By Fadi A. Haddadin

Today, Arabs are at a decisive stage; struggling against intolerant societies and fundamentalist ideologies. In addition to Al Azhar’s calls for moderation and the Amman Message on toleration, a leap of hope appeared just recently by the UAE’s new post within the executive branch: a Minister of State for Tolerance designated to promote the virtue “as a fundamental value in UAE society,” Sheikh Mohammed tweeted.

No matter what, we have to adapt to others’ actions, even if we disagree with their lifestyles, opinions, and behaviors. We cannot prevent someone from doing something just because we dislike it—unless, as stated by John Stuart Mill, the actions were causing—or were likely to cause—harm to others. Some forms of interference may be legitimate, such as moral persuasion and the use of reason and argument, but definitely not coercion or force.

One of the earliest philosophical calls for tolerance was by the English poet John Milton, who protested against censorship in his pamphlet Areopagatica (1644), when he opposed a parliamentary bill to require every printing press to be licensed by the government. Milton argued against print censorship, on a series of grounds: (i) In order to be virtuous, one must know vice; (ii) One cannot trust censors to make such decisions unless they are incapable of error, and no one is; (iii) Truth is stagnant if belief is justified solely by claims to authority; (iv) One should refute and not silence wrong opinion, and; (v) Authorities may censor the truth by mistake.

We deduce from Milton’s points that “truth” and “authority” are two different things. Even if the censors have the public’s best interests as an ultimate policy objective, they are not infallible. They have no monopoly of wisdom; no special knowledge of what is true and what is not. Only debate, argument and experience will determine that.

Imam Al-Shafi’i (767-820) gave us a brilliant sum-up of the essence of toleration and the freedom of expression: “I believe that my opinion is right, but may be wrong, and that the opinion of others is wrong, but may be right.” And since “all men are liable to error,” as John Locke once noted, the only way to ensure that we do not stifle useful ideas for advancing societies is to allow people to argue their case since truth can only be strengthened by such a “contest”—provided, again, that the no-harm rule is not broken. This contest of ideas was defended by John Stuart Mill, in his seminal book On Liberty, in what he called the “experiments in living,” which would allow competing ideas of good life to be lived and compared.

One of the contemporary thinkers, Nigel Ashford, has put forward an illuminating case for toleration: it is one important expression of a commitment to self-autonomy, exercising control over one’s own life and circumstances. Thus, personal and moral development requires individuals to make choices, both in order to have a better understanding of themselves and to recognize the consequences of their actions. “Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post as soon as there is no enemy in the field,” wrote Mill. The search for the truth is largely conducted through criticism, which the philosopher of scientific knowledge, Sir Karl Popper, called falsificationism: the right to be skeptical, and the responsibility to check and be checked.

Liberty of conscience—this appeal to personal autonomy—has been defended not only by thinkers whose primary concern was religious belief, but also by secular intellects, such as Spinoza, who wrote: “Inward worship of God and piety in itself are within the sphere of everyone’s private rights, and cannot be alienated. No man’s mind can possibly lie wholly at the disposition of another, for no one can willingly transfer his natural right of free reason and judgment, or be compelled so to do.”

According to the British economist, Eamonn Butler, toleration is a universal idea: “It is neither a particularly Western idea nor at odds with a society based on strong social values.” For instance, the nonaggression principle is explicitly stated in the Qur’an: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256).

Economic and social progress is dependent on individuals presenting unconventional ideas and new ways of thinking, most of which might turn out to be foolish or mistaken, but some of which will provide dynamism for society. The ultimate test for Arab societies is whether they will permit dissidents to think freely or use violence in the market for contestable ideas.

About the author

Fadi A. Haddadin is an economist by training and education. He has worked at the Prime Ministry of Jordan to help in setting up its Mega Projects Administration, the Cato Institute in Washington D.C., the World Bank in Washington D.C., and the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority in Aqaba, Jordan.  He was selected by the Heritage Foundation as a leading Public Policy Expert in Washington D.C.

Fadi was a regular commentator for BBC Arabic, Al Jazeera, CNBC Arabic, Al Hurra, and Jordan TV. His op-eds, covering economic and policy topics, frequently appeared in many international publications.

In addition to his work in the public sector, international organizations, and think tanks, he founded and managed his own private enterprises in the food and beverage sector (Bifröst Co.).  

Fadi got his degrees from the University of Chicago (MPP), the London School of Economics (MSc), and the American University of Beirut (BA), in addition to completing two executive degrees from Harvard University and Princeton University. He is a Charles G. Koch Fellow (2005).