Is “Pluralism” the Next Big Agenda-Setting Term of Art in Global Affairs?

(Ottawa, Canada) — Ottawa is a natural home to an outfit called the Global Center for Pluralism.

As other western countries have closed their borders to refugees and asylum seekers in recent years, Canada became more welcoming. It has done so by relying mostly on the openness if its citizens — Canada has a unique system of refugee resettlement that allows groups of private citizens to sponsor refugee families.

Amidst an unprecedented global refugee crisis, Hungary erected a border fence, Australia is deporting people to island prisons, the United Kingdom opted to leave Europe, and the United States capped the number of people admitted as refugees to an historic low. Yet Canada decidedly bucked this trend and has embraced diversity as a source of national pride.

Now, Canada, in partnership with a large global NGOs, is seeking to export these ideals.

Earlier this year, the a newly renovated Global Center for Pluralism opened its doors just a few blocks from the Canadian Parliament. This is a research center that explores and identifies the ways that ethnic, social, religious and racial differences can be harnessed to advance peace and development around the world. It is a public-private partnership between the government of Canada and the Aga Khan, who is the religious leader of a Shia Muslim denomination and founder of the global development NGO, the Aga Khan Development Network.*

“Pluralism means recognizing, valuing and respecting our differences,” reads a plaque in the lobby. “In a society that embraces pluralism differences are not seen as threatening. They present opportunities to learn from one another, and enrich our lives and communities with new perspectives and ideas.”

The direct invocation of “pluralism” as an ideal to which societies should strive is a new trend in global affairs.

For years, debates in western countries — particularly in Europe — have centered on whether migrants should be expected to assimilate to the cultures of their new countries; or whether these societies should embrace multiculturalism as a credo. The latter has resulted in siloed and often isolated immigrant communities (think: neighborhoods of London where immigrants and locals rarely, if ever, interact). The former seeks harsh and illiberal demands of minority communities (think: the city of Nice’s ban on Burkinis at the public beach. And here, its worth pointing out that Canada is far from perfect. Quebec recently passed a new face veil ban, though legal scholars think it will be struck down by the Canadian supreme court.

Pluralism seeks to balance these two extremes by demanding that society actively embraces difference. “Some people make the mistake of thinking that pluralism requires them to dilute or de-emphasize their own distinctive identity,” said the Aga Khan in remarks at an award ceremony on Ottawa this week. “That’s not true. What it requires is to ensure that one’s individual identity is strong enough to engage confidently with those of other identities as we all walk together along the road to a better world.”   

Alice Wairimu Nderitu with Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Beverly McLachlin and The Aga Khan.

The ceremony at which those remarks were delivered sought to demystify what pluralism means in action. Three individuals, from three different continents and very different walks of life, were presented with the first ever Global Pluralism Awards in a ceremony featuring the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada  Beverly McLachlin and The Aga Khan. 

Alice Wairimu Nderitu is a peacemaker. Literally. She is the director of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue in Kenya and has mediated complex peace agreements between religious and ethnic communitiess in Nigeria. In 2016 she successfully negotiated the end to an armed conflict between 29 ethnic communities in southern Kaduna, Nigeria. She is currently the lead mediator in ongoing negotiations between 59  ethnic groups in Nigeria’s southern Plateau region.

Daniel Webb is a human rights lawyer in Australia. His clients are refugees and asylum seekers stranded on the desolate islands of Manus and Nauru, in prisons supported by the Australian government. His work has helped prevent the deportation and indefinite detention of hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers and his advocacy has helped raise critical awareness about the cruelty of Australia’s asylum policies.   

Leyner Palacios Asprilla is a community activist from the remote municipality of Bojaya, Colombia. On May 2, 2002, fighting broke out near his town between the FARC and right wing paramilitaries. The town’s civilians sheltered in a church that was subsequently bombed, killing 79 people including 48 children. It was the single deadliest mass casualty event in the entire 52 year history of the Colombian civil war. Leyner survived the attack and then lead a quest for justice and victim’s rights that united ethnically diverse people in the region.

Each of these individuals offered different examples of how pluralism, as a guiding principle, can result in tangible progress toward peace and understanding in some of the toughest conflicts and most politically fraught issues around the world.  

The concept of pluralism, of course, is as old as humanity itself. But it is relatively new as an organizing principle around which the global affairs community is coalescing. Given the rise of populism in some quarters, the successes of pluralism are likely to become more deliberately invoked against those who seek to use difference as a wedge to foment conflict as opposed to the foundation upon which peaceful societies can prosper.