Tolerance is one of the great virtues

Saturday March 23, 2019 Written by Published in Opinion

I remember entering the mosque in the city of Antalya in Turkey, looking up at its vastness and space, as the men gathered for prayer. It had been a visit of schools in Turkey and of dialogue, run by a group called the dialogue society and it was to build just that.


Dialogue, conversation, the exchange of ideas and thoughts on many topics, though religion and custom often featured.

We had already travelled through the cities of Istanbul, Ankara, Cappadocia and Konya visiting schools, mosques and the caverns of the underground city of the 1st Century Church as well as Roman Amphitheaters and local tourist sites. 

Turkey was a multi-layered country of Ottoman Turk, Roman, Christian and Muslim history, and these layers, revealed themselves as if cutting through a multi-colored cake the flavours, textures and ingredients that had made each layer. But we had arrived in the layer that was Muslim, and this was my first venture into a Muslim country.

The food was amazing, just thought I would get that one out of the way, and the hospitality shown as we ate in people’s homes, shared meals, shared ideas was heartening as the world around us grew ever more unsure and less inviting. I remember a long conversation with a wife of one of the teachers we were with about the hijab and about the full costume she would wear when swimming. “I am free and liberated by the hijab,” she said, “my body is for my husband’s eyes only,” she retorted as I pushed on how this could be seen as freedom from my own western standpoint and perspective.

This and many other topics we discussed and I understood better what it meant for this woman to wear what she felt was necessary for her as a wife and as a woman, and though we would disagree, we agreed that we should better try to understand each other’s point of view.

This trip confronted my own diminished ideas and prejudices, and it confronted negative stereotypes I had made and confronted the ignorance I accumulated with regard to the Muslim faith and its people. It is only when we are confronted by the humanity, that sits behind thoughts and ideas that we truly here the message they were trying to convey, regardless as to whether we agree with it or not.

Standing in the mosque in Antalya, I had missed my queue to leave and the call for prayer had started. My friend and colleague Ugur Yilmaz, looked over to me and said “just do as I do.” It was an experience, to be in another faiths house of worship, to be amidst their prayers and to physically be amongst it all. I made friends on that trip that I still hold dear to today and yet it was the sense of understanding that has stood the test of time and especially in the world we live in today.

It made me think on comments I had seen yesterday in New Zealand media and regardless of whether it is Brian Tamaki espousing his views on a call to Muslims for prayer or NZ PM Jacinda Ardern, that we never stop sitting at the table of humanity and at least share our ideas and favour understanding over ignorance that only ever breeds contempt.

And of course there are limits to what we tolerate, but here again the idea of what hate speech is and what is not or that it is simply the freedom to speak rages through news feeds, Universities and news outlets. If Hate speech is defined by what is not popular in thought or simply differing in ideas, how then can we say we are tolerant?

It was former US President John F Kennedy, who I thought captured this idea of tolerance well when he said: “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs, rather it condemns the oppression and persecution of others.”

And Helen Keller, deaf and blind American author and the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree who said also, that “the highest result of education, is tolerance”.

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