Pluralism in Islam and the Ethics of Coexistence
Abdulaziz Sachedina talks to Elena Dini 4 November 2013

In the conference you held at Hartford Seminary about Political Theology of Pluralism in Islam: Religious Ethics of Coexistence, you discuss the difference between inclusivism and pluralism, explaining that inclusivism acknowledges the presence of other traditions which have some truths while saying that there is a superior one while pluralism focuses not only on tolerance but also on accepting the claim of truth in other traditions. Supporting the pluralist opinion, would you then say that Islam is not a superior truth, or better way, for humanity?

I think we have to learn how to be pluralist rather than being simply inclusive. If you are inclusive then you do see yourself as possessing the truth and having a superior claim to the truth. At the same time you are devaluing the truth of the others. To sum up, you are saying: “I respect you for what you are but I am better than you”. Inclusiveness is better than exclusiveness but my fear is that the generality of the believers are exclusivists rather than inclusivists. The masses are not necessarily looking at themselves as simply superior; sometimes they end up looking at themselves as the saved ones, as those having the complete truth.
Therefore, my struggle on the ground is to teach this inclusiveness which allows you to be yourself while not devaluing the other at such an extent that you say, “I can tolerate you but I do not accept you”.

But right now we are talking about inclusiveness, not about pluralism. I am wondering where this transition from inclusiveness to pluralism takes place.

Pluralism in Islam is possible because God sent pluralism. However, we are really dealing with a complex situation and I do not want to draw down the tensions since tensions do remain. In my book on Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights, I make quite clear that ultimately religious communities are psychologically exclusivists while in modern times we need a pluralistic attitude to accept other human beings as equal partners in the citizenry. We live in modern nation states where people are citizens and they have equal human rights and responsibility. This is why religious communities, especially the majority faith communities, need to learn how to respect the others. To believe that one has the truth does not imply that one needs to dehumanise the other. The other is a human being and has the right to believe what she or he believes in. This attitude requires respect, mutuality and reciprocity.

Citizenship is different from the membership in the faith community. Faith communities often build a wall around themselves and they are very clear about what are their rituals, their practices and their beliefs. However, what we have to look for are intersections of concentric circles and not circles with a fence surrounding them. Belonging to a different faith community does not imply fighting and hating each other. The idea of concentric circle aims at showing that me, a Muslim, and my Catholic neighbour we share some values and it is where we find our common ground.

In a society where a good number of people do not share a traditional religious understanding of life, how can the concept of religious pluralism be implemented?

I think this is where my intellectual struggle and striving goes on. When I go to India, I see Hindus and Muslims living peacefully. Differences are still obviously there but there is a way in which Muslims and Hindus create a culture of cooperation. Today many Christians, Muslims, Jews do not want to be part of confessional communities. Many Muslims that I know do not go to the mosque anymore: they do not like organized religion and they think it is too narrow-minded. Probably many people in the Church are going into the same kind of struggle.

There are cultures where many faiths are living together but the kind of religiosity is not the same for everyone. We disagree on spiritual and theological matters but we are all members of this human society and we need to create an understanding in which we all fit without causing fear or difficulties among us. The culture of cooperation today is built around citizenry.

This is why multi-cultural and multi-religious societies have an advantage. Take the example of Saudi Arabia: religions other than Islam are not recognized and, clearly, there are no institutions for other religions. Thus, Saudis have a difficult time when they come to North America because they have a very different mentality. But if we think about Iran, there we have Jewish Iranians, Christian Iranians, we have Shi’i and Sunni Muslims. This is not to say that there are not discriminations among themselves but, at the level of citizenship, in the business world or in the bazaar they are cooperating, they work together.

Religious differences today may not matter much in my identification. There was a time, 50 or 60 years ago, in which my religious identity was a very important part of me. Now it does not matter.

We often hear the distinction made between private and public sphere in religion. In your book The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism you state that depriving a believer of his/her ability to bring faith into the public sphere would mean “depriving religion of its ethical foundation” (p.10). What do you think secularists are worried about when they talk about religious interference in public life and how can this conflict be solved?

Secularists think that if religion is allowed to have a louder and aggressive voice in the public sector then we might have to face more problems. Secular political philosophy considers its function to build consensus and here we need overlapping consensus. We want to bring together people with different understandings and worldviews in the name of a common cause. In fact, there is something we all agree upon and that pertains to the field of ethics, like for instance dealing with poverty. In the secular worldview, people need an orderly life so that they can prosper, live peacefully, and have basic freedoms. Secularists fear that at the moment religious people come to the public sphere, they want to control these freedoms; they may not want to recognize the homosexuals, they may not want to recognize women’s rights.

On one hand, I think that secularists’ fears are well founded but, on the other hand, there is another dimension that secularists are missing. Making a common cause becomes possible because there is a common moral terrain that unites people showing them the importance to cooperate. People should be ready to come together and to say: “I know that I will not be as religious as you are and you do not need to be as secular as I am or as atheist as I am, but we do need to cooperate”. Partnerships are really needed in our societies.

Let us make an example of Iran. There, religionists and secularists have been talking to one another but liberal secularists may still consider religionists as “troublemakers,” willing to control the rest of the society and limit freedoms. This fear is somehow well founded because when religious people come to the public sphere, they bring a morality infused by religious values which encroaches upon the neutrality of the public space. It then results in imposing a woman to cover her hair or to tell people what to wear. In the last days I heard for example that Hassan Rohani, the new president of Iran, said that hijab should not be made compulsory. Women should wear well respectful clothes in public areas but they should have a choice if they want to cover or not. The moment religions start compelling the people doing something then we run the risk of creating hypocrites. We are not helping people to become religious or spiritual at all.

There is a saying, “My freedom ends where your freedom begins”. How do you agree or disagree with this statement?

My exercise of freedom should not impinge upon your exercise of freedom. I can talk about my rights of saying anything I want to you but the moment I, for example, use hate language for you and I insult you or your religion in the public, I am encroaching upon your freedom. You have the right to believe in anything you want to believe. My freedom has its own limits. I cannot use hate language because I do not like you or in order to put you down. There should be reciprocity in the claims and entitlements that we ask from each other. If I ask you to respect me then you also ask me to respect you. Reciprocity is an important tool of maintaining balanced freedoms. I cannot exercise freedom without taking the other into consideration.