10th Annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture, Institute for Canadian Citizenship, ‘Pluralism’, and apres lecture conversation with John Ralston Saul (Toronto, Canada)
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The variety of the world is not only more available, it is nearly inescapable. Human difference is more proximate and more intense. What was once beyond our view is now at our side and, indeed, to use the popular expression, “in our face.” … The challenge of diversity is now a global challenge and how we address it will have global consequences….
I believe that the challenge of pluralism is never completely met. Pluralism is a process and not a product. It is a mentality, a way of looking at a diverse and changing world. A pluralistic environment is a kaleidoscope that history shakes every day. Responding to pluralism is an exercise in constant re-adaptation. Identities are not fixed in stone. What we imagine our communities to be must also evolve with the tides of history. As we think about pluralism, we should be open to the fact that there may be a variety of “best practices,” a “diversity of diversities,” and a “pluralism of pluralisms.”
In sum, what we must seek and share is what I have called “a cosmopolitan ethic,” a readiness to accept the complexity of human society. It is an ethic which balances rights and duties. It is an ethic for all peoples.
PARTIAL TRANSLATION REQUIRED: A portion of this item requires translation and we regret only a Google machine translation of these portions is available in the Archive. We would be very grateful if any of our readers, fluent in the original language, would be kind enough to translate the text that follows. Please click here for information on making submissions to NanoWisdoms; we thank you for your assistance.
Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim.
The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson,
Mr. John Ralston Saul,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Mesdames et Messieurs:
Lorsque j’ai été invité à donner la conférence de ce symposium LaFontaine-Baldwin, ce fut pour moi un grand honneur et j’ai éprouvé beaucoup d’émotion. C’est également un grand plaisir de se retrouver parmi de si nombreux amis tant anciens que nouveaux, ici à Toronto – et je suis particulièrement heureux d’avoir été présenté si chaleureusement ce soir par mes bons amis John Ralston Saul et Adrienne Clarkson. Je me sens profondément reconnaissant de cette très aimable invitation et de votre généreux accueil.
[Google translation] When I was invited to the conference this LaFontaine-Baldwin, it was a great honour for me and I felt very emotional. It is also a great pleasure to be among so many friends both old and new, here in Toronto – and I am particularly pleased to have been presented so warmly this evening by my good friends John Ralston Saul and Adrienne Clarkson. I feel deeply grateful for this very kind invitation and for your generous hospitality.
When I first received this invitation, I was deeply honoured. But I was also, perhaps, a bit intimidated. I was impressed by the Lecture’s prestigious history, the contributions of nine former Lecturers, and the Lecture’s focus on Canada’s civic culture.
As you may know, my close ties with Canada go back almost four decades, to the time when many thousands of Asian refugees from Uganda, including many Ismailis, were welcomed so generously in this society. These ties have continued through the cooperation of our Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) with several Canadian Institutions, including the establishment, four years ago, of the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. I had the opportunity last week to chair a highly productive meeting there of the Centre’s Board of Directors.
Earlier this year, we also celebrated here in Toronto the Foundation Ceremony for the Aga Khan Museum and a new Ismaili Centre. So there are powerful chords of memory from four decades ago, four years ago, and even four months ago, that tie me closely to Canada.
I was also deeply moved by Canada’s extraordinary gift to me of honorary citizenship. I always have felt at home when I come to Canada but never more so than in the wake of this honour. And if I ever felt any trepidation about accepting this evening’s invitation, it has been significantly reduced by the fact that I can now claim, however modestly, to be a Canadian!
My thanks go to all of you who are attending this Lecture or are watching and listening from elsewhere. It is a busy autumn night, I know. For one thing, I believe the undefeated Maple Leafs are playing on television at this very hour!
My Canadian friends like to tell about a time when the Stanley Cup playoffs were in full swing, and a gentleman took his seat in the front row of the stadium, leaving a seat open next to him. His neighbour asked why such an excellent seat for such an important event was unclaimed, and the man explained that his wife normally sat there but that she had passed away. The neighbour expressed his sympathies, but asked whether a member of the family, or another relative or friend might have been able to use the ticket. “No,” the man replied, “they’re all at the funeral.”
The subject of tonight’s Lecture, Pluralism, may not have quite the emotional hold of the Stanley Cup, but, for me, it has been a matter of immense importance. One reason, no doubt, is that the Ismaili people have long shared in the experience of smaller groups everywhere — living in larger societies. In addition, my life-long interest in development has focused my attention on the challenge of social diversity. My interest in launching the Global Centre for Pluralism reflected my sense that there was yet no institution dedicated to the question of diversity in our world, and that Canada’s national experience made it a natural home for this venture.
The Centre plans, of course, to engage expert researchers to help in its work. Those plans remind me of a “think-tank” executive who found himself floating aimlessly across the sky one day in a hot air balloon (I suspect he was the chairman!). As he hovered above he called down to a man below, “Can you tell me where I am?” The man shouted back, giving him his longitude, latitude and altitude. “Thanks,” said the chairman, “that’s interesting, but you must be a professor!” “Why do you say that?” asked the man below. “Well,” the chairman responded, “you have given me a lot of precise information, which I’m sure is technically correct, but which is not of the faintest use to me.”
The man below replied, “And you must be an executive. “How did you know?” asked the balloonist. “Well,” said the man, “you don’t know where you are, or where you’re going. You have risen to where you are on a lot of hot air. And you expect people beneath you to solve your problems!”
I trust that this story will not characterise the work of the Centre. [Emphasis original]
I would like to talk with you this evening about three things:
- first, the long history of pluralism in our world,
- secondly, the acute intensification of that challenge in our time, and
- third, the path ahead, how can we best respond to that challenge.
I. The Past: Pluralism In History
Let me begin by observing that the challenge of pluralism is as old as human civilisation. History is filled with instructive models of success and failure in coping with human diversity.
In looking at this history, I am going to do an unexpected thing for a graduate of Harvard University and that is to quote from a professor at that “other” New England school, a place called Yale. You may remember how President Kennedy, when he received an honorary degree from Yale, observed that he now had the best of both worlds a Yale degree and a Harvard education! Perhaps I am trying to reap something of the same advantage tonight — mentioning my Harvard education, but quoting a Yale professor.
Amy Chua, of the Yale Law School, recently published a persuasive warning about the decline and fall of history’s dominant empires. Their downward spiral, she says, stemmed from their embrace of intolerant and exclusionist attitudes.
Amy Chua, of the Yale Law School, recently published a persuasive warning about the decline and fall of history’s dominant empires. Their downward spiral, she says, stemmed from their embrace of intolerant and exclusionist attitudes. The earlier success of these so-called “hyper powers” reflected their pragmatic, inclusive policies, drawing on the talents of a wide array of peoples. She cites seven examples, from Ancient Persia to the modern United States, from Ancient Rome and the Tang Empire in China, to the Spanish, Dutch and British Empires. In each case, pluralism was a critical variable.
You may know how, in ancient times, the common view was that nature had separated humankind into distinctive peoples. Aristotle was among the first to reject such arbitrary distinctions, and to conceptualise the human race as a single whole. It is interesting to note that his young pupil, on whom he impressed this notion, turned out to be Alexander the Great — whose international empire was animated by this new intellectual outlook. And, similarly, the Roman empire thrived initially by extending the concept of Roman citizenship to distant, highly disparate peoples.
But even as Europe fragmented after the Fall of Rome, another success story emerged in Egypt. I have a special interest in this story; it concerns my ancestors, the Fatamid Caliphs, who founded the city of Cairo 1,000 years ago. They were themselves Shia in an overwhelmingly dominant Sunni culture, and for nearly two centuries they led a strong pluralistic society, welcoming a variety of Islamic interpretations as well as people of Christian, Jewish and other backgrounds.
Similarly, on the Iberian Peninsula between the 8th and 16th Centuries, Muslim, Christian and Jewish cultures interacted creatively in what was known as al-Andalus. Remarkably, it lasted for most of seven centuries — a longer period than the time that has since passed.
The fading of al-Andalus came as a new spirit of nationalism rose in Europe … Where local and tribal loyalties once dominated, national identifications came to flourish. As we know, these nationalist rivalries eventually exploded into world war.
The fading of al-Andalus came as a new spirit of nationalism rose in Europe propelled by what scholars have called a sense of “imagined community.” Where local and tribal loyalties once dominated, national identifications came to flourish. As we know, these nationalist rivalries eventually exploded into world war. The post-war emergence of the European Union has been a response to that history, much as regional groupings from South East Asia, to Central Asia, from Latin America to Eastern Africa, have been testing the potential for pan-national cooperation.
Canada and Pluralism
This brings me to the story of Canada, shaped so fundamentally by two European cultures. This dual inheritance was an apparent weakness at one point, but it was transformed into an enormous strength thanks to leaders like LaFontaine and Baldwin, as well as those who shaped the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, and so many others who contributed to a long, incremental process.
That process has been extended over time to include a broader array of peoples, the First Peoples, and the Inuits, and a host of new immigrant groups. I am impressed by the fact that some 44 percent of Canadians today are of neither French nor British descent. I am told, in fact, that a typical Canadian citizenship ceremony might now include people from two dozen different countries. [Emphasis original]
To be sure, the vision I am describing is sometimes questioned and still incomplete, as I know Canadians insist on acknowledging. But it is nonetheless an asset of enormous global value.
The Developing World
Let me turn now to the Less Developed World, where the challenge of diversity is often the most difficult problem our Development Network faces.
Meanwhile, in Africa and elsewhere, Europe’s colonial policies often worked to accentuate division both through the use of divide-and-rule strategies, and through the imposition of arbitrary national boundaries, often ignoring tribal realities.
This legacy was partly shaped by European influences. In the 19th century, for example, European economic competition was sometimes projected onto Middle Eastern divisions, including the Maronite alliance with France and the Druze alliance with Britain. Meanwhile, in Africa and elsewhere, Europe’s colonial policies often worked to accentuate division both through the use of divide-and-rule strategies, and through the imposition of arbitrary national boundaries, often ignoring tribal realities.
In my view, the West continues at times to misread such complexities, including the immense diversity within the Muslim world. Often, too, the West’s development assistance programs assume that diversity is primarily an urban phenomenon discounting the vast size and complexity of rural areas. Yet, it is in the countryside that ethnic divides can be most conflictual — as Rwanda and Afghanistan have demonstrated — and where effective development could help preempt explosion.
I remember a visit I made almost half a century ago, in 1973, to Mindanao, the one part of the Philippine Islands that was never ruled by Spain. It is home to a significant Islamic minority, and I was struck even then by how religious distinctions were mirrored in economic disparities. Since that time, in predictable ways, economic injustice and cultural suspicion have fuelled one another in Mindanao. The quandary is how to break the cycle, although the Philippine Government is now addressing the situation. But when history allows such situations to fester, they become increasingly difficult to cure.
The co-dependent nature of economic deprivation and ethnic diversity is evident throughout most of Asia and Africa. And most of these countries are ill-prepared for such challenges. The legitimacy of pluralist values, which is part of the social psyche in countries like Canada, or in Portugal, where so many Ismailis now live, is often absent in the Developing World.
The lesson: economic advantage can sometimes ease social tensions, but social and cultural cleavage can undermine economic promise.
I think particularly, now, of Africa. The largest country there, Nigeria, comprises some 250 ethnic groups, often in conflict. In this case, vast oil reserves — once a reason for hope — have become a source of division. One wonders what might happen in other such places, in Afghanistan, for example, if its immense subsoil wealth should become an economic driver.
The lesson: economic advantage can sometimes ease social tensions, but social and cultural cleavage can undermine economic promise.
Central Asia also deserves our attention tonight. Our Network’s activity there includes the University of Central Asia, founded ten years ago, with campuses now in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
You will recall the outbreak of inter-ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan last June — thousands died, hundreds of thousands were made homeless. And yet, this high mountain region had traditionally been a place of lively cultural interchange going back to the time of the Silk Route, one of history’s first global connecting links. The violence that raged between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities had tangled roots. The Kyrgyz, traditionally nomads, were forced in the last century to settle on Soviet collective farms, joined by new Russian settlers. Tensions mounted, especially with the more settled Uzbeks, and a harsh economy compounded the distress.
Kyrgyzstan, along with Tajikistan, is one of the two poorest countries to emerge from the former Soviet Union. But economics alone do not account for its tragedies. Observers had long noted the absence of cross-cultural contact in Kyrgyzstan, the weakness of institutional life — both at the government level and in the realm of civil society — and a failing educational system.
Another element in the equation was international indifference — indeed, almost total international ignorance about Central Asia.
The result was a society ready to explode at the touch of a tiny spark. How that spark was first struck has been much debated. But the fundamental questions concern the perilous preconditions for violence, and whether they might better have been identified and addressed. Meanwhile, a spirit of hope persists, even in this troubled setting. Shortly after the violence, a public referendum approved constitutional reforms which could open a new era of progress.
Other Developing World Examples
The referendum in Kyrgyzstan this summer was followed one month later by a similar referendum in Kenya. I spent a part of my childhood in Kenya and our Network is very active there. So we watched with great sadness as Kenya descended into tribal warfare following the disputed election of 2007. In Kenya’s case, the institutions of civil society took a lead role in addressing the crisis. One result was the public endorsement this past August of a new constitution — by a two-to-one ratio. Like the reforms in Kyrgyzstan, it includes a dramatic dispersion of national and presidential power.
We are reminded in such moments that hope can sometimes grow out of desolation. I think of other places in Africa, like Mozambique, which also found a path to greater stability after a long period of warfare.
I think, too, of Indonesia, which emerged from its colonial experience as a radically fragmented state, both ethnically and geographically. Its response included a nationally oriented educational system teaching a shared national language. But we must be careful in drawing conclusions. Other attempts to foster a single language as a unifying resource — Urdu for example, or Swahili, or Bangla — have sometimes worked to separate peoples from the main currents of global progress.
One of the prime lessons of history, ancient and recent, is that one size does not fit all.
The question of language is very sensitive, as Canadians well know. And one of the central truths about pluralism is that what works in one setting may work differently in others. Afghanistan is a case in point. In contrast with places where inflexible nationalism can be a problem, Afghanistan suffers from the opposite condition: an inability to imagine, let alone create, a broad sense of nationhood.
One of the prime lessons of history, ancient and recent, is that one size does not fit all.
II. The Present: Intensification And Urgency
Let me move now to my second major topic, the present intensification of the pluralism challenge and the sense of urgency that comes with it.
Clearly, the challenges posed by diversity are mounting. New technologies mean that people mix and mingle more than ever before. Massive human migrations are part of the story. Two-thirds of recent population growth in the 30 largest OECD countries has resulted from highly diverse migrations. Meanwhile, communications technology means that even those who live on the other side of the world are as near to us as those who live on the other side of the street.
The variety of the world is not only more available, it is nearly inescapable. Human difference is more proximate and more intense. What was once beyond our view is now at our side and indeed, to use the popular expression, “in our face.” Almost everything now seems to “flow” globally: people and images, money and credit, goods and services, microbes and viruses, pollution and armaments, crime and terror. But let us remember, too, that constructive impulses can also flow more readily, as they do when international organisations join hands across dividing lines.
The challenge of diversity is now a global challenge and how we address it will have global consequences.
Economic stress and new environmental fragilities have further intensified the difficulties, and so has the fading of the bi-polar political order. It was once said that the end of the Cold War meant “the end of history.” In fact, just the reverse was true. History resumed in earnest in the 1990’s as old tribal passions resurfaced.
Meanwhile, the way we communicate with one another has been revolutionised. But more communication has not meant more cooperation. More information has also meant more misinformation: more superficial snapshots, more shards of stray information taken out of context. And it has also meant more wilful disinformation, not only differences of opinion, but distortions of fact. A wide-open Internet allows divisive information to travel as far and as fast as reliable information. There are virtually no barriers to entry and anyone, responsible or irresponsible, can play the game. New digital technologies mean more access, but less accountability. [Emphasis original]
Technologies, after all, are merely instruments — they can be used for good or ill. How we use them will depend, in every age and in every culture, not on what sits on our desktops, but on what is in our heads and in our hearts.
The advent of the Internet and the omnipresence of mobile telephony seem to promise so much! But so, once, did television and radio and the telegraph before that and, even earlier, the invention of the printing press. Yet each of these breakthroughs, while connecting so many, was also used to widen cultural gulfs. Technologies, after all, are merely instruments — they can be used for good or ill. How we use them will depend, in every age and in every culture, not on what sits on our desktops, but on what is in our heads and in our hearts.
It has never been easy for people to live together. I am not one who believes in some natural, human disposition to welcome the stranger. Wiping away superficial misunderstandings will not by itself allow a spontaneous spirit of accommodation to blossom. As Adrienne Clarkson said at this lecture in 2007, we cannot count on the power of “love” to solve our problems, as important as that quality is. A part of our challenge, as she said, is learning to live and work with people we may not particularly like! To do so will require concerted, deliberate efforts to build social institutions and cultural habits which take account of difference, which see diversity as an opportunity rather than a burden.
I have mentioned both social institutions and cultural habits — each dimension is critical. In a sense, one concerns the hardware and one concerns the software of the pluralism experience.
III. The Future; The Path Ahead
This brings me to my third and final topic this evening, the path ahead: How we might better predict and prevent breakdowns, and encourage progress.
On the institutional level, we can begin by looking at the structures of public governance.
Let me warn, first, against a naive hope that simply advancing the concept of democracy will achieve our goals. Not so. The high count of failed democracies — including some 40 percent of the member states of the United Nations — should disabuse us of this notion.
Too often, democracy is understood to be only about elections, momentary majorities. But effective governance is much more than that…. We must go beyond the simple word “democracy” if we are to build a framework for effective pluralism.
Too often, democracy is understood to be only about elections, momentary majorities. But effective governance is much more than that. What happens before and after elections? How are choices framed and explained? How is decision-making shared so that leaders of different backgrounds can interactively govern rather than small cliques who rule autocratically? We must go beyond the simple word “democracy” if we are to build a framework for effective pluralism.
This will mean writing more effective constitutions informed by more sophisticated understandings of comparative political systems. It will mean explaining those arrangements more adequately and adjusting and amending them. It will mean separating and balancing powers, structuring multi-tiered, and often asymmetrical, systems of federalism, and defining rights and freedoms — as Canada has learned to do. I would also point here to the experience of the largest democracy, India, which defines specific Constitutional rights for eight distinctive cultural groups, an approach which has been echoed in Malaysia. And we have seen how Kenya and Kyrgyzstan are moving now to decentralise power. All of these institutional arrangements can help resolve political deadlock, build social coherence and avoid the dangers of “winner take all.” They can provide multiple levers of social influence, allowing individuals of every background to feel that they have “a stake in society” — that they can influence the forces that shape their lives.
How we define citizenship is a central factor in this story, but one that is newly in dispute. Even the well-established concept that citizenship belongs to everyone who is born on national soil has been questioned recently in parts of Europe and the United States as attitudes to immigration intensify.
Independent judicial and educational systems are also essential to effective pluralism, and so are non-governmental agents of influence: the institutions of civil society. As we have seen, Kenya presents a positive case study in this regard, while civil society in Kyrgyzstan was largely marginalised during its crisis.
Independent news media are another key element. This is why our Network has been involved for fifty years in the media of East Africa, and why the Aga Khan University is planning to create there a new Graduate School of Media and Communications. The value of independent media was summarised recently by a veteran Ghanian journalist, Kwane Karikari, who wrote of their
…remarkable contributions to peaceful and transparent elections in Benin, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mali, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia; to post-conflict transitions … in Liberia, Mozambique and Sierra Leone; and to sustaining constitutional rule … in Guinea, Kenya and Nigeria.
Finally, let me emphasise that healthy institutions will tap the widest possible range of energies and insights. They will optimise each society’s meritocratic potential, so that opportunity will reward competence, from whomever and wherever it may come — independent of birth or wealth or theology or physical power.
The Public Mindset
But institutional reforms will have lasting meaning only when there is a social mindset to sustain them. There is a profound reciprocal relationship between institutional and cultural variables. How we think shapes our institutions. And then our institutions shape us. How we see the past is an important part of this mindset.
A sense of historic identity can immensely enrich our lives. But we also know how myopic commitments to “identity” can turn poisonous when they are dominated by bad memories, steeped in grievance and resentment. The marginalisation of peoples can then become a malignant process, as people define themselves by what they are against. The question of “Who am I?” is quickly transformed into “Who is my enemy?”
Some would address this problem through a wilful act of historical amnesia but suppressing animosity can often produce future explosions. In Kenya, national history is largely missing from the public schools. And, in the absence of shared history, divided communities feed on their own fragmented memories of inter-tribal wrongs. On the other hand, the value of confronting memory lies in catharsis, an emotional healing process. As we know, the Truth and Reconciliation Process has helped South Africans address deep social divisions, as has Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago.
As societies come to think in pluralistic ways, I believe they can learn another lesson from the Canadian experience, the importance of resisting both assimilation and homogenisation — the subordination and dilution of minority cultures on the one hand, or an attempt to create some new, transcendent blend of identities, on the other.
What the Canadian experience suggests to me is that identity itself can be pluralistic…. To cite a timely example, I believe one can live creatively and purposefully as both a devoted Muslim and a committed European.
What the Canadian experience suggests to me is that identity itself can be pluralistic. Honouring one’s own identity need not mean rejecting others. One can embrace an ethnic or religious heritage, while also sharing a sense of national or regional pride. To cite a timely example, I believe one can live creatively and purposefully as both a devoted Muslim and a committed European.
To affirm a particular identity is a fundamental human right, what some have called “the right to be heard.” But the right to be heard implies an obligation to listen and, beyond that, a proactive obligation to observe and to learn. Surely, one of the most important tests of moral leadership is whether our leaders are working to widen divisions, or to bridge them.
We might talk not just about the ideal of “harmony” — the sounding of a single chord — but also about “counterpoint.” In counterpoint, each voice follows a separate musical line, but always as part of a single work of art, with a sense both of independence and belonging.
When we talk about diversity, we often use the metaphor of achieving social “harmony.” But perhaps we might also employ an additional musical comparison — a fitting image as we meet tonight in this distinguished musical setting. We might talk not just about the ideal of “harmony” — the sounding of a single chord — but also about “counterpoint.” In counterpoint, each voice follows a separate musical line, but always as part of a single work of art, with a sense both of independence and belonging.
Let me add one further thought. I believe that the challenge of pluralism is never completely met. Pluralism is a process and not a product. It is a mentality, a way of looking at a diverse and changing world. A pluralistic environment is a kaleidoscope that history shakes every day.
Responding to pluralism is an exercise in constant re-adaptation. Identities are not fixed in stone. What we imagine our communities to be must also evolve with the tides of history. As we think about pluralism, we should be open to the fact that there may be a variety of “best practices,” a “diversity of diversities,” and a “pluralism of pluralisms.”
In sum, what we must seek and share is what I have called “a cosmopolitan ethic,” a readiness to accept the complexity of human society. It is an ethic which balances rights and duties. It is an ethic for all peoples. It will not surprise you to have me say that such an ethic can grow with enormous power out of the spiritual dimensions of our lives. In acknowledging the immensity of the Divine, we will also come to acknowledge our human limitations, the incomplete nature of human understanding.
Even the diversity of our religious interpretations can be greeted as something to share with one another — rather than something to fear. In this spirit of humility and hospitality the stranger will be welcomed and respected, rather than subdued or ignored…. As we strive for this ideal, we will recognise that “the other” is both “present” and “different.”
In that light, the amazing diversity of Creation itself can be seen as a great gift to us — not a cause for anxiety but a source of delight. Even the diversity of our religious interpretations can be greeted as something to share with one another — rather than something to fear. In this spirit of humility and hospitality the stranger will be welcomed and respected, rather than subdued or ignored.
In the Holy Qur’an we read these words:
O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul … [and] joined your hearts in love, so that by His grace ye became brethren.
As we strive for this ideal, we will recognise that “the other” is both “present” and “different.” And we will be able to appreciate this presence and this difference as gifts that can enrich our lives.
Let me conclude by emphasising once again the urgency of this challenge. We are at a particularly complex moment in human history. The challenges of diversity are frightening for many people, in societies all around the world. But diversity also has the capacity to inspire.
The mission of the Global Centre for Pluralism is to look closely at these challenges and to think hard about them. This will be demanding work. But as we go forward, we hope we can discern more predictably and preempt more effectively those conditions which lead to conflict among peoples. And we also hope that we can advance those institutions and those mindsets which foster constructive engagement.
The world we seek is not a world where difference is erased, but where difference can be a powerful force for good, helping us to fashion a new sense of co-operation and coherence in our world, and to build together a better life for all.
Thank you very much.
Apres lecture conversation with John Ralston Saul
John Ralston Saul: Well that was really wonderful, and you know what we talked about was how difficult it is for people to understand what pluralism is, when we first started talking about this. There is a lot of mushy talk about it.
His Highness the Aga Khan: Yes.
JRS: And people getting excited, people getting frightened and what we hoped you would do was to deconstruct it and give it shape because you are one of the people who actually thinks about it, all over the world, all the time. And I thought that you did an enormous favour to Canada by laying it out in a way that no Canadian has, quite frankly. We maybe the centre of lot of this but we’ve never had the courage or the calm to lay it out the way you have so I personally am very grateful to you and, I think, as you saw, the audience, too.
AK: (Applause) Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you.
JRS: Did you find it — you know this is really very silly with Adrienne [Clarkson, Former Governor General of Canada] sitting over there and me asking questions, but anyway, I will do my best — I mean, when you started working on this, I guess, you had to think your way through all the experiences you had around the world and to see how they fit together and whether it could be deconstructed.
AK: Well, I think what happens is that you observe, you respond to difficulties in various parts of the world, you ask what have been the causes of those difficulties. And you ask yourself, how many of those difficulties were predictable? And, if they are predictable, what are the instruments you need to understand the predictability and perhaps to preempt some of the problems. And, that’s really been a significant part of my life, because of the work that I do in Asia and Africa.
JRS: One of the things that really struck me in what you said was that in spite of this astonishing, all this communication, all these methods of communication, the levels of ignorance about each other are almost higher than they used to be.
AK: I think that’s true and I think it’s one of the major sources of the conflicts we’re seeing around the world, which is that there is very great ignorance in terms of general knowledge. I think general knowledge has been seen in many parts of the world as an attribute of tertiary education. In the developing world, it has to be an attribute of secondary education and the reason is that there is such a small percentage of children that go into tertiary education. That it is at the level of secondary education that the most important areas of knowledge have to be given to young boys and young women.
JRS: What do you think has to be done? I don’t think it’s any better here, quite frankly, but what do you think has to be done?
I am not certain that the curricula for rural children in the third world should be necessarily the same curricula as children in the urban environments …
AK: Well I think we need to first of all identify what is useful for children in various parts of the world, in their societies. I am not certain that the curricula for rural children in the third world should be necessarily the same curricula as children in the urban environments because there is commonality but there’s no equal use, so I think that what needs to be done is to define what is useful for the young girl or young boy’s future. And, try to widen their horizons and give them knowledge which they can use during their lifetime. And today, knowledge of pluralism is I think one of the most important things. And that will, if it’s going to happen, will happen through education.
JRS: One of the things that — I don’t think anyone here is going to disagree with this and it’s happening, I think, throughout the West — is that our societies are changing. We are this city where basically half the population was not born here, and yet we’re still teaching in our universities, and therefore in our schools, the European cannon as if everything came from about ten thinkers in two or three countries and certainly none of them are Islamic or Buddhists or you know, from Africa.
AK: Well, many, many years ago, more than half a century, I sat through a course called Humanities 1 at Harvard and I can recollect to my amazement at the narrowness of what we were taught in that course in relation to what I certainly felt I needed to know. And, I think that’s one of the problems is that general education has remained very, very narrow in most parts of the world. [Emphasis original]
JRS: How do you change that? I mean, I guess the tenure system, the narrow system that just keeps feeding off itself and in a way it gets narrower and not broader.
I think one of the problems that I have certainly seen is the lack of pedagogical material in these other subjects which are necessary, because these societies have not developed their own pedagogical material for their own purposes, let alone for global purposes.
AK: Right. Well I think one of the problems that I have certainly seen is the lack of pedagogical material in these other subjects which are necessary, because these societies have not developed their own pedagogical material for their own purposes, let alone for global purposes. And so, it’s easy to criticise Humanities 1 at Harvard but you ask yourself, well, what is the alternative for the professors who are teaching that course? And, the alternative is to go and use material that young students will find useful. That material itself is extremely difficult to find. We are talking about civilisations, areas of the world, which have not produced that material, even for themselves.
JRS: I suppose what you see now in Western universities — and so it’s not even in the secondary schools — is that when there is a breakout, say to learning about Islam, it’s some sort of specialist course on the side that’s optional. That does not touch the core.
AK: No, because you end up by educating a very small number of people who are specialists in the subject, but in a democracy you ask everybody to express an opinion (grinning with a twinkle in his eye).
JRS: Yes. What an original idea. (Laughter)
AK: Unless, I misunderstood what democracy is about.
JRS: You noticed the silence. It’s surprising how it isn’t understood that easily. I noticed that you talked about the graduate school, basically journalism graduate school, at your university in Pakistan and East Africa …
AK: In East Africa …
JRS: One of the difficulties with journalism schools in the West, is that they tend to teach technical stuff, and not the content of what it is to be a journalist. What is going to happen in those schools? How is it going to help?
[F]inding competent journalists to write on comparative government in the developing world is a very very big problem.
AK: Well I think the basic question is how do you develop quality communication in the developing world? And one of the things that we’ve looked at is who has the ultimate responsibility for what is sold on the streets, what is shown on television? And I think our conclusion has been essentially that it is the owner rather than the manufacturer of the product. And, therefore what we’re looking at in our school of journalism is going to be to educate owners about what are their responsibilities to society, what are their responsibilities to the region. Because ultimately they have to decide what it is that they want to distribute within their own countries. Now there are other areas also. We are finding it very difficult in many countries to find, for example, journalists who have been educated in comparative government and so when you have a referendum on a constitution — and you want to illustrate to your readership what are the different forms of government that people are being asked to comment on — finding competent journalists to write on comparative government in the developing world is a very very big problem. Which means that when there’s a referendum on a constitution the actual value of that referendum becomes subject to question. [Emphasis original]
JRS: As you were talking about educating the owners, I was just staring out there at a handful of senior journalists, wondering what they were thinking about their owners being educated. Very fascinating concept actually. Has it actually started or you are about to start?
AK: No, we’re about to start, and we have had a lot of help from a number of important institutions. But I think that, you know, owners have different goals. Some run their operations just as a business enterprise and they don’t really mind what they do to society. Others, are very, very committed to political goals, or to political parties, or to faith communities. And, what is really important, is to try to offer to people in the developing world competent analysis. And it’s the problem of finding competence which is so difficult for us. [Emphasis original]
JRS: Would you accept owners of Canadian media to come and be educated. [Laughter] But no, I am not being critical at all. I’m thinking about it as I was sitting here. You are open to all?
AK: Well, I’ll give you a little secret. The Globe and Mail was a partner of ours in launching our East African newspapers.
JRS: That’s interesting. Very interesting.
AK: And, they helped us put together what is today the largest media group in Eastern Africa.
JRS: I don’t think many Canadians know that.
AK: No! [Laughter]
JRS: Has Globe and Mail told them? I don’t know. I am staring out there at some people. Maybe that would be an interesting story to be told more in this country. Perhaps it has and I was away, I don’t know. It was fascinating the way you talked about — and I forget the exact quote — but that basically that “I don’t believe in some natural disposition to welcome stranger, that, in essence, pluralism isn’t natural it has to be learnt, it has to be taught.” I think it will be interesting to talk a bit more about that. People are … we’ve never really engaged with that idea. We’ve always wanted to think in Canada, that whatever this was we were doing, that it was natural. It works but I don’t think there is no proof that it’s natural.
[Expert Canadians in Early Childhood Development] have indicated that it’s from the age of birth to practically till the age of three or four, that the child is most malleable to accepting other people around. So that, if it’s true and I believe it is true, means that in countries of the developing world, we have to reverse our thinking on education. It means we have to make massive investment in early childhood development…. [S]o that from the earliest age, difference is seen as normal, not abnormal. [Emphasis original]
AK: Well I sense pluralism of opinion on that in audience. [Laughter] But I think that it is not something which is natural to the individual. Individuals are born into society, into social constructs, into faith constructs and the importance is to educate them to look wider afield. And I think it can start very, very early. You, in Canada, have some remarkable men and women in Early Childhood Development, for example. And they have indicated that it’s from the age of birth to practically till the age of three or four, that the child is most malleable to accepting other people around. So that, if it’s true and I believe it is true, means that in countries of the developing world, we have to reverse our thinking on education. It means we have to make massive investment in early childhood development. We have to take those initiatives out into the countryside. We have to harness many, many more women than have ever been thought of in the past, so that from the earliest age, difference is seen as normal, not abnormal. [Emphasis original]
Thank you. Thank you.
JRS: I mean, you’re a Canadian. You told the best hockey joke I have heard in years. By far, I must say. There are lot of bad hockey jokes. So it’s very courageous to tell and it was wonderful. When you look at Canada — yes, we’ve done some work in this area, we have education for young people — do you have any thoughts of about what we could be doing more of?
AK: Well we have done quite a lot of work in this field and what we tried to do is to render difference, normal in all our education material. And simple things. People who are of different racial backgrounds in little drawings for small children, wearing different clothes, looking at different objects, so that the notion of variegated societies is a common accepted feature of education. Later on you can expand that into Humanities 1 and you can add a whole lot of subjects there. But I think that, that issue starts much earlier with the development of the human being.
JRS: Interestingly enough, Adrienne and I were at a place called Rose Avenue Public School — which you would love — in a very heavily new Canadian area of Toronto, and they have possibly, or had at least, the most interesting philosophy course I’ve ever seen, which was basically, basic philosophical ideas from all the religions — showing how they fit together — and then just giving it to seven and eight year olds and allowing them to use it to talk about their families, the environment and whatever. And it was an explosion of ideas from kids who had just arrived from somewhere else.
AK: Yes, yes. Well, I tried to refer to that by using this expression: a cosmopolitan ethic. And I think the notion of a cosmopolitan ethic is something which all people can buy into, can identify with, because it’s an ethic for people. And that ethic for people — or lets say the essential components of the ethics for people — I have seen in most faiths that I know.
JRS: And, I suppose the ignorance that we’re talking about, of not knowing about other faiths, makes people think that it does not exist in other faiths. Or imagine that it does not exist.
AK: I wouldn’t be able to comment on that.
JRS: It’s a fascinating thing because most people when they hear the word cosmopolitan they think of something that isn’t about citizenship. I think it is a very interesting and an innovative way of using word cosmopolitan, putting with ethics and saying this is a new form of sophistication, in fact.
AK: That’s why I try to identify it as an ethic for all people. Cosmopolitan means for all people but the word isn’t used that way today, but that’s what it means.
JRS: We’ve often said that Toronto is the most cosmopolitan city in the world because it has the biggest mixture of races and languages from different cultures of the world and people stare at you. And I think, does that make us cosmopolitan? The answer is yes, according to definition and I would agree with it.
JRS: How do you think we push to get people to understand it. We keep explaining it, obviously, but what do we need to do?
I think that civil society also has to be pluralist. And that means getting the intelligentsia from all communities and not leaving certain communities aside. You’re looking for competence and merit from all communities to work in civil society.
AK: Well I think, as I said, it is not only in education I would say it’s also in, at least in our parts of the world, in civil society. I think that what I have observed in the last say 50 years, is that where you have government instability or where you have government incompetence, the only real resource that will replace government or government incapacity, is civil society. That is, the institutions of men and women who have a purpose and who can manage and produce results from that purpose. And I can give you the example of Bangladesh, I can give you the example of Kenya. Think around the developing world, and you will see that there are so many countries that have had unstable government in the past 50 years. Those that have moved forwards well, practically all of them have seen development as a result of strong civil society. So I think that civil society also has to be pluralist. And that means getting the intelligentsia from all communities and not leaving certain communities aside. You’re looking for competence and merit from all communities to work in civil society. [Emphasis original]
JRS: So that then turns, on very effective public education system.
AK: You need a public education system but it can be continuing education. It doesn’t have to be academic. It can also be non-academic.
JRS: On a certain more negative note, if we look at Europe, for example today, we can see a return of fear, populism, the kind of nineteenth century nationalism, the sense that gosh our culture is in danger, and by culture they mean that old idea of culture. How bad is that? You’ve been observing and you have been moving around. What do you thing can be done about that?
AK: My sense is that there are a number of forces at play. Clearly the recession is hurting and when there’s a recession attitudes to immigration become more aggressive. So I think we have a problem there in terms of the recession in Europe, which has been pretty severe, frankly. I think we’ve seen unplanned immigration and that has caused a lot of tension, particularly in the Mediterranean countries because they are the ones that are receiving most of this pressure. So I think there’s that.
I think there’s the fact that there are immigration communities, like here in Canada, which are bringing with them their inherited attitudes of conflict with others, for example, which creates a problem when they come into Canada or France or anywhere else. So there are a number of troubling signs there which need to be managed. I happen to believe it’s only a passing phase. But, I think that the European countries are going to have to take necessary measures to work themselves out of this phase. And I have to say that I mentioned it in my comments earlier, if there’s a serious analysis of these situations, I believe you can preempt many of them. You don’t have to let them build up to becoming difficult. I’m absolutely convinced that many of the situations we have seen and worked in, we knew that forces were building up to a situation where there was going to be a problem. And the difficulty is to identify what the trigger is. The difficulty is to identify what parts of the problem you preempt. But very often it’s a composite of forces that come to play, like in Kyrgyzstan or in Kenya or elsewhere. Some of them are pre-conflict, some of them are post-conflict. So this is a whole role of the Global Centre of Pluralism, is to go and understand around our globe, where those forces are at play and to see whether they are capable of being anticipated, maybe unravel before they become problematic.
JRS: It’s a very exciting idea, actually. I loved your phrase: pluralism is not a cause for anxiety but a source of delight. It’s a wonderful idea.
AK: Thank you. Thank you. Well, I think you show it in Canada, that’s why the centre is in Canada. [Laughter]
- Audio extracted from Institute for Canadian Citizenship video of the event:
- NOTE: An extract of this speech was reprinted as the article Diversity can be a force for good in the world, in the Vancouver Sun (Canada) on 22 October 2010
POSSIBLY RELATED READINGS (GENERATED AUTOMATICALLY)
- Government of Canada announcement to partner in the Global Centre of Pluralism (Ottawa, Canada) ·· (18 April 2005)
- ‘Diversity can be a force for good in the world’ published in the Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, Canada) ·· (22 October 2010)
- Remarks introducing Her Excellency Roza Otunbayeva, The Global Centre for Pluralism’s Inaugural Lecturer (Ottawa, Canada) ·· (28 May 2012)
- Remarks introducing The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of Canada, The Global Centre for Pluralism’s Fourth Annual Lecturer (Toronto, Canada) ·· (28 May 2015)
- Funding Agreement for the Global Centre for Pluralism Signing Ceremony (Ottawa, Canada) ·· (25 October 2006)