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Updated: November 15, 2010 22:41 IST

The relevance of tolerance

Pranay Gupte
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LEST WE FORGET: Pictures of people from Darfur at the Memory and Tolerance Museum in Mexico City. The museum is bringing the lessons of the Holocaust and its grim cousins to new generations of Mexicans, and reminding them that the intolerance that feeds genocide can even grow close to home.
LEST WE FORGET: Pictures of people from Darfur at the Memory and Tolerance Museum in Mexico City. The museum is bringing the lessons of the Holocaust and its grim cousins to new generations of Mexicans, and reminding them that the intolerance that feeds genocide can even grow close to home.

The international community needs to produce culturally viable solutions to the insidious problem of intolerance.

November 16 marks the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the International Day of Tolerance. Spawned by Unesco, the occasion is supposed to be dedicated to a universal value, one that has been an ideal of the community of nations for centuries. But, like many ideals, “tolerance” is often just that; a reality check suggests that many world leaders — particularly in West Asia and in other developing countries — have generally failed to sufficiently adhere to that value in daily governance.

On this anniversary, there needs to be a fresh appraisal of what “tolerance” means, and how societies could draw from its core meaning, especially at a time when globalisation has brought us economically closer to one another. Notwithstanding globalisation that's intended to be economically salutary, many nations are torn by social and cultural tensions that bespeak of intolerance.

I do not say this lightly. I do not say this merely because Dubai, my home for the last four years, has different nationalities that have traditionally lived in harmony in a city-state that has a benign, people-focused government system, even if it isn't along the conventional lines of Washington or Westminster. And I do not say this because I was brought up in a family in Mumbai that always emphasised reaching out to people of other cultures. When Tom Cruise recently filmed significant portions of the next Mission Impossible movie in Dubai, some of his crew seemed surprised at the openness they encountered here: they shouldn't have been.

I want to highlight the need for tolerance globally because, for the first time in my life, I fear that the world community is careening toward catastrophe. In my own backyard, the Arab-Israeli dispute over the status of Palestinians remains at an impasse. Militant Israelis show no sign of easing off on their dubious claims to territory that rightfully belongs to Palestinians; militant Arabs seem bent on inviting Israeli force, thereby perpetuating a vicious cycle of violence.

Moreover, accelerated military spending in this region has eaten into a far more important priority — the creation of educational and employment opportunities for the young. Such spending in this region is expected to rise to more than $100 billion annually by 2014, according to Frost & Sullivan, an analytics company. Saudi Arabia, with $40 billion each year, is the biggest defence spender in West Asia; Israel, the second largest, allocates nearly $15 billion.

Whatever the arguments supporting such mammoth military outlays, these expenditures greatly reduce the ability of Arab states to spend on their social sectors. The World Bank estimates that of 330 million Arabs, some 80 million are in need of jobs now. And that's not counting the cohort of young men and women who are increasingly coming into the job market. Little wonder that this disadvantaged group seethes with resentment. Little wonder that just speechifying to them about tolerance is scarcely likely to yield dividends.

But speak to these young people about tolerance we must. Islam, the predominant religion of the region, is a faith that emphasises tolerance and understanding. It is an inclusive faith, and it believes, above all, in the idea that we are created by one God; that we owe it to God to be tolerant of one another's aspirations, and accepting of one another's sovereignties.

I don't see that kind of faith resonating in many of the region's countries, where violence erupts hourly, and where foreigners armed with sophisticated weapons engage in brutal practices that they would condemn at home. Where's the tolerance in driving tens of thousands of innocent people out of their homes and into refugee camps? Where's the tolerance in depriving their young of hope for a progressive and prosperous future? And where's the tolerance in trying to impose alien forms of governance on social systems that have historically done well by their own special cultural compacts?

My concern extends beyond this region. When I hear of incidents where Muslims — or “Muslim looking” people — are attacked in the United States, I wonder whatever happened to the concept of tolerance that has long animated the world's most powerful democracy. When I read about assaults on minority Muslims in predominantly Hindu India — my Motherland — I worry that the notion of secularism enshrined in the Constitution of the world's largest democracy is being rapidly undermined.

When I learn about Algerian and Turkish immigrants being targeted by communalistic thugs in Europe, I question the willingness of local leaders to stand steadfast by the values of tolerance and cultural harmony. When I find out that suspicion about Muslim immigrants is rising in Britain, that some of them are being economically discriminated against, I am alarmed that a multicultural western nation is jettisoning the prime underpinning of its ethos — tolerance.

It's not enough to only celebrate an annual International Day of Tolerance. It's no longer enough for privileged leaders to confine our concerns to just speaking or writing about them. That is why, at this parlous time, the international community needs to convene a global conference on producing culturally viable solutions to the insidious problem of intolerance.

The international community needs a new and binding covenant aimed specifically at promoting tolerance, a codicil that also penalises violators of that fundamental human value. Will world leaders respond?

(Pranay Gupte's next book, on India and Dubai, will be published by Penguin-Viking in 2011. He is currently working on his memoirs of more than four decades in international journalism.)

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