Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, at the first session of the Conference on Pluralism and Development In Asia: Issues and Prospects – November 5th 2011

Let me begin with the obvious. Pluralism is fun. Uniformity is not only dull, it is also destructive. We all need variety in our lives, we need different interests to keep our minds active. We need to explore new idea, and we do this best through experiencing and engaging with a range of perspectives.

But, in celebrating variety, those of us who are innately fascinated by novelty must also realize that this has its risks. Conformity provides certainty, and we need to remember that security is perhaps the most important of all emotional needs for humans, or should I say for all living beings. And familiarity inculcates security. We should not then underestimate the strength of the need to live amongst those who share language and religion and customs.

Two factors have contributed to institutionalizing this thrust towards uniformity in the construction of nation states. The first is the strength of revealed religion. This is most apparent now with regard to Islam, where the urge for conformity seems particularly invasive of individuality. But we have to remember that this is not a new phenomenon, and the great intermingling of civilizations that took place through the explorations of post-Renaissance Europe was often fuelled by a thirst to convert.

Now all this seems an obvious ploy for the more insidious purposes of empire. But we should remember that to many of the practitioners at the time the purpose was a moral one, based on their understanding of what their Creator wanted. And perhaps in the long run that, in the form of ruthless Catholic proselytizing, was more humane than the alternative Protestant view, that those who were not Christians were damned anyway, and might as well be killed. It is a bleak choice though, to decide whether the rooting out of the cultures of South America was preferable to the extermination of the inhabitants of North America.

We should not forget that phenomenon in dealing with current problems arising from a desire to impose religious uniformity. In resisting measures that detract from individual freedom, we should try to understand the motivation, and address its root cause rather than denigrating it. Fortunately the remedy lies at hand, in the generally pluralistic traditions that all religions have also developed, that by and large represent thinking at times of most obvious intellectual and social development.

The best remedy for what can variously be termed fanaticism or piety is education, education that encourages wide-ranging knowledge as well as thinking skills. Fortunately, the increasing recognition all over the world that societies need such education to develop will help in ensuring a more pluralistic approach in general. But this needs to be a priority, and I cannot stress enough the need to devote resources to this, and in particular to female education, given the evidence that that is a pre-requisite for educational standards to be raised in any society.

Incidentally, let me digress for a moment to note the failure of the West to take this factor into account in its fanatical or perhaps pious opposition to Iran. I used to find it astonishing that at one stage the West privileged the Taleban with its deadening approach to female education, and ignored the enormous commitment to that evinced by successive Iranian governments. Obsessed at the time by a dichotomizing characterization of Shias as bad and Sunnis as good (which contributed also to military assistance to Saddam Hussein), they ignored the strides towards democratic modernization that Iran was engaged in. Bigotry alone explains the failure to develop relations with President Khatami. Unfortunately, this bigotry continues, with a clarion call last week to further cowboy activity, in an article co-authored by two senior retired American military men that claims that ‘even now, the most likely alternative – if there is not an American defensive strike on Iran – would be a fully nuclear Iran, led by irrational Shiite clerics.’ I can only hope that Liberals all over the world, whatever their emotional desire for conformity, will resist such illegal and illegitimate demands.

But this brings me to the second element in the passion for uniformity that sometimes characterizes states in the modern world, namely that impact of the doctrine of the nation state that developed in Europe some centuries back. Whereas previously a country was simply a geographical entity under a particular ruler, the concept developed that there must be a reason for a country to be an entity. This was most obviously the kinship of its peoples.

This doctrine had its apotheosis in the arrangements Europe made after the First World War, when the former land empires were divided into nation states, and entities such as Poland and Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia emerged, based not only on history but also on assumptions of common nationality. Given however the division of Yugoslavia in recent years on the basis of religion and language, who however remembers how the hype about it being the country of the South Slavs, and indeed what seemed the desire of that race to have their own nation state, instead of being divided up into enclaves by Austrian hegemony?

Unfortunately this arrangement did not extend to other continents. The most obvious example of self-interest trumping principle was in the carve up between Britain and France of the former Ottoman Empire. Only one independent country was permitted, Arabia, which seemed of little economic or strategic value at the time. Its coast, which was of strategic value, was divided up into small protectorates, which were under the firm control of the British. Three states under British or French protection were established, along with two geographically more significant mandated territories, with no concern for the identity of their populations. So Iraq, with a Shia majority, was entrusted to one of the sons of the Sheriff of Mecca, deprived as they had been of the Palestine in which they had served the British so faithfully during the war. Lebanon was given as a mandate to the French, but with a vast hinterland that was predominantly Muslim. And in Palestine there began the relentless process of demographic change that allowed Europe a couple of decades later to assuage at the expense of the Palestinians its guilt for the horrors it had inflicted on its Jewish populations.

Africa fared even worse, though one should note that there was probably no understanding at all then amongst those who made decisions about the different tribes and religious groups being bundled up together. And so the stage was set, fifty years later, for endless rivalries based on these differences, that have contributed to so much violence, and efforts to redraw boundaries. So we have had in recent years the establishment of South Sudan and Eritrea in Africa, and of the six or perhaps seven separate countries of the former Yugoslavia.

This I believe is the greatest constraint against the building and strengthening of pluralist societies in nation states. The fear of the other, which contributes to so much insecurity, is exacerbated by suspicions that the state itself may break up if identities based on otherness are given prominence. Unfortunately we have seen too much of this in the recent past, so that such fears are understandable, even though we must work out ways of overcoming them that will allow for pluralism to flourish.

The most obvious example of partition that was engineered was the division of the old British India into what are now four different states. First Burma was removed on the grounds of racial difference. This may have made sense in terms of geography, but it created a state in which a dominant majority was wary about allowing different ethnic identities to flourish.

Subsequently because of fears of a powerful left-leaning large India, as recent publication of papers from the British India office has indicated, Pakistan was hived off from India, in a move that had lasting repercussions all over the world. With its preposterous geographical configuration, and with very different cultures that had only religion in common to ensure unity, on the assumption that uniformity was essential for a nation state, Pakistan had to increasingly privilege religion. The result is continuing identity problems for those in Pakistan who are keen on pluralism, if not secularism, a concept that is increasingly difficult to express, let alone to encouarage.

Thirteen years ago, when the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung in South Asia was concerned about ideological concerns that went beyond free market economics, I was asked to deliver a keynote address at a seminar in Islamabad on ‘Why are we afraid of secularism?” Such a seminar would I think be inconceivable there now, but even in 1998 I was struck by the assertion of one of the bright youngsters who had been invited, who suggested that, if secularism were accepted in Pakistan, its very creation would be an anomaly. Given the name of the city in which we were meeting, I could understand his point.

That initiative of the British and their client Muslim supporters in India had far-reaching repercussions. Given the educational superiority of Pakistan at the time over many other countries where Islam was dominant, it provided intellectual leadership for many years, until the new democracies in the Middle East were able to develop their educational systems and also move towards devising indigenous political philosophies. Interestingly enough, initially these were socialist in conception, as with the Ba’ath Party. But soon enough, with unremitting opposition to such movements from economically more powerful states, an alternative based on religious traditions emerged. The rest is history.

Ironically, what might be termed the philosophy that inspired Al Qaeda emerged in the same place and the same time as that which has driven its great enemy in what is sometimes termed a clash of civilizations. The conservative predilections of Leo Strauss were rivaled by those of …. Who was executed in Egypt for his pains. Both looked to certain certainties, as T S Eliot might have put it, to deal with what they saw as the breakdown of society in a world in flux, what they saw as the failing experiment of modernity.

The dogmas of both were a reaction to socialism which they saw as godless and destructive of family values of an orthodox nature. But they also both painted liberalism in lurid hues as conducing to anarchy, rather than as a creative mosaic of diversity. And consequently they both demand discipline that is imposed, rather than the self-restraint that springs from the basic liberal tenet, that my freedom ends only where yours begins.

This retreat to uniformity lies at the heart of what I see as a woefully destructive experiment, that I now begin to see as one of the greatest threats to freedom and pluralism. I refer to what is now going on in the  European Union, which one saw initially as a very positive experiment that would both promote the free exchange of goods and people and services and also ensure, through economic and social connectivity that the hostilities which had caused so much destruction in the past would never be repeated.

Unfortunately, at some stage the bureaucrats took over and promoted both political and economic union. This has led to straitjacketing with regard to regulations and the emergence of a dominant bureaucracy that demands uniformity. With regard to foreign policy, the determination to speak with a single voice has led to decisions dominated by a few forceful players, with none of the subtleties that ensure flexibility. And in the case of monetary union, it has led to efforts to impose measures that will destroy the variegated charm that made Europe so creative.

The argument is that such uniformity is essential if the currency is to survive, but that begs the question as to whether or not the single currency was what promoted crisis in the first place, by preventing the ready remedies, in terms of exchange rate fluctuations, that would have prevented the current game of dominoes. Obviously opinions will differ on this, but the point I am making is that we have here a clear example of constraints on freedom, arising from what was initially meant to be only unity in diversity. No amount of indulgence of smaller regions within a country can I think make up for the restrictions on the behavior of nations compelled to conform to external norms.

I have gone into this question in some detail because we need to consider the parallels between that situation and what obtains in different countries trying, on a different scale, to satisfy the individual predilections, based on their pride in their own identity, of the various groups within. I believe we must in any nation building programme strive to satisfy such predilections, provided only that they do not threaten the safety and security of the whole. But in defining that security, we should not introduce elements that are in fact impositions by the more powerful. Constraints should be clearly beneficial to those subject to limitations, not to the rest.

Thus we find that restrictions with regard to religion and language can almost never be justified, for they are generally simply for the convenience of the powerful. Where they serve another purpose, as in Indonesia, the brilliance of the solution devised by Indonesia’s first present, to enshrine a minority language as that of the nation, ensured that the benefits of uniformity were shared with no undue advantages to the powerful. Similarly, the manner in which, whilst ensuring freedom of religion, Indonesia succeeded also in privileging the common principles of all religions, led to not only greater tolerance but also greater mutual understanding.

Of course some of that is under threat, and we are aware that the price of freedom is constant vigilance. But I believe we have much to learn from countries such as Indonesia and India, which succeeded in creating a national identity based on pluralism through commitment to the liberal maxi-min principle, of maximizing advantages to the worst off. In Sri Lanka sometimes, in identifying the worst off, we did not pay sufficient attention to the emotional needs of those who were in danger of feeling marginalized. Of course it is more difficult when dealing with dichotomies rather than multiplicities, especially in a world in which extraneous considerations can seem threatening. But that is no reason not to concentrate on inclusivity, and the promotion of mutual understanding.

I come back then to the question of education, the need for a system that does not compartmentalize. We know the damage done when education is left largely to parochial interests but, even when the state is dominant, difficulties can arise if the state adopts a divisive approach. Children must be encouraged to learn together, and to understand and appreciate their similarities to and differences from each other. That is the best way of ensuring that they will not consider the other as a threat to their own identity.