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Speech by President Robert Bigerneau-2004-06-17

Thursday, 2004, June 17
U of T

His Highness the Aga Khan

Born Prince Karim, in Geneva, Switzerland in 1936, the present Aga Khan spent some of his early childhood in Nairobi, Kenya. He was actually a student at Harvard when, in 1957, he succeeded his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan to the Imamat of some 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims. Following a year’s leave of absence for official visits to Muslim communities around the world, the Aga Khan returned to Harvard as an undergraduate to complete his AB honours degree in Islamic History.

The sunset of empire and the dawn of independence on the Asian subcontinent and across Africa resulted in unprecedented challenges for the young Imam raised, as his grandfather said, “in the Atomic Age.” Among these was that of enabling his minority community to look far beyond religious, sectarian and racial divides to become loyal, contributing citizens of nations emerging from under a colonial yoke.

The Aga Khan swiftly set about the creation of a governance structure enabling the Ismaili Muslim Community to deploy its collective resources for the betterment of the societies in which it lived.

Over nearly five decades, the Aga Khan has demonstrated a profound personal commitment towards improving the quality of life of some of the most disadvantaged populations on the planet. Dedicating his energy and the resources of the Ismaili Imamat to pressing issues of social development, economic empowerment and cultural revitalization, he has founded and closely guided one of world’s most effective groups of private development agencies, the Aga Khan Development Network -- the AKDN.

The ethic of inclusiveness is central to the organization created by the Aga Khan. The AKDN is entirely non-denominational, serving and employing people of all faiths, ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds. Yet, as the Aga Khan has so often reminded us, this ethic, like those of compassion, generosity and concern for the less fortunate, is firmly rooted in the faith and practice of Islam from which he draws his inspiration.

The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme launched in Pakistan in 1982 has been cited on three occasions in independent World Bank evaluations as an exemplary endeavour to empower isolated and marginalized populations. They include the 1.2 million people living in remote valleys amidst some of the world’s highest and harshest mountain environments, and scattered across an area nearly twice the size of Switzerland. These people have emerged the beneficiaries, as well as, the prime movers, in a participatory, self-sustaining local economy of their own making. Under the Aga Khan’s direction, they have been able to build schools, medical centres, roads, bridges, water and sanitation projects and a professional development centre. They doubled their income within the first ten years of the programme and, as of 2003, some 4000 organizations supported by the programme had generated savings of nearly CDN$11 million. Emulated nationally, the AKDN’s integrated development model has been successfully applied in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, and adapted for drought-prone areas of western India, eastern Kenya and northern Mozambique.

Post-conflict environments such as Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Mozambique have thrown up challenges that the Aga Khan has seized upon with a vitality and tenacity to be commended and admired. Wherever they have taken root, the Aga Khan’s programmes have generally accompanied, or given rise to, renewed peace and stability. The Aga Khan has always promoted the distinctive role of the private sector in the economic advancement of the developing world. From pioneering initiatives in tourism, infrastructure and aviation through agribusiness, financial services and microfinance, the Aga Khan has successfully linked for-profit investments to wider societal benefits for countries in Asia and Africa.

Over the past three decades or so, Ismailis, like many others in the developing world, have found themselves, as a result of political and social upheaval, resettled in the Western world. Besides becoming quickly self-reliant and vital contributors to their new homes -- including Canada-- they have, under the Aga Khan’s guidance, helped mobilize resources to build strong institutions addressing more global concerns.

The Aga Khan University has become one of South Asia’s leading research universities. Its School of Nursing, Medical College, and Institute for Educational Development --working in collaboration with institutions from Canada and around the world – have been exemplary in creating professional opportunities for women in countries such as Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and more recently, in Syria and Afghanistan. The Aga Khan Education Services operate some 300 educational institutions, and the Aga Khan Health Services some 200 healthcare institutions across South and Central Asia and Eastern Africa.

The Aga Khan has taken his commitment to issues such as addressing the needs of the ultra-poor and improving the position of women in society beyond institutional endeavours and into the arena of effective policy dialogue with governments and civil society. The enhancement of civil society has been a particularly important concern of his and one that he has, more recently, evoked in the context of fragile democracies and the essential role of pluralism. The Aga Khan has gone well beyond articulating his thinking in various forums to announce the creation of a Global Centre for Pluralism in collaboration with the Government of Canada.

Recognizing the diversity and richness of the shared heritage of mankind, the Aga Khan has been instrumental in reawakening interest in the impressive, renowned and varied architectural traditions of the Islamic world. Amongst his contributions is the world’s largest architectural prize and an unique academic resource at Harvard and MIT. The Aga Khan’s interest is now being extended to music as well as other dimensions of the humanities and major conservation and revitalisation initiatives in historic spaces in some ten countries and in cities from Aleppo and Cairo, to Mostar and Zanzibar. Public educational resources being developed by the Aga Khan include two museums: one on the island of Zanzibar to preserve the maritime history of the Indian Ocean; and the other, here in Toronto to house one of the world’s finest collections of Islamic art and artefacts. Each of these initiatives serves to bridge distances between peoples and cultures.

Whilst he is the recipient of numerous honours, if we are to understand both the vision and the humility that underlie the Aga Khan’s commitment, we might do well to recall the answer he gave to the late Canadian religious commentator Roy Bonisteel when asked how he wished to be remembered. The Aga Khan replied that he did not himself wish for posterity; he hoped, rather, that it would be the work of the institutions that he had helped establish that would have lasting impact.

Madam Chancellor, on behalf of the Governing Council, I ask you to confer the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa on His Highness the Aga Khan for his service to humanity, as an intellectual visionary, an imaginative and impassioned benefactor and a true man of faith.

Thank you.

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