Effective Pluralism Requires Effort: Aga Khan

April 14th, 2011

Opinion: His Highness the Aga Khan, based on a lecture at the 10th Annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium.

A pluralistic environment is a kaleidoscope that history shakes every day.

What was once beyond our view is now at our side – and, indeed, to use the popular expression, “in our face.” Almost everything now seems to “flow” globally – money and credit, goods and services, microbes and viruses, pollution and armaments, and of course, people.

It has never been easy for people to live together. Wiping away superficial misunderstandings will not by itself allow a spontaneous spirit of accommodation to blossom. To do so will require concerted, deliberate efforts to build social institutions and cultural habits which take account of difference, which see diversity as an opportunity rather than a burden.

We can begin by looking at the structures of public governance. Too often, democracy is understood to be only about elections – momentary majorities. But effective governance is much more than that. What happens before and after elections? How are choices framed and explained? How is decision-making shared so that leaders of different backgrounds can interactively govern, rather than small cliques who rule autocratically?

We must learn to write more effective constitutions and develop good institutional arrangements that can help resolve political deadlock, build social coherence and avoid the dangers of “winner take all.”

Independent judicial and educational systems are also essential to effective pluralism, and so are non-governmental agents of influence – the institutions of civil society, particularly the independent news media that can build and sustain public attitudes towards diversity.

But institutional reforms will have lasting meaning only when there is a social mindset to sustain them. Historic identity must reinforce the worth and contributions of all communities both old and new. Our leaders can influence these narratives by working to bridge divisions – or widen them.

We must seek and share a readiness to accept the complexity of human society — to embrace pluralism as a way of looking at a diverse and changing world. The world we seek is not a world where difference is erased, but where difference can be a powerful force for good, helping us to fashion a new sense of cooperation and coherence in our world, and to build together a better life for all.

His Highness the Aga Khan spoke on October 15, 2010 at the10th annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium in Toronto.

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