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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 4    Issue 20   01-15 March 2010

Islam and the Challenges of Pluralism

Professor A. R. Momin

One of the prominent features of the contemporary global scenario is the growing visibility and recognition of cultural diversity. Most if not all present-day societies have become or are in the process of becoming multiethnic. It is significant to note that of 192 sovereign states that are members of the United Nations, more than 160 are multiethnic in composition. Large-scale international migrations have led to significant modifications in the demographic and social composition of many countries, especially in the Western hemisphere and in Australasia. According to the United States Census Bureau, the non-white population is projected to increase to about 46 per cent per cent of the country’s population by 2050. Following the official endorsement of hyphenated identities, the number of Americans who identify themselves as being of two or more races is expected to more than triple, from 5.2 million in 2008 to 16.2 million in 2050. Nearly 18 per cent people in Germany have an immigration background. About 48 per cent of the population of Rotterdam, Holland’s second largest city, consists of Surinamese, Turks and Moroccans, while the Dutch-born population has shrunk to 52 per cent. The inhabitants of Amsterdam include people from nearly 170 countries. More than 20 per cent of people living in Canada are foreign-born. One in 9 people living in the UK was born outside the country. Extensive ethnic, religious and cultural diversity is a distinctive feature of Australia, whose population is composed of peoples and communities from over 145 countries from around the world.

Globalisation is a paradoxical phenomenon. Thus, on the one hand, it has brought about remarkable cultural uniformity and homogenization in respect of finance, markets, entertainment and lifestyle. On the other hand, it has reinforced cultural diversity across large parts of the world. Modern information and communication technologies have significantly contributed to the greater visibility and prominence of cultural diversity. All major cities around the world are becoming increasingly multiethnic and multicultural. Los Angeles, for example, has a couple of Chinese and Thai restaurants where only halal food is served. The growing worldwide demand for halal food has prompted global food giants like McDonald’s and KFC as well as supermarket chains in Europe, North America and Australia to enter the halal food segment. Some of McDonald’s restaurants in London and other large European cities serve halal burgers and chicken nuggets. Switzerland is the largest producer of halal food in the world.

The term pluralism is used to describe societies that contain several distinct ethnic and religious communities and that recognize and accommodate cultural diversity. Pluralism has a close bearing on the recognition and acceptance of minority rights and on tolerance and peaceful coexistence. A distinction may be drawn between plurality and pluralism. A society may be characterized by significant ethnic and cultural diversities but may not officially recognize them and may instead emphasise cultural homogeneity. This is the case, for example, with France, Spain, Italy and China.

All multiethnic societies are faced with the fundamental challenge of reconciling ethnic, religious and cultural diversities with the overarching goal of societal cohesion and integration. Broadly, three distinctive models of societal cohesion have been followed by multiethnic societies: (i) monoculturalism and assimilation (ii) multiculturalism (iii) integration.

Monoculturalism and assimilation

Many countries around the world have adopted a variety of methods to assimilate ethnic and religious minorities into the culture of the dominant population. Many Western countries contain sizeable ethnic minorities and indigenous communities, such as the Bretons and the Corsicans in France, the Catalans and the Basques in Spain, the Flemish and the Walloons in Belgium, the Innuits and the Lapps in Canada, the Irish and the Welsh in Britain, and the Sami in the Scandinavian countries. In most cases, they were ruthlessly suppressed and forcibly assimilated into the culture of the dominant majority. Britain banned the use of Welsh in schools in earlier times. Not long ago, Canada systematically denied the cultural, linguistic and political rights of the Quebecois and the indigenous people. Such policies were aimed at depriving the ethnic minorities of their distinctive cultural identities.

The sway of ethnic nationalism, which was often accompanied by coercive assimilation, suppression, enslavement and even genocide, is reflected in the history of European colonization, in the processes of Hispanization, Russification and Sinification, and in the erstwhile Soviet Union and China. Chinese society is ethnically heterogeneous. The Han Chinese account for about 92 per cent of the population and dominate politics, economy and the administration. On the other hand, there are 55 distinct ethnic groups, officially designated as nationalities or national minorities, which comprise nearly 120 million people and constitute about 10% of the country’s population of 1.3 billion. Ten of the 55 national minorities follow Islam. Though the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in reality the minorities hardly have the liberty to practise their faith as they would like to. This is specially the case with the Tibetan, Muslim and Christian minorities. During the past several decades China has carried out a policy of brutal repression and persecution of the Uighurs in the country’s Xinjiang province, as a result of which thousands of them have fled the country and taken refuge in Central Asia as well as in the US and Europe. Chinese authorities also carried out a policy of de-ethnicization of the Uighurs. Mandarin was substituted for Uighur in primary schools and Islamic symbols and practices (including the Islamic veil, beards and praying and fasting while on the job) among government workers were banned or restricted.

Throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century, France was a society of immigrants. It received more foreign-born people than any other Western country, including the US. During the past two centuries, France has tenaciously held on to the idea of a nation single and indivisible. Consequently, it has insisted on the assimilation of immigrants into the country’s common civic culture, which is premised on its republican values. French universalism insists that sameness is the basis for equality, and this sameness is achieved not simply by swearing allegiance to the nation but by assimilation into the norms of the national culture. That is why the French census makes no enumeration of the religion, ethnicity or national origin of its population. France has assiduously followed the Jacobian policy of flattening indigenous cultures in the name of national unity. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the use of the Basque and Breton languages in French schools was banned by the government. French President Georges Pompidou said in 1972: “There is no room for regional languages in a France destined to place its seal on Europe”.

Italy considers itself as a culturally homogeneous country. The dominant cultural discourse in the country makes explicit references to ‘our traditions’ and ‘our values’ that define Italy as a monocultural society, based on a common past, common traditions and a homogeneous value system. Though Italy is home to a large number of immigrants, the country still finds it difficult to recognize and accommodate cultural and religious diversity. The immigrants are expected to assimilate to the dominant national culture.

The failure of the project of assimilation

The experience of most countries in the West, as elsewhere, shows that the policy of coercive assimilation has proved to be a failure in the long run. Jewish communities across Europe have assiduously maintained their religious and ethnic identity despite intense pressures of assimilation and homogenization as well as social exclusion and stigmatization. On the other hand, the assimilation of a substantial section of Jews in Nazi Germany did not save them from demonisation and extermination. In Central Asia, even during the heyday of communism, most of the ethnic and religious communities, such as the Azeris, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Turkomans, Uzbeks and Kirghiz, preserved and maintained their cultural traditions and distinctive identities. The Caucasians—Chechens, Inguish, Tatars, Daghestanis--despite their racial affinity with the Russians, have always defined their separate identities on the basis of religion, culture and language.

After World War I, Italy annexed the German-speaking region of South Tyrol. Mussolini tried to forcibly assimilate the people of the region into mainstream Italian society, which was resented and resisted by the local population. Many of them chose to migrate to Austria and other countries in the face of assimilationist pressures.

Many of the national minorities in Europe have steadfastly guarded their distinctive identities and traditions and have launched social movements and political parties to defend their traditions and cultural rights. National minorities in Spain, such as those in the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia, want to be recognised as nations within Spain. Some national minorities, such as the Irish in Northern Ireland, the Corsicans in France and the Basque, have espoused violent methods to project their cultural autonomy and political aspirations. The Scandinavian countries, Belgium, Spain, Germany and Britain have granted regional autonomy and substantial cultural rights to their national minorities. It is being increasingly recognized around the world that cultural homogeneity is not a prerequisite for national unity and societal cohesion.

As a nation of immigrants, the United States has long insisted on the ‘swift assimilation of aliens’ and has emphasized the romantic ideal of the melting pot. However, the assertion of ethnic identity on the part of the African-Americans, Hispanics and the indigenous people in the late 1960s put a question mark on the goal of assimilation. Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan have characteristically remarked that ‘the point about the melting pot is that it did not happen’. The failure of the assimilationist model in the United States has led to the replacement of the metaphor of the melting pot with that of the ‘salad bowl’ and the ‘glorious mosaic’, in which each racial and ethnic element in the national population maintains its distinctiveness.

Since the French Revolution, the immigrants in France were expected to forsake their culture, language and identity in favour of a homogeneous French culture and way of life. This model of assimilation worked fairly well in absorbing Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Polish immigrants earlier in the century. But it has failed in the case of Arab, African and Asian immigrants who began entering France in substantial numbers in the post-War period. “Today integration is a total failure”, says an exasperated Jean-Francois Cope, mayor of Meaux, 54 kilometres south-east of Paris, which counts 29 different ethnic groups among its 50,000 residents.

Despite France’s insistence on cultural homogeneity and the assimilation of minorities into the national culture, there has been a resurgence and revival of indigenous cultures in the country in recent years. This revival is marked by the proliferation of Basque and Breton-language schools, the rising popularity of Celtic music, the boom of regional tourism and the growing interest in local cuisines and provincial festivals. Breton language, which was long suppressed by French governments, is experiencing a unique revival. The revival is marked by a network of private schools that offer a bilingual curriculum in Breton and French. Founded in 1977, these schools now teach thousands of pupils and adults. TV Breizh began broadcasting in Breton as France’s first regional channel in August 2000.

International tourism has provided an additional stimulus to this revival. Brittany attracts about 10 million visitors a year. The annual Inter-Celtic Festival, held in the port city of Lorient in August each year, draws nearly half a million visitors from across large parts of Europe and North America and has become an internationally celebrated event for the projection of celtic culture.

Societies that privilege cultural uniformity and homogeneity over cultural diversity and disparage ethnic and religious distinctions are often guilty of violating the rights of minorities as well as international human rights conventions. A recent example of such violation of human rights is the ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland, which was endorsed by a majority of Swiss voters in a nation-wide referendum in November 2009. Furthermore, such societies tend to be vulnerable to racism and xenophobia. It is ironic that countries such as France, Italy and Spain which vociferously defend the rights of gay and lesbian minorities find it difficult to recognize the rights of religious minorities. The secularists in France have no problem with the head-covering robe of Catholic nuns but are perturbed by the sight of the Islamic veil.

The assimilationist model of societal integration is premised on the centrality of the nation state, and holds that no society or polity can ensure cohesion, solidarity and stability unless its members share a common, homogeneous national culture, including common religious and moral values, shared cultural practices and a common language. Undoubtedly, a culturally homogeneous society has certain strengths and advantages. It strengthens and reinforces a sense of community and solidarity, facilitates inter-personal communication and can mobilize the energies and resources of its members with relative ease. However, it also has a tendency to become closed and intolerant and to stifle differences and dissent. The classical model of the nation-state, which is premised on a conflation of nationalism and cultural homogeneity, has become highly problematic in the context of multiethnic societies.

The idea of assimilation entails a fundamental contradiction between the importance liberal democracies in Europe assign to individualism and liberalism and conformist pressures.


The term multiculturalism as a perspective on the management of cultural diversity in multiethnic societies came into vogue in the early 1970s. Canada was the first country to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy in 1971. In Europe, multiculturalism was first adopted as an official policy by Sweden to deal with the issue of integration of immigrants. Subsequently, Britain, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries also adopted multicultural policies. Britain has followed a community-based model of multiculturalism, which provides for the recognition and accommodation of the rights of minority groups.

Multiculturalism emphasizes that cultural differences must be publicly acknowledged, negotiated and accommodated in a framework of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. It rejects inequality based on birth, class or caste and social exclusion. The eminent Canadian scholar Will Kymlicka has sought to reconcile the equal rights of citizenship with cultural diversities and the recognition of difference within the framework of what he describes as multicultural citizenship. He argues that a liberal state should respect and protect the ethnic identities of citizens. Citizenship, according to him, should be accommodative of cultural diversity.

The growing worldwide salience of ethnic consciousness, the great migrations of the post-World War II period and the increasing visibility of transnational diasporas provided the social and cultural context of multiculturalism. The revival and reawakening of ethnic consciousness and identities among immigrants has been strengthened by the rapid, unprecedented advances in transportation and communication technologies. Broadly, transnationalism refers to multiple ties, interactions and networks that link large numbers of people across the borders of nation-states. Such networks are greatly strengthened by the incredible advances in transportation and communication technologies. Intensity and simultaneity are the most striking features of transnationalism. Transnational diasporas represent the most important aspect of transnationalism. The diaspora is characterized by a triadic relationship between a globally dispersed yet identity-conscious ethnic group, the countries where such groups are located, and the original homeland. Transnational diasporas represent important modes of social organization, communication, and political and cultural mobilization. They play an important role in reinforcing and transmitting shared ethnic identities. Paul Gilroy has used the term Black Atlantic to describe an extensive cultural network spanning Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and Britain, which has been a source of identity, continuity, and strength for millions of people of African descent. Transnational diasporas also serve as sites of cultural interpenetration, hybridization and creolization.

The crisis of multiculturalism

During the past three decades, multiculturalism has enjoyed great popularity in many European countries and has enthusiastically been supported by immigrants and minority groups. However, multiculturalism has been subject to a great deal of criticism and controversy in recent years. The critics of multiculturalism point out that it presupposes a view of cultures and ethnic groups as fixed, bounded and absolute and thereby solidifies cultural difference. It ignores the role of cultural interpenetration, hybridization and creolization. Therefore, it encourages social and cultural fragmentation and strengthens ethnic cleavages and ghettoization. Some critics accuse multiculturalism of legitimizing separatism and atomization. Civitas, a right-wing think-tank in Britain, pointed out in a report in 2005 that the concept of multiculturalism was divisive and encouraged racial hatred. Certain events at the turn of the century, including the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, the Madrid train bombing in March 2004, the murder of the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh in November 2004 and the terrorist attack on London’s public transport system in July 2005 (carried out by home-grown, educated terrorists), have prompted an increasing number of politicians and public figures to rethink the viability of multiculturalism as a model of societal integration. Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark seem to be moving away from multiculturalism.

Trevor Philips, former head of Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality, has recently suggested that multiculturalism may be outdated. He said Britain could be sleep-walking into ethnic segregation because of a failure to create common values, with some districts in the country on their way to becoming fully-fledged ghettos—black holes into which no one goes without fear and trepidation and from which no one ever escapes undamaged. A couple of years ago, the former British prime minister Tony Blair had said: “Multiculturalism is not what we thought it was. Tolerance is a must. Conform to it or don’t come here. The right to be different; the duty to integrate. That’s what being British means”.

In 2007 Britain launched a new Commission for Integration and Cohesion, headed by an Indian-born British politician. While launching the commission, Ruth Kelly, one of former prime minister Tony Blair’s cabinet members, announced that the UK had moved away from a “near-uniform consensus” on the value of multiculturalism. She added that it was legitimate for Britain to support a debate whether multiculturalism has encouraged separateness. The new commission is mandated to discuss the drawing up of “community charters”, signed by community leaders, endorsing respect for democracy and the rejection of racism and violence. Dominic Grieve, Britain’s shadow home secretary, said on September 26, 2008: “Multiculturalism in the UK has left a “terrible” legacy, creating a vacuum that has been filled by extremists from across the political spectrum”. He added that “long-term inhabitants” of the country have been left fearful, while second and third- generation immigrants have felt alienated and unsure what British values stand for. He also warned against downplaying Britain’s Christian heritage. The strongest criticism of multiculturalism has been launched by Europe’s far-right political parties and organisations. Italy’s far-right, rabidly anti-immigrant Lega Nord (Northern League) argues that to “transform Italy into a multi-racial, multiethnic and multi-religious country modelled after the US means to keep Italy divided”.

Pluralism and multiculturalism undoubtedly have certain positive dimensions. Pluralism not only recognizes cultural diversity but is also accommodative of minority rights, identities and sensibilities. Minorities are better off in countries that recognize and accommodate cultural diversities. This, for example, is the case with countries like Britain, Germany, Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands and India. On the other hand, minorities are faced with discrimination, exclusion and stigmatization in countries that idealise cultural homogeneity and discount cultural diversity. France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and China provide examples of the latter case.

Undoubtedly, multiethnic societies need to recognize and accommodate cultural diversity. At the same time, however, they should avoid the postmodernist fallacy of regarding diversity as an unadulterated fount of creativity and emancipation. One should remember that diversity is a Janus-faced phenomenon in that it has both positive and dysfunctional implications and consequences. It may disguise superstitions and barbaric practices such as female genital mutilations and honour killing. Clearly, a civilized society cannot tolerate such practices in the name of minority rights. If managed with prudence and sagacity, ethnicity can be a valuable resource, a source of creativity and vitality. It can also become dangerously divisive and subversive, as events in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Kenya, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka show. In many parts of the world, ethnic resurgence has been accompanied by social and religious conflicts. Walter Connor estimates that nearly half of the world’s independent countries have experienced some degree of ethnically-related dissonance. Yugoslavia broke up along ethnic lines. Deep ethnic cleavages and conflicts have been conspicuous in Chechnya, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, India, and in several African countries. It is therefore important to be aware of the dual nature of cultural diversity, to draw on its creative potential, to guard against its dysfunctional, disruptive implications and to negotiate with it in a spirit of dialogue and reconciliation.


Generally, the model of integration is espoused by countries which have reservations about the forced assimilation of minority groups as well about multiculturalism. The context of integration is provided by the accommodation of immigrants and minority groups in mainstream society. Some European countries follow a model of integration that is located at the intersection of multiculturalism and assimilation.

There are wide variations in the integration of immigrants in European countries. France, Germany, the UK, Spain and Italy have the largest immigrant populations. These five countries are home to nearly half of all immigrants across the continent. A recent study sponsored by the European Union has found that EU countries were only doing half as much as they could. Sweden scored a top position in respect of the welfare and integration of immigrants. The study found that Sweden could be described as entirely favourable to promoting integration, followed by Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands and Finland. The countries which scored low on the integration index included Latvia, Cyprus, Greece, Austria and Slovakia.

Integration processes take place at the micro level—in residential neighbourhoods, at work and in school. Unfortunately, the integration process at the micro level in many European countries has not been successful. There is much coexistence between immigrants and the host society, but little solidarity, sharing and togetherness. Though there are no immigrant ghettos in Germany, unlike in France, immigrants and ethnic Germans live in parallel societies. A new study by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development says that even after decades of living in Germany, many Turks are poorly integrated in mainstream society. It is widely recognised that education, proficiency in the local language and professional skills are among the important determinants of success and integration in the wider society.

Muslim immigrants in Germany, for example, are less educated than ethnic Germans and have a higher unemployment rate. A sixth of migration-background pupils drop out of school, compared with less than a tenth of native Germans. Though the second and third generation Muslims are better educated than their parents, they are far behind the ethnic Germans in education. The problem is worsened due to the ignorance of large numbers of Turkish immigrants of German language.

Neither monoculturalism and cultural homogeneity nor pluralism and multiculturalism provide a viable model of societal cohesion and integration. It may be pointed out that while multiculturalism, which is premised on the celebration of diversity, suffers from a deficit of societal cohesion and harmony, the assimilationist model is bedeviled by a democratic, liberal deficit. The problem with pluralism and multiculturalism is that they tend to foster societal fragmentation, the existence of parallel societies and ghettoization and fail to provide guidelines for societal cohesion and integration. The problem with the model of monoculturalism and cultural homogeneity is that it rests on the principle of majoritarianism and is violative of minority rights.

Islam and Pluralism

There is no inherent contradiction between pluralism and Islamic principles. At the same time, it will be incorrect to say that there is perfect compatibility between Islam and pluralism. It can be said that while certain elements of pluralism are compatible with Islamic tenets, certain other elements are at variance with them. The important point is to strike a balance between cultural diversity and societal cohesion. Islam provides significant guidelines in this direction. I would like to draw attention to four points in this connection. First, Islam takes sufficient cognizance of cultural diversities that characterize most human societies across the world. The Quran says, “If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made humankind one people, but they will not cease to differ” (11:118). The Quran also says, “And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and colours; verily, in that there are signs for those who know” (30:22). Ethnic groups, tribes and lineages, which characterize human societies around the world, are said to have been created by God (Quran 25:54). However, such distinctions are meant to serve the purpose of cultural identification; they should not be taken as indices of status, ranking or social hierarchy. The only worthwhile distinction or honour, in Islamic view, is piety and moral virtues. Thus the Quran says, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other. Verily, the most honoured of you in the sight of God is one who is the most righteous amongst you” (49:13). Second, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, which are among the cherished principles of plural societies, are greatly emphasized in the Islamic tradition. The attitude and behavior of the Prophet and his Companions towards non-Muslims exhibited remarkable tolerance, magnanimity and compassion. The Islamic faith is exceptionally accommodative of minority rights, identities and sensibilities. Islamic sources are replete with instances that highlight the remarkably humane manner in which non-Muslims living under Islamic dispensation were treated. Third, Islam eschews racism, xenophobia and narrow ethnocentrism and endorses intercultural openness and exchanges and the creation of shared cultural spaces on the basis of equality, non-discrimination, shared humanity, social justice and compassion. Islam’s open and inclusionary attitude towards the cultural traditions of other people is reflected in its view of the pursuit of knowledge and the learning of foreign languages, in the adoption of foreign technology and medicine and in the selective appropriation of foreign cultural patterns. Islam’s tolerant, accommodative and cosmopolitan ethos did not remain a mere ideal but was translated into reality by the Prophet and his companions and the successive generations of Muslims. One can see a manifestation of this cosmopolitan ethos in medieval Spain, in medieval India and in Ottoman Turkey. Fourth, an important theme in the discourse on pluralism relates to legal pluralism. Islam has made an outstanding and seminal contribution to legal pluralism. Legal pluralism in the Islamic tradition is reflected at four distinct levels: (i) the recognition of the legal and judicial autonomy of non-Muslim minorities living in Islamic state (ii) the coexistence of divergent interpretations and schools of Islamic jurisprudence (iii) the cognizance of regional, local customs and usages in legal rulings and judicial pronouncements (iv) Islamic international law.

The challenges posed by pluralism may be classified under three heads: (i) social, cultural and existential (ii) theological (iii) theoretical and conceptual. Muslim minorities living in plural, multiethnic societies are faced with a host of problems, including racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia, globalization, a pervasive ethos of individualism and consumerism, sexual permissiveness, the fraying of social relationships and marital bonds, and a cultural environment that is inimical to the safeguarding of their religious and cultural identity. The theological challenge of pluralism, which is mainly directed at the ulama, involves rethinking and reinterpretation of Islamic law in the context of present times. Some scholars have taken the initiative in formulating what they describe as the jurisprudence of Muslim minorities. The theoretical, conceptual challenge posed by pluralism is to offer a viable alternative to pluralism and multiculturalism, as well as monoculturalism and cultural homogeneity, in the light of Islamic principles and precedents, in the context of present times and in terms of the contemporary academic discourse.

Parts of this article were presented as the key-note address at a seminar on The Challenges of Pluralism and the Middle Way of Islam, held at Chennai, India on February 27-28, 2010.

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