Are We Getting More or Less Tolerant, And Does It Matter?

MESA, AZ - DECEMBER 16:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guest gathered during a campaign event at t
MESA, AZ - DECEMBER 16: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guest gathered during a campaign event at the International Air Response facility on December 16, 2015 in Mesa, Arizona. Trump is in Arizona the day after the Republican Presidential Debate hosted by CNN in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

In the wake of Donald Trump's call to bar all Muslims who are not American citizens from entering the United States -- and, more frighteningly, the growing support he is receiving for these statements -- I can't help but ask: are we in the modern West getting less tolerant?

Trump seems to be banking on his popularity growing with his increasingly tough stance on "Radical Islamic terrorism," a position that increasingly bleeds into a tough stance on Muslims in general.

Last year, hate crimes against Muslims that were reported to the FBI rose 14 percent above the previous year's number. Nor is America alone in exhibiting rising Islamophobia: in France, both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise -- as evidenced by horrific acts of terrorism (like the attack on the kosher supermarket last January) and by the recent electoral gains of the National Front. In other words, there are some strong signs that the modern West is, indeed, becoming less tolerant.

Yet the very question of whether we are getting more tolerant in the West may be both impossible to answer and, ultimately, unhelpful. Comparing present-day tolerance to, say, medieval Iberia is like the proverbial comparison of apples to oranges. People in the Middle Ages -- Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike -- had views on inter-religious relations that were radically different from those of modern, Western liberalism.

Pre-moderns broadly speaking accepted inequality as a fact of life: different religious groups (and non-religious ones, for that matter) did not expect to be equal, neither in Christendom nor in the Islamic world. Indeed, the very concept of tolerance seems ill equipped for describing a pre-Enlightenment worldview.

More importantly, comparing the modern West to the past -- or to societies that are deemed "backwards," and thus placed in some sort of symbolic past - -can serve to deflect criticism from our own flaws. It's easy to say that we are tolerant compared to, say, fifteenth-century Spain, when the ruling authorities deemed Jews a threat to Christians and expelled them en masse. Pointing out that at least we do not engage in beheadings and other "medieval" punishments -- as ISIS does -- is a weak and, ultimately, hollow defense of our social norms.

But that doesn't mean that we should forget about the past when it comes to critiquing our own society. We just have to be careful about which past we point to, and how we make those comparisons. In some ways, American society is significantly more tolerant than it was even 50 years ago. It would be foolish to assume that we live in a post-racial, or post-racist, society. But in the first half of the twentieth century, official, open, and unapologetic racism against African Americans was sanctioned in law.

Thanks to the Civil Rights movement, Americans have made concrete progress on matters of race. When teaching about the evolution of intolerance to my undergraduate students, I often draw comparisons between pre-Civil Rights-era racism and the way most Americans think about race today to explain to students how the focus of intolerance can shift.

Indeed, Trump was so afraid that he was developing a reputation as racist, he made a point to organize a meeting with African-American religious leaders in an effort to get their endorsement (an effort that seems to have failed). We may have a long way to go to combat racism, but at least few are willing to admit to outright discrimination against African Americans -- even Donald Trump.

The lesson to take from the ways in which anti-black racism has become taboo in America is not that we have overcome racism. Rather, it is that perceptions of race, ethnicity, and religion are not unchanging, just as racial, ethnic, and religious identities are not themselves unchanging or fixed. If we can shift what is considered acceptable in the realm of black-white relations, then we can also shift what is considered acceptable in mainstream America's perception of Islam.

It is painful to observe that in each generation a new "other" emerges, and Muslims are the "other" of the moment. But this does not mean that Muslims are essentially other -- or that they need to remain other forever. In this sense, the relatively recent past can serve as an example of how grassroots movements can transform the way we understand the world.

Perhaps the silver lining to Trump's horrific statements about Muslims is that they might force us to face the Islamophobia that has been in our midst for decades, and has only gotten worse since 9/11. Indeed, the fact that even Republicans are condemning Trump's call to bar Muslims from the US (if not, perhaps, loudly enough) suggests that this may be a moment when we can reach a broad consensus that Muslims are not America's enemies.

But while Muslims should stand up for their rights as Americans and human beings, it is up to us non-Muslims to take the lead in combatting Islamophobia. This is another important lesson we must take from recent American history: the Civil Rights movement was successful because it was formed by a coalition of black and white Americans. We non-Muslims need to make it unacceptable to deem all Muslims dangerous, suspicious "others"-- and history shows that we can.