Pluralism: A Necessity, Not an Option

Article Summary
Hassan bin Salem writes it is high time the Arab world embraces its diversity. National unity cannot be built through the marginalization of social components — it can only be built by recognizing them, he says.    

Pluralism, diversity and social divisions — whether they be religious, ideological, racial or ethnic — are human nature, a historical reality and a key feature of human societies. These factors have characterized all eastern and western communities throughout the ages; by no means are they limited to the structure of a particular nation or community. All of the world’s countries are composed of differing religions, cultures, ideas and races. Plurality and diversity should not be seen as a stigma or a burden, but rather as a source of wealth, enrichment, excellence and achievement which can lead a given community or nation to out-perform another.

Recognizing the existence of diversity in a society and remaining open to other communities while recognizing their right to exist, practice and evolve, is an important result of acculturation and the exchange of experiences. Recognizing pluralism, be it religious or non-religious, can in no way lead to misery, divisions or rivalries, although some may claim this to be the case. The only exception to this is when political systems forbid various social groups from expressing their views and ideas, or when regimes fail to find a political, social, cultural and legal system capable of managing diversity without abuse or infringement.

But, what is worse is when political systems completely disregard the issue of pluralism, and seek to cover it up as if it never existed. As a result, the concept of unity turns into imposed harmony and the prevailing social fabric turns into an ideology requiring blind discipline and commitment to unity. When political systems disregard diversity outright, all differences between members of a group get rejected. This leads to a re-categorization of society and the cancelation of social distinctions.

This contradicts both nature and life, as it empties societies of diversity and difference, a factor vital for their survival. National unity cannot be built through the marginalization of social components — it can only be built by recognizing them. It can not be achieved by excluding diversity and differences, but only by allowing diversity to assume its role in nation-building.

Developed and democratic countries embrace many more forms of religious and cultural pluralism and diversity than do our Arab societies.

These developed states did not fear pluralism, knowing that it might have generated violent clashes between different factions. They realized that life is not simply black or white. It is rather in full color. Thus, these states were able to accommodate a multiplicity of segments and groups through their political systems. They turned this rich diversity into a source of strength.

However, this did not happen overnight. It took a long-term political and social process to bring about this accommodating society. Yet, regardless of whatever dissimilar religions, sects and ethnicities were present in these communities, a state based on citizenship was established — one based on freedom and equality before the law. This type of state resulted from certain active measures. Most importantly, these states took the first step by acknowledging the existence of diversity and difference; they did not naively assume that their society was homogeneous. Instead, these developed countries worked solicitously to establish freedom, equality and laws to foil any group that attempts to dominate another.

Arab countries, on the other hand, have made little effort to embark on the path of equality and freedom. The Arabs have sought to blur the diversity and pluralism of their societies, and different communities have formed strong allegiances to specific leaders.

By espousing principles of pluralism, one acknowledges the rights of other individuals to express their own opinions and beliefs. No one has the right to impose their view on another. Pluralism abolishes what is known as absolute truth or fact. The truth becomes relative. Religious paths become equally valid. Entrenching pluralism in a society can only be achieved by building a methodological culture based on respect for diversity and the rejection all forms of exclusion and unilateralism. This diversity and pluralism must also be acknowledged at the political and legislative levels — laws must be laid down based on freedom, equity and justice.

The establishment of pluralism and respect for diversity will lead to the emergence of a strong sense of nationalism and national unity among the different segments of society.

Found in: religion, pluralism, nation building, diversity, development, arab societies, arab