By Aziz Ali Dad
July 31, 2012
A hallmark of great nations is that they do not eschew challenges; rather, they intellectually and practically engage with them and bring about change in society. One of the challenges faced by modern societies was the issue of pluralism that is described as “a state of society in which members of diverse social groups develop their traditional cultures or special interests within a common civilisation.” The contours of the modern discourse on pluralism were shaped during the late 19th century in the United States of America. It was a period when American society experienced industrialisation, urbanisation and influx of people with heterogeneous cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds. These changes generated host of complex issues and added diversity to the growing society of America. William James called it pluralism. He saw it as a wonderful philosophical and psychological opportunity to expand the meaning of life and to explore the complex avenues of variegated society hitherto unexplored.
After James, social scientists and thinkers felt that the new world of pluralism demands radical transformation of society, government, economy, religious ideas and ultimately of human being themselves. As a result, many societies underwent drastic changes in the twentieth century. Although diversity is strength, it is also fraught with potential threats if it is without proper understanding. Currently, much attention is paid to tolerance, without taking into consideration the undesirable results that can be produced from tolerance bereft of understanding. One can still tolerate others, whilst harbouring hatred, prejudice and dislike against them. Nevertheless, better understanding removes biases and paves the way for healthy and pluralist society.
We saw the dire consequences of tolerance imposed on diverse societies by some regimes in the 20th century. The imposed tolerance was sick at heart as it harboured hatred, which infested every aspect of life with the passage of time and finally erupted to annihilate “others.” The Balkan region illustrates this well. Before the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the country was deemed to have a tolerant and diverse society. However, underneath the orchestrated tolerance of the state, ambers of hatred were smouldering and constantly fanned by misunderstanding. However, when the veneer of ostensible tolerance was removed with disintegration of Yugoslavia, the ambers turned into conflagration and consumed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Being a post-colonial state Pakistan is also faced with the challenge of accommodating diversity within the definition of one nation. To unify the diverse society, the state employed Islam. But gradually it has become an exclusionary instrument for non-Muslims and Muslims alike. In addition, the linguistic and racial fissures go deeper than the superstructure of the state’s religion. Thus, the society has witnessed conflicts on a religious, linguistic and racial basis. Syncretistic tradition has played an instrumental role in promoting art, music, dance, literature, tolerance and cultural activities in the region. The pitting of religion against culture has resulted in the suppression of diverse ways of expression of religion in the particular cultural context of Pakistan. To make things worse, collusion of the state with the monolithic narrative of religion has given birth to intolerance towards syncretistic religious traditions in Pakistan. To counter the threat of rising tide of intolerance against diversity, it is important to engage imaginatively with indigenous cultural resources that can prove conducive to the creation of a harmonious society in pluralist settings.
Until now the American idea of the “melting pot” has been a dominating model of unity in diversity. But the very concept of melting denotes dissolution of one’s identity once a person enters into the crucible of the single identity of America. Instead of the culinary metaphor, an aesthetic metaphor from music better illustrates the idea of harmony in diversity: contrapuntal. According to Edward Said the word “contrapuntal” is a musical term which describes two contradictory themes playing at the same time and creating a harmonious melody.” Said sees the contrapuntal quality in scholarship as an “antidote to reductive nationalism and uncritical dogma.”
A salient feature of music is that it brings multifarious sounds from different instruments within the holistic composition of music. During this process no sound melts and disappears in the overall structure, but contributes to the whole by keeping its singular identity in the whole. The overall musical composition cannot form its unique identity if it does not keep the identity of each instrument intact. For a society that finds it difficult to negotiate diversity, the metaphor of music serves the purpose. Managing diverse society is an art. Therefore, our intellectuals need to have imagination like the one exhibited by the musician in his musical composition. Things particularly in Pakistan and the world in general have come to such a pass that mere tolerance cannot prevent disintegration of diverse cultural fabrics if monolithic mindset is not curbed. Our failure in managing the affairs of state and society largely stems from failure of our intellectual imagination in harmonising diverse interests and sections of society in organic whole.
Aziz Ali Dad is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. Email: email@example.com