Approaches to Pluralism in Muslim Contexts

Approaches to Pluralism in Muslim Contexts

This year's first seminar in a series entitled, Approaches to Pluralism in Muslim Contexts, was organised by Aga Khan University's Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC) on Friday, March 5, 2004. The seminar, titled, Public and Private Spaces: Can Muslims negotiate between the two? was dedicated to exploring the notions of public and private spaces in Muslim contexts. The two seminar speakers were Professors Akeel Bilgrami  and Sami Zubaida .

Seminar speakers: Professor Akeel Bilgrami (right) and Professor Sami Zubaida (left) explored the notions of public and private spaces in Muslim contexts.

Professor Bilgrami, Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, presented an insightful paper that covered a wide range of issues. Using Indian Muslims as a case study, Professor Bilgrami addressed the notion of minority and explored it from a psychological standpoint. He argued that the underlying psychological characteristics of minority - sense of alienation and victimization - are manifested amongst some Muslims' self-perception even in countries where Muslims are not in minority.

The minority psychology, he proposed, is linked to two types of clashes to be found within Muslim societies. The first is a clash between what he called 'absolutist' and 'moderates'. He argued that the moderates, despite their majority, are unable to critique and restrain the minority absolutist voice. In Professor Bilgrami's opinion this was because of the existence of another clash that is internal to the psychology of moderate Muslims themselves. He claimed that most moderate Muslims are torn between their dislike for absolutism and their resentment to forces they see to be alien and exploitative to Muslims. It is within the framework of this defense mechanism against external exploitative forces that moderate Muslims regard any critique of absolutists as a betrayal of fellow Muslims. In Professor Bilgrami's opinion, the exploitative forces - mainly the western hegemonic forces- themselves were a result of the weakening of democratic processes in the West.

Professor Bilgrami argued that the nature of public life in Muslim societies is closely linked with these two types of clashes. Unless, he argued, the clash internal to moderate Muslims is resolved - and this, he saw, partly connected with the democratic processes in the West - the majority moderate Muslims will not be in a position to critique the absolutists and the public sphere will continue to be dominated by the latter.

Participants at the fifth seminar on ' Pluralism in Muslim Contexts, held at AKU- ISMC.

Professor Zubaida, Professor Emeritus of Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck College, University of London approached issues of the public and private spheres from a historical standpoint. He argued that while notions of the Public and the Private existed in Muslim consciousness historically, their connotations differed from those that exist now. The bathhouses, markets, mosque, taverns and, particularly, coffee houses formed the center of public life in Muslim societies for both the khas (elite) and aam (masses). People would gather in these places and engage in public discourse that was often censored by the authorities. In this regard, the coffee house, a place where the literati and the artists gathered, was seen by Professor Zubaida as the institution closest to what we now regard as public space. The family was the private sphere par excellence, with its own nuances of public and private spaces. With the spread of European modernity in Muslim societies, the notions of the public and private underwent a transformation. The driving forces of this transformation were the spread of literacy and printing, which allowed participation of the masses in the public life; thus changing the very foundations of public life in Muslim societies. As European laws began to be applied in all aspects of life except, in most cases, the family and personal law, they too helped in creating a public secularised sphere. Professor Zubaida argued that the process of secularisation continued with the rise of independence movements and also in the post-colonial period with its emphasis on industrial growth and modernisation.

Professor Zubaida stated that in the last few decades, the process appears to have reversed with the growth of 'absolutist' movements in Muslim societies. The distinction between the public and the private came under attack as laws pertaining to dress, food, marriage and other behaviour began to encroach upon the private spheres in some Muslim societies. However, the appearance of de-secularisation masks deeper secularisation processes that continue to exist. Professor Zubaida cited the example of Iran where about 70% of the population is under thirty and continues to defy and challenge imposition of state and religious decrees in the private sphere. He concluded on an optimistic note, arguing that the rise of absolutism has not managed to alter shifts toward secularisation.

A wide range of ideas were debated during the general discussion that followed. Among these were an engaging dialogue about the nature of identity, democratisation of communities, the concept of the secular and the distinction between religion and ethics. Many participants spoke about the implications of the arguments raised in the discussion vis-à-vis contemporary and future challenges of Muslims.

Earlier, in his welcome address, Dr. Filali-Ansary, Director of AKU-ISMC, spoke about the work of the Institute, particularly stressing its goal of bringing together scholars from various persuasions for meaningful intellectual encounters.

The seminar was attended by approximately 25 participants, primarily academicians and professionals. Participants were appreciative of the Institute's efforts in creating a quality forum for intellectual debates about issues of concern for Muslim societies.