Monday, December 2, 2013

Difference and Tolerance: A South-South Conversation

*Difference and Tolerance: A South-South Conversation*

How is tolerance, and relatedly, difference understood, declared and accommodated in political thought in Asia, Africa and the Middle East? In recent times, liberal multiculturalism has been the dominant model for dealing with difference in political theory. Yet, few scholars have attempted the empirical and theoretical work which might take us beyond the model of liberal tolerance. This conference focuses on alternative modes through which difference has been declared, institutionalized, practiced, or theorized in historically marginalized traditions of thought and practice. A key aim of the conference is to bring together scholars working in the sub-field of comparative political theory in a productive and thematically focused conversation.

Historically the tolerance of difference in many modern liberal democracies has been theorized on the basis of a Christian understanding about the limits and demands of conscience. Articulated most famously by John Locke in his *Letter Concerning Toleration*, this view holds that differences of opinion and worldview internal to a society should be tolerated in so far as they reflect the irreducible preferences of an individual conscience, which is private; as such these differences cannot be subject either to public amendment or to coercive force.  Locke's formulation (and the Christian view of conscience upon which it is built) have influenced not only the privatization of religion associated with secularism, but also the very way in which difference in society is registered in a variety of political theories, such as those associated with reasonable pluralism, cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, identity politics, and ethnic diversity.

Increasingly, however, this view of toleration has broken down in the face of new challenges: fundamentalist movements challenge the Lockean model's implicit privatization of religion; new forms of multiculturalism present demands for broader political, rather than the historically more narrowly "cultural" recognition; and emerging conversations from the global south challenge the theoretical and political dominance of the very liberal narrative underlying such limited views of "tolerance."

To enable such ground-clearing efforts, this conference focuses specifically on how modes of theorizing difference and tolerance from disparate regions of the world, particularly those regions whose political and social practices are marginalized as subjects of academic discourse, might communicate with and enrich each other. We envision a "south-south" conversation, which recognizes the distinctiveness of various contexts even as it emphasizes the generalizable characteristics or lessons each offers to the others.

Participants might ask such questions as: how might difference be defined in various contexts? What are the conditions under which difference becomes registered in such ways as idiosyncrasy, political dissent, epistemological pluralism, religious difference or ethnic identity, and how are these various forms articulated vis-a-vis the larger polity in which they presumably form a part? What are the approaches to the accommodation of difference in religious and state practices in Asia, Africa and the Middle East? How, if at all, do these challenge and extend standard liberal models of toleration? We hope to focus most importantly on how these practices, declarations, and/or theorizations of difference challenge received views, often derived from concepts of liberal tolerance, about how that difference (of belief, practice, or self-identity) shapes public space, functions to create and challenge boundaries, or sustains moral and political demands. For example, how might the eclecticism of Chinese folk religion, including its emphasis on orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy, challenge the very idea of a conscience or personal belief which grounds liberal tolerance, and what distinctive kinds of political sensibilities toward difference does this eclecticism cultivate? What responses to the existence of multi-layered difference ? religious, linguistic, caste ? has Indian experience produced how might it augment the resources of liberal toleration for dealing with difference? How might we understand existing mechanisms of accommodating difference in contexts that are too easily written off as somehow inherently lacking in tolerance, such as conflict-ridden areas, politically zealous communities, and ideologically-dominated and/or  religiously-homogenous countries such as China, Pakistan, and Singapore?

The conference will be held on March 13-14, 2014 in London. Funding is available to support travel and accommodation for a limited number of participants. Please send a paper title and brief abstract to conference organizers by November 30, 2013 at

For more details contact the organizers: Leigh Jenco (,
Rochana Bajpai ( ) and Humeira Iqtidar (

Humeira Iqtidar
Department of Political Economy
King's College London

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