The closest experience in Arabic to hearing a preacher preaching to the choir is listening to Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi explain to a Muslim audience that Islam is a religion of tolerance, as he did on a recent Shariah and Life program on al-Jazeera TV.
I've learned something interesting about the Quran. Just about every time a Muslim quotes a text that appears to be favorable to non-Muslims, it is actually in a Quranic context that teaches the opposite. Dr. al-Qaradawi began his remarks by quoting two of those verses. The first was from the sura of Hud (11:118), where Muhammad said Allah could have created all people Muslim had he wanted to. A similar verse is found in Yunus (10:99), where Allah reminded the Prophet that he could not force people to become Muslim, since Allah himself had not done that.
There are three things to keep in mind when hearing texts such as these. The first is that they were usually written in Mecca, before Muhammad became a military leader, when he was relying only on his preaching to attract converts (and during which time he was a spectacular failure). Muslim scholars have agreed throughout history that many if not all these "tolerant" verses were abrogated by the later and more militant sections of the Quran written in Medina.
The second thing to understand is that the verses in the immediate context of those quoted often teach the opposite of tolerance and mercy. The next verse in Hud reminds people that non-Muslims will be thrown into hell, and the verses before and after the quote from Yunus inform non-Muslims that they will be the final losers and subjects of Allah's wrath.
The third thing to realize is that Muhammad's primary teaching was that only Islam is accepted by Allah. Al-Imran, a chapter of the Quran written later in Medina, states this in 3:19, and the surrounding verses describe the torment non-Muslims will experience in the afterlife. Allah might allow others to be non-Muslims, and in some cases even keeps people from Islam, but they will end up suffering in hell.
Dr. al-Qaradawi then continued with his analysis of "Muslim tolerance". As is always the case, he spoke from the perspective of the majority rule, the comfortable position of those in power. Muslims usually see reality only from their perspective; he was not speaking from the standpoint of a Copt in Egypt, a Catholic in the southern Sudan, a Jew in Casablanca, or a Chaldean in Mosul. The closest analogy in American history would be to hear a slaveowner speak of the benefits of slavery for his slaves, rather than allowing them to tell their own stories.
According to al-Qaradawi, Muslims always dealt with the greatest mercy with those fortunate people to whom they brought the light of Islam. They never tried to obliterate these people or their beliefs (this is hard to understand, given the total disappearance of the Christians and Jews of Arabia, the Zorastrians of Iran, and the Buddhists of Afghanistan). The greatest example of Muslim tolerance, according to the Shaykh, is that Islam allows Christian and Jewish women to marry Muslim men. He ignores the facts that the children of these marriages must be raised Muslim, that Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men, and that in the case of divorce or death the non-Muslim spouse is not allowed to inherit from her Muslim husband. The simple truth is that marriages between non-Muslim women and their Muslim husbands do nothing but increase Muslim strength and influence.
The host of Shariah and Life then played a clip from Lebanese Christian philosophy professor Mushir Aoun. Aoun argued that "tolerance" is a misnomer in the Arab world, because all it means is that the majority allows the minority to have some rights, whether it is the religious minority of the Arab Christian or the political minority of the Arab secularist. Tolerance, according to Aoun, can never resolve the tensions that exist in the Arab and Islamic world, because tolerance begins with the understanding that the majority holds the truth and is willing to concede some of that truth for the benefit of the minority. The only solution is to build a foundation free from religious influence that gives absolute equality to all people.
As I listened to Aoun's argument, I realized that Dr. al-Qaradawi would have no understanding of what he was talking about. I was right; the Shaykh concluded the program by simply repeating what he had said before about Islam giving rights to non-Muslims living in Muslim societies. The concept of all people, whether Muslim, Christian, Jew, or atheist, living with absolute equal rights in a Muslim-majority society is something Yusuf al-Qaradawi cannot even begin to comprehend.