The problem

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THE truth with a capital ‘T’ is like a shackle that leads one to see the world in a dangerously harsh light. It seems harder to foster tolerance and dialogue when others, whose truth differs from one’s own, are ‘mistaken’, are possibly ‘infidels’ and ‘sinners’. It becomes even harder when they have abandoned your Truth for another. They then become ‘apostates’ and ‘blasphemers’. They become enemies.

It becomes harder to foster coexistence when one has such a compelling truth, but it is not impossible. All religions legitimately aspire to raise their truth above all others, because this is a principle ‘revealed’ by a Supreme Being, or ‘handed down’ by one’s community. This is legitimate as long as they use persuasion, and not arrogance, violence or even weapons. The distinction between what is licit and what is illicit is not always clear. This is our problem. When religious plurality coexists in the same space, which is increasingly happening all over the world, when ‘we are thrown into each other’s arms’, as the great enthusiast of spiritual pluralism, Raimon Panikkar said, not because it is our choice but rather because this is the ‘custom’ imposed by social and economic reality, then the sources of conflict multiply.

This applies to religious diversity and also to differing origins, languages, communities and nations, all linked to denominational diversity in many ways. Every-one can, to a greater or lesser extent, free themselves of these bonds, but one must observe that every tribe tends to carry its own loyalties, its own ethno- or ego-centric faults, as well as a tendency to always find within some other minority the scapegoat for issues that are economic and political. The problem is an old one, but it has become more intense in contemporary societies. What we are looking for in this analysis are the human, moral and juridical resources needed to generate peaceful coexistence, tolerance, dialogue and understanding.

India (and the entire Asian continent) perhaps presents an unmatchable test as far as religious variety is concerned, and any Indian politician can certainly say that ‘everyone in this country belongs to a minority.’ However, this composite nature of a ‘country of minorities’ was an observation made by John F. Kennedy in 1958 about the United States. Since then, the mosaic of majorities and minorities has become more complex everywhere, including in Europe. That is why the search for ways of opposing intolerance, exclusivism and violence in religious and cultural traditions is a global problem: because global communications instantly cross borders, and a video inspired by hatred in a small American town can inflame people on the other side of the world; and because a death sentence for apostasy, heresy or blasphemy in a Muslim country is an intolerable violation of freedom and human dignity for all of us, wherever we may live.

In this issue of Seminar, we explore the manner in which this part of the world’s spiritual life has tended to result in syncretism and a mix of beliefs over the centuries, as in the case of the Ahmadiyya minority and the texts that inspired it, and also the most terrible forms of persecution that many minorities suffer all over the world.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, we will attempt to understand how freedom of expression can be compatible with coexistence and reciprocal respect; how Europe proceeded to decriminalize blasphemy and how legislation is now no longer aimed at protecting the divine dimension, but at protecting from hate those groups and individuals who profess a faith. We also try to identify the ways in which a religion can, from within, make a theological effort to justify religious plurality. It is significant that, among Christians, one of the bravest examples of pluralist openness to dialogue, and to the meaning of the variety of religions, was that of the theologian Jacques Dupuis, whose experience was profoundly marked by thirty years spent in India.

In the Catholic Church, a ‘theology of religions’ asserted itself after the Second Vatican Council, but then came to a standstill for a long time due to a doctrinal process put forward by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became the Pope. The conflict surrounding pluralism within the framework of Christian theology is part of a broader conflict within each culture, as in each religion, that paves the way for an understanding of cultural differences and prepares the ground for the coexistence of differences in contemporary societies. Recent statements made by the new pope, Francis, concerning inter-religious dialogue and the unimportance of ‘proselytizing’ seem to indicate that the ‘Indian’ spirit of the Belgian theologian Dupuis has reawakened.



* This issue of Seminar carries reflections and conversations made possible by the initiative of the international association Reset–Dialogues on Civilizations (, a not-for-profit organization based in Italy, which organized a conference in Delhi, 10-12 October 2013, the third edition of the Venice-Delhi Seminars, on ‘Religious pluralism, freedom and diversity, blasphemy and respect; images and ideas on proximity, conflicts and living together with differences; traditions and hierarchies challenged by irreverence; democracy to the test of minorities.’ The conference was organized in partnership with Seminar magazine, Jamia Millia Islamia and India Habitat Centre.

The conference was made possible thanks to the essential support of the Nomis Foundation and its President Georg Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. A contribution to the event was also granted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Participants at the conference included Mani Shankar Aiyar (Member of Parliament, former Union minister and diplomat, India), Chinmayi Arun (Research Director, Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi), Rajeev Bhargava (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi), Giancarlo Bosetti (Director, Reset and Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations), Francesca Cadeddu (Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Cagliari, Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose Giovanni XXIII, Italy), Shoma Chaudhury (founding member and former Managing Editor, Tehelka, Delhi), Manini Chatterjee (author and journalist, Delhi), Peter Ronald deSouza (Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi), Rachel Dwyer (Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London), Silvio Ferrari (Professor of Law and Religion, University of Milan), Nina zu Fürstenberg (Chair, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations), Ruchira Gupta (Founder and President of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, Delhi), Jytte Klausen (Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation at Brandeis University, USA), Raj Liberhan (former Director, India Habitat Centre, Delhi), Nicola Missaglia (Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations), Silvia Ronchey (Professor of Classical Philosophy and Byzantine Civilization, Roma Tre University, Rome), S.M. Sajid (former officiating Vice-Chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi), Teesta Setalvad (Secretary, Citizens for Justice and Peace, Mumbai), Harsh Sethi (Consulting Editor, Seminar, Delhi), Mihir Sharma (author and journalist, Opinion editor, Business Standard, Delhi), Akhil Sibal (lawyer, Delhi), Malvika Singh (Publisher, Seminar, Delhi), Tejbir Singh (Editor, Seminar, Delhi), Roberto Toscano (former Italian Ambassador to India), Laila Tyabji (Chairperson, Dastkar), Ananya Vajpeyi (Associate Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, and Senior Fellow, American Institute of Indian Studies), Shiv Visvanathan (Professor and Vice Dean, Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University; Executive Director, Centre for the Study of Science, Society and Sustainability, Delhi), Pavan K. Varma (author and diplomat, Delhi).