Tolerance is a word much bandied around by politicians, church leaders and promoters of community harmony. It is most often used in the context of trying to ensure that countries like the UK, Australia and Canada will accept the demands and desires of their large and increasing immigrant populations. It is noteworthy that those who make the demands are often those least likely to come up against the day to day problems caused by large numbers of incomers moving into their localities.
The word is not altogether positive in meaning. To put up with, to make the best of a bad job, to accept the situation are all possible definitions. To say that one can tolerate the attitude of another is hardly a ringing endorsement. It can mean that the attitude is just about acceptable as long as it is not forced upon one. To claim that the behaviour of the neighbour's children is tolerable implies that those children do not actually go round throwing rocks through the windows but that perhaps it would be better if they lived elsewhere. On the other hand to claim that one will not tolerate such and such means that such and such is totally beyond the pale and entirely unacceptable. Thus meaning depends very much upon context.
The political use of tolerance in 2012 is mainly linked to attitudes of native populations to large numbers of newcomers from foreign parts whose appearance, customs, demeanour and habits are remarkable and different. A little historical digression is in order here.
In 1948 there was one solitary mosque in the entire United Kingdom and it was situated, rather bizarrely, in Woking, Surrey. A glance at the telephone directory of a significant, provincial, English city that the same time would have revealed many Smiths, Browns, Wrights and Taylors. There would also have been a few Jones, Jenkins and Williams alongside a handful of Caseys, O'Reillys, Murphys, Macdonalds, McIntryes and Mc Taggarts - representative all of the Celtic fringe. A more careful search would have thrown up a few Levis and Cohens and perhaps a couple of Valoris and Bertolinis. However, not a single Ali, Hussein or Ahmed and not one Singh would have been listed. A stroll down the high street of this same city would have revealed a uniform sea of white faces - no blacks, no Arabs or people from the Subcontinent and most certainly no veiled women.
The larger cities, London, Liverpool and Birmingham had small discrete populations of Chinese. Around the London Hospital in the East End of London, many Orthodox Jews could be seen in their characteristic costumes and side locks. But, overall, Britain was a white monoculture slowly recovering from the ravages of the recently ended Second World War.
European empires were dismantled in the 25 years after the end of the war and immigrants began to arrive in larger and larger numbers. In Britain, the first to come were from the West Indies. They clustered in the poorer parts of the largest cities and took on the humblest jobs. By and large, they were English speaking, Christian and orderly. They were followed by large numbers of people from India, who flocked to the English Midlands and set up enclaves and became shopkeepers and café owners. These people were obviously different in dress, habit and religion. By now, the tide of immigration was beginning to cause some unease and Enoch Powell, a prominent English, Tory MP made his famous Rivers of Blood speech in which he asked if anyone had considered what effect uncontrolled immigration would have on a country like Britain.
Later on, folk from the Middle East and Pakistan arrived, often fleeing from mayhem back home. They, too, concentrated themselves in enclaves but unlike their predecessors they saw themselves largely in terms of their religion. Mosques were built, workers demanded the right to say prayers five times daily. They insisted on special spaces be set aside in the work place for prayers. They observed Ramadan and their work performance and efficiency suffered during the course of the holy month. Many of their women were completely veiled. Some who worked in the health care field insisted that they be excused from the dictates of hygiene rules. Rolling up the sleeves to scrub was held to violate Islamic dress codes.
They often had large families and more than one wife. Many did not speak English and showed little enthusiasm for learning it. Their timing was unfortunate for the native population was becoming increasingly antsy about immigration and regarded more newcomers as posing threats to the diminishing pool of unskilled labouring jobs. Added to that, the United Kingdom had become a secular society and pre-occupation with religion struck a discordant note.
From one single example in Woking in 1948, mosques appeared to spring up on just about every street corner. Several of the clerics, who ran them, preached increasingly violent anti-western diatribes. They characterised British society as decadent, evil and perverted. Western women were often characterised as sluts and whores. The local security services managed to unmask several terrorist plots. Muslims circled the wagons and retreated into little enclaves with little attempt to join in wider society.
More than that, however. Muslims in general took on a defensive posture following various events in their homelands. The fatwah issued against Salman Rushdie over his Satanic Verses was worrying. The on-going strife between the israelis and the Palestinians was a source of angst for them for they saw the West as unduly partisan towards the Jewish State. As more and more terrorist outrages occurred culminating in the attack on the World Trade Centre and the start of the so-called War on Terror, Muslims perceived themselves to be under threat.
More and more demands were made: the use of Sharia law, the establishment of unregistered, religious schools, the right to insist that there be no criticism of Islam and its sacred icons: the Prophet, the Koran and Sharia. Any attempt to satirise any of these was conflated with racism although Islam is a religion and not a race. Muslims appeared to be ever ready to react violently against what they saw as personal insults or threats to their faith. By no means all Muslims were fundamentalists but the moderates seemed unwilling to criticise those who preached hate and violence. It looked as if they were afraid of violence directed against themselves.
Britain was not the only country to attract large numbers of immigrants after the War. France, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia attracted their fair share. Their experiences with Muslims immigrants mirrored events in Britain. Islam became the fastest growing religion in Europe and adherents to it the fastest growing ethnic groups.
The last half century has witnessed profound economic changes in Europe. Manufacturing has just about disappeared. Mining is a thing of the past. The days during which the unschooled could take on simple unskilled labouring and make enough money to support a family were over. What few openings available were now sought after, not only by the natives, but by immigrants as well.
Similar scenarios played out in European outposts, like Canada and Australia, but with less intensity. Both the latter are large and at a much earlier stage of development than European countries.
So, the scene was set for a good deal of mistrust and antagonism. Strange new incomers with foreign dress and habits, who showed little enthusiasm for assimilation, competed against the natives for employment, welfare benefits and housing. Furthermore, the newcomers evinced a profound distaste for the habits, customs and lifestyles of the natives.
Conflict and suspicion were almost inevitable. Appeals for tolerance sounded hollow when issued by the chattering classes, the latte sippers and the chardonnay set, who were largely immune from close contact with the struggles of the decaying, inner cities of once prosperous industrial areas.
The activities of neofascist political parties like the British National Party and its clones on the Continent, the activities of politicians like the late Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter and Gert Wilders of Holland have not helped. They echo the concerns of Enoch Powell but in a much harsher and less nuanced way with calls for an end to immigration and the return of those already arrived.
Large Islamic immigrant populations are now a fact in much of the Western World. Should no further immigration take place, the processes of demography would ensure that the proportion of folk with Middle Eastern ethnicity would continue to increase. It is forecast that this segment of the population will approach 15-20% during the next 10-20 years. What consequences such growth will have depends upon many factors. An resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the winding up of the disastrous cock-up that is Afghanistan, the playing out of the so-called Arab Spring will all lower the emotional temperature. Islamic groups in the West will have to learn to respect Western mores and come to accept that all of their demands cannot be met.
Under these circumstances, the idea of tolerance might stand a better chance of playing out peacefully and equably. If neither side is prepared to compromise, life in the West is set to become increasingly turbulent.