Forging pluralistic societies

Published: December 19, 2017
The writer is a scholar of gender, youth and international development. She tweets @SKhojaMoolji

The writer is a scholar of gender, youth and international development. She tweets @SKhojaMoolji

Recently, an American congressman, Steve King, tweeted, “Assimilation has become a dirty word to the multiculturalist Left. Assimilation, not diversity, is our American strength.” We witness similar debates in Pakistan, particularly in the context of refugees, tribal groups and religious interpretations. We must recognise, however, that assimilation seeks to preserve the hegemony of those in power. It calls on people to give up their cultural specificities and adopt the social, cultural and linguistic mores of society’s elite and ruling classes.

In contrast, pluralism acknowledges diversity as a given. It assumes that categories of social difference such as gender, ethnicity, race, nationality, religious interpretations, etc, are crucial mechanisms in and through which social groups organise themselves. In the process, however, hierarchies are produced where particular groups are perceived as being superior to others. This frequently occurs when negative characteristics are naturalised to a particular group. In the context of Western societies, for instance, Muslim men are naturalised as violent — a stereotype that legitimises extensive surveillance and policing of Muslims. In patriarchal contexts, it is often assumed that women are intellectually inferior to men, a supposition that leads to the subordination of women in public as well as private spaces.

Such social hierarchies are not simply a consequence of individuals’ beliefs. Societal institutions actively participate in propping up some groups while subjugating others. In many cases, this is achieved through legal measures, media representations, and even biases in school curricula. They give the illusion of social hierarchies as natural or even desirable, when in fact they are carefully curated through institutional policies, practices and representations.

Pluralism calls on us, first, to understand that diversity in and of itself is not a threat; it is the ‘social organisation’ of difference that places groups in a hierarchy which is problematic. Hierarchies can spell disaster, particularly for groups that find themselves on the lower end of the spectrum. Pluralism entails that we see these hierarchies as societal constructions and not naturally occurring relationships. Once we acknowledge this, we can undertake appropriate actions to address unequal relationships of power.

While logical, this is difficult in practice given that we often benefit from these very hierarchies. For example, to be a male and Muslim in Pakistan is a privileged position. For men to engage in pluralism it would then entail understanding how they benefit from the patriarchal dividend that society confers on them, as well as how their privilege is not only unearned but also accrues at the expense of women. Pluralism, thus, calls on us to recognise our complicity in unjust systems and modify our own practices as well as engage in social activism to change these systems.

Coincidently, one of the world’s biggest advocates of diversity and pluralism, His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam of Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, is on a visit to Pakistan. He has not only established the Global Centre for Pluralism in Canada, but is globally recognised for his efforts to advance the ethic of pluralism. According to the Aga Khan, forging pluralistic societies that are just and where the vulnerable are cared for is an ethical imperative of Islam. It was back in 1967, at Peshawar University, when he observed that human greed for material possessions was leading us to shirk our responsibilities towards the most vulnerable in society: “This fearful chase after material ease must surely be tempered by peace of mind, by conscience, by moral values, which must be resuscitated. If not, man will simply have converted the animal instinct of feeding himself before others and even at the expense of others, into perhaps a more barbaric instinct of feeding himself and then hoarding all he can at the cost of the poor, the sick and the hungry… It would be traumatic if those pillars of the Islamic way of life, social justice, equality, humility and generosity, enjoined upon us all, were to lose their force or wide application in our young society. It must never be said generations hence that in our greed for the material good of the rich West we have forsaken our responsibilities to the poor, to the orphans, to the traveller, to the single woman.” Indeed, the Aga Khan has time and again emphasised that the privileging personal empowerment to the detriment of others is not in keeping with Islam.

Elsewhere, in 2010, the Aga Khan called for enacting pluralism through practising a ‘cosmopolitan ethic’: “What we must seek and share is what I have called ‘a cosmopolitan ethic’, a readiness to accept the complexity of human society. It is an ethic which balances rights and duties… In acknowledging the immensity of the Divine, we will also come to acknowledge our human limitations, the incomplete nature of human understanding. In that light, the amazing diversity of creation itself can be seen as a great gift to us — not a cause for anxiety but a source of delight. Even the diversity of our religious interpretations can be greeted as something to share with one another — rather than something to fear. In this spirit of humility and hospitality the stranger will be welcomed and respected, rather than subdued or ignored.”

A ‘cosmopolitan ethic’ then seeks to keep taut the commonality that we share as humans as well as our identitarian differences. It requires a reflection about the ‘partiality’ of our truths. As the Aga Khan explained, “Honouring one’s own identity need not mean rejecting others…to affirm a particular identity is a fundamental human right, what some have called ‘the right to be heard’. But the right to be heard implies an obligation to listen and, beyond that, a proactive obligation to observe and to learn.”

Personal reflections and learnings, however, must also be accompanied by social activism. We live in a world of widening gap between the rich and the poor. Some nations and groups have benefited immensely from colonisation, globalisation, and corporatisation, at the expense of others. Relatively, the decline of protectionist policies means that pathways to becoming economically secure are no longer available to many. To address these precarities, state and civil society must adopt policies aimed at redistribution. For instance, taxation of the wealthy, land reforms and welfare policies. Otherwise, precarity will drive society towards further polarisation and fragmentation.

Each one of us — whether Muslim or not, male or not, rich or not, educated or not — deserves dignity. It is incumbent on us then to take action and make this world hospitable for ‘all’ of its inhabitants.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 19th, 2017.

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