2014 – CEDAR Occasional Paper No. 7, by Asim Jusić

Actionable Pluralism and Toleration in Religiously Diverse Societies: For Whom and for What?

Asim Jusić

Multiculturalism is dead—

and thank God for that.

–graffito on a building in Bosnia

In this paper I analyze and criticize the approach of pluralist and tolerationist theories to religious diversity in action. Following a discussion on actionable pluralist and toleration theories for religiously diverse societies – represented by two interfaith programs, IFYC (Interfaith Youth Core) and CEDAR (Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion) – I take up several issues that Lauren Kerby touched upon in a CEDAR Occasional Paper (2013) in order to analyze three aspects of the topic: (1) rules of behavior and dialogue exchange among people of different religions, or no religion at all, in diverse societies – an issue exemplified by the stance which actionable pluralist and toleration theories take toward ; (2) the way in which a religious-identity–based approach toward tolerance-building in diverse societies can function as a method for effectively “working the toleration out of its job” and getting rid of “others” – a consequence that an actionable toleration approach such as CEDAR’s attempts to prevent through rules of sticking together; and (3) the respective merits and deficiencies of actionable pluralist and toleration theories as recipes for organizing life in religiously diverse societies.

Ultimately, actionable pluralist and toleration theories turn out to be two equally valid approaches for different places, following the concept of “different strokes for different folks.” The actionable pluralist approach promises a better future life for everyone in exchange for the (largely voluntary) dilution of individuals’ strongly held, action-oriented religious imperative. Yet actionable pluralist theories explicitly and implicitly benefit from historical foundations that are no longer not present in most parts of the world and exclusionary actions that are no longer easily viable.

The greatest deficiency of the actionable toleration approach as a medicine for religiously diverse societies, on the other hand, appears to be that its proposed way of living in a diverse society cannot provide reasons for its inhabitants to affirm that the society they live in is fundamentally just, for reasons unrelated to any one particular group of people. Actionable toleration theory thus appears a somewhat unattractive and unrealistic option, for people have a real need to affirm that the society they inhabit is good – not because it is theirs, but because it is “objectively” good – and that need (even if mythical) will not be talked out of existence because it is unattainable or even irrational, let alone because identities and values are incommensurable. Hence, actionable toleration theories have to find a way to deal with the human need for the affirmation of a just society beyond particular identities.

To my mind the greatest deficiency in the actionable toleration approach and, to a lesser extent, actionable pluralist theory, is that basing toleration on arguments flowing from religious identity can lead toward “working the toleration out if its job,” since unflinching toleration destroys the basis of toleration itself, rendering it meaningless. It results in various forms and degrees of seclusion and separation. In contemporary religiously diverse societies, somewhat paradoxically, the support and respect of differences among religious identities turns out to be a strategic tool used by those who would like to eradicate many such differences.

Rules of conversation and decision making in action: an example of proselytism   

In her paper, Kerby compares the two interfaith programs IFYC[1] and CEDAR,[2] which represent a pluralist and tolerationist approach toward religious difference respectively. I will refer to them as actionable pluralist (IFYC) and actionable tolerationist (CEDAR) theories. According to Kerby, the core difference between the two approaches toward religious diversity “is the decision to view religious diversity as a positive thing or as simply an inescapable fact.”[3] In the actionable pluralist approach, “difference is to some degree peripheral and privatized, while the real action occurs in shared space doing shared activities.”[4] In an actionable tolerationist approach, “difference is central, and it features prominently in the cognitive, experiential, and affective dimensions of learning”.

The main claim of Kerby’s paper is that the viability of each approach depends on the context (i.e. place and time) in which either of the two strategies takes place. She notes that, “a college campus is not Bosnia; the strategies that work for students at the University of Illinois will not directly translate to a neighborhood in Sarajevo.”[5] In short, if people in a given place already believe that diversity is something positive to engage with, and the background context affirming the positive nature of diversity is there, pluralism will work. If not, the pluralist approach is not a recommended option. And if the diversity among people and groups in a particular context is seen as a threat to their identity and group boundaries, then the toleration approach, which recognizes diversity as a fact, is not only the preferred, but also the superior option for achieving a minimal degree of trust.

Kerby uses the example of the stance on proselytism in the pluralist IFYC approach (prohibiting proselytism in “conversation” between people of different faiths or no faith at all) compared to CEDAR’s neutral stance (neither prohibiting nor encouraging proselytism) in this regard. From her short example, a number of conclusions about differences between the pluralist and tolerationist approaches can be drawn in the context of her larger argument.

Pluralists insist – and not without good reason, I should add – on rules for conversation or decision making with an eye to making universal decisions upon certain matters that are for the good of everyone (“the common good”) and, at least rhetorically, detached from any particular perspective, especially a religious perspective. Hence proselytism – fervor on the part of religious adherents to try to impress their truths on those who have little interest in them – cannot be possibly be considered to contribute to a “good for everyone”; as such, proselytism has to be excluded. Tolerationists are more modest, in that they are attached to their own particular truths and hence, if they are consistent, they just have to accept the reality that some form of exclusive truth claims will be communicated, in public, between those who do and those who do not share such exclusive truths.

Because of the effects of the pluralist approach on those who are strongly committed to their exclusive truth claim, it comes across on the surface as devaluing difference in a subtle way. For those critical of pluralist approaches to religion – liberals and non-liberals alike – pluralism is cunning in the way that it rigs the rules of the game, i.e. the rules of public conversation and decision making, by pretending to convey a somewhat hypocritical “respect” for religion while rendering it irrelevant. The “charge” goes like this: In some of its versions, like the American one, the pluralist approach pays lip service to religion, stating that it protects and sometimes accommodates religious differences and freedoms; yet in the same breath it turns out that pluralism respects religion so much and proclaims it is such a cherished and private concern in need of protection that it relegates religion to private spaces. Hence pluralism is “charged” with making private matters (including religion) irrelevant, on the theory that they are protected because they are private and of concern to nobody but the individual concerned. Pluralism (just like its predecessor, liberalism) respects religion into irrelevancy.

The above “charges” against pluralists’ almost hypocritical stance toward religion is fairly accurate, but I would not even count it as a charge. Some forms and levels of hypocrisy are necessary virtues if any system of thought and action plans to survive facing its opponents, and that is what a strong form of religion always is for pluralists (and liberals): an opponent. Pragmatically, there is nothing surprising or inconsistent in the lip service pluralists pay towards religion, while pushing it into the private sphere and away from the public world where decisions on the “common good” are made. Pluralism, just like liberalism, out of necessity must push religion – or at least some religions and forms of religious life – back behind the closed doors of privacy if it does not want to destroy itself. It does so back and forth without definitive results, to various levels of extent, as one would attempt to repel terminal illness and sickness until death.

There is a large caveat to this last sentence, a caveat that is more and more publicly pronounced, one that Diane Eck, the theoretical mind behind the pluralist IFYC approach, also concedes.[6] It is the following: pluralism, just like liberalism, rests implicitly on values of Western Christianity, which has historically developed, to use William Jones’s phrase, as a “white-man Christianity,” which Jones portrays as a vacuous belief in individual salvation through Jesus Christ packed with an implicit appeasement of conscience that grants a license to inflict endless harm on persons of color, leaving intellectually honest and consistent Christian theologians of liberation such as Jones with no option but to conclude that God himself is either racist, or is impotent and unwilling to change this-worldly suffering.[7] In the Church-state jurisprudence of the German Constitutional Court, the belief that underlying Western Christian values spread in a relatively homogenous society are necessary for the existence of a liberal and pluralistic state is succinctly stated in what has come to be known as the “Böckenförde Dilemma”: the free, liberal, and democratic state rests on assumptions that it itself cannot deliver.[8] Wise as the dictum sounds, it has less obvious belligerent implications, for conditions for the exercise of Böckenförde “assumptions” are created through human action that does not necessarily include only niceties of dialogue and persuasion, as the horror stories of the treatment of native populations and the endless creation of nation states amply testify to.

Richard Rorty describes religion as a “conversation stopper.”[9] This phrase has some relevance for exposition through CEDAR’s and IFYC’s different approaches toward proselytizing, as well as the larger debates over the rules of conversation between people of different religions, or of no religion at all, who temporarily inhabit the same society. Since religiously-based reasons are difficult for those not sharing the particular religious viewpoint from which they emanated to understand, and because societies comprise non-religious persons as well as adherents of many different religions, and since all these persons need to understand one another’s vocabulary in order to make decisions affecting them all, religious reasons should not be allowed to enter public discourse with respect to making a particular collective decision; such reasons prevent joint deliberation (hence the ‘conversation stopper’ aspect). The ramifications of Rorty’s argument for the description of pluralists’ attitudes toward proselytizing should be obvious: since proselytizing is an attempt to get the other person to accept reasons originating in a different religious perspective (and thereby to accept the truth claims from which these reasons are produced) it should be off limits, since (1) it does not respect other individuals’ views and (2) it does not contribute anything to the common good but only to a particular good. For the actionable tolerationist approach, in contrast, proselytizing is simply a fact, not something to be excluded offhand and in advance.

Actionable tolerationists criticize the pluralist stance toward proselytism on the grounds that it excludes strong claims on the basis of allegedly neutral rule, which has been twisted in such a way as to in effect privilege certain worldview(s), i.e. those worldviews that are close to that preferred by pluralists. Now this is certainly correct, but in any case setting rules means privileging someone’s view, as rules are, by definition, one-sided in either word or effect – otherwise they would not be called rules, but simply good, nonbinding guidelines. If pluralists are to continue existing as such, they cannot act as pluralists in all spaces and times, and to some extent they must assume that the majority hold pluralist sentiments and viewpoints. So if they do not ultimately want to undo pluralism itself, pluralists have to set one ground rule that secures the continued existence of pluralism. What is truly inconsistent about pluralism is not the superficial commonness it attempts to produce, or even its exclusion of strong religions. It is that nobody can live as a pluralist when the going gets tough, if pluralism is to survive.

Most critics of pluralist theories point out that exclusive truth claims are facets of strongly-held identities, and it is inconsistent with both simple toleration and the project of pluralism to prohibit their entrance into the conversation between individuals (and groups) of different worldviews . The tolerationist approach appears to share in that critique by implying that decisions reached via the pluralist method are shallow and superficial, since large sections of strongly-held convictions are excluded from discourse and the process of decision making.

This criticism by tolerationists has some strong points; yet it would be fair to note that nothing extraordinary happens if, hypothetically, we attempt to include and apply religious perspectives to the decision making process. As evidence, it is enough to explore the shallowness of the recently-popularized concept of the “Abrahamic religions”,[10] otherwise an Islamic construct, used by those devoted to (monotheistic) religions in the hope of achieving common ground among said religions (again, not an all-encompassing approach). An even better example is a popular concept brought to us, by and large, by post–WWII and Cold War events: Judeo-Christian civilization.[11] As Mark Tushnet argues, Judaism cannot really be located anywhere within the ambits of what in the United States today is called Judeo-Christian culture—in fact Judeo-Christianity looks pretty much like regular Christian culture stretched at the margins.[12] Hence, any kind of commonness probably implies some degree of shallowness and superficiality. This might be a theoretically-correct criticism, but it is useless as a practical argument, for superficiality may as well be a practical virtue and solid social glue. If our eye is on the creation of a decent society authenticity will have to take a back seat; polite distance and superficial togetherness may become desirable methods on our path to tolerable social decency.

Religion-based identity as a way of working toleration out of its job

Toleration, as has been pointed out many times, is of necessity a paradoxical and inconsistent virtue, closely related to identity and values. One-sided toleration, toleration of the temporarily strong toward the temporarily weak, is theoretically inconsistent, because the first move before deciding to tolerate something is to proclaim it “wrong” on some scale of values; otherwise, toleration of it would be unnecessary. A first move of practical, one-sided toleration is to decide what is practically not to be tolerated for the practice of toleration to survive, which led Karl Popper to argue that there should be no toleration for the intolerant.[13]

But Popper’s statement is patently false: the intolerant do not require toleration according to the other side’s definition; rather, they wish to change the rules of game, not play by them; if the intolerant plead for toleration according to the other side’s definition, they effectively discredit themselves, ceasing to be serious competitors. Take, for example, Muslims, who are presently in the forefront of – and are therefore justifiably held responsible for – committing intolerant acts. Muslims who take up arms for the sake of doing God’s will do not wave a banner saying “we want to be tolerated and have our voices included in general discussion,” for that would be a sign of their ineffectiveness and would place them in the position of NGOs or Martin Luther King, basically transforming them into organizations and persons who are battling for (laudable) change, which turns out to be a symbolic formal change that leaves everything effectively the same in the long run.

What those armed Muslims want is to reframe completely – and destroy in the process – the current state of affairs. Then, once having sufficient power to be the ones setting the rules, they want to decide what and who (if anyone, save themselves) will be tolerated. In short, to paraphrase a statement attributed to Margaret Thatcher when speaking about the IRA, Robert Mugabe, and later Nelson Mandela,[14] there could be no negotiations with terrorists – until they became prime ministers. Those who are intolerant want to be prime ministers, not civil rights activists, because they know becoming the latter only solidify the status quo and division of power, which is exactly what the intolerant ones are battling against. And saying that “they are not Muslims if they take up arms” is at best unhelpful and at worst a sheer propaganda tool. For Tomás de Torquemada, the first Grand Inquisitor in Spain, remains a Catholic (and perhaps a good one for that, for who is to make such final judgments?) despite our rejection of his acts – a rejection that comes about with a huge benefit of hindsight and after Torquemada executed his mission toward its logical end, thus making the condemnation of his acts morally laudable and without cost.

Consequently, toleration in practice turns out to be, intentionally or not, a status quo strategy. Mutual toleration is even more paradoxical than one-sided toleration. If different identities of equal “size” see each other as deeply wrong, it is hard to see what else they can even talk about and why they should talk at all, given equal capabilities. Because of this, among those of equal weight and size there cannot be toleration, but only equality or some other relationship.

In short, for traditional toleration to function, an uneven division of power appears necessary. The trouble with the contemporary world is not a lack of toleration – nor an abundance of it – but the fear that the division of power will not remain as it is today. In practice, the question has evolved from how to practice toleration and why, to what will happen when people other than ourselves take power after growing in relative influence, strength, and numbers. Take the example of Muslims in Western Europe. While there is no shortage of calls and actionable proposals for tolerating and not tolerating Muslims – which implies that both tolerationists and non-tolerationists consider Muslim practices  in Western Europe at least potentially repugnant (and not without solid reasons) – the main worry is obvious. The presence of Muslims in Western Europe would not be an issue, despite their practices being repugnant to some other sectors of society, if they were not (1) a majority in areas outside Western Europe, and (2) growing in numbers within Western Europe, for a variety of reasons. Were it not so, the question of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Western Europe would attract as much attention as the relationship of Scientology or Satanic cults to the existing legal order or Christian values in Western Europe. This is, incidentally, the same reason that there is no widespread urge for solidarity with Muslims in their times of trouble – solidarity is premised on commonness and affordability, meaning that only those close to us who, for whatever reason, cannot possibly obstruct the fundamental order of things are objects of solidarity.

To deal with the above-described and similar problems, actionable toleration theories, such as those practiced by CEDAR, promote the protection and respect of identities. Actionable toleration theories portray identity, in my view, as an irreplaceable value to be protected by toleration. Yet I believe that cherished religious identity, and toleration as its protector, if premises of strong toleration theories are accepted as correct and are followed to their own implications, would work themselves out of a job and make both religious identity and toleration meaningless.

Here is why: Consider my own favorite mental experiment, an effect-oriented analysis of the behavior of a racist and a multiculturalist. Roughly speaking, the main claim of racists is that some other group is despicable for any number of “reasons”; if sufficiently hedonistic and not necessarily committed to killing, racists would eventually tell the “other” group something along the lines of the following: “You people are so despicable that you should stay completely in your own separate place, congregating solely with those of your own kind.” Strong multiculturalists, as they are known, show a high degree of respect (true or false, it doesn’t matter) for the values of others and basically give them the following message: “The values and identity of your group are so peculiar, different, and respected by me (or society) that people sharing such values should congregate in one place or at least mostly with each other.” Thus, the motives of racists and multiculturalists may be diametrically opposed, but the effect is largely the same – degrees of seclusion for the sake of difference. This makes it impossible to determine whether multiculturalists are in effect just more benevolent racists, since their private intentions remain unknown – and therefore irrelevant – to others. In short, you can “get rid of” people – remove those that are different from you and your group – through respecting their identity and achieve effects suspiciously similar to those achieved by overtly racist methods.

Further, if, as Kerby’s analysis implies throughout, it is true that identity differences sometimes convey threat due to the breaking of boundaries between groups, it does not necessarily follow that only the most open and liberal members of one group should welcome and celebrate diversity by embracing it. In fact, the opposite is true: if diversity is a threat, then those concerned with strengthening the homogeneity of their “in-group” should privately welcome diversity (while condemning it publicly), since the fear of difference will obviously solidify their in-group feelings and bonds of shared identity.

Moreover, to stay with the same example, if it is assumed that toleration is a recipe for living with discomfortingly deep differences, calls for mutual seclusion coming from different groups should, in a tolerant manner, be given a legitimate hearing. Consider the following counterfactual. Assume that members of one large group in a given society or geographical space are, by and large, different from members of a second group which, in addition, are not favorably disposed toward them. Assume further that most among the second group are strongly motivated to preserve their identity and are therefore motivated either to seclude themselves from the first group or to be reciprocally unfavorably disposed toward them. Now members of both groups, being true to their identity and, in addition, tolerant of their differences and mutual dislike, could come to the following conclusion: Members of the first group could, instead of saying, “We don’t like you” to members of the other group, say something like “We respect your identity and difference from us: therefore, why shouldn’t we help you find your own way in some other geographical space?” Members of the second group, if they are true to their identity and tolerant of others’ (dis)respect for them, could conceivably respond “We highly cherish our identity, which we need to preserve at all costs, and, while tolerant of your identity and unfavorable disposition toward us, we will seclude ourselves from you by accepting your help in relocating to a different geographical space.”

Both groups here are true to their identity and tolerant of others, some level of respect for mutual disrespect has been achieved, seclusion follows, and toleration has worked itself out of a job, since it is no longer necessary in any meaningful sense, given that the two groups have been divided by space. In-group identity in this analysis is not something that endangers boundaries and is disturbed by differences, rather it is a strategic tool of those who would like to get rid of differences while supporting and (allegedly) respecting different identities.

The mental experiment described above has already played out in real life with some degree of violence and ensuing horrific consequences, which does not diminish the validity of the examples. Strong evidence suggests that mutual ethnic cleansing by Serbs and Croats during the 1990s Balkan wars was informally accepted by the leadership of ethnic groups, its results later legitimized through a democratic voting process in which large groups of people decided that the way in which they wanted to tolerate each other was by secluding themselves from those of the “other” group.[15] Similar recipes for building “tolerant societies” have been applied in Bosnia, and suggested as a cure for Iraq, Syria, Israel/Palestine, and so on.[16] Long before these more recent events, on September 26, 1937, as Heinz Hohne showed using official records, a representative of the German government (none other than Adolf Eichmann) attempted to travel to Palestine to meet Feivel Polkes, a senior member of the Haganah (the underground Zionist organization), to discuss the coordination of both German and Jewish organizations’ efforts to facilitate Jewish emigration to Palestine. Both sides in the negotiation aspired towards Jewish relocation: the Germans wanted them out of Western Europe, and the Zionists wanted more Jews to build their own version of Jewish identity and outnumber the Arabs in Palestine as quickly as possible.[17]

All of these events occurred in places where, contrary to conclusions reached after the fact, there was no horror-esque daily persecution: Croats and Serbs lived together relatively amicably on a day-to-day level for many centuries;[18] Jews were arguably prospering more in Germany and Hungary than in most other places in Europe; while places like Northern Ireland, Bosnia , Cyprus, and the like, all share a longing for times in their not-so-distant history when troubles were out of sight and differences were fairly irrelevant. The horror of contemporary societies is that toleration leading to separation no longer occurs on a grand geographic scale. The voluntary separation induced by calls for identity protection and justified by claims of toleration plays out on a daily basis from classrooms to restaurants, so much so that in a nightmarish scenario the future of the world might be a sort of voluntary Lebanon, where different religious groups segregate from each other voluntarily whilst governing themselves internally, and providing for group representation on the level of general government.

The CEDAR perspective on toleration holds itself, I believe, aware that consistent toleration ends in separation, which makes toleration unnecessary, given that one of its rules is that members of different religions as well as non-religious individuals participating in the program have to share the same space and stay together. This is a good rule for preventing toleration from ending, as it usually does, in people from different backgrounds parting ways. But whether such a rule can be imposed on larger groups of people remains an open question, and it is therefore doubtful whether the project of toleration can be sustained – especially these days, when values such as autonomy, equality, and so on are widely accepted, at least as a matter of political correctness and public speech – without the promise of a common future or a good reason to share a space. In this sense, toleration, just like pluralism in the example above, requires a ground rule that is the opposite of the value that toleration itself stands for. A ground rule necessary for toleration to continue existing in a meaningful sense is a force or will that will keep different groups in one place without parting ways. The very requirement of the existence of a force that compels one(s) to mutual toleration is in opposition to the values of toleration, while the mutual (good)will to tolerate cannot be counted on as being indefinitely present.

Conclusion: Who is the action for, and where is it going?

Ultimately, then, the main differences between the pluralist and tolerationist approaches to religious differences could be described as follows. IFYC pluralists – for there are other types of pluralists – perceive particular religious differences as something to be relegated to the private sphere if common rules of conversation are to be sustained as acceptable to the majority. Pluralists view strongly-held particularistic identities, especially religious ones that command their followers to action, as correctable mistakes that cannot be obliterated altogether but whose bearers may be cajoled into accepting the promise of a better and prosperous common life in exchange for diluting their suspected or actual dogmas and imperatives for action that might affect everyone around them. For the tolerationists, particularly strongly-held religious identities are not correctable mistakes, but irreversible facts that one just has to get along with, packed with the discomfort that getting along with (at best annoying and at worst threatening) differences imposes on others.

Portrayed in this way, pluralism and toleration turn out to be two equally-valid theories for different places, theories of “different strokes for different folks.” Pluralists promise a better life for everyone in the future in exchange for a largely voluntary dilution of one’s strongly-held, action-based religious imperatives. Tolerationists do not promise anything, basically saying “This is the way things are, and we will all just have to learn to live and cope with this quietly in the hope of some modest improvements.” Consequently, IFYC-type pluralist theories are for forward-looking societies making future sales to their present and future inhabitants. But the project will work only within societies where background conditions for success have already been secured, places where, as Jeremy Waldron states, the majority Christian population adheres to a variation of Western Christianity with few rules and doctrinal demands.[19] Change the background conditions by assuming stronger versions of Christianity or the presence of a native population’s religions with reverence for land and rejection of the concept of private property, or just exchange a population of Christians for a population of Muslims, Buddhists, or Jews, and the project of pluralism assumes another form, or maybe no form at all.[20]

What’s the bottom line? The actionable, IFYC-type pluralism project follows from an old story, to borrow from Stanley Fish, built on twin rocks: John Locke’s declaration that “the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth,” and Thomas Jefferson’s more colloquial version of the same point: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty Gods or no Gods; it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”[21] The latter declaration, despite its wonderful wording, did not stop Jefferson from subsequently extinguishing Native Americans from the lands to which they were attached, so that he could, as Bernard Sheehan argued, create the foundations for what has come to be known as a pluralist society.[22] The project of pluralism, after the Jeffersonian foundation was secured, evolved into modernity’s assignment for religious identities, asking the religious identity to master modernity by means of fully committing itself to behavioral non-commitment. Of course it might be surprising for religions to learn that their task is to master modernity and its commitment to non-commitment, but that is the way the rules of the social game are set at this point in time within societies that have followed the path of modernity.[23]

On the other hand, actionable toleration theories appear tailored to current or upcoming “frozen communitarian conflict” societies, places with little hope of fundamentally changing relationships between “different communities” but which, with the help of CEDAR tools, can at least move toward achieving minimal trust. In current or upcoming “frozen conflict” societies, the locus of CEDAR’s attention is the community, and the inhabitants of such places come across as clinging tightly to their identities and group boundaries in most things that matter in relation to other communities and their boundaries. From this short description, one can immediately see that tolerationist theories in this version claim sociological allegiance to facts, but in fact value identity and group boundaries above all, while conceding that such identity boundaries are somewhat changeable.

A short overview of places where CEDAR organizes its activities – places like Cyprus and Israel, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Turkey or massively-diverse cities like Birmingham, England – confirms what I have just said. Those, like myself, who have not just visited but have actually spent considerable amounts of time living in these places, can attest that, interestingly, many inhabitants of such societies, true to their identities and communities, are not so much in the grip of their “community identities” as much as they grapple with a fact that a perspective of endless agonistic sustainment of our and others’ communitarian identity eventually leads nowhere and just runs itself in circles. This is why I believe that those most committed to their group identity are usually also the most pessimistic about the future of that identity.

Therein lies the greatest deficiency of actionable toleration as a medicine for religiously-diverse societies. To paraphrase a main theme of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor story in The Brothers Karamazov, human groups cannot indefinitely sustain their particular identities, for humans appear to need to have all of humanity under one banner and to affirm society as fundamentally just, for reasons unrelated to themselves. The inability to attain that goal because of the incommensurability of values matters very little, pragmatically speaking. Humans’ need to affirm that the society they inhabit is a good one, not because it is theirs but because it is good – or just lauded as good – for everyone will not be talked out of existence because it is unattainable or even irrational, let alone because identities and values are incommensurable. Hence, actionable toleration theories will have to find a way to deal with the human need for affirmation of a just society beyond particular identities.

Author Bio

Asim Jusić, a 2012 ISSRPL Fellow, is an attorney in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


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Sheehan, Bernard. 1973. Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philantropy and the American Indian. Chapell Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Tushnet, Mark V. 1987. The Conception of Tradition in Constitutional Historiography. “29 William and Mary Law Review. 29(1): 93-99.

Waldron, Jeremy. 1991. Locke: Toleration and the Rationality of Persecutions. In John Locke’s Letter on Toleration in Focus, edited by John Horton and Susan Mendus. London: Routledge. 98-124.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2006. The Paralax View. Cambridge: MIT Press.


[1] Interfaith Youth Core n.d. Since I do not have firsthand experience of how IFYC functions on the ground, I draw conclusions on the basis of Kerby’s interpretation of the work and theory of the IFYC.

[2] CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion.

[3] Kerby 2013.

[4] Kerby 2013.

[5] Kerby 2013.

[6] See The Pluralism Project website, Harvard University.

[7] Jones 1997.

[8] Bockenforde 1992.

[9]Rorty 1994.

[10] Hughes 2012.

[11] See Cohen 1970, esp. p. 55-56 and p. 69-70. Frederick Mark Gedicks basically affirms this same claim, arguing that what is called Judeo-Christian tradition in the US symbolizes essentially Christian beliefs and values, see Gedicks and Hendrix 2007.

[12] Tushnet.  1987.

[13] Popper 1945. Vol. 1., Notes to the Chapters: Chapter 7, Note 4.

[14] Haddon 2009.

[15] Joseph and O’Hanlon 2007.

[16] Joseph and O’Hanlon 2007.

[17] Höhne 2000, p. 336–337, quoted in Žižek, 2006, p. 256.

[18] See Gagnon 2004.

[19] Waldron 1991, p. 99.

[20] Fish 1999, p. 179.

[21] Fish 2002.

[22] Sheehan 1973.

[23] Fish 2002.

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