Saturday, July 23, 2005


Engagement or Tolerance?

Pluralism receives significant attention as a pre-eminent value in today's multicultural, multi-ethnic societies. But what does it mean for a society to embrace pluralism as a value; mere tolerance of immigrants or engagement with the exiles in our midst?

This question must arise in London as they ponder the meaning of the subway bombings. But the question pertains to any of the great cities of the world with a significant population of immigrants.

Of course, something else to ponder - home grown suicide bombers are almost always young men, and not just any young men, but adherents to Islam. So the problem is, how do we engage them? Can they be engaged?

We tolerate the alien in our midst, we welcome limited numbers of immigrants, but we ignore them at our peril. Passive tolerance, the historic pattern of pluralism, allows the breeding of all-consuming, soul destroying hatred. The foreigners who sojourn in our cities but cannot assimilate will not suffer indifference forever. If we fail to reach out, fail to engage, fail to pay attention, they will strike at us. If they are not loved or at least accepted, then they will be hated and feared.

Three of the first group of London bombers traveled to Pakistan for religious instruction. We speculate that the commitment to being used as terror weapons occurred there, in the land where Osama bin Laden eludes capture.

If engagement with these angry young men is to happen, it must happen before they become weapons. We must reach them and school them in the essentials needed to live together peacefully in the small, increasingly crowded cities.

The following essentials admit to ready agreement, at least in theory: mutual respect; value of diversity; open mindedness; trust in the fair market of ideas; seeking common ground; democratic government.

But what if the exiles in our midst do not subscribe to the essentials of a civil society? What if they believe, they know their religion teaches them democratic ideals subvert the rule of God? What if their response to civil society is fear and loathing? How can we reach them?

Once they've gone off to Pakistan, we can't reach them. It's too late. We must instill these values earlier, much earlier.

Obviously, a program of public education of schoolchildren would reach most of these people early as possible. Private education, while not prohibited, must be required to adhere to certain minimum standards vital to getting the message across. Classes in history and civics are generally required of any recognized educational institution. These curricula need emphasis and added scrutiny.

Private education in religious schools must be tolerated, but to receive recognition as educational institutions, these private schools must succeed at transmitting those values essential to the continuity of civil society. Recognition must be a pre-requisite for the students to receive any type of public support, as is done with Social Security benefits today. Admission to higher education must require graduation from a recognized institution.

The difficulties we face perplex even the most subtle minds. The transmission of values lends itself to abuse - which values, whose notions of good and evil should be taught?

The founder of Western Philosophy, Socrates, was condemned to death by the polity for "corrupting the youth." The problem remains part of the human condition. But technology confers new powers on those corrupted youths - the power to bring a city of ten million people to a halt.

We can engage young minds if we open ourselves to being engaged. We, as a culture, must learn their language, their hopes and dreams and aspirations. We welcome what we can into the fabric of our own society; but we spit out what cannot be accepted. To learn, we humbly accept the fact of our ignorance, but we do not tolerate the indefinite continuation of that ignorance.

We cannot educate youth in Pakistan or Sudan to the ways of a civil society. But we can do so for our own children, even the exiles and aliens in our midst. And we must.

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