Religious and Cultural Pluralism, and the Culture of Tolerance for Social Sustainability

International Conference organised by the Muslim World League 18 - 19 Feb 2020, Geneva, UN Headquarters

CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF ISLAM AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

Supported by Penny Appeal

The Muslim World League (MWL) staged an International Conference in Geneva at the United Nations Headquarters on 18-19 February 2020. The theme focused on: “Initiatives to Protect Young People against Extremist and Violent Ideas: Implementation Mechanisms

The conference drew together senior officials from both government and the private sector assembled from across the globe, along with religious leaders (from the Islamic, Christian and Jewish faiths), security personnel and academic practitioners in the fields of education, psychology, and social theory. His Excellency, the Secretary-General of the Muslim World League, Sheikh Dr. Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, also addressed the conference. The participants shared their expertise and offered policy recommendations on protecting young people against extremism, violence, and terrorism; including combating hatred and marginalization; and promoting religious freedom along with inculcating values of acceptance; diversity and cohesion.

Dr. Zahid Parvez, Principal of the Markfield Institute of Higher Education, while addressing the conference delivered his ideas and policy recommendations on promoting religious and cultural pluralism, and enhancing cultures of tolerance to ensure future social sustainability.

During his presentation, Dr. Parvez stressed the importance of peace, justice and mutual cooperation for promoting sustainable societies. Intolerance, hatred, discrimination and all forms of injustice undermine sustainability. As humanity becomes more interconnected and globalised, people of different religions, languages, colours, cultures and perspectives come into contact with each other increasingly. Gradually, we are emerging as global citizens and need to understand our human responsibilities towards other people who can appear different to us, but in essence share many similar fundamental needs, desires and wants. As Muslims, there is a recognition of the primacy of tawhid (the oneness of Allah) and the singularity of His creation, as we are all souls journeying back to our Creator.

Placing a value on social sustainability raises the question of how we as humans negotiate and accommodate cultural and religious differences and diversity in order to prevent intolerance, hate, injustice, and conflicts between people of different faith and cultural backgrounds from arising. To address this question, Dr. Parvez presented THREE suggestions in light of Islamic guidance for policymakers to consider:

1. Public policy must recognise that ethnic, religious and cultural differences are natural features of humanity, and human existence, and are to be welcomed and appreciated rather than regarded as problematic characteristics demanding eradication. Such diversity requires measures to ensure ethical accommodation within policy deliberations and solutions.

Differences between people are not to be eliminated through aggressive assimilation policies because this suppresses human dignity. Rather, policy must not only recognise but welcome, appreciate and embrace such diversity – because our differences are created by God, and underpinned by divine wisdom. The Glorious Quran states:

  • Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and earth, and the diversity of your languages and colours” (Qur’an 30:22).
  • If your Lord so willed, He could have made mankind one people” (Qur'an 11:118)
  • And had your Lord so willed, all those who live on earth would have believed to faith altogether: would you force people against their will to believe!” (Qur'an 10:99).
  • To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had God willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you;…” (Qur'an 5: 48)
  • O people, We have created you from a single (pair) of male and female and We made you into different people and tribes so that you may (le ta’arafu) know each other.” (Qur'an 49:13)

These among other verses of the Qur’an promote an Islamic vision of a pluralist society. Thus, the cultural, political, religious and economic pluralism, which we observe in all aspects of human civilization, is a purposeful divine action. There is wisdom behind God creating this diversity in humans and we need to uncover, discover and endeavour to benefit from it. Diversity can foster creativity which arises from the difference that it nurtures, to allow new ways of thinking and solutions to blossom, which may offer alternative perspectives on how to resolve the major issues confronting humankind and the planet, and which balance and harmonize the needs of humanity with those of sustainability. Public policy must acknowledge and embrace such constructive understandings of diversity and no man, women or child (irrespective of race, religion or culture) must be discriminated against, or mistreated by society. Economic, education, and social policy must take into consideration our human diversity in all policy deliberations and cater to it.

There are numerous avenues that societies can pursue to ensure that diversity is viewed through a constructive lens and that States embrace differences as a constructive phenomenon. For example, positive initiatives undertaken by governments and politicians, the media, State, civic and religious institutions can promote just and peaceful modes of cohabitation and welcome diversity as a culturally enriching element that is positive and beneficial to all members of society.  In contrast, public institutions can resort to debasement through instigating divide and rule strategies that cultivate fear, hostility and negative forms of strife and competition. Strong cohesive community-building injects hope and possibility into society, enhances positive psychology amongst people, and mitigates the effects of excessive individualism and unhealthy forms of introspection. While the actions of societal leaders are important in setting an appreciative agenda fostering inclusion and diversity, our actions as individuals are also equally important in this direction.

2. Education policy at all levels (but particularly at primary and high school levels) should teach history and cultural studies that includes the contribution of all cultures in the development of our civilizations.

Many scholars have identified education as an important area where action can be taken to foster tolerant and respectful behaviours towards diversity. Teaching the history of different cultures and civilisations will be an important step in this direction. As an example, in many European countries, young people are taught eurocentric interpretations of the history of western civilisation and a biased curriculum excludes the contribution of  Muslim civilization and culture, which is deeply interwoven into Europe’s past, present and future. Had European countries included Muslim history in their national curriculums, Islamophobia may not have become so endemic, entrenched and currently widespread. Young people growing up in society would have gained an awareness of the compatibility of Islam and Muslims along with their positive and valuable contributions to the development of the West.

Similarly, teaching cultural studies would also help reduce intolerance towards other cultures. Cultural theory suggests that no culture is necessarily superior to another. Each culture perceives time, space, communication, problems, power, risk, individual and collective life, short-term and long-term issues, and so forth, distinctively. Each culture approaches and solves problems differently. Theory and practice also suggest that these differences when embraced and accommodated by organisations and society, can lead to more creative and effective solutions and build greater cooperation between people of different faiths and cultures.

This is why the Qur’an employs the words ‘le ta’arafu’(to understand, know and learn from each other) in one of the above verses – when stating that God made humans into peoples and tribes, so that they may come to know each other. This is the divine wisdom behind creating differences. Differences help to see things from other perspectives, leading to creative solutions, enriching cultures which enhances the human experience on earth.

By including a study of the multitude of religions, cultures and history of humanity into national curriculums, would assist to develop an appreciation of the intrinsic value of others and reduce intolerance. This does not, however, imply that all religions and belief systems are equally true – rather this education helps to develop confidence in one’s own religion, embracing a willingness to understand others, to share and recognise their beliefs and engage in dialogue based on mutual respect and a desire to comprehend.

3. Public policy must be underpinned by justice

Islam draws attention to justice as the highest value as it ensures everyone’s (irrespective of their religion, or culture) life, dignity and property is protected by law. The objectives of Islamic Shari’ah (maqasid al-shari’ah) clearly highlight this point. The Prophet of God taught people to uphold justice in society and the world. No one should be wronged, harmed, mistreated or be a victim of injustice because of their religion, culture, language or colour. Justice must be seen as the highest public policy value, and taught and practiced in homes, schools, religious and public places, and underpin all public and foreign policies.

  • O believers! Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, be he rich or poor, God is a Better Protector to both. So follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you may avoid justice, and if you distort your witness or refuse to give it, verily, God is Ever Well-Acquainted with what you do.” (Qur’an 4: 135)

There should be no discrimination in the labour market, education, and housing or in social life based on the religion or culture of a people. Injustice disturbs the peace in society and provides fuel for disaffection that fuels extremist violence.

In summary, peace, justice, and mutual cooperation is essential for a sustainable community and society and to maintain a sustainable world. Through cooperation and mutual support we become stronger and can achieve so much more. Intolerance, hatred, discrimination and all forms of injustice undermine social sustainability. To ensure a society and world develops where people of different races, religions, and cultures are appreciated and treated with dignity and respect, we need to ensure:

  • Both people and public policy should recognise, appreciate and embrace diversity, which is intrinsic to life as created and intended by God. Policymaking should be underpinned by this fact;
  • Education curriculums must include the teaching of religion, history, and culture as part of global diversity to enable the growing generations to recognise, appreciate and embrace the common humanity of all people;
  • Justice must become the highest policy value – so that people from all religions, cultures are treated with equity and respect.

The Centre for the Study of Islam and Sustainability at the Markfield Institute, UK, explores concepts and issues surrounding economic, environmental and social sustainability and offers policy recommendations.