Celebrating diversity

RAMIN JAHANBEGLOO

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‘No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive,’ said Mahatma Gandhi. Today, no one is untouched by the impact of diversity in our world. Cultural diversity has become our everyday reality. The world has some 6000 communities and as many distinct languages. Such vast difference naturally leads to diversity of vision, beliefs, values and practice. Progress in mass communication and transport technology in today’s world has enabled us to overcome geographical boundaries and being inter-linked to such an extent that a local carnage in Rwanda or a bomb explosion in Baghdad has an immense impact on an ordinary citizen in Spain, in Japan or in Australia. Therefore, globalization is not just about an extension of market principles or an increase in capital flows. It is also about the cross-border flow of ideas that affect cultural diversity.

Cultural diversity presupposes ways of living together and participating in the cultural life of one’s choice. The idea of cultural pluralism or interculturality is, therefore, linked to that of global differences. The concept of culture itself seems to have expanded to influence that of identity. As a result, interculturality does not simply begin where a state’s frontier ends, and respect for cultural identity may entail rights for groups as well as for individuals. Today, a kaleidoscopic vision of the world has taken the place of a linear monolithic discourse, giving rise to perpetual changes in the relational thought that shapes our common cultural heritage. This common cultural heritage appears as a vast web of interconnections, all of which are linked in a event of co-being.

The mutuality of differences makes dialogue a necessity in our world, for it is present in exchanges at all levels of being: at a cultural level as multiculturalism, at an identity level as border identities, and at the level of knowledge as a spectrum of interpretations. If we agree that dialogue implies some kind of mutual exchange of views, we can probably concentrate our attention on the dialogical side of diversity. Diversity, of course, can never be celebrated without an ethical-hermeneutical dialogue where partners seek a cross-cultural learning. It is on this level that we need to free ourselves from misunderstandings emanating from prejudicial attitudes poisoned by a presumption of superiority. The question is neither to idealize nor to reject the ‘other’. We must overcome deformations that usually go under the name of ‘Orientalism’ or ‘Occidentalism’.

 

Both Orientalism and Occidentalism are styles of thought based upon ontological and epistemological distinctions made between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’. Both Orientalism and Occidentalism go out of the borders of diversity, because they dehumanize the other, representing him as evil. Unlike these two situations, wherein the desire for revenge is accompanied by the attitude of returning injustice for injustice, within the diversified ethical-hermeneutical dialogue, confrontation and contestation are not ends in themselves, but are put in the service of ethical harmony and healing. Let me add here that the celebration of diversity is an antidote to terror wars and culture clashes. It is a global effort in a world threatened by a cultural divide. It is a challenge not only for international but also intranational relations.

The most prominent issue is the present divide between the Islamic and Western worlds. But one can also refer to the Hindu-Muslim clashes in the Indian subcontinent. In 2002 large scale Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in Gujarat in which more than 2000 people, mostly Muslims, died. The riots were only the latest incident in a long history of Hindu-Muslim violence. Several months ago an attack on the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi, one of India’s oldest, dedicated to Hindu god Hanuman sparked fears of sectarian strife in Uttar Pradesh, a state with a history of Hindu-Muslim clashes and which has been attacked by Islamist militants in the past. It is a great tragedy to see innocent blood shed by violence in a holy place whose name means to ‘give relief from sorrow’.

 

This situation and the violence which confronts us in the international arena urges us to reflect on the possibility of dialogue among diverse cultures and traditions as a mode of conflict resolution. Drawing on the vision and practice of Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan and others, we can experiment with creative and dialogical nonviolence as an ongoing process of making contact with the woundedness and sacredness in the lives of others. In this sense, the celebration of diversity is an invitation to an active listening of the other. It is a transformation of the ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’ thinking, which may help us to acknowledge that each of us has a piece of the truth. This cross-cultural sharing and learning could propel us toward a ‘universal moral code’ that may help us resolve the common problems of tomorrow.

As many communitarians and cosmopolitans believe, the future of the human condition depends on our ability to build a new kind of community that extends beyond the traditional nation state. This community depends on a newly shared moral understanding toward global issues of our world. Such a shared vision and cross-learning could help us to overcome tendencies of cultural essentialism by which cultural identities are fixed and reified. The participants themselves must negotiate the open structure of diversity emphasized by an intercultural dialogue. It requires a willingness and participation of all involved for change.

 

Where moral cohesion is strong, social responsibilities are shared. This permits individuals to join in the dynamic process of cultural interaction founded on inclusion. Here, in contrast with a process of cultural uniformity, is a collective desire and action to uncover and examine assumptions, unfold shared meanings and core values and integrate multiple perspectives through dialogue. This is why the ‘so-called’ clash of cultures has more to do with the internal uncivilized behaviour of cultures rather than external conflicts they might have with other cultures.

The clash in question is between the values of pluralists and those of absolutists in every culture. Most people, even when they are devout, have no particular absolutist vision of their creed. That is to say, they have no particular desire to perpetrate atrocious acts of terrorist violence in the name of religion nor to live under the tyrannies of oppressive governments that impose the strictest of religious ideologies upon them. Today, the real clash is not between Islam and the West, but between absolutist and pluralist Muslims.

For many today outside the Islamic world, the very category of a ‘moderate Muslim’ appears as incoherent because they doubt that you can have religious convictions and not be given to fundamentalist tendencies and sympathies. If such is the case, we will have some difficulty in making sense of nonviolent Muslims like Maulana Kalam Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Maulana Azad as a true spirit of human dignity and a Muslim voice of nonviolence against oppression, prejudice and intolerance, is most definitely worth knowing. As a leading participant in nonviolent struggle for independence under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, he represented the vision of freedom from colonial domination, but also that of tolerant faith which respects other beliefs.

 

Gandhi once said that Maulana Azad’s ‘faith in nationalism was as robust as his faith in Islam.’ His faith was embodied in the principle of ‘Unity in Diversity’ which constitutes the essence of Indian historical tradition. But he was also deeply committed to the Koranic revelation which proclaims that ‘All the messengers of God, at whatever place or time they were born, were all invited to the same path.’ This universalist view of Maulana Azad finds its immortal expression in the mystic poetry of Mirza Ghalib when he writes: ‘In the Kaaba I will play the shankh, In the temple I have draped the ahram.’ Actually, Maulana Azad’s trend-setting weekly, Al-Hilal, was the first journal to bring to light the unpublished verses of Mirza Ghalib, giving a second literary life to this great Sufi poet.

Maulana Azad represented a synthesis of cultures and civilizations and a symbiosis of tradition and modernity. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, who was India’s second President, said of Maulana Azad that he ‘stood for what may be called the emancipation of the mind free from superstitions, obscurantism and fanaticism… free from narrow prejudices of race or language, province or dialect, religion or caste.’ Azad believed in shared historical bonds because he had a strong sense of composite culture and a strong sense of nationhood. That is why, to Azad, partition was against the grain of Indian culture akin to a divorce before marriage. Partition shattered the Maulana’s dream of a unified nation where Hindus and Muslims would learn to coexist in harmony.

The clarity of Maulana’s view on the idea of unity of diverse cultures and faiths was an example for many of his contemporaries. Equally, one should not forget that Maulana Azad was perhaps one of the earliest political thinkers of modern India to define and enunciate the idea of a secularist democracy for independent India. His distinctive contribution to Indian democracy was that he combined his spirited advocacy of secularism and India’s national unity with his devout faith in Islam. While considering himself as part of an indivisible unity that is Indian culture, Maulana Azad spoke of an Islamic vision that could be in a confident partnership with other cultural and religious entities.

 

In a famous speech at the session of the Indian National Congress held at Ramgarh, the Maulana proclaimed: ‘Eleven hundred years of common history have enriched India with our common achievements. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs, the innumerable happenings of our daily life, everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour. There is indeed no aspect of our life which has escaped this stamp. Our languages were different, but we grew to use a common language; our manners and customs were dissimilar, but they acted and reacted on each other and thus produced a new synthesis. Our old dress may be seen only in ancient pictures of bygone days; no one wears it, today. This joint wealth is the heritage of our common nationality and we do not want to leave it and go back to the time when this joint life had not begun.’

These statements are certainly an illuminating example of freedom of spirit and tolerance. Maulana was very much aware of the fact that common cultural and historical bonds were far stronger than religious differences. It was for this reason that he cautioned Indian Muslims against religious fanaticism and extremism. In this he provides a firm rebuttal to both Hindu as well as Muslim communalists who believe that commitment to one’s religion by definition means unrelenting hostility to other faiths and their adherents.

For Azad, there was in Islam no room for religious hatred and prejudice. That is why Azad’s passionate plea for religious harmony led him on to fiercely oppose both Muslim as well as Hindu communalism. He used this idea to stress the need for a united India of Hindus, Muslims and others. Maulana Azad was aware of the fact that to protect, conserve and propagate the cultural heritage of India, one needed to promote and sustain the diversity of cultural and religious expressions by creating a tolerant and nonviolent environment for their safeguard. This brings me to my fundamental point on diversity.

 

Today, there is no such thing as a clash between cultures. The true clash is between those who are for the idea of diversity and those who are against it. It is the age-old battle between hatred and fear on the one hand and hope and courage on the other, between the arrogance of violence and the responsibility of nonviolence. And in an era of global thinking and global acting where nations and individuals depend on each other and where our future is held in common or not at all, the outcome of this clash between intolerance and dialogue is utterly determinative of our destiny. We can no more opt out of this struggle than out of other global issues. Inaction, pushing the responsibility on to others, deluding ourselves that this clash is an isolated matter, is an undutiful and irresponsible action. We need to remind ourselves of the heterogeneity of our past and be able to accept the plurality of our social, political and cultural fabric of the present.

 

We live in a time of violence. Equally that some of the conditions that place diversity on the agenda harbour tragic possibilities. The promise of diversity is endangered by issues such as nuclear proliferation, religious repression, cultural war and nationalistic fervour. But these dangerously increase the need for diversity and pluralism. Cross-cultural pluralism provides the most humane and promising agenda to pursue, even if we encounter strong pressures against it in many Muslim countries. This is, ultimately, a struggle about democracy. A great part of it can and will be won within each culture and each faith. Each culture should find a way to fight against its own nightmares and evils. But the struggle for diversity is also a battle for shared moral values. The future of democracy in our world depends on it.

In other words, today the durability of democracy in the Euro-American states is tied to the respect of diversity and the pluralization of life in other cultures and continents. But this process of pluralization appears distant without considering nonviolence as a universal virtue. If cross-cultural pluralism is our ideal, nonviolence should be our ethos. This guided Hindus and Muslims during the national struggle for independence. One need not labour the bloody details of the partition and all the horrors that accompanied it. It is just too painful to recount and neither is this the place to do so. However, what is evident from the events of the last century is that the Hindu-Muslim conflict is still an unresolved issue which refuses to go away.

The partition might be an old story for the new generation but what is happening today in India and in Pakistan clearly shows that the Hindu-Muslim divide has been the most explosive political issue in the subcontinent since 1947. Thousands died following the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 and from communal riots in Gujarat several years ago.

 

Whatever opinion one might have of Mahatma Gandhi, no one can question his character and specially his dedication to Hindu-Muslim unity. Against all odds, he had made it the mission of his life. He insisted that the Hindus who are in a majority in the country should help the Muslims and never entertain any idea of enforcing their rights but try to win the hearts of the minority.

‘There is nothing in either religion to keep the two communities apart,’ wrote Gandhi. ‘In nature there is a fundamental unity running through all the diversity. Religions are no exception to the natural law. They are given to mankind so as to accelerate the process of realization of fundamental unity. The need of the moment is not an establishment of a Universal religion but there is a greater need to develop mutual respect towards the different religions.’

Gandhi never accepted in principle the theory of the Hindus and the Muslims being two distinct nations and tried to convince both of the pernicious character of this principle. He emphatically stressed the fundamentals of ethics that are common to all religions. ‘The essence of true religious teaching,’ affirms Gandhi, ‘is that one should serve and befriend all. I learnt this in my mother’s lap.’ Gandhi believed that religion is best propagated through the noble lives of its followers. I think the same could be said about diversity. Accepting the other without a real spirit of dialogue in mind is a denial of diversity and cross-cultural pluralism. Without dialogue, diversity is non-achievable, and without respect for diversity, dialogue is useless.

 

Celebrating diversity means not only discussion among two persons or in our case two communities, but also includes all positive and constructive inter-religious and inter-cultural relations with individuals and communities of other faiths and cultures which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment. It is a meeting among people who are culturally strong in their own tradition, trying to witness what is specific and personal in their cultural experiences regarding man and his destiny. Dialogue, therefore, means a witness given and received for mutual advancement on the road taken by all of us for the elimination of prejudice, intolerance and misunderstanding.

As the Muslim poet and theorist Muhammad Iqbal wrote: ‘Thou didst create the night, but I made the lamp. Thou didst create clay, but I made the cup. Thou didst create the deserts, mountains and forests; I produced the orchards, gardens and groves. It is I who made the glass out of stone, and it is I who turn a poison into an antidote.’ It is time for us to turn the poison of violence in Islam and Hinduism into an antidote of nonviolence for the future of peace in the region and in the world.

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