Possibility of Pluralism – Barghava, Greenspan, Nanji and Filali-Ansary

The Possibility of Pluralism Series

Bhargava, Greenspan, Nanji and Filali-Ansary 
November 23, 2007


The Institute's final Possibility of Pluralism seminar included three guest speakers from around the world

On the 23rd of November, AKU-ISMC hosted a one-day seminar as part of its Possibility of Pluralism seminar series that began in 2003. The seminar, which is the last of the series, included four prominent speakers who discussed a variety of aspects of pluralism in contemporary contexts around the world. AKU-ISMC Director Abdou Filali-Ansary expressed in his opening remarks his hope that a publication based on the Possibility of Pluralism seminar series would be made available in due course.

The seminar included three guest speakers: Rajeev Bhargava, Louis Greenspan and Azim Nanji, in addition to the Director of the Institute, Abdou Filali-Ansary. The seminar involved the presentation of four papers by the speakers, two general discussions and a presentation of the summary and conclusions. Throughout the day many interesting questions about what pluralism has to offer societies were posed and debated.

Why religiously plural societies need secular states
The seminar began with a talk by the Indian scholar Rajeev Bhargava, who is currently Senior Fellow and Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Bhargava's talk, Why religiously plural societies need secular states, focused on the idea that for a state to be truly religiously plural, it must have the support and impartiality provided by a secular state.

Bhargava argued that where there is a dominant religion and the state is not secular, religion will try to dominate; when religion is involved in the state and legal system, discrimination is bound to occur. In order to avoid this, Bhargava suggested that a separation should occur between religion and the state.

Bhargava spoke of his theory of 'principle distance', whereby rather than remaining neutral, the state maintains a principle distance from religious institutions. In this regard, Bhargava argued that the state should distance itself from all religions, but should remain flexible in terms of law and public policy. In order to control these laws, the role of religion should be limited.



Participants in the seminar included guests, students and faculty of the Institute

Secularism and pluralism - can they coexist?
The next speaker, Louis Greenspan, presented a talk entitled Secularism and pluralism - can they coexist? Greenspan, who is currently Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Ontario, spoke about the question of pluralism in the context of Canada, a country, he said, that has moved from a policy of assimilation to that of multiculturalism. In addition to this, Greenspan said, Canada is contending seriously with the notion of pluralism, as a bi-national, decentralised nation with a large immigrant population.

Greenspan argued that Matthew Arnold's claims of a complete global secularisation had not manifested itself and that instead, in many societies, religion was actually increasing in popularity. Referring to Peter Berger, a sociologist of religion in the United States, Greenspan explained the possible conclusion that the new shape of the world is pluralism.

"Pluralism, means, that when you have a globalised world, you have the mingling of large populations and different religions, especially in Canada, the US and Western Europe. You have pluralities. Now he said, that the issue with pluralities is that each individual is subject what he calls cognitive contamination."

Professors Rajeev Bhargava and Louis Greenspan spoke at AKU-ISMC's Possibility of Pluralism seminar

Greenspan described 'cognitive contamination' as being where one member of society hears what others are saying, and comes to like it. From this, it is possible to have people sharing from many different faiths and doctrines in order to formulate their own world view.

Pluralism and its contents
The third speaker, Azim Nanji, Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, gave a presentation entitled Pluralism and its contents in which he provided an example of a group of scholars in the medieval period who were grappling with the concept of pluralism within their own context. He noted that the notion of pluralism as a contested contemporary issue that causes friction is not a new phenomenon; rather, he suggested that pluralism has been a contested idea, right from the earliest of times.

Nanji spoke about the 10th century group from Basra, Ikhwan al-Safa (Brethren of Purity) and the series of 52 epistles which they had compiled, exploring arguments about what the foundations of a knowledge-based society ought to be. "If a society is to start from the premise that knowledge should be a foundation, what should be the form of that knowledge? They are also interested in the fact that the Muslim world in the 10th century had become very cosmopolitan, after three centuries of expansion and growth and conversion."

Nanji explained a metaphor that the Ikhwan al-Safa created, based around the idea that a King, in order to educate his sons, creates a physical space - in which they are trained so that they can educate not only themselves but also wider society. In this model, an Institute is created that is a space of learning whereby all that is to be learnt is inscribed within the building - on the ceiling representations of the cosmological and the astronomical sciences, on the four walls the different sciences and in the courtyard the geography of the earth. Nanji noted that the way in which religion was expressed in this model is important as it is considered one part of the make-up of the world and a contributor to good governance, but not an overarching dominant realm.

Nanji introduced another epistle presented by the Ikhwan al-Safa which identified the problem of being human in a diverse habitat, among other creatures. In this model, known as the debate between man and animals, a debate is held in which each non-human creature gives a case as to why humans should not be as privileged as they are. Although humans are guilty of everything, they are held to be capable of self reflection and correction and can thus be ethical custodians of the world. Through this story, Nanji explained that human beings recognise that they share the planet with others and thus a case is made for pluralism.

Locating pluralism on the map of values
The fourth speaker, Abdou Filali-Ansary, Director of AKU-ISMC, presented a paper entitled Locating Pluralism on the Map of Values, during which he reflected on the Institute's pluralism seminar series, and their emphasis on according a positive view to pluralism. The Institute's seminar series has looked at new ways in which pluralism can be discussed and implemented.


Professors Grayling, Nanji, Filali Ansary and Greenspan

Filali-Ansary discussed the possible objections to pluralism and cases that have emerged in contemporary Muslim contexts. One belief that objects to pluralism, he suggested, is the concept of monism or absolutism.

Filali-Ansary noted the work of Professor Mohamed Talbi, who has surprised many by saying that we should go beyond toleration - as toleration is based on asymmetrical principles and always results in one group that is tolerant, and another that is tolerated. Those who are tolerant do not go so far as to accept the values of the others as being a legitimate world view. Filali-Ansary explained Talbi's argument that instead of tolerance, there should be a general 'right to respect', and through this examination a believer in any faith can find that complete certainty does not exist.

Filali-Ansary said that the success of pluralism depends on getting people to think in certain ways - thus the case for these values. He explained that in contemporary society, with the state as a major actor, there is another change that is taking place, one which gives a means to face this situation. Filali-Ansary suggested that modern scholarship and its analysis of historical situations and contexts, provides an opportunity to put ways in place to face monism and absolutism for the first time.

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