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A Polemic Pluralism

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The human condition is an inquisitive affair. From early childhood we are amazed by the world, enquiring first in the form of tears, and then sounds, usually incoherent but nonetheless the delight of our parents, until we are eventually able to generate language and cohesive thought. As we grow older and begin to construct logical discourse, what amazed us before becomes banal, but that sense of enquiry, of wonderment, evolves into something more profound. We question the purpose of our existence, the role of providence, and the presence of God.

Those questions probably never leave us, but are sufficiently suppressed by the humdrum of the rat race, perhaps only resurfacing in times of hardship and affliction. Individually we all face tension and adversity, but as a society, historically we have had it pretty good. Unfortunately the mode of growth has been through the mass exploitation of the unfortunate - in modern parlance, the "developing world". The result is as expected, with large swathes living below the poverty line and dying of starvation.

In a very real way, something is broken in the world, and that feeling made its way to our shores via the onset of the financial crisis. We are not as badly placed as the most unfortunate, but as a society now suffer the same bitter pill of hardship and feeling of exploitation.

At such junctures, those old questions of faith resurface, often turning people back towards religion to find solace and make sense of their predicaments in the hope of a better future. More often than not, we are better for it individually and collectively; the main traditions of faith imbue a sense of morality that glues society together through honouring institutions such as the family, the community, and charity. It is one of the reasons why we actively push our children to attend faith schools, even if they are different from our own belief systems.

The ridicule of this theistic conversation by "militant secularists" such as Richard Dawkins has however soured the flavour of discourse, turning what was once a valid view into a polemic that scornfully mocks any possibility of a divine transcendence within our experience. Polemic here is the correct term, defined by John Stuart Mill as "to stigmatise those who hold a contrary opinion as bad and immoral men."

Moreover, the polemic is winning. Generationally, our societies have become more secular and scornful of faith. Yet the religious counterbalance has been important for the emergence of pluralistic dialogue in the west; the lack thereof inevitably leading to the rise of hedonistic consumerism where immediate pleasure is venerated - "the self" is idolised. The fruits of such labour are the fruits of a poisonous tree. This was, for example, in part what contributed to the financial crisis as bankers took incalculable risks in the hope of instant rewards.

It is within this context that Baroness Warsi made recent comments that extolled the virtues of living a religious life in contributing to our understanding of ethics and society, and warned of the dangers of disparaging such sentiment.

Despite the derision, some religious organisations continue to share their message effectively. At the student level, one such body is FOSIS, the national Muslim student body. For a half-century it has sought to promote understanding and dialogue between students of different backgrounds; including noting of late how European roots of science are shared between Muslims, Jews and Christians. FOSIS' local bodies have been proactive on campus in reaching for a higher ethics by discussing alternate solutions to current economic policies, the same policies which have mired students in the sort of debt that cripples the developing world, and that was a hallmark of this financial crisis.

Embodying a scriptural message whose belief is connected with action, FOSIS promotes a philosophy of civic service - including programmes for looking after the homeless, caring for the elderly, and supporting underprivileged children and the sick. Central to social work is political participation, and notable here is the example of the Vice President of Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS) Mr Usman Ali, a man who very much represents the kind of contribution Muslims want to make; one for all Britons; one of promoting values that look after rather than exploit people.

Professor Tariq Ramadan, one of Europe's most influential thinkers, argues that an ethics of citizenship should itself reflect the diversity of the citizenship. Part of that pluralism is a need to come back from a polemic of exclusion to one that respects the different religious and philosophical traditions that contribute to our way of living. We may not be able to agree on common principles, but can agree that such discussion should be shorn of dogmatism. Moreover, the Muslim presence should be viewed as positively in contributing to our shared objectives of decency and ethics, as neatly outlined by the good works of Muslim students.