The Changing Face of Toleration
Susan Mendus, University of York 26 June 2014

In the Beginning

In 1989, I wrote a short book entitled, Toleration and the Limits of Liberalism, and in that book I said that problems of toleration arise only in respect of things which we disapprove of or dislike. We cannot, I claimed, tolerate things which we like or to which we are indifferent. However, so defined, toleration is a problematic concept because it is difficult to see why we should tolerate, or put up with, things which we disapprove of. As David Raphael puts it:

“To disapprove of something is to judge it to be wrong. Such a judgement does not express a purely subjective preference. It claims universality; it claims to be the view of any rational agent. The content of the judgement that something is wrong implies that the something may properly be prevented. But if your disapproval is reasonably grounded, why should you go against it at all? Why should you tolerate? Why, in other words, is toleration a virtue or a duty?”[1]

This question – ‘How can it be right to allow what is wrong?’ – has come to be known as the paradox of toleration, and it is a paradox which arises acutely in societies like ours (that is to say, in western liberal democracies) which believe toleration to be not merely a practical necessity, not merely a pragmatic device for securing peace, but a positive virtue.

Additionally, we must note that problems of toleration are not only conceptual; they are also practical. So, having defined toleration as a principled decision to refrain from interfering with things which we dislike or disapprove of, I then went on, in the 1989 book, to consider some practical cases in which questions of toleration arise. In particular, I discussed the toleration of sexual difference (especially the toleration of homosexuality); the toleration of racial difference; and, very briefly, the toleration of religious difference.

So, in 1989, problems of toleration seemed (to me) to be problems about why we think it is right to put up with things which we believe to be wrong, and paradigm cases of toleration were cases of racial toleration and sexual toleration. Interestingly, in that 1989 book, I had very little to say about religious toleration, and much of what I did say was historical. I spoke as if problems of religious toleration had been solved, and my examples of religious intolerance were historical examples. There was, as far as I could see, very little problem of religious toleration in liberal societies in the late twentieth century. But this perception was soon to change.

New Concepts and a Changing World

Soon after the publication of Toleration and the Limits of Liberalism two kinds of change occurred, both of which should prompt us (me) to think further about toleration. The first was a conceptual change or, more precisely, a conceptual challenge, which came from a number of philosophers and which drew attention to the rather grudging character of toleration as traditionally understood. These philosophers called for something more than traditional toleration – something less grudging and more welcoming. Something more like acceptance, acknowledgement or recognition. Their line of thinking was quite simply that while we (the tolerators) may consider toleration a virtue in ourselves, those who are tolerated might understandably think otherwise. They may see toleration as mean, grudging, and even patronizing. Hans Oberdiek puts the point this way:

“No-one likes being tolerated; most resent it. To be tolerated is to be an object of contempt, condescension, or patronizing suffocation … The alleged virtue of tolerance encourages tolerators to indulge a groundless, smug, complacency celebrating their own superiority. While it is surely better to be tolerated than persecuted, at least persecutors regard those whom they persecute as worth persecuting. The tolerant often like to present themselves as showing great forbearance and largeness of soul by not letting on how offensive, childlike, or otherwise deficient they find the objects of their toleration.”[2]

In short, Oberdiek, and other proponents of the ‘new’ toleration, take issue with the traditional claim that a form of toleration which is grounded in disapproval can properly be celebrated or counted a virtue, and they call collectively for a move beyond the traditional concept of toleration as grudging acceptance to a form of toleration which is more welcoming and accepting. This, then, was the first, conceptual challenge for toleration as traditionally understood.

The second challenge arose from a practical change – a change, not in the conceptual understanding of toleration, but rather a change in the world. As I have noted already, Toleration and the Limits of Liberalism had comparatively little to say about religious toleration, and the reason for this was simply that, in 1989, religious toleration seemed to have been secured throughout the western world. It seemed no longer to be a problem. Indeed, in the Introduction to his 1993 book, Political Liberalism, John Rawls confidently asserts that religious toleration is no longer a problem in or for western liberal democracies, when he writes:

“Even firmly held convictions gradually change: religious toleration is now accepted and arguments for persecution are no longer openly professed; similarly, slavery, which caused our Civil war, is rejected as inherently unjust, and however much the aftermath of slavery may persist in social policies and unavowed attitudes, no-one is willing to defend it.”[3]

So, in the 1980s and early 1990s problems of toleration seemed to be primarily problems about race and about sexuality, not problems about religion. Indeed, it was widely thought that the really serious problems of religious toleration had been solved but, as subsequent events revealed, that optimistic view was, to put it mildly, premature.

The events of 9/11 and 7/7 are, of course, still uppermost in many people’s minds as exemplars of the modern problem of religious intolerance, and as manifestations of the fact that religious toleration is far from secured. But we should also note that these dreadful events stand in a long line of late twentieth century controversies about religious belief and religious toleration. Indeed, the final 15-20 years of the twentieth century saw a dramatic increase in problems of religious toleration, and these problems were not confined to a single country, but arose throughout the western world.

In what follows, I will focus on just one of those controversies, and my aim in discussing it is to cast light on the wider issues of religious toleration which we now confront. The case is a famous one, and it concerns the permissibility, or otherwise, of Muslim girls wearing a headscarf at school. The case arose originally in the small industrial French town of Creil when, in October 1989, three Muslim girls (Samira Saidani, Leila Achaboun and her sister, Fatima) were sent home from the Gabriel-Havez secondary school for refusing to remove their headscarves during lessons. The subsequent controversy surrounding this affair (the affaire du foulard, as it became known) refused to die down and finally, in 2004, a law was passed in France prohibiting the wearing of conspicuous religious apparel in public schools.

Since then, other countries have followed suit and, at the time of writing, there are restrictions on the wearing of the headscarf in a number of European countries, including Turkey, Denmark, and some states in Germany. Additionally, there are plans to extend the ban in France to universities as well as schools. There are also, of course, widespread plans throughout Europe to ban the wearing of the burqa or niqab, which cover the face almost entirely. For the purposes of this talk, I will focus on the headscarves ban, and I do so because it is here that the questions of toleration arise in their most acute form, though I am, of course, very happy to discuss the wider issues, too[4].

So, should we tolerate the wearing of the headscarf in public schools (or other public places)? Or should we not? What are the grounds, and what are the limits of toleration in this case? The answers to these questions will, I think, prompt us to reconsider the nature of a liberal society, and the prospects for a ‘new’ understanding of toleration – that is to say, a form of toleration which goes beyond dislike or disapproval, and promises acceptance, acknowledgement, or recognition. To anticipate, my claim will be that, in considering the arguments for and against the toleration of headscarves, we may do well to content ourselves with the traditional concept of toleration – toleration as involving disapproval or dislike – rather than reaching for the more ambitious understanding of toleration as welcoming and endorsing. In other words, my conclusion will be that the ‘old’, or traditional, toleration which I defended in 1989, is still important in the 21st century, and may indeed be more valuable to us than the new toleration advocated by Oberdiek and others.

I begin, however, by considering arguments for and against tolerating headscarves in public schools.

Against Toleration

What reasons are offered in defence of the decision to ban headscarves in public schools (and sometimes in other public places)?
Naturally, the arguments are many and various, and I don’t have time to discuss them all, so I will focus on one very important argument offered by those who favour a ban on the headscarf. This is an argument from equal citizenship, and it holds that, if all citizens are to flourish equally, then all must think of themselves as, first and foremost, French citizens. Their religious or racial identity must be subordinated to their identity as citizens of France. Cecile Laborde explains the point in the following way:

“Muslim headscarves symbolize the primacy of the believer over the citizen. In so far as the wearing of headscarves is a religious obligation for Muslim girls, and is non-detachable from the person as a believer, it symbolizes the refusal by Muslims to separate their identity as citizens from their private religious identity. The ban on headscarves thus signals to the Muslim community that, like other religious groups in the past, it must make greater efforts to reconcile its interpretation of its faith with the demands of laicite as an ethic independent of and superior to particular religious prescriptions.”[5]

So, a good state is one which treats all its citizens equally, and this requires that there be no special treatment for religious believers, and no ostentatious displays of religious belief in the public sphere. The requirements of equality dictate a ban on headscarves, and other religious symbols, in public schools. Or so it is claimed.

In Favour of Toleration

What, then, of the arguments in favour of tolerating headscarves in public schools? Interestingly, they, too, are often couched in the language of equality. Thus, discussing problems of multiculturalism generally, Bhikhu Parekh argues that treating people as equals requires treating them in a culturally sensitive manner, and that, in turn, may require treating them differently. He writes:

“Equality before the law and equal protection of the law, too, need to be defined in a culturally sensitive manner. Formally, a law banning the use of drugs treats all equally, but in fact it discriminates against those for whom some drugs are religious or cultural requirements as is the case with Peyote and marijuana for the American Indians and Rastafarians respectively.”[6]

And Parekh would say the same about a law banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols. This, too, might be thought to treat all equally, but in fact it discriminates against those for whom the wearing of a religious symbol (a headscarf, a cross, a bangle, a dagger) is a religious requirement. For Parekh, then, equality calls for cultural sensitivity and different treatment.

What is intriguing here is that both the proponents and the opponents of a ban justify their conclusions by reference to the importance of treating people equally, but whereas those who favour the ban construe the requirement of equality as one which implies sameness of treatment, those who oppose the ban insist on the importance of understanding equality ‘in a culturally sensitive manner’ which legitimizes – perhaps even requires – different treatment for people of different religious conviction.

So what we seem to have here is agreement that we should treat people equally, but dramatic disagreement as to what that requires of us. How are we to explain this conceptual conundrum and, at the same time, address the practical problem of toleration posed by the headscarves case?

In Defence of Traditional Toleration

My suggestion is that the difference between those who propose and those who oppose a ban on the wearing of headscarves lies partly in their different beliefs about the nature and depth of religious diversity, and partly in their differing understandings of what a good society will look like. I will therefore try now, and in conclusion, to explain and defend that suggestion, and to say something about what it implies for the toleration of religious symbols.

In the Introduction to Political Liberalism John Rawls charts the historical rise of liberalism, and tells us that for us, here and now:

The problem of political liberalism is: How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?”[7]

And he goes on to explain that, in speaking of profound disagreement and division, he means disagreement which cannot be expected to go away and which can, in fact, be expected to increase. For Rawls, deep disagreement about moral, religious, and philosophical matters is inevitable, and not at all regrettable. On the contrary, it is the outcome of the operation of reason under conditions of freedom[8]. Moreover, he insists that it is the recognition of the depth and permanence of pluralism which characterizes modern political liberalism. ‘Political liberalism’ he writes ‘starts by taking to heart the absolute depth of that irreconcilable latent conflict[9].

If we accept this as the initial insight of historical liberalism, and also as the starting point of modern liberalism, then we can, I think, begin to see what really divides the proponents and the opponents of a ban on headscarves, and we can also begin to see why the ‘new’ toleration may be less promising than it at first appears.

The reason ‘new’ toleration (a form of toleration which involves welcoming, endorsement, and acceptance of others) is inappropriate, and maybe even impossible, in religious contexts, is simply because, in religious contexts, we are not dealing with the toleration of difference simply, but with the toleration of error – or of what is perceived to be error. To hold a religious belief is, by its very nature, to reject other religious beliefs as false. Thus:

“To be a Muslim is to dissent from Christianity and to be a Christian is to reject Islam, just as to be a Protestant is to dissent from Catholicism and to be a Sunni is to reject Shi’ism; while to be an atheist is to reject all of these faiths and all of their variants. So different religious beliefs are not merely different; they are also conflicting.”[10]

This point is of the first importance: in other areas of life we may think of ourselves as tolerating what we dislike or disapprove of, but religious toleration necessarily involves the belief that we are dealing with error – and error about a supremely important matter, at that. It is for this reason that the ‘new’ toleration is unlikely to be appropriate in religious contexts. Put simply, it asks too much when it asks that we endorse or welcome the false beliefs of other people. Here, I believe, it is sufficient if we tolerate in the traditional sense of that word, and a demand for more may be both strategically unwise and theoretically mistaken.

In saying this, I mean that it may be a demand which attempts to force unity, or at least convergence, in an area which is irreducibly diverse. To put the point back into a practical context, the French ban on headscarves is one which aims to secure uniformity in citizenship despite diversity of religious belief. But the price paid for uniformity of citizenship is the suppression, or privatization, of religious belief. For many people, that price is a very high one. Perhaps too high, and it may therefore be better to settle for the old, ‘grudging’ toleration than to aim for a welcoming acceptance that is beyond our grasp.

Additionally, and finally, the French ban on headscarves bespeaks an understanding of the ideal society as one in which all share the same values, but this, too, may be both unattainable and undesirable. John Rawls’ insight in his later work is not simply that pluralism is permanent, but also, and more importantly, that it is to be welcomed. It is the natural outcome of the operation of reason under conditions of freedom. To the extent that we aim beyond traditional toleration and towards the ‘new’ toleration, we undermine or deny this insight. We strive for a world of uniformity and we adopt strategies of assimilation which are consonant with that. But the real value of toleration lies precisely in its commitment to living with difference, not denying, negating or assimilating it. For these reasons, I remain committed to the old, traditional toleration, and I commend it yet again as an important, possibly indispensable, virtue in an increasingly diverse and difficult world.


[1]D. D. Raphael ‘The Intolerable’ in Susan Mendus (ed) Justifying Toleration, Cambridge, University Press, 1988, p.139.

[2]Hans Oberdiek, Tolerance: between Forbearance and Acceptance. Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, p.18. Others who call for a new understanding of toleration include: Galeotti, Apel, and Creppell.

[3]John Rawls Political Liberalism, Columbia, Iuniversity Press, 1993, p.8

[4]I say this because the ban on headscarves is often justified by reference to the need to defend and nurture the values of a liberal state, whereas the ban on the burqa is usually defended in very practical terms – for example, by reference to the importance of easy identification and communication. I am, however, happy to discuss the case of the burqa, if anyone wishes to do so.

[5]Cecile Laborde Critical Republicanism, Oxford, University Press, 2008, pp.53-4. It should be emphasized that Laborde is not, herself, defending this position. She is merely articulating and explaining it.

[6]Bhikhu Parekh,”Equality in a Multicultural Society.” In Jane Franklin (ed) Equality, IPPR, 1997, p.123.

[7]Political Liberalism, op.cit., p.xxv.

[8]This point is made in ‘The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus’, Samuel Freeman (ed) John Rawls: Collected Papers, Harvard, University Press, 1999, pp. 421-449.


[10]Peter Jones, ‘Toleration, Religion and Accommodation’ in European Journal of Philosophy, 2012.