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The Aga Khan on pluralism in an interdependent world

EXCERPTS COMPILED AND SELECTED BY ZAHIDA RAHEMTULLA AND ABDULMALIK MERCHANT

…What we must seek and share is what I have called “a cosmopolitan ethic,” a readiness to accept the complexity of human society. It is an ethic which balances rights and duties. It is an ethic for all peoples.

His Highness the Aga Khan and Mr John Ralston Saul, prominent Canadian essayist and novelist during a conversation on the challenges of pluralism which followed the lecture. AKDN / Zahur RamjiFeaturing His Highness the Aga Khan, the 10th LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium held October 15, 2010, was a huge success. The Aga Khan spoke about pluralism and diversity to a sold out audience at Koerner Hall in the Royal Conservatory’s Telus Centre for Performance and Learning in Toronto. John Ralston Saul, a  prominent Canadian essayist and novelist then took the stage and discussed citizenship and pluralism in Canada with the Aga Khan. Telus streamed the event and it was shown in 60 Ismaili community centres across the country; approximately 20,000 people watched the lecture online. Photo: AKDN/Zahur Ramji.

Excerpts from the Aga Khan’s lecture at 10th Annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture, Institute for Canadian Citizenship, 15th October 2010:

Pluralism is a process and not a product. It is a mentality, a way of looking at a diverse and changing world. A pluralistic environment is a kaleidoscope that history shakes every day.

Responding to pluralism is an exercise in constant re-adaptation. Identities are not fixed in stone. What we imagine our communities to be must also evolve with the tides of history. As we think about pluralism, we should be open to the fact that there may be a variety of “best practices,” a “diversity of diversities,” and a “pluralism of pluralisms.”

In sum, what we must seek and share is what I have called “a cosmopolitan ethic,” a readiness to accept the complexity of human society. It is an ethic which balances rights and duties. It is an ethic for all peoples. It will not surprise you to have me say that such an ethic can grow with enormous power out of the spiritual dimensions of our lives. In acknowledging the immensity of the Divine, we will also come to acknowledge our human limitations, the incomplete nature of human understanding.

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Developing support for pluralism does not occur naturally in human society. It is a concept which must be nurtured every day, in every forum — in large and small government and private institutions; in civil society organisations working in the arts, culture, and public affairs, in the media; in the law, and in justice

His Highness the Aga Khan welcomed by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands at Prince Klaus Fund's Conference.His Highness the Aga Khan delivered a keynote speech to an international gathering of some 1800 people in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, on  September 9, 2002 at the conclusion of a conference on Culture and Development held to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the founding of the Prince Claus Fund. In the photo, His Highness the Aga Khan is being welcomed at the conference by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Photo: Prince Claus Fund.

Excerpts from the Aga Khan’s concluding address at the Prince Claus Fund Conference on Culture and Development, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 7th September 2002:

…The inability of human society to recognise pluralism as a fundamental value constitutes a real handicap for its development and a serious danger for our future. Since the end of the Cold War, a number of factors appear to have been common and significant ingredients, if not the primary cause, of many of the conflicts we have witnessed. Perhaps the most common of these ingredients has been the failure of those involved to recognise the fact that human society is essentially pluralist, and that peace and development require that we seek, by every means possible, to invest in and enhance, that pluralism. Those groups that seek to standardise, homogenise, or if you will allow me, to normatise all that and those around them must be actively resisted through countervailing activities.

Whether it be in Central Europe, the Great Lakes region in Africa, or in Afghanistan — to cite just one example from three different continents — one of the common denominators has been the attempt by communal groups, be they ethnic, religious, or tribal groups, to impose themselves on others. All such attempts are based on the principle of eradicating the cultural basis that provides group identity. Without cultural identity, social cohesion gradually dissolves and human groups lose their necessary point of reference to relate with each other, and with other groups.

A necessary condition for pluralism to succeed is that the general education of the populations involved must be sufficiently complete so that individual groups, defined by ethnicity, religion, language and the like, understand the potential consequences of actions that might impinge on others. This is, for example, one of the principal reasons why today there is so much uninformed speculation about conflict between the Muslim world and others…..

…..I would like to leave you with a final thought, and some questions and conclusions that flow from it. Developing support for pluralism does not occur naturally in human society. It is a concept which must be nurtured every day, in every forum — in large and small government and private institutions; in civil society organisations working in the arts, culture, and public affairs, in the media; in the law, and in justice — particularly in terms of social justice, such as health, social safety nets and education; and in economic justice, such as employment opportunities and access to financial services.

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I deeply believe that our collective conscience must accept that pluralism is no less important than human rights for ensuring peace, successful democracy and a better quality of life.

Their Excellencies Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and Mr. John Ralston Saul with His Highness the Aga Khan at Rideau Hall, Ottawa. AKDN/Zahur RamjiOn May 19, 2004, participated in the closing sessions of the 2004 Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference held from May 19 to 21, 2004, in Ottawa-Gatineau. At 7: pm that evening, the Aga Khan delivered the closing keynote address to the delegates and guests at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now known as the Canadian Museum of History). He is pictured during with their Excellencies Adrienne Clarkson and Mr. John Ralston Saul at Rideau Hall, Ottawa. Photo: AKDN/Zahur Ramji.  

Excerpts from the Aga Khan’s keynote address at Canadian Leadership Conference: ‘Leadership and Diversity’, Gatineau, Canada, 19th May 2004.

Our long presence on the ground gives us an insight that confirms the UN’s detailed assessment in Latin America, which is that a democracy cannot function reasonably without two preconditions.

The first is a healthy, civil society. It is an essential bulwark that provides citizens with multiple channels through which to exercise effectively both their rights and duties of citizenship. Even at a very basic level, only a strong civil society can assure isolated rural populations, and the marginalised urban poor of a reasonable prospect of humane treatment, personal security, equity, the absence of discrimination, and access to opportunity.

The second precondition is pluralism. Pluralism means peoples of diverse backgrounds and interests, coming together in organisations of varying types and goals, for different kinds and forms of creative expression, which are valuable and deserving of support by government and society as a whole.

The rejection of pluralism is pervasive across the globe and plays a significant role in breeding destructive conflicts. Examples are scattered across the world’s map: in Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Europe, in the Americas. No continent has been spared from the tragedies of death, of misery and of the persecution of minorities. Are such high-risk situations predictable? If the answer is, “Yes”, then what can be done about them, to pre-empt the risk that the rejection of pluralism will become the spark that sets human conflict aflame? Is the onus not on leadership, in all parts of the world, to build a knowledge base about such situations and consider strategies for preventing them? For, I deeply believe that our collective conscience must accept that pluralism is no less important than human rights for ensuring peace, successful democracy and a better quality of life.

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A pluralist, cosmopolitan society is a society which not only accepts difference, but actively seeks to understand it and to learn from it. In this perspective, diversity is not a burden to be endured, but an opportunity to be welcomed.

His Highness the Aga Khan spoke as part of the Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture series, which provides for “the delivery of lectures by eminent and well-qualified persons for the promotion of tolerance, understanding and good will among nations, and the peace of the worldHis Highness the Aga Khan spoke at Harvard University as part of  the Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture series, which provides for “the delivery of lectures by eminent and well-qualified persons for the promotion of tolerance, understanding and good will among nations, and the peace of the world”. Photo: AKDN/Farhez Rayani.

Excerpts from the Aga Khan’s Samuel L & Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA, 12th November 2015.

For a very long time, as you know, the term most often used in describing the search for human understanding was the word “tolerance.” In fact, it was one of the words that was used in 1955 text to describe one of the objectives of this Jodidi Lecture. In recent years our vocabulary in discussing this subject has evolved. One word that we have come to use more often in this regard is the word “pluralism.” And the other is the word “cosmopolitan.”

You may know that our AKDN Network, a decade ago, cooperated with the Government of Canada to create a new Global Centre for Pluralism based in Ottawa, designed to study more closely the conditions under which pluralist societies can thrive.

A pluralist, cosmopolitan society is a society which not only accepts difference, but actively seeks to understand it and to learn from it. In this perspective, diversity is not a burden to be endured, but an opportunity to be welcomed.

A cosmopolitan society regards the distinctive threads of our particular identities as elements that bring beauty to the larger social fabric. A cosmopolitan ethic accepts our ultimate moral responsibility to the whole of humanity, rather than absolutising a presumably exceptional part. Perhaps it is a natural condition of an insecure human race to seek security in a sense of superiority. But in a world where cultures increasingly inter-penetrate one another, a more confident and a more generous outlook is needed. What this means, perhaps above all else, is a readiness to participate in a true dialogue with diversity, not only in our personal relationships, but in institutional and international relationships also. But that takes work, and it takes patience. Above all, it implies a readiness to listen. What is needed, as the former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson has said, and I quote, is a readiness “to listen to your neighbour, even when you may not particularly like him.” Is that message clear? You listen to people you don’t like!

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…Pluralism, in essence, is a deliberate set of choices that a society must make if it is to avoid costly conflict and harness the power of its diversity in solving human problems.

His Highness the Aga Khan signing the funding agreement for the Global Centre for Pluralism in the presence of The Honourable Beverley J. Oda, Minister of Canadian Heritage. Looking on are Prime Minister Harper and Conservative Caucus Chair, Mr Rahim Jaffer. | AKDN / Gary OtteThe Global Centre for Pluralism to be opened on Tuesday May 16, 2017, by His Highness the Aga Khan and His Excellency David Johnston, the Governor General of Canada, is a major new international centre for research, education and exchange about the values, practices and policies that underpin pluralist societies. Drawing inspiration from the Canadian experience, the centre will function as a global repository and source for knowledge about fostering pluralistic values, policies, and practices. On October 25, 2009, the Aga Khan met on Parliament Hill with The Right Honourable Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, and The Honourable Beverley J. Oda, Minister of Canadian Heritage, to sign a funding agreement for the Global Centre for Pluralism. He is seen signing the funding agreement in the presence of The Honourable Beverley J. Oda, Minister of Canadian Heritage. Looking on are Prime Minister Harper and Conservative Caucus Chair, Mr Rahim Jaffer.  Photo: AKDN/Gary Otte.

Excerpts from remarks made by the Aga Khan at the signing for the funding for the Global Centre for Pluralism, Ottawa, Canada, October 25, 2009.

In my own role as Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims over the past half century, I have come to appreciate the importance of pluralism in ever-expanding ways. The Ismaili community, after all, is itself a global family, spanning many geographies, cultures, languages and ethnicities — and sharing its life with people of many faiths. In addition, much of my work over this time has dealt with highly diverse societies in the developing world, often suffering from poverty, violence and despair. In such circumstances, a commitment to pluralism comes as no accident. For pluralism, in essence, is a deliberate set of choices that a society must make if it is to avoid costly conflict and harness the power of its diversity in solving human problems…..

……Comme les Canadiens le savent si bien, l’idéal du pluralisme n’est pas nouveau en ce monde. Il a des fondations honorables et anciennes, y compris des racines profondes dans la tradition islamique. Ce qui est sans précédent aujourd’hui, c’est une société mondialisée, intimement interconnectée et extraordinairement interdépendante.
[Translation: As Canadians know so well, the idea of pluralism is not a new one in this world. It has honourable and ancient foundations, including deep roots in Islamic tradition. What is new, today, is that society is globalised, intimately interconnected and extraordinarily interdependent.]

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By its very nature, civil society is pluralist because it seeks to speak for the multiple interests not represented by the state. I refer, for example, to organisations which ensure best practices such as legal societies and associations of accountants, doctors and engineers. The meritocracy they represent is the very foundation of pluralism. And meritocracy is one of the principles of democracy itself.

His Highness the Aga Khan delivers his address entitled, His Highness the Aga Khan delivers his address entitled, “Democratic Development, Pluralism and Civil Society”, at the Norwegian Nobel Institute to an audience of academics, diplomats, civil society leaders, and representatives from the Norwegian government and the private sector. Photo: AKDN/Gary Otte.

Excerpts from the Aga Khan’s Keynote Address to the Nobel Institute’s Seminar: ‘Democratic Development, Pluralism and Civil Society’, Oslo, Norway, 7th April 2005

The effective world of the future will be one of pluralism, a world that understands, appreciates and builds on diversity. The rejection of pluralism plays a significant role in breeding destructive conflicts, from which no continent has been spared in recent decades. But pluralist societies are not accidents of history. They are a product of enlightened education and continuous investment by governments and all of civil society in recognising and celebrating the diversity of the world’s peoples. What is being done to support this key value for society and for democracy in Asia and Africa, to preempt catastrophe, rather than simply respond to it?

The Aga Khan Development Network intends to help create some permanent institutional capacity to address this critical issue through a Global Centre for Pluralism. It will be based in Ottawa to draw from Canada’s successful record in constructing and sustaining pluralist civil society. The centre will work closely with governments and with academia and civil society around the world. The centre will seek to foster legislation and policy to strengthen developing countries’ capacity for enhancing pluralism in all spheres of modern life: including law, justice, the arts, the media, financial services, health and education. I believe leadership everywhere must continuously work to ensure that pluralism, and all its benefits, become top global priorities.

In this effort, civil society has a vital role.

By its very nature, civil society is pluralist because it seeks to speak for the multiple interests not represented by the state. I refer, for example, to organisations which ensure best practices such as legal societies and associations of accountants, doctors and engineers. The meritocracy they represent is the very foundation of pluralism. And meritocracy is one of the principles of democracy itself.

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A pluralistic attitude is not something with which people are born. An instinctive fear of what is different is perhaps a more common human trait. But such fear is a condition which can be transcended and that is why teaching about pluralism is such an important objective at every educational level.

His Highness the Aga Khan delivering his Convocation address at the University of Alberta in Edmonton on June 9, 2009. AKDN/Moez VisramHis Highness the Aga Khan received an Honorary Degree from the University of Alberta and also delivered a Convocation address at the University in Edmonton on June 9, 2009. AKDN/Moez Visram.

Excerpts from the Aga Khan’s address made at the University of Alberta Graduation Ceremony, Edmonton, Canada, 9th June 2009.

Pluralism means not only accepting, but embracing human difference. It sees the world’s variety as a blessing rather than a burden, regarding encounters with the “Other” as opportunities rather than as threats. Pluralism does not mean homogenisation — denying what is different to seek superficial accommodation. To the contrary, pluralism respects the role of individual identity in building a richer world.

Pluralism means reconciling what is unique in our individual traditions with a profound sense of what connects us to all of humankind.

The Holy Qur’an says:

O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women.

What a unique and profound statement about the Oneness of humanity!

And yet, just recollect the number of situations where pluralism has failed, dramatically and detestably, in just the last ten years: in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, in Kenya, Rwanda, Darfur and the Congo, in Iraq and in the Balkans and in Northern Ireland — and the list could go on. No continent has been spared.

A pluralistic attitude is not something with which people are born. An instinctive fear of what is different is perhaps a more common human trait. But such fear is a condition which can be transcended and that is why teaching about pluralism is such an important objective at every educational level.

In the final analysis, no nation, no race, no individual has a monopoly of intelligence or virtue. If we are to pursue the ideal of meritocracy in human endeavour, then its most perfect form will grow out of a respect for human pluralism, so that we can harness the very best contributions from whomever and wherever they may come.

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Pluralism is no longer simply an asset or a prerequisite for development, it is essential for the functioning of civil society. Indeed, it is vital to our existence.

the-aga-khan-by-james-macdonald-lHis Highness the Aga Khan. Photo: John MacDonald.

Excerpt from an article the Aga Khan contributed to Politique Internationale (English edition of special issue on Agence française de développement), number 134, winter 2011-2012. The piece appeared under the title “His Highness the Aga Khan: a life in the service of development.”

…the experience of the past 50 years in practically all the countries in which AKDN is operating has shown that — whether in times of peace or crisis — one of the recurrent societal characteristics is the difficulty which peoples of different backgrounds experience in living together. Individuals and families identify closely, of course, with the civil structures which they have inherited from birth, but they live invariably in situations which are not monolithic and they must therefore learn to accept, understand and value the pluralism of their societies, rather than seeing diversity as a liability, a threat, or an opportunity to be abused. Because this feature of human life has been so consistently prevalent over so many decades in so many countries, AKDN views this issue as a major societal problem, one that will need to be addressed successfully if the peoples of both industrialised and developing countries are to live together in peace.

Tolerance, openness and understanding towards other peoples’ cultures, values and faiths are now essential to the very survival of an interdependent world. Pluralism is no longer simply an asset or a prerequisite for development, it is essential for the functioning of civil society. Indeed, it is vital to our existence.

Date posted: May 14, 2017.

Other recent posts of interest:

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Zahida_Rahemtulla

Zahida Rahemtulla is a graduate of New York University (2015), where she studied Middle Eastern Studies, Literature, and Arabic. She completed her senior honours thesis on the modernisation and identity of the Ismaili community under Aga Khan III and IV. She currently works in the refugee and immigrant nonprofit sector with Pacific Immigrant Resources Society in Vancouver.

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References:

The most up-to-date internet resource for speeches of His Highness the Aga Khan is http://www.nanowisdoms.org.  Official Ismaili Imamat and community institutional websites that also contain speeches, but not as complete as those found at Nano, are http://www.akdn.org, http://www.iis.ac.uk and http://www.theismaili.org.

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