Akeel Bilgrami reflects on the underlying nature of pluralism, distinguishing it from liberalism and cultural relativism, and looking at its historical relationships to nationalism, secularism, and multiculturalism in Europe. He also comments on the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ hypothesis, and focuses on religious pluralism as it has related to Christendom and Islam.
Chronic and acute crises, generated respectively by immigration since the Second World War and more spectacularly by the influx of refugees in the aftermath of recent violent dislocations in the Middle East, have raised deep anxieties in Europe. These anxieties have been expressed on all sides of the political spectrum, even by the radical Left in Europe. What is at stake is a matter of the utmost significance: a threat to the ideals of pluralism that had seemed so important to the nations of that continent for many decades. A vast amount has been written in recent months by a wide range of pundits and commentators on questions of politics and policy that are thrown up by these crises. Though I have some strong opinions on those questions, I will not add to that commentary. I think what might be useful instead is to step back and reflect – very briefly, of course, since this is a very restricted form of ‘expert comment’ – on what pluralism is, what it means, how it is to be distinguished from other familiar ideals from European history and intellectual history, and what its historical pedigree has been, so that we may then bring to bear these more underlying reflections to the more topical issues at stake. This last task I will leave to a sequel to this paper on a future occasion.
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