Tolerating Popper

Popper would find it very hard to believe that something so much worse than Nazism had been a plague upon the earth for more than a thousand years, and that, after the horrors against which he warned, we hold it as a virtue to tolerate Islam and to go easy on Muslims.

Tolerating Popper
Karl Popper would not be tolerated

Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies is much-quoted in liberal circles. Well, it's mostly one passage that is quoted, and then more often than not, so truncated as to pervert it into the opposite of Popper's original meaning. The passage that everyone loves to quote, as a soundbite, is: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.” In short, do not tolerate the intolerant. Popper’s insight, although true as quoted, is void of context, and as such introduces a vagueness that undermines Popper's original intention and perverts its purpose. The full passage reads:

The paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.[1] (My emphasis)

The entire point of this passage, indeed of Popper's book, is not to guard against intolerance, as is so often misconstrued, but to "defend a tolerant society." The context that gave rise to an impulse so urgent that he would write a 755-page book about it, is not a few people with strong views on any particular people, but about the wholesale reduction of civilisation to barbarism. In other words, this is not about one person's so-called "hate speech," but about war, subjugation, slavery and genocide.

One of the Prefaces to the 2011 Routledge Classics edition of The Open Society and its Enemies bears the following footnote:

The Chancellor’s Lecture for 1995, Stout Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Given on the occasion of the visit of Václav Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic, to the University to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Literature. 1995 was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Open Society and its Enemies.

Václav Havel titled his lecture, Karl Popper’s "The Open Society and its Enemies in the contemporary global world," and in the opening paragraph we read:

He [Karl Popper] was a world traveller who followed the biggest war ever waged by humankind – the war unleashed by the tribal fury of Nazi ideology – from this country, from New Zealand. It was here that he thought about the state of the world, and it was here that he wrote his most important books. …He posed the question why is was so difficult for the idea of an open society to prevail against wave after wave of tribalism, and inquired into the spiritual background of all enemies of open society and into the patterns of their thinking, (emph. AP)[2]

"The biggest war ever waged by humankind" is of a somewhat different order to hurting an individual's tender feelings. But one would hardly guess from the instances when Popper's “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance” is invoked. The scale of vigilance and the gravity of the sacrifice that Popper had in mind in "defend a tolerant society" are of such an order of magnitude as to show up concerns over tolerance in the context of "diversity" and "multiculturalism" as a mockery of Popper's great work. We are seeing a dangerous trivialisation of Karl Popper's insights.

One such trivialisation, and the most dangerous, is the easy refusal to "tolerate the intolerance" of those intolerant of the presence of Islam or Muslims in their country. Intolerant such people certainly are, but the enfeeblement of Popper lies not with them, but with those intolerant of them. "Diversity", "multiculturalism" and a whole phalanx of related doctrines will have us all believe that we all have an inherent propensity to be intolerant of people different to ourselves, and are incapable behaving decently towards others unless we learn and embrace the secular "Ten Commandments" that tell us how to tolerate. After absorbing a series of speech- and though-control "correctnesses," we end up with the tolerance of each and every demand that Muslims make on us and our society, and we feel virtuous to so tolerate.

Cassandras warn against this tolerance, and, upon the invocation of Karl Popper, are firmly not tolerated. Where would Popper stand in the great "Islamophobia" tsunami? Popper came to his conclusions after his careful study of Nazism and the "patterns of their thinking." There is no reason to believe that he would not apply the same rigour to his study of Islam as he did towards the Nazis. This is what he would find:

One of the first similarities to Nazism that Popper might notice is, as Václav Havel put it, the "wave after wave of tribalism," inherent to Islam. He will find strong evidence for the doctrinal origin of such tribalism. For example, "“Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. And those with him are ruthless against the unbelievers and merciful among themselves.” (Qur’an 48:29) He will find the fully-developed doctrine of Al-Wala'a wal-Bara'a (love Muslims and all things Muslim; hate the kufaar and all things kafir).

He would realise that these tribal people, who keep their distance from everyone except when they mean them harm, exercise strict totalitarian control upon themselves.

The believers, men and women, are Auliya’ (helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of one another [to the exclusion of non-Muslims, AP], they enjoin (on the people) Al-Ma’ruf (…all that Islam orders one to do), and forbid (people) from Al-Munkar (…all that Islam has forbidden). (Qur’an 9:71)

Karl Popper will find such tribalism fortified by the doctrine of Muslims supremacy over all peoples, of Muslims being the best of peoples and infidels being the worst of creatures, in Islam being the final and perfect religion, “This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favour unto you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.” (Qur’an 5:3) Popper might have gained insight into the necessity for Islam to dominate the world "until all religion is for Allah" and Shari'a reins across the globe. Who knows, he might even have had an opportunity to interview the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini:

Those who follow the rules of the Quran [Muslims] are aware that we have to apply the laws of qissas [retribution] and that we have to kill. …War is a blessing for the world and for every nation. It is Allah himself who commands men to wage war and kill. The Quran commands: “Wage war until corruption and all disobedience are wiped out!” The wars that our Prophet. …waged against the infidels were divine gifts to humanity. Once we have won the war [with Iraq], we shall turn to other wars. For that would not be enough. We have to wage war until all corruption, all disobedience of Islamic law ceases [throughout the world]. The Quran commands: “War! War until victory!” A religion without war is a crippled religion. …It is war that purifies the earth …Allah be praised, our young warriors are putting this command into effect and fighting. They know that to kill the infidels is one of the noblest missions Allah has reserved for mankind.[3]

Popper would soon realise that "wave after wave of tribalism" is an understatement in the extreme. "Tsunami after tsunami of bloodthirsty barbarians" would be a lot closer the mark, for Muslims are enjoined to conquer the world through terror:

I have been sent with the shortest expressions bearing the widest meanings, and I have been made victorious with terror (cast in the hearts of the enemy), and while I was sleeping, the keys of the treasures of the world were brought to me and put in my hand.[4]

The enemy Karl Popper had in mind was not the student who wrote a pro-Israel essay, the politician who insisted on expelling illegal Muslim immigrants, the judge who pronounced the maximum penalty for jihad mass murder, the social security office that refused to pay benefits to a second, third and fourth wife, no. The enemy Popper had in mind is the one that threatens the open society as a whole, the one that has it as its raison d'être the destruction of open society.

People intent on destroying the open society are deceivers and killers, just as the Nazis in his day were deceivers and killers. They start out innocently enough, but then step by small step, they put their nefarious scheme in place. A little intolerance here, a little intolerance there, and each time we fail to confront their intolerance, it becomes harder to confront it the next time. To defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant is difficult, unpleasant and dangerous. And we will fail to defend that open society if, instead of not tolerating the intolerant, we refuse to tolerate those who refuse to tolerate the intolerant. To do this is to impose illusion on the whole society to defend our own cowardice. We use Popper to avoid Popper.

Popper would be repulsed by all this, and would find it very hard to believe, not that it could not be, but that something so much worse than Nazism had been a plague upon the earth for more than a thousand years, and that, after the horrors against which he warned, we hold it as a virtue to tolerate Islam and to go easy on Muslims. The equivalent in his day would have been to condemn those who refuse to tolerate Nazism and Nazis as intolerant "Naziphobes" and a threat to the open society. Being a meticulous scholar, Popper today would study Shari'a and the history of jihad. And after he has done all that, he would make it his utmost priority to update The Open Society and its Enemies, and release a new edition far more urgent in its tone, and implore his readers not to tolerate anyone who shows even the slightest tolerance of such a profound enemy of the open society. And the world would not tolerate Karl Popper, and he would be condemned as an "Islamophobe," someone intolerant of Muslims.


  1. Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge Classics, 2011, ppg581-2.
  2. Václav Havel, Preface to Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge Classics, 2011, ppg. xii-xiii.
  3. Ayatollah Khomeini, quoted in Laurent Murawiec, The Mind of Jihad, 2008, Cambridge University Press, p45.  It is, of course, entirely possible that Ayatollah Khomeini misunderstood Islam.
  4. Sahih Al-Bukhari 2977.