Saturday, March 12, 2011

Can we really Tolerate Pluralism?

The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism. 
By Tariq Ramadan. 
Allen Lane.212pp.

Reviewed: 5 April 2011

Multiculturalism has always had its critics. Elected leaders of Germany and the UK have recently denounced it, and across most of Europe its social benefit is under review.  

Tariq Ramadan is a prominent voice in the European debate about multiculturalism, at least at the philosophical level.  Of Egyptian background but Swiss nationality and education, he is Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford.

In The Quest for Meaning he sets aside the economic, social and political dimensions of the multicultural debate to focus on how systems of belief shape personal and group identities, and then how such identities divide people who are sharing the same space.

Ramadan is steeped in the philosophical traditions of both West and East, and has structured this book with a deliberate formality based on balance and counterpoint.  Chapters often address a duality like Faith and Reason, Emotion and Spirituality, or Tradition and Modernity. He writes in scriptural rhythms that can become hypnotic. The prose does not so much offer linear arguments as erect a structure of symmetrical chapters and sub-chapters like the compound vaulting of a fine Persian dome.

Ramadan summarises his own book as “a strange mixture of analytic thought, Cartesianism, strict rationalism and flights of mysticism”. He ponders whether his work is that of “an Eastern mind or a Western intellect”. 

It was certainly a challenge to the Western intellect of this reviewer, who is normally happy to leave the flights of mysticism to any beings, human or otherwise, who might exist on some other plane.  Ramadan is essentially rational, offering many aphorisms such as “Dogmatism is to thought what narcissism is to self-image”.

The first problem is embodied in his title.  He equates “meaning” to a clear sense of causality, purpose and direction in a linear cosmic history, and of our place in it.  Then he assumes that the quest for this “meaning” is universal to each individual, including rationalists.  But those of us who are content to leave imponderable questions unanswered may still find Ramadan’s explorations worth chewing over.

For Ramadan, as a Muslim European philosopher, the real problem is how universal reason can reconcile different faiths that each claim the unique truth.  His answer is to call for a deep-rooted pluralism that involves not just “tolerance” of others’ beliefs, but a conscious embrace of the ultimate equality of faith-based belief systems.

This is a tall order that has drawn enmity from conservatives and radicals on all sides.  Fundamentalists of all faiths resent his suggestion that they do not hold a monopoly on truth, nor have God exclusively on their own side.  Social radicals and skeptics complain that he is too tolerant of hocus-pocus and does not prioritise social change in conservative faith-based societies.

Ramadan was famously denied a US visa to take up a religious post teaching Theology at the (Catholic) Notre Dame University in 2009.  He has family links to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and has studied with Islamic scholars at Cairo’s al-Azhar university.  Nothing in this book could suggest the slightest sympathy for terrorism or radical Islam, but the one issue on which he descends from his philosopher’s tower is to take several swipes at United States policy and intervention in the Middle East.  That would be enough to draw the fire of the Neocons and other powerful lobbies.

Ramadan asserts that all members of a society will benefit from greater inclusiveness of a genuine, deep pluralism.  One might question how this ideal can take root in societies based upon competitiveness and distrust. 

Richard Thwaites is part of a pluralistic family embracing several faiths, philosophies, and none of the above.