A lesson with global consequences

Beyond just a feel-good theory, could pluralism be leveraged toward meeting Bangladesh’s national development goals? JMU alumnus and Be the Changer Samier Mansur (’07) explores the question from an international — and very thoughtful — point of view. 

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What about pluralism?

by Samier Mansur (INTA ’07)

Picture-16-250x300Seven years ago when I was a sophomore at JMU, I was challenged with the profound question, “Does your religion claim to be the one true path?” I was dumbfounded. This was part of a classroom experience in interfaith dialogue, and I was on a panel tasked with representing the philosophical tenants of Islam. Being the only Muslim on the Islam panel, I felt an added pressure to answer this question correctly, and yet how does one answer a question that has been a source of debate for thousands of years? After deep thought and awkward silence, I spoke from my heart: It is not a question of its being the path. It is a path. A path among many.

It was in this classroom that I would first encounter the idea of pluralism, the theory encompassing the acceptance of all religious paths as equally valid, as well as the belief that there should be diverse and competing centers of power in society so that there is a marketplace for ideas. A pluralistic society is open, inclusive, and socially progressive. Pluralism was a powerful idea that would directly influence my work in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is an emerging country located in the heart of a politically, religiously, and economically fragmented South Asia. When I moved there two years ago, I was immediately drawn to the narrative of Bangladesh as a multi-faith, multi-ethnic society. During the popular Hindu celebration of Durga Puja, for example, in the midst of dancing, singing and other colorful expressions of devotion and merriment, the city’s loudspeaker echoed with, “Today we gather as Hindus and Muslims, together we stand as Bangladeshis, as one nation.” There was strength in this pluralistic vision, and I began to wonder: Beyond just a feel-good theory, could pluralistic ethics be leveraged toward meeting Bangladesh’s national development goals?

I began to see that this was possible, that pluralism could be an effective tool of nation-building. Through my work as a consultant evaluating the successes of USAID’s Leaders of Influence program in Bangladesh, a project that trains thousands of religious leaders in major development themes, I witnessed Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians all seated together discussing creative ways to address local development concerns. While their external trappings were different, their purpose was the same: to lift the nation toward greater social and economic progress.

This experience led me to establish The Bangladesh Pluralism Project where my goal was to help foster a more open, inclusive and globally engaged Bangladesh. I researched the ancient political and religious origins of the pluralist ethic in Bengal and found that what made Bengal such an early civilizational success was their historical insistence and evolution of pluralistic values, values that today can translate into strengthened democratic practices, enhanced economic development and trade, and domestic and regional stability.

What I appreciate now about my education at JMU is the interdisciplinary approach that allows me to understand the world in a holistic way. Majoring in International Relations with minors in economics and religion helped prepare me to grasp the dual forces of globalization and identity that drive our world. This preparation would eventually become central to the Bangladesh Pluralism Project.

This past September I found myself on the prestigious stage of TEDx, a program designed to give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue at the local level. There I faced young change-makers, corporate officers, policy makers and ambassadors. My goal was to highlight Bengal’s ancient tradition of pluralism and the promising future that pluralism holds for the nation. My message was received with strong enthusiasm, with the Embassy of Denmark social media broadcasting it as one of their favorites. Being on the stage represented not only the fulfillment of a personal dream, it also represented the sprouting of a seed first planted during my years at JMU. My recognition served as a resounding testament, not only to the future of a powerful idea, but also to the respected  institution that nourished it.

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This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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