By Arab News
By Nawar Fakhry Ezzi
What if there were a society where all people are in black and white with everyone murmuring the same prayers and leading the same way of life?
For some people, this would be a dream come true. They believe that there is only one “true” path in belief and action, making uniformity part of a religious duty where those who deviate from it are doomed and considered outcasts. According to them, religious conformity, which should also lead to social conformity, would bring back a lost civilization, get them to heaven, and even make firefighters’ only job is to save cats from trees! Absolute conformity is difficult to achieve, and if it happened, then violations of human rights, religious and personal freedom must have been committed. As a matter of fact, Islam encourages harmonious coexistence with people who live with Muslims peacefully, as it was mentioned several times in the Qur’an. One example is in Surat Al-Mumtahina: “Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loveth those who are just.” (8)
In the Golden Ages, the Islamic Empire flourished partly because of the way Muslims embraced diversity. According to Zachary Karabell in his book, People of the Book, the stability and development of the Islamic Empire was facilitated by Muslims’ respect and appreciation of diversity in the cities they conquered in comparison to their predecessors. During the ruling of Muslims in Spain, which lasted about 800 years, Spain became a “cultural Makkah” as Karabell called it, where Muslims built a spectacular civilization. People from all religions had freedom and opportunities that were not available to them in any other part of the world at that time. Racial and cultural diversity among Muslims was also appreciated.
One of the great examples of racial equality was Prophet Mohammed’s (peace be upon him) appointment of Bilal as the Muslims’ official Mo’athen, whose duty was to call for prayer. Bilal was a black slave who was bought and freed by Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s friend, after being tortured by his master for converting to Islam. When the Prophet asked Bilal to go on top of Kaaba, which was one of the holiest places to Arabs even before Islam, to call for prayer, he gave him one of the most prestigious duties sending a strong message to everybody who lived in Makkah. In a culture where racism was common, this was the mark of a new era of equal opportunities.
Conformity is almost impossible to achieve because diversity exists even in a seemingly homogenous society. According to Robert Jackson, a religious education scholar, diversity exists in “dominant” as well as minority cultures because there are different factors that affect people’s beliefs and values, such as ethnic, social, and educational backgrounds in addition to the media and Internet. Saudi Arabia, for example, might seem like a homogenous society mainly because 100 percent of Saudi population consists of Muslims. However, 32 percent of the whole population consists of residents, who come from all over the world and belong to different religions. Saudis themselves have a diverse ethnic makeup and belong to different schools of Islam and sects with the majority being Sunnis and around 10 percent Shiites. It is not a typical multicultural society, but it cannot be described as having a “dominant culture” either, where one set of values can be imposed.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah founded King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue in Saudi Arabia, which organizes an annual National Dialogue in order to address this issue. This was a great step forward in addressing diversity in Saudi society. One of the most important statements issued was an acknowledgement of the fact that Saudi society is not a homogenous one and diversity is a natural part of its composition. Secretary-General of the center, Faisal Bin Muammer, confirmed in 2003 in this newspaper that after the second national dialogue forum, participants asked for “reinforcing the culture of dialogue in Saudi society and educating generations in schools and universities on its importance while opening the doors of constructive speech.” If this happens, unity and social cohesion could increase and people, especially from minority groups, would get more motivated to innovate and participate in developing their country.
Attempting to create an “idealist” society where conformity is the norm and deviations are not accepted alienates many people, which hinders the progress of society. Our renaissance will start when we bring true Islamic values to the present instead of taking our lifestyles to the past. Embracing diversity and accepting it as a positive aspect of our society would be a good first step.