Nabil BeitinjanehInternational Consultant
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to the graduation ceremony of a class of executive MBA students at a Montreal university. Watching the parade of those who would become the next generation of business managers and leaders was quite inspiring. We were watching a true mosaic of ethnic backgrounds, upbringing and religions walking down the podium to receive their diploma, a direct outcome of their hard work and perseverance. All present knew the challenges they had to surmount and had no doubts about their capability to contribute positively to their companies and to society in general.
Hypothetically speaking; what if we did not value the efforts of the different segments (or minorities) within a society? What if we limited advancement opportunities to a specific (or a dominant) segment of a society? In the MBA example, we would have ended up with a much smaller pool of graduates. In the extreme case, there would not be a need to even have the program as a select few would be bequeathed key positions in industry and government without regard to competence, skill and experience.
To elaborate further, let us mentally compare the total population within a society to an orange and then consider each segment of society as a proportional slice of that orange. By removing different slices for reasons of ethnicity and religion; we also reduce the overall productivity of society as we are limiting the potential output and creativity of many people. By continuing to carve out slices from our orange; the fully contributing segment grows smaller and smaller and we are left with one slice representing the dominant segment of society. Even within this slice, productivity may be diminished tremendously by not providing equal opportunities or discriminating against women, young people, the elderly and people with special needs. This is not hypothetical. It is the reality of many societies. How do you see your particular society with respect to its different slices and their contribution?
By providing this model, we turn the question around with respect to the situation of both Muslim and non-Muslim religious minorities. The question becomes not whether minorities are treated fairly within the states they live in. The issue becomes not of tolerating minorities. Instead, each nation is challenged on how best to create the environment in which each citizen can fully participate and contribute. Merely tolerating minorities is demeaning to them and stands in the way of fully integrating them and their contribution.
Many societies have fell prey to conformism, shortsightedness and dogmatism. The gap between the political class and society in general continues to grow. Trust continues to be eroded between the different classes, segments and minorities with different societies. A doctrinaire and exclusionary approach is advocated with little possibility for discussion and debate. Those who are disenfranchised and discriminated against, including religious minorities, typically react in a number of ways that lead to further losses. They might reduce their contribution to society or they might migrate to other places in which they have better opportunities.
To break out of this logjam, each society will have to ask some hard questions and to challenge the existing mental models and ways of doing things. It is of utmost importance to define our values, the model of society we live in and the kind of civilization we want to give to our children. Questions such as the value of volunteering, the value of leisure and importance of the environment we live in would have to be debated. Minority rights need to be made the vanguard for measuring the rights of all. Only when the least of society has their rights, will all of society enjoy their rights. A productive society is not just high productivity and other economic metrics. It is much more and it involves all.
Citizens would need to understand the value of citizenship and how political institutions work.They would need to be educated on civic training and scientific approaches to problem resolution. They need to realize (and internalize) that religious beliefs are personal and each person’s belief does not change their potential contribution to society. This is a grass root activity. We can no longer afford to have intellectuals and experts arguing between themselves while citizens disconnect and look in other directions for solutions to their problems. Politicians would have to work with the different stakeholders in society including civil society to decide on the direction and instigate the changes required to arrive there. We cannot relegate this to politicians alone. The responsibility is for all to find ways to unleash the full potential of society.
We are close to the abyss in an interrelated world. We cannot leave the blind to lead the blind nor can we have swaths of society discriminated against. Many of us have read the fable of the blind men and the elephant. In this fable, several blind men were asked to describe an elephant by touching it. The one who touched a leg described the elephant like a pillar; the one who feels the tail said the elephant is like a rope and so on. Assuming we are all blind to certain truths, then we need all the hands, skills and senses we have in our society to really understand the true nature of the elephant we have in front of us.