that covers her entire face, except for the eye slit, in situations like driving a car or taking official photo IDs. The woman needs to compromise, because she potentially puts larger society in jeopardy.

James M. Arlandson, Ph.D., has written the book:
Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity.
He has also written the 17 part series:
Islamic Sharia Law: Its Origins, Development, and Application Today
and the 12 part series:
The Sword in Early Christianity and Islam
as well as numerous other articles.