Sunday, January 23, 2011

Is Pluralism only a political issue?

Pluralism has become somewhat of a hegemonic approach to dealing with diversity and the epistemic peer conflict that arises out of the many rational thinkers and actors defending quite divergent views on the nature of reality. Our liberal overlapping consensus certainly points towards pluralism in a number of human spheres of activity and religiously-minded individuals active in the public sphere are required to adhere to that consensus. This rather slim volume of articles edited by Abdou Filali Ansary and Sakeena Ahmed brings together quite a glittering line-up of intellectuals from Middle Eastern and Muslim backgrounds to consider historical and philosophical perspectives on pluralism and how in different Muslim contexts one finds responses to the challenges of such a consensus. Liberty and tolerance are not quite enough: pluralism requires a far more involved engagement with the other, an attempt to know the other and to foster a more interpenetrated living beyond more co-existence. Live and let live (or ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in another context) are no longer options within a post-multicultural liberal democracy.

In his introduction, Filali-Ansary argues that it is not just the social and political context of the world which we inhabit that pose the challenge of pluralism; in fact, scripture itself forces one to consider the other and challenges the exclusivity of one’s own position – in this context, he draws upon sūrat al-Māʾida verse 48 which he describes as proposing a ‘pluralist vision’. It is thus for the contributors to respond to that challenge: that unity is not divinely mandated but difference (with each community possessing its own sharīʿa and way of life) is, and that difference requires people to compete and strive for the good and suspend judgement and final destination to God. Of course, such a reading of the Qurʾanic verse is itself a deeply contemporary act, forsaking any attempt to contextualise the verse in its revelation or even within its exegetical traditions (whose own diversity could make a useful case). But Ansary is keen not to over-determine the positions set out in the collection. Diversity is a basic fact of life: instead of trying to read pluralism into history and to make normative Islam compatible with pluralism, the book is designed to demonstrate multiple responses and ways in which the challenge of diversity is addressed. This reader would have wanted a clearer statement of how the social fact of diversity can be decoupled with a theoretical espousal of pluralism – as well as a clearer statement of what is meant by pluralism because at least in terms of religious pluralism it is neither identical to ‘universalism’ or a ‘globalism’ of fact and idea.

The book is then divided into two parts. The first on historical contexts comprises two chapters, one by Aziz al-Azmeh (currently completing an ambitious history of Allāh that is keenly anticipated) on pluralism in historical Muslim societies, and the other by Sami Zubaida on the relationship between the private and the public (perhaps with the notion that this distinction whilst upheld with more urgent legal enforcement in the contemporary is actually breaking down). The second part comprises studies of various contemporary contexts from Bangladesh and India through to the major challenges of globalisation and global liberalism in the contemporary world. Al-Azmeh’s brief piece is more of a caveat: the very unified notion of ‘Muslim societies’ requires further interrogation and that the notion of pluralism (with the implication of political and religious plurality that is sanctioned by the state) does not arise drowned in various forms of corporatism and communalism. Therefore, his point is that the historical ‘experience’ does not really offer resources for an argument in favour of pluralism today. Simplistic equations of traditional concepts with modern liberal-democratic ones will not do. Al-Azmeh at heart remains an old-fashioned enlightenment intellectual equally suspicious of traditionalist arguments as he is of newfangled multiculturalist ones. Zubaida similarly issues a caveat about extrapolating too much from historical spaces of co-existence and plurality because the challenge for today relates to the role and space of religiosity in the Habermasian public sphere.

In part two, Amena Mohsen’s study of civil society in Bangladesh really offers some perspectives on conflict management while using notions such as civil society, fundamentalism, nationalism and so forth too loosely. What this chapter offers as a vision of how to deal with pluralism is therefore not clear to this reader beyond presenting a snapshot of the problems. Akeel Bilgrami deals with the issue in a similar manner with respect to India but also with an eye to the civilizational clash discourse within American academia. Bilgrami is concerned with political conflict and diversity which he argues is a good. In some ways his short piece links into his recent work about to find expression in a work on Muslim identity politics. Nur Yalman’s piece is a nuanced work of an anthropologist of religion addressing the challenge of globalisation and using Ottoman and other historical examples to show that cultures are never monolithic, unchanging entities that fail to influence or be influenced. Nevertheless, his conclusion is in a political direction, arguing that the concerns of human rights necessitates an orderly and just society with liberties underpinned by legal and political institutions that are tolerant and inclusive. But the cold fact of institutional development within modernity is insufficient: one needs to develop a culture of openness and acceptance in interpersonal relations. Ridwan al-Sayyid and Adel Daher’s contributions bring us to the most pressing political challenge: can (political) Islam find accommodation with secular, liberal democracy? Al-Sayyid’s chapter evokes a nostalgia for the liberal age in the Arab world both in the pre-modern and modern times, offset and transplanted by revivalism and Islamism and he asks whether there are serious alternatives available now that historicise the faith and extricate people out of cultural pessimism. Daher is pessimistic and does not think that Islamists can be reconciled with value pluralism or the common conception of the ‘just’ in procedural democracy. His political framework is more Rawslian than Habermasian.

While the contributors are leading academics in the field, it is perhaps slightly disappointing not to find some leading Muslim philosophers who have contributed to the discourse on pluralism. One would also have liked to see a more engaged and sustained form of argument – many of the contributions are far too brief. There is also a focus upon the political: while one acknowledges that many of the challenges that Muslims face in the contemporary world may well be of a political nature, it is a missed opportunity in the context of this volume not to discuss value pluralism and religious pluralism in more depth especially as a number of contemporary Muslim theologians are engaged in that discourse. Religious pluralism can therefore allow for a ground of justification that functions in the political sphere. At the same time, one accepts that communities sometimes described as being theocratic and exclusivist with respect to their views on epistemology and soteriology are clearly capable of entering a Rawlsian style bargain for participation in the public sphere and recognition of civic and legal pluralism. Thus, this volume is a wonderful appetiser, and one wishes to see further volumes published in this series that will really give us something to chew over and ponder on the challenge that diversity, globalisation and pessimism pose to us.

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