Globe and Mail, Toronto
Wednesday, May 7, 2003
12:00 AM Page A15

Class of civilizations

Recent global events have been framed as a ''clash of civilizations'' -- between the Muslim world and the Judeo-Christian West. This thesis is constructed on a faulty premise, one that sees ''Islam'' and ''the West'' as somehow having developed in isolation. To talk about a such a clash is to make the fundamental mistake of forgetting the common bases of Western and Muslim civilizations.

Ottawa's new inquiry into relations with the Muslim world is an opportunity to study that world's diversity, and offer our own ideas on pluralism, says NAZEER AZIZ LADHANI

Canada's House of Commons standing committee on foreign affairs has launched a study on "Canada's Relations with the Countries of the Muslim World." Fundamental to enhancing those relations is improving our collective understanding of Islam and its peoples. An important step forward is to see the Muslim world's remarkable but often overlooked diversity and history.

From the Iberian Peninsula to Egypt, Persia, India and beyond, Islamic civilizations produced great works of science, art, geography, medicine and philosophy, which, in turn, were integral contributions to Western culture. These Muslim societies included sizeable and thriving populations of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Hindus -- a testimony to the inclusive character of Islamic civilizations.

Today, some 1.3 billion people are Muslim -- one of every five human beings. Clearly, the so-called Muslim world is not monolithic. With more than 182 million Muslims, Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, followed by Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Turkey. Nonetheless, history and geopolitics (reinforced by recent crises) have often led Western observers to equate the Muslim world solely with the Arab world, or the Middle East.

From Albania to Zanzibar, Muslims come from a tremendous diversity of backgrounds and speak languages such as Bengali, Chinese, Swahili, Turkish and Wolof. Similarly, there is a rich plurality within the two main perspectives of Islam, expressed historically as the Sunni and the Shia. Both encompass diverse spiritual temperaments, juridical preferences, social and psychological dispositions, political entities and cultures.

The West's lack of knowledge of this diverse world has given rise to pervasive, damaging misperceptions. The first is that notion that Western and Muslim civilizations had little in common. Misperception No. 2 is that Islam and modernity are inherently incompatible. What clouds our understanding of this issue -- and exacerbates efforts within the Muslim world to demonstrate the fallacy of the Islamic versus modernity dialectic -- is the poverty, ignorance and isolation endemic to the developing world, where the majority of Muslims live.

Misperception No. 3 is that the Muslim world is intellectually stagnant. Consider the former Soviet Union's drive to "modernize" Central Asia, home to some 50 million Muslims of diverse ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. That attempt undermined and devalued local cultures, languages, and forms of social organization -- the fruits of historic encounters between Persian, Greek, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Turkic, Islamic and Russian civilizations. Central Asians are now engaged in an exciting process of redefining their societies, including redefining for themselves what it is to be Muslim.

It is important that Canada respond differently to the dramatically different issues and opportunities within different regions, countries and communities with Muslim populations. We must take care not to view our relations with them solely through the lens of religion, nor interpret all conflicts that involve Muslim peoples as inherently rooted in religion, as much as in the socio-economic conditions of the developing world (although, in some instances, the language of extremism is used to exploit such circumstances).

Canada can lead the way in enhancing relationships between Western and Muslim societies and, more broadly, in addressing pressing global challenges, by fostering education and pluralism. We must educate ourselves about the Muslim societies by building the study of Islamic civilizations into our school and university curriculums, and by improving the media's understanding of Islam and its peoples. We must increase understanding among Muslim societies about the histories and cultures in the West generally, and in Canada especially. Finally, by improving the quality of, and access to, education throughout the developing world (which includes the majority of Muslim societies), we will replace ignorance and hopelessness with knowledge, skills and opportunity for men and, especially, women. This is the best means of combating the poverty and isolation that too often leads to intolerance and extremism.

Fostering pluralism could be Canada's most powerful lever in enhancing its relations with all countries -- in the Muslim world, in the larger developing world, and even in the West. Pluralism offers a practical means of managing diversity, mitigating conflict, fostering greater social inclusion, and laying the foundation for equitable human development.

Recognizing that Canadian pluralism represents a global human asset, the Aga Khan recently announced that the Aga Khan Development Network will establish in Canada an internationally focused centre for pluralism. This centre will draw on the Canadian experience to help other societies engender pluralism in their institutions, laws and policies. Forming partnerships with Canadian and international institutions and individuals, it will serve as a strategic global source of values, knowledge, experience and practices of pluralism for diverse peoples from around the world.

Promoting pluralism provides an inclusive, sensitive approach to foreign relations. It means neither promulgating a single-faith/single-culture perspective, nor risking the perception that a single faith or society is being targeted for criticism. A focus on fostering pluralism would not only enhance relations between Canada and the Muslim world, it would also increase security and prosperity in Canada and around the world. Promoting pluralism could hold for Canada in the 21st century what peacekeeping held in the 20th century.

Nazeer Aziz Ladhani is chief executive officer of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada.