THE need for mutual coexistence has never been as relevant in history as it is felt today. The quest for living harmoniously has been a continuous urge throughout history. Particularly, the spread of Islam was a rendezvous for different cultures in different Muslim states, which provided a unique experience of sharing, learning and creativity.
The power of embracing different cultural expressions was witnessed in the first Islamic state of Madina, which provided an example of living peacefully with people of other cultures. Similar trends were seen later in the Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid states.
It was the power of inclusion that turned the people from heterogeneous cultural and faith backgrounds into a community pursuing common goals in those states. Expressions of different ideas were not only encouraged but were evaluated and synthesised which resulted in development of philosophical and scientific ideas that provided them with the tools for interpreting religious doctrine accordingly.
The translation of Greek philosophies and other grand ideas into Arabic and other languages not only encouraged Muslim and other scholars to enter into dialogue with past cultures, it also enabled them to learn from the rich cultural heritage of Persia and other areas. Thus such rich experiences and learning not only boosted the Muslim states, it also enabled them to engrave lasting imprints in history and left lessons for generations to come.
Embracing diversity can be a liberating model.
Sadly, the decline of these states started when certain cultural practices and ideas got prominence and others were marginalised. This marginalisation and alienation alongside other factors resulted in discontentment among the people, which led to weakening and eventually the downfall of these states.
Today, each country on earth is confronted with unprecedented challenges due to information technology and globalisation. Perhaps to deal with the rising challenges, the experiences of past and present states embracing pluralism can be a liberating model. On the contrary, viewing cultural expression as a threat to society is another perspective, enforced in dictatorial regimes, which sees monolithic and homogeneous cultures as the panacea for all ills. However, even in strict dictatorships the influence of pluralism cannot be totally blocked out.
It is also true that cultural encounters can at times be a source of disharmony, which leads people of one culture to harbour hatred for another and may ultimately result in violence. A growing threat to world peace, besides political and economic issues, is the religious, ethnic and racial divide. The World Economic Forum has presented a report of 2018 about the rising trend of violence against different religious groups around the world. It suggests that every religious group has been the target of violence across the globe. In addition, ethnic and racial violence appears to be on the rise across the globe.
Contributing to peace at the global level is indeed a gigantic task for which the international community needs to synergise its efforts. However, it is impossible for states to contribute towards peace without bringing peace within their borders. Any attempt to silence cultural and intellectual expressions can turn a country into a prison.
The urge for individual and collective supremacy over others has been a driving force that has led to extremism and violence. Such urges, intents and attempts are not only violations of human rights, but they are also against the basic principles of Islam. As the Holy Quran declares: “...To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If God had willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. ...” (5:48). There are also other verses which clearly discourage forcing people to accept a faith or particular way of thinking.
In a given scenario a viable act to counter violence is to encourage intercultural dialogue and promote the notion of pluralism, instead of attempting to uproot such activities from society. Blocking art exhibitions, as was done in Karachi, and similar activities will only lead to the alienation and exclusion of people. Such acts will further add to the misery of the people and aggravate the issues Pakistan is facing.
As Pakistan is a country with people of diverse cultural, linguistic, ethnic and faith backgrounds, in order to embark on a journey of progress, it needs to cultivate the seeds of pluralism in the national discourse beside its inclusion in the educational policy, curriculum etc. Sincere efforts also need to be made to constantly engage and encourage different strata of society to discuss and promote cultural expressions and dialogue which will contribute to realising the common aspiration of peace for all.
The writer is an educator.
Published in Dawn, December 13th, 2019