“CONVERSATIONS ON PLURALISM in a City of the World”
Speech delivered by Chancellor Nancy Cantor of
Syracuse University at the Inauguration of Syracuse
University Faraday House in London
October 1st 2006
As we mark the opening of our wonderful new facility in London—and strengthen our commitment to education as the best way to increase global awareness—I’d like to begin by recalling a visit that two Syracuse University professors, Tazim Kassam and Gustav Niebuhr, made to London last November with a delegation of American religious leaders and scholars from the Chautauqua Institution. They came to join international representatives from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities in a conference at The Ismaili Centre on “Building Civil Society: Faith, Diversity, and Pluralism.” It was a
new step in a collaboration to encourage dialogue and understanding between three major faith traditions that share a common ancestor in the patriarch Avraham /Abraham / Ibrahim.
This “Abrahamic Initiative,” a program at the Chautauqua Institution initiated some 10 years ago, is a work in progress, a seedbed for international, interfaith, inter-cultural conversations. These conversations seek to discover how people reconcile their own faiths and cultures with the reality and validity of pluralism and how they can point the way forward to the building of a new generation of pluralistic communities and civil societies.
The spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, the Aga Khan, who has been a strong partner with Britain in many projects of global urgency, has also spoken profoundly and eloquently on why pluralism is fundamental to world peace and prosperity for all of us, no matter what our faith community or our home. Nearly a year after the shock and horror of the September 11th attacks, he told an audience in Amsterdam that: “the strengthening of institutions supporting pluralism is as critical for the welfare and progress of human society as are poverty alleviation and conflict prevention. In fact the three are intimately related.”2
He then went on to make the critical link to education: “The problem,” he said, “is that large segments of all societies—in the developing and the developed world—are unaware of the wealth of global cultural resources, and therefore of the need to preserve the precious value of pluralism in their own and in other’s societies.”3 Because we often do not perceive that cultural pluralism is a critical element of well being, he said, we may fail to realize
that the world’s cultural heritage is a public good, its preservation just as crucial as sustaining the
As the Aga Khan has seen so clearly, “without cultural identity, social cohesion gradually dissolves, and human groups lose their necessary reference point to relate with each other, and with other groups.”4 Cultural identity is the basis for, not a for hindrance to, inter-cultural exploration and the construction of common ground.
Riding the tube makes this pluralism visible, and so does the permanently altered and invigorated architectural landscape of London, from the Swaminarayan Hindu Mandir in Neasden and the Sri Singh Saba Sikh Gurdwara in Hounslow to the Ismaili Jamat Khana and Centre in South Kensington.
This dialectic between affirmation and interdependence was very much on the minds of both the Aga Khan and of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when they dedicated the ground and then opened the building of The Ismaili Centre embedded
in South Kensington among some of London’s most distinguished public buildings. In the groundbreaking ceremony in 1979, the Aga Khan drew attention to the architectural challenge in building this center in this location—a challenge that is a metaphor for much more.
He said: “The mass and silhouette of the new structure are therefore strong and simple and in no way attempt to compete nor interfere with varied and imposing facades of the neighboring buildings. The Ismaili Centre being designed for a Muslim community must reflect, even if only discreetly, an Islamic mood whilst being sympathetic to the character of its surroundings.”17
The success of The Ismaili Centre, as a distinctive and yet sympathetic presence, attests to the possibilities
for visible pluralism to build empathy. As the demographics of our communities diversify, we see visible pluralism everywhere. It is important, therefore, to ask ourselves how this presence can strongly signify belonging, without sacrificing integrity and without building walls that divide.
If, instead, the richness of cultural and religious and ethnic pluralism is reduced to nothing more than homogeneity and “otherness,” then our communities of strangers fall apart, and either we walk further away into different gated communities, or we fight, or both. As the Aga Khan said of the so-called clash of civilizations: “The clash, if there is such a broad civilisational collision, is not of cultures but of ignorance.”