Commitment to pluralism is critical for a civil society

  • Javeed Akhter

    Javeed Akhter

By Javeed Akhter
Guest columnist
Posted10/7/2018 1:00 AM

As political dramas consume all the oxygen in media, news started trickling out that China may be holding up to one million Uighur Muslims in internment camps. A United Nations human rights panel reported Uighur Muslims were being forced into these camps for indoctrination. To the Chinese authorities, the Uighurs who have a different faith, ethnicity and language than the majority, are trouble makers. Practicing Islam is considered a mental illness that needs to be cured.

In Europe, it is the immigrants from Syria and North Africa who are the alien other. The anti-immigration and anti-Muslim policies are conflated. Statements from right-wing leaders like Horst Seehofer, who declared "Islam doesn't belong in Germany," and the Burqa ban in open-minded societies like Belgium and Austria are alarming signs. With the history of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust, this type of open racism in Europe would have been considered impossible.


Sometimes it is merely a different faith that drives violence. In India -- currently ruled by a Hindu Nationalist party, the BJP -- Christians and Muslims are a prime example of this. Christians are accused of proselytizing. Muslims are deemed the progeny of invaders and unclean meat eaters. Scores of Muslim cattle traders have been lynched by so-called "cow protection" groups. To many in India, the life of a cow is more precious than that of a Muslim.

There isn't a single reason that fuels violence against vulnerable minorities. The Uighurs are in a mineral-rich region of China that is also the site of China's nuclear plants and is a border state. The immigrant issue in Europe is confounded by large numbers and the speed with which it has occurred. For Muslim Indians, it is the troubled legacy of the division of the country into India and Pakistan.

But the common thread in all acts of violence against minority groups is that the perpetrators of the crimes reduce their victims to a subhuman status. This makes it easy to carry out violence.

Can something like this happen in our country? It seems highly unlikely, but the rhetoric of President Donald Trump and his associates makes it possible. In the dystopian milieu, they have created, white supremacist groups march brazenly in Charlottesville, Mexicans coming across the border illegally are looked upon as rapists and the Muslim ban is driven by the sentiment that "Islam hates us." Racism that was previously covert has become overt. It shows up when ordinary black Americans minding their own business are being reported by whites and a Starbucks employee calling cops on black men two minutes after they entered the café.

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The solution is making pluralism part of our DNA. Pluralism teaches us to look at the other person as having the same aspirations, needs and hopes as everyone else; it is a learned behavior. Pluralism presupposes equality among various groups, rather than one elite group tolerating an inferior group out of charity. It is essential in ensuring civility in any multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society.

The United States as a nation is one of the world leaders in pluralism. But we cannot rest on our laurels. We must reinforce this ideal at the dinner table, the classroom, the workplace, the playground and the religious congregation.

The mainstream media must set an example in the language they use to ensure they are not consciously or subconsciously reinforcing stereotypes. Language is an incredibly powerful tool and can brainwash people. I witness it often when interacting with even some highly educated colleagues in the way they have a distorted image of someone like me.

All religions have inclusive doctrines that should be highlighted. The Quran points out that we are one humanity divided into "tribes and nations" so that we may "know each other"; in other words, acknowledge and celebrate diversity. Prophet Muhammad set up a pluralistic model of governance the details of which are preserved in a document called "the Covenant of Madina." The fractured city of Madina with multiple groups at constant war with each other became a peaceful enclave where civility ruled.

Hope lies in the young of our country. Anecdotal as it may be, the millennials and generation Zs that I interact with, have without exception an inclusive outlook. They are unapologetically pluralistic. There is still a long way to go in eliminating racism and bigotry in our nation, but pluralism is the antidote that may lead to lasting peace and prosperity. In our society that aspires to the ideal of "e pluribus unum," the Uighur type of tragedy, the lynch mobs attacking Muslims in India and brazen racism in Europe and elsewhere can be avoided. But we must be vigilant and try to nip racism in the bud.

Javeed Akhter is a physician and freelance writer from Oak Brook.

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