Monday, October 11, 2010

Liberty of conscience

At the moment I am reading a philosophical book which is very different from those I have recently discussed here in my blogs: Amartya Sen’s The idea of Justice. Although one can wonder whether it is that different, for there is not a real gap between a concept like responsibility and a concept like justice.
Sen is not new to me. I “met” him already when I was studying sociology with economics as a minor and I became intrigued then by his Choice of Techniques, which discusses an aspect of a planned economy. Sen’s ideas and points of interest and mine developed through the years, although in different directions, but now and then I read some of his newest works like Identity and Violence, which is important for me because of my interest in (personal) identity and nonviolence. His present book is mainly a discussion with Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and his idea of justice as fairness.
Although I have read only less than a third of the book till now, I met already many stimulating ideas. One of the things that permeates the book is Sen’s multicultural education. Most people tend to become prejudiced in favour of their own cultures, also because as an outsider it is difficult to get to know the huge achievements of other cultures. Sen, living in several countries through the years, got the chance to become acquainted with many cultures and he used it. He tells for instance about the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great, who lived from 1542-1605 in what now is more or less Pakistan, Northern India and Bangladesh. Akbar, a Muslim, an enlightened ruler, “ not only did insist”, so Sen, “that the duty of the state included making sure that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of his religion, and any one was to be allowed to go over to any religion he pleased’, he also arranged systematic dialogues in his capital city of Agas between Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsees, Jews and others, even including agnostics and atheists” (The Idea of Justice, 37). This happened in a time that religious wars reigned in Europe and people were sent to the stake because of their faith. This quotation makes us think. In a time that right-wing extremism flares up in many European countries (including in my own country, the Netherlands), it shows us another face of Islam than the one presented by this political ideology, which also forgets the zealotry with which Christianity was spread over the world during the ages, including in Islamic regions. When thinking of this zealotry and especially of the religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots in France in his days, Montaigne reacted in this way: “ ‘Tis usual to see good intentions, if carried on without moderation, push men on to very vicious effects.” The essay that starts with this sentence bears the title “Of liberty of conscience”. It tells us to be tolerant for other views, even when we do not like them. Although written more than 400 years ago, we can still learn a lot of it, just as we can from the words and practice of the Muslim ruler Akbar.

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