The ongoing public health emergency has highlighted the fact that individuals, communities, and societies are affected unevenly by the coronavirus pandemic, often due to differences in ethnicity, creed, and economic status.
“Those most vulnerable to contracting and succumbing to the coronavirus are the same groups that have historically faced systemic exclusion. Additionally, these groups will likely be most affected long-term by the social and economic impacts of the pandemic.” said Meredith Preston McGhie, Secretary General of the Global Centre for Pluralism (GCP).
Although we may all be navigating the same storm, we are not necessarily all in the same boat.
While differences between people and fault lines in society have long existed, the spread of Covid-19 has brought them to light and into public consciousness. As we look towards 2021, it is important to address these issues with a sense of urgency, and ask how we might imagine a fairer society — one inspired by our values.
It is stated in the Qur’an that Allah created all humans from a single soul (4:1), and that difference adds to the beauty of the world: “Among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colours. In these are signs for humankind,” (30:22).
As part of the ethics of Islam, Muslims are encouraged to build an inclusive society where individuals conduct themselves with dignity and justice. The aim is to give of oneself for a greater good, and to leave behind a better world for the next generation.
These values are shared with other religious and secular groups, and universally acknowledged as part of modern civilisations. But how can we begin to turn these noble ideals into action and solutions to the challenges we face today?
In an increasingly globalised world, where each of us encounter different races, cultures, and ethnicities more and more, learning only about local history is not enough. Mawlana Hazar Imam has often spoken of the urgent need to adopt a pluralistic outlook, an ethic of respect which values the beauty and strength of diversity.
“A secure pluralistic society requires communities that are educated and confident both in the identity and depth of their own traditions and in those of their neighbours,” he said in a speech made in Gatineau, Canada, in 2004. “Intellectual honesty and greater knowledge are essential if current explosive situations are to be understood…”
In this context, acquiring knowledge involves seeing through the eyes of history. To look back, through a global lens, at the various developments that led to this moment. This requires the effort to educate ourselves about different peoples and their relations with each other, and to learn that these relations have not always been harmonious.
Across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, and Europe, ignorance and discord have often led to destructive conflict and the persecution of minorities. Examples and stories where pluralism has unfortunately been rejected can be found on every continent. In fact, a number of centuries of human history are centred around the colonisation of various countries in the developing world by imperial powers.
Fortunately, there are also stories that offer hope. The story of Bilal ibn Rabah, a freed slave and distinguished companion of the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him and his family). The stories of Harriet Tubman, who not only escaped slavery in the United States, but also rescued many others; of Nelson Mandela, who served 27 years in prison, but went on to become the President of South Africa; and of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani human rights activist and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Learning from this history can help us to better understand that events don’t exist in a vacuum, and that the legacies of empire and colonialism still have repercussions in our world today. Acquiring knowledge, hearing stories, and embracing diversity can also help to develop a sense of compassion.
Compassion involves seeing through the eyes of others, viewing them as we view ourselves. Its meaning is ‘to suffer together,’ to feel moved when confronted with suffering and to feel the motivation to alleviate it.
As an attribute, “Compassion requires that you look into your own heart, discover what gives you pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else,” says author and commentator Karen Armstrong, who delivered the 2018 GCP Annual Pluralism Lecture at the Aga Khan Centre.
This brings to mind the famous Children of Adam poem. Written eight centuries ago by the Persian poet Saadi Shirazi, it is now inscribed on a large hand-made carpet on the wall of a meeting room in the United Nations building in New York City. It reads: “The children of Adam, created of the self-same clay, are members of one body. When one member suffers, all members suffer, likewise. You, who are indifferent to the suffering of the fellow, you are unworthy to be called human.”
To develop compassion within ourselves, the first step is to bear witness. To stop, recognise, and acknowledge the pain caused by injustice and inequality in society. To recognise the humanity in ourselves, and in one another. To not turn a blind eye, nor be immune to the struggle of others. Once more of us begin to bear witness, to reflect deeply, and to identify injustice, only then can we begin to question, critique, and make space for solutions to emerge.
Finding the humility to recognise our own privilege and subconscious biases is also a good start. Of course, there is much more to be done, but this is a vital first step on the long road to a fairer world. Going beyond token Diversity & Inclusion departments in large corporations, what is urgently required is for differing parties, communities, and individuals to engage in constructive change through dialogue.
Once we have seen through the eyes of history, of those who have come before, and then through the eyes of our neighbours today; the next step is to see through the eyes of humanity. Of those who will inherit the earth; the youth, and those yet to be born. How can we leave behind a more equal, more peaceful world for them?
“Mutual respect and tolerance have to be fostered and taught. We have to promote dialogue to combat fear, intolerance, and extremism. We have to learn from each other, making our different traditions and cultures a source of harmony and strength, not discord and weakness,” said former secretary general of the United Nations Kofi Annan at the GCP’s Annual Pluralism Lecture in 2013.
Dialogue requires addressing the difficult questions of our time, having conversations with ourselves, and with others, so as to repair the fault lines in our societies. It means being open and willing to reach out across divides, and to seek out solutions in a patient and peaceful manner. As tempting as it seems, one cannot fight anger with anger, extinguish rage with rage, or erase horror with more horror.
The space in which such dialogue takes place, and such solutions arise, is often found in the realm of civil society. According to the World Bank, civil society “refers to a wide array of organisations: community groups, non-governmental organisations, labour unions, indigenous groups, charitable organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, and foundations.”
A healthy civil society provides the space for public participation, good governance and democratic processes to thrive. Through civil discourse and dialogue we can continue — or in some cases, begin — the challenging work, the uncomfortable conversations around systemic and individual discrimination, and strive to turn the notion of pluralism into less of a lofty ideal, and more of a work in progress.
In a speech made at Evora, Portugal in 2006, Mawlana Hazar Imam said, “The search for justice and security, the struggle for equality of opportunity, the quest for tolerance and harmony, the pursuit of human dignity — these are moral imperatives which we must work and think about on a daily basis.”
Our work is cut out for us. The choice remains, as ever, to stand together or risk falling apart. As we begin to emerge from this storm, let us take stock, and work to prepare for potential rough seas in the future. Start by inviting others onto your boat, or helping someone to repair theirs.
This year will go down in history as one of disruption and unprecedented change. Yet at this moment, we can make an intention to adjust the narrative. With some effort, perhaps 2021 will become the year in which we make real progress to replace ignorance with knowledge, contempt with compassion, and division with dialogue.