Tolerating those with beliefs you (strongly) disagree with

I live among many people with beliefs I dislike—often abhor.

I live in a small town in Central Bohemia in the Czech Republic. It is almost entirely white and affluent. Recently a few Asian families have moved to town to open businesses. There are also a handful of oddball people of color—one kid at school with a mother from the Caribbean and so forth.

The opinions of most of my neighbors reflect that. They are inexperienced, fearful of people with different skin tones, and resentful of the hardworking Asian business owners (who keep their shops open hours after everyone else has closed up). They blithely “pop out to the Vietnamese” at 8:00 pm to get a snack when no one else in ten kilometers is open, but they’ll be back at the Asian-bashing the next morning… or often as not, on the way home from the store..

Beyond that, the country is not very diverse. We are among the handful of countries in the EU who have taken in the fewest refugees as a percent of population. My neighbors are always telling me about why we shouldn’t take in refugees, particularly not from Muslim countries.

This isn’t backwoods ignorance but rather pseudo-intellectual rhetoric:

“European culture is founded on Christianity and the enlightenment. Even though most of us are not really Christians anymore, that’s our cultural foundation. Muslims don’t fit in here and they will make enclaves where they enforce their culture and beliefs. They’ll also change our overall culture. They have a lot more children than we do. In the end, you know they want to force us to live under Sharia law.”

There are so many false assumptions in this common public story that I hear from every side daily, even within my own family. that it would take at least five blog posts to cover them all:

  1. No, Europe was actually Pagan. Christianity came from the same general area as a large number of the refugees.

  2. Refugees don’t erase your cultural foundation. Throughout history, nations that accepted refugees have done better economically and become more culturally enlightened. I’ve never seen a historical exception to this fact.

  3. Poor and desperate people have more children. Secure people with access to education and health care have fewer children. That’s a very basic biological fact about humans as a species. If you want to curb population growth, give people education and health care.

  4. The majority of Muslim immigrants don’t want Sharia law. Fanaticism is often a top reason they left their homelands. Even in Muslim majority countries, opinions about Islamic extremists are overwhelmingly negative.

Creative Commons image by Andy Blackledge

Creative Commons image by Andy Blackledge

The fact remains that I live next to, converse politely with and even maintain a shallow level of friendship with many people who hold a lot of bigoted, inexperienced and hateful opinions. I have little choice, since I live in a country where these are the views of the vast majority of the population. Unless I want to be a hermit, who only shops at the family owned Vietnamese store (with nice people) and who doesn’t even use social media, I have to learn to live in the vicinity of horrid opinions.

But the original question that sparked this post on befriending or respecting those with beliefs you don’t like came from these same people—just the other way around. I have been asked many times how I can have Muslim friends and express respect for Muslims, when I am not a Muslim and I clearly disagree with some common Muslim beliefs and even the very basis of that religion.

Once I had a party with a lot of international friends from the city. There were probably thirty people in my yard and living room. One of my foreigner friends from the high-energy activist culture of Prague, a Palestinian student, had brought a couple of his friends.who I didn’t know as well. At one point they approached me as a group and asked if there was some quiet place where they could pray, given that they really did pray five times a day.

The choices weren’t spectacular. The yard was full and mostly dirt at the time anyway. The house was tiny with the main room, one bedroom with too little floor space and my office area, which also included a couple of beds behind a curtain. I took them to the office, which at least had a door that could be closed.

The office not only had rumpled beds and a pile of my folded clothing but various Pagan statues and artwork scattered around. I noticed that the Muslim students seemed a bit uneasy about the arrangement, but it really was the only viable option. They quickly rallied and expressed their appreciation. I pointed out the direction of southeast, which was easy since my practice involves compass points as well. Then I left them to it.

Before that, I once accompanied a Muslim woman in Kazakhstan on a pilgrimage to a holy site in Turkestan (which is a town, not a country). My interest was journalism and personal experience. This woman narrated much of her beliefs and practice along the way, while I went through the motions as a sign of respect and as a way to broaden my own understanding.

All this, and I can still say I really don’t agree with Islam.

I know some Muslims like to point out that the word “Islam” is closely connected to the word “peace,” but let’s face it, the history of Islam has been far from peaceful. Show me a major religion without copious amounts of blood on its hands.

The Koran says some violent and intolerant things, whether about the particular battles of Mohammed’s time or about the way the world works in general. And so does the Bible and so do lots of original Pagan myths. I’m not arguing that we have to take these things literally or that I’m better than anyone else. But the fact is that there are plenty of things in the Koran that I don’t like.

There is that controversy over the “Verse of the Swords,” which can be read to mean that a Muslim should fight, hound and persecute non-believers wherever they be found or it can e read to be referring only to a specific incident when some Pagans broke a treaty with Mohammed. Mohammed sounds to me like a pretty normal leader, trying to deal with the realities of the world and getting confused about how much force should be used in defense of what he believes—hardly someone copying down directly the words dictated by the one and only true God.

Another controversy arises out of verse 4:34 of the Koran regarding relations between husbands and wives. It states that women should be obedient because God put men over women and if a wife disobeys, her husband should first advise her, then refuse to have sex and finally“strike” her if she doesn’t submit. Scholars like to argue over the many possible meanings of the word “strike” in Arabic, some insisting that the verse does not actually condone domestic violence.

But that isn’t even my primary concern. I’m still stuck on the part about women being obedient and God putting men over women. I know this was written for a violent and harsh time and women did often need the protection of men. But men needed the life-giving power of women. And this is supposed to be directly inspired by God. And hopefully God—even a regular god, let alone the one and only God—surely ought to be able to see beyond the local, current context when dictating the ultimate rules for everything.

So, it isn’t a religion for me. I can’t go with both believing the Koran is literally inspired by the only true God and that we have to take the stuff about women being inferior in social context. I really don’t like these beliefs. But it is the peaceful way of life and the respect toward women shown by the Muslims I meet that makes them welcome for me.

A few years ago, I decided to read the mythology of every major religion to my children for a year. I obtained children’s versions of the important stories from Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and a wide variety of Pagan and indigenous faiths.

Some of the Jewish and Christian stories made me pause. I skipped a few of the more gruesome ones that I just couldn’t conscience reading to young children. But when I got to the Islamic stories, I couldn’t find ANY that were not deeply problematic from the perspective of modern, sheltered children. Maybe I had the wrong book, though it had an author who professed to be Muslim and it was specifically for children.

I’ll grant that Pagan stories have been sanitized over the years. We don’t have such old texts, so we will likely never know how gruesome the versions of our stories from 1,500 years ago would have been, if we could read them in the original. And again, I don’t encourage literalism in mythology.

But there is also the matter of the whole Islamic thing about how there is only one God and some intolerance toward those who believe otherwise. I do have many gods and I dislike intolerance in Islam as much as I dislike similar intolerance in my neighbors.

But here is the thing. I tolerate in society those who do not impose their beliefs on others.

Islamic extremists do impose their beliefs on others. I will always speak out against such extremists and I won’t tolerate them or welcome them to a community. The same goes for Christian fundamentalists who seek to impose their beliefs on others. The same goes for those who may call themselves Pagan or Heathen, while usurping my spiritual symbols for the purposes of intolerance and hate.

Those Muslims I do tolerate are those who have been, in my substantial experience, considerate and accepting of others. I do not claim to understand why they believe in a faith I don’t always like.

All I ask in return is that they don’t instantly judge me for the actions of white supremacists who steal Pagan symbols and defame my spiritual path.

Those people I befriend are those who are willing to have open conversations, those who come into my home and treat me, my family and my beliefs with respect and care. Again, I don’t have to like or agree with all of the beliefs of my friends, although to be friends I do hope to have conversations about such things and at least seek to understand each other’s perspective.

Europeans who fear Muslims often ask me, “How can you trust them? I read that Muslims are taught to lie to non-believers and behave nicely so that they can get into a position to either kill us or force us to convert.”

I have read the same allegations. And I know for a fact that some Christian groups teach this very thing in the US: “Work your way into their confidence. Use gifts and friendship to get close to them and then bring them to Jesus.” I haven’t personally encountered an emphasis on killing unbelievers among American Christians, but my pacifist brother was once beaten by kids in a youth group while Christian adult leaders looked on and encouraged them to “beat the devil out of him.”

So, yeah, I believe Muslim extremists probably teach something like this too. I don’t have real personal experience or evidence of it. But it stands to reason, given the similarities to other religious extremists and their preferred interpretation of the “Verse of the Sword.”

Do I believe that my Muslim friends are secretly plotting to someday stop being nice, force us to convert and kill us if we refuse? No, I just don’t believe that.

Why don’t I? I have several other friends who were raised Muslim but aren’t practicing Muslims, who are critical of the religion or just turned atheist. And I have no doubt that if Muslims across the board were taught that doctrine, many such people would have talked about it openly by now. It just is not a mainstream Muslim thing,

So, I don’t actually find it at all difficult to tolerate or befriend Muslims who probably hold beliefs that I dislike. They don’t bludgeon me with their beliefs. They are tolerant and respectful of others. Do I understand? No, not really. But I’m willing to have deep philosophical conversations with them and maybe someday I will understand.

I find it harder to tolerate and befriend racist and isolationist neighbors. I mostly do it because I have little choice. I have friendships where I have to avoid a lot of topics of conversation. Those friendships are shallow, utilitarian and mostly for the children involved.

And even so, I entirely avoid those who really go overboard with expressing racist and isolationist opinions. I don’t want that around my kids. I don’t really even want it in my own ears.

Do I fully understand them? No. I am willing to have deep philosophical conversations, if they’ll stop bludgeoning me with their caustic opinions long enough to have a deep philosophical conversation, and maybe someday I will understand.

Adopting a sighted guide on the train... or the ethics of helping strangers avoid corporate traps

What you pay for today is often a service rather than an item. But we are not always informed about what exactly the service we are purchasing is. Often as not, that lack of information is intentional.

As a small example, in the Czech Republic an new rail system was recently implemented that allows private companies to run trains on the Czech railways. These trains usually run at the most lucrative times of day and on the most frequented routes, leaving the less profitable village routes to the national rail company and causing some bitterness. 

Creative Commons image by Toshiyuki IMAI of Flickr.com 

Creative Commons image by Toshiyuki IMAI of Flickr.com 

For passengers, the problem is that for most of our lives we have been buying tickets at the ticket office and using them for any and all trains on the purchased route.

The only possible exception used to be express trains requiring an upgrade payment, but even those trains still utilized the base ticket you bought. It wasn't worthless. You just had to pay for an upgrade if you wanted to use the express train.

But now these private trains pull in to the same stations and travel the same routes and once you get on board you are told that your ticket isn't valid and you are required to buy another one from another company.

I have more or less mastered this system after a couple of confusing encounters. But many people, especially those who only travel at special times of the year, such as the recent holidays, are not yet aware. Recently I met an elderly woman on a train platform with frosty mist rising all around us. I wouldn't have noticed her at all, except that she helped me read a sign that was a bit too far for my shortsighted eyes.

It was a brief, polite encounter and would have ended there, except that later I noticed her colorful hat in front of me boarding one of the private trains. She sat down in the set of seats I wanted to sit in, so we sat together. I also noticed her pull out a Czech National Railways ticket. I was half expecting it and even with my eyesight the blue logo was clear when she laid it on the tiny fold-out table right between us.

"Excuse me," I said, my words rushed with urgency. "That ticket won't work on this train. Another train will be here in just five minutes. You've got to--" 

But the train jolted into motion before I could even finish my sentence.

The older woman started to rise from her place, her eyes going wide with anxiety. "How was I supposed to know?" her voice teetered on the edge of panic. "And what do I do now?"

I'd seen it plenty of times. She would be humiliated. The conductor would come and scold her for boarding the train with the wrong ticket. Then he would attempt to get her to buy a new ticket for the same price she had already paid. And if she couldn't or had the gumption to simply refuse, she would be put off the train at the next station.

That was the most reasonable response. I happened to know that another train where her ticket would be good was following just behind us.

But being legally blind, I am well accustomed to missing inconspicuous notice boards and being publicly shamed for it. It might not bother a lot of people. My husband sneers over such things and calls me "thin-skinned." But I just do not like being scolded. It's very unpleasant and I could tell that the older woman across from me felt the same way.

I heard the snap of the conductor's stamp on tickets just a few rows behind me and there was no time to explain.

"Sit down," I hissed at the older woman. "You helped me on the platform, remember? I'm legally blind and my pass says a guide can travel with me for free. You're my guide."

It's the law here. Even private companies have to honor it. I don't generally need a guide to get around, even though I only see about ten percent of "normal." But that primarily comes from a lifetime of adaptation and a lot of good mobility instructors. I know people with similar eye conditions who are very disoriented and do often need a guide. So the doctors and bureaucrats who certify such passes have little choice but to assign them based on technical measurements rather than subjective abilities.

I couldn't explain any of this though, not with the conductor suddenly right behind me. The older woman sat back down, her eyes wide and her jaw trembling just a bit. At the last minute I nudged her incorrect ticket under the map on the table.

The conductor turned toward us and I produced my disability card and paid for the private train ticket, giving a nod toward the woman to indicate that she was included. She never had to say a word. And the conductor moved off. 

I explained it all afterwards and sure enough, she was one of those people who rarely rides the train. She had been doing some rare holiday visiting and was confused by the dizzying new variety in trains. She didn't appear to have the energy for one of those spontaneous autobiographies that strangers exchange on trains or airplanes, so we sat mostly in silence for an hour and a half, until she got off at the stop just before mine. 

I had to wonder whether my action was ethically correct by current standards. She did help me but only in a very minor way. But to me the greater issue was that she had paid for a ticket and the companies should be responsible for providing adequate information for passengers. More than my right to adopt her as a guide, I felt she had a right to a transparent and fair system of payment that would not result in either extra charges or humiliation for understandable mistakes. 

"Welcome to Canada" unless you have a disability

Canada's appalling discrimination against immigrants with disabilities threatens to derail the country's enlightened track record. The long-standing ban impacts professionals, children and anyone subjectively believed to be a potential "burden," causing families to be denied reunion and stunned individuals to be subjected to significant hardship. 

My husband and I both love a spirited political discussion, so it's good that we agree on a lot of things or home life could become contentious. But there is one place where sparks fly. That's--amazingly--Canada. 

My husband's argument is by his own admission emotional and irrational. Sixteen years ago, he went to the Canadian embassy to apply for a visa as a Czech citizen because we were traveling to the US--in part to get married--and he wanted to go look at the beautiful mountains near Calgary on a road trip. He already had a year-long visa to the US (no small feat) and was confident that the Canadians would give him one as well. 

Now, I'd like to point out that my husband has never been known to put out an arrogant or abrasive vibe. Everyone who knows him will vouch that he is--unlike me--well versed in diplomatic behavior and expression. But I wasn't there, so I can only take his word for it.

The Canadian consul took hum in for an interview and at some point asked--rather acidly, he says--if my husband simply assumed Canada would issue him a visa, because the US did. My husband replied "Yes, I think you will." And his visa was denied. 

I was shocked. This is simply not the Canada I know as a friendly and overly polite northern neighbor. But George W. Bush had just been elected and I was fairly sure that the complaints of an American fiancée could only hurt his case under the circumstances. 

So, we didn't go to Canada for the road trip and my husband has never forgiven them. Any time Canada comes up in political discussion he is uncharacteristically sarcastic and negative.

And Canada comes up a fair amount because we are both very critical of most US imperial and corporate-welfare policies. I was brought to tears of gratitude when Canada refused to forcibly return a few American soldiers who fled there to escape being deployed in the ridiculous and often marginally legal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have also heard plenty of stories of Americans going to Canada to buy desperately needed medicine at reasonable prices. And watching the actions of Canada's marvelously diverse cabinet--particularly when they announced that they would take in thoroughly vetted Syrian refugees rejected by Donald Trump--is a delight and a rare breath of fresh, piney air in these stifling times. 

I've always vehemently stuck up for Canada in discussions with my husband or anyone else, which is why the news that Canadian immigration policy flagrantly discriminates against the most vulnerable possible group--children with disabilities--hits me like a sucker punch. 

An article in The Washington Post explains that Canadian policy means in practical terms: "Families can be rejected for having deaf children and spouses can be denied because they use a wheelchair, a practice too harsh for even the United States’ difficult immigration system." And this long-standing policy calls into question precisely how honest the Canadian boast of welcoming refugees from war-torn Syria, where many will have been injured, really is.

The article goes on to list horrifying case studies of families denied reunion or exposed to extreme hardship, due to a member with fairly minor disabilities. A German woman, with multiple sclerosis--a condition that can be fairly mild and is certainly not contagious--who married a Canadian man was denied a residency permit. A family was even stopped at the airport in 2008 after their immigration from Britain had been approved because their daughter had an apparently visible genetic difference. The family of a Costa Rican professor hired by Toronto University was denied residency because of a child with Down Syndrome.

I have to say, flat out, that in the year 2017 this list--and it goes on in The Washington Post--leaves me breathless and gagging. And it makes me look back again at that moment when my husband was denied a visa and wonder if behind the humanitarian and progressive face presented by Canada there actually lies a smug, entitled and ultimately self-serving heart, as he has always maintained. 

Photo by Larry Dickerson  No, those are not Syrian refuges. That's me in the red coat in February or March 1980 in northeastern Oregon. Note the super-thick glasses--definitely not admissible to Canada, even today.

Photo by Larry Dickerson

No, those are not Syrian refuges. That's me in the red coat in February or March 1980 in northeastern Oregon. Note the super-thick glasses--definitely not admissible to Canada, even today.

You see, before I was an American (yeah, it took a month for them to file my birth certificate so technically there was a before), I was a child with a disability. My family's house burnt down while my mother was pregnant with me and my family, including my then one-year-old brother lived in the back of a truck through one snowy, mountain winter. I was born in the spring in the loft of what was then a one-room cabin built by hand around that truck, the fresh-cut boards still smelling of sap. 

And my mother, having endured all that and living in physically harsh conditions, then found out that her new baby was blind. 

We weren't immigrants, but given all that had happened, we didn't look much different from your standard refugees. 

And no one could have predicted it then, but I became an immigrant 22 years later--to the Czech Republic, which--soon after I came--joined the European Union. 

And the comparison to Canadian policies could not be more striking. 

As an immigrant in the EU, I was officially classified in the worst of four possible categories of disability, though I technically have some sight. I once ran into overt discrimination because I was an immigrant with a disability and that was from a doctor who refused to issue me legally mandated medical documents, because she did "not believe foreigners should get the benefits of society" even if they pay the same taxes as everyone else. I dumped her in our wonderful European single-payer health-care system and got another doctor. Problem solved.

Many terrible things have been said about the notorious Foreigner's Police in the Czech Republic and yet astoundingly after 20 years of dealing with them I have never felt that they discriminated against me because of my disability. Far from it. While their 12- and 18-hour waiting lines and their occasional collusion with the Ukrainian mafia are egregious, they never seemed to notice my white cane.

Not only did I not face discrimination from Czech or EU authorities, I was given the same benefits of society that a citizen has, as soon as I had the equivalent of a Green Card as the spouse of a Czech and EU citizen. And I was even given disability accommodations when I took a citizenship test after fifteen years as a permanent resident to assess knowledge of the language and culture, because--surprise surprise--Czech officials actually cared more about whether or not I, as a prospective citizen, had truly integrated into their country and become one of them than they did about my physical difference.

Having seen a thing or two in my time in many parts of the world, I was always waiting for the discrimination shoe to drop. But it never did. 

I'm not a big tax payer, but it's hard to say whether that has more to do with my disability or with my profession as a writer. My husband pays a full share and I make a lot of his work possible. I am an exceedingly good bet for the Czech single-payer health-care system, being extraordinarily healthy. My disability has only once required medical attention and that was for cataract surgery, which eventually affects more than half of all adults. 

Oh, and then there are the savings the state has gained since I adopted two infants from an orphanage that the Czech state would have otherwise had to support for 18 years--given that they were considered "unadoptable" due to local ethnic prejudices. I never had to pay a cent for the adotions (for the record) and I also never got a cent for taking that burden off of the Czech state. I did get a family and a country that welcomed me, however. 

And so for once, I stand in awe of my good fortune--the simple luck that I am in the EU and even Eastern Europe, rather than the much admired land of Canada.

And to Canadians I want to say this. You have my heartfelt thanks you for giving sanctuary to American soldiers forced into illegal situations. Thank you for taking in refugees, including refugees from my adopted country the Czech Republic, when ethnic tensions, violence and rampant discrimination here caused thousands of Czech Roma to flee to Canada. You complained and sent some back, but some were able to stay and thus escape a different form of discrimination--racial discrimination--here.

None of us are perfect. But this policy of blatant discrimination against people with disabilities is disgusting, unwise and ultimately self-defeating. You are an enlightened society and can easily absorb the fact that people with disabilities are no more likely to be a "burden"  to your society than any other group of immigrants.

For centuries, uninformed and misguided policies around the world have called immigrants in general a burden. And nation after nation, that opened up to immigrants and enjoyed their energy and industry has shown those exclusionist policies to be simply ignorant. 

The same is true of societies that have opened up to full participation by people with disabilities. Such openness has only ever helped a society and boosted economic growth.

People with disabilities are different. That's true.

But given access to the same rights as other people, we have never been a burden. Just as we are different, our contributions are outside the norm and often therefore in areas others would not have gone to address needs in society that otherwise would have been left wanting--such as my adoption of children considered un-adoptable by locals. 

Canada, this policy is beneath you. Fix it. Please.