Building a Civil Society: The Role of Pluralism, Education and a Cosmopolitan Ethic

On February 28 2014 I received an invitation to attend a reception in Massey Hall, Toronto, held by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in honour of His Highness the Aga Khan. This reception was especially important given His Highness’ Parliamentary address in Ottawa the previous day.

His Highness the Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community and is a direct descent of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) through his cousin and son-in-law Ali, and Ali’s wife and Prophet’s daughter, Fatima. In the Aga Khan’s recent speeches and interviews in North America, he discusses the potential of a civil society and the important role of pluralism, education and a cosmopolitan ethic in fostering and sustaining civil societies. The Aga Khan defines civil society as “an array of institutions which operate on a private, voluntary basis, but are motivated by high public purposes”; these institutions include those devoted to education, research, health and medicine, to name a few.  Civil society, then, contributes to strengthening society in combination with state actors.

In order for civil society to flourish, pluralism must play a key role. One of the Aga Khan’s initiatives in Canada has been the Global Center for Pluralism, which understands pluralism to be a process rather than a product. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University defines pluralism based on its function in society and it’s potential to contribute to positive human encounters. In this light, pluralism is viewed not only as an engagement with diversity alone but as an “energetic engagement with diversity.” The Pluralism Project positions difference at the core of encounters of commitments, and encourages dialogue that requires elements of both speaking and listening. The bridge that connects pluralism, enriching dialogue and a rich civil society is the cosmopolitan ethic. The cosmopolitan ethic is described by the spiritual leader as “one that welcomes the complexity of human society” and balances “rights and duties, freedom and responsibility.”  If a pluralistic mindset is premised on the energetic engagement with diversity and a cosmopolitan ethic places emphasis on welcoming the diversity of human aspirations, it becomes critical that a framework of understanding between ourselves and others with whom we engage with be built.

Yet civil society comes with a set of challenges. The Aga Khan notes that while our world is becoming more pluralistic (i.e. diverse) in fabric, it is not matched in spirit by a cosmopolitan ethic, one in which deliberative engagement takes place. Necessary in fostering this ethic is education. In a recent address at Brown University the Aga Khan asked, “How many would recognize the name al-Khwarizmi – the Persian mathematician who developed some 1,200 years ago the algorithm, which is the foundation of search engine technology?” The example of al-Khwarizmi is emblematic of the forgotten or not often spoken about history of the Muslim world. School history curricula address Ancient Egypt, the Greeks, Romans and the contributions of Europeans to the advancement of sciences and history, but omit the important contributions to the advancement of our knowledge by individuals like al-Khwarizmi, Ibn Haytam, Ibn Sina and a great many other Muslim thinkers. Alluding to this lack of knowledge, Peter Mansbridge, in an interview with the Aga Khan, highlights the fact that His Highness began the Parliamentary address by walking through a basic history of the Muslim world. In response, His Highness states:

One of our biggest problems in the Islamic world, is that we are absent from Western culture. We don’t exist. Now that’s changing, but it’s changing very, very slowly. Very, very slowly. In my view, much too slowly. And I’m not sure I understand why it’s changing so slowly. But much of what I said today, to the Parliament, is so basic that could it be part of general education around the world, simply so that communities, countries, understand what are the dynamic forces in those societies. It’s not new. It’s been there a long, long time.

In an increasingly diverse world, one in which contact with individuals from different socio-historical contexts is almost guaranteed, an education about our diversity and our histories will become necessary to the pursuit of a good life.

Mentioning Canada as a country that values tertiary and childhood education, the Aga Khan further emphasizes the role of quality education in the development of a “pluralistic attitude” that will allow for the development of a strong civil society. Without a basic understanding of world religions, particularly Islam, the cosmopolitan ethic is stunted.  In the lack of this basic education, we see a Clash of Ignorance continuing to influence thought around relations between the Western and Muslim world. And while civil societies, and the building blocks of pluralism and the cosmopolitan ethic seem laudable, without this education, guided by the cosmopolitan ethic, civil society cannot take root.

I would like to end with a personal reflection. As a Canadian Ismaili, this was a proud moment for me.  Historically, this is the third time since 1941 that a non-siting head of state has had the privilege of addressing Parliament and the only time a faith leader has had the honor of addressing both the Upper and Lower Houses. Sitting in Massey Hall, I was reminded of Max Van Manen’s categorization of silences, specifically ontological silence which “fulfills yet seeks fulfillment.” There is much work to be done, and the cosmopolitan ethic can be sustained only through an authentic understanding of each other. Education will be the crucial building block of a civil society. 

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