Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan
Address by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Annual Conference of German Ambassadors,
Foreign Minister Fischer,
It is an honour to address men and women of eminence with great knowledge and insight about the state of the world. You can and do have the ability to shape its future direction for the better.
I will talk to you today about an issue that has been a critical focus for most of my working life: the process of social, cultural and economic development in many of the poorest regions of the world. In particular, I will attempt to go some way toward answering this fundamental question: what are the preconditions for developing countries to be transformed into peaceful and productive modern societies?
As I look at escalating tensions in the world, particularly the horrific events of recent days, I am convinced more than ever that neither “peaceful” nor “productive” modern societies will ever be achieved by short term responses composed in the midst of crisis. What I will propose to you today is that there are fundamental issues that must be addressed persistently, and over the long term, if we are to achieve the desired outcomes.
My views are presented from two perspectives. First, as the hereditary spiritual leader – Imam – of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community. Like the Muslim Ummah as a whole, the Ismailis are culturally diverse. They are settled across the globe as minorities in more than twenty-five countries. There are Ismaili communities in South and Central Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. In recent decades Ismailis have also established a substantial presence in Western Europe and North America through migration.
The second perspective is that of someone who has been engaged in human and economic development in many of the most fragile regions of the world for more than 45 years and whose roots and institutional commitments are there.
The engagement of the Imamat in development is guided by the ethics of Islam which bridge faith and society, a premise on which I established the Aga Khan Development Network, known as the AKDN. Its cultural social and economic development agencies seek to improve opportunities and living conditions of the weakest in society, without regard to their origin, gender or faith. We work with many partners, including scores of national and international agencies. vSeveral of my observations today apply to developing countries generally. But our greatest depth of experience is in countries with substantial or majority Muslim populations. Therefore my comments will make particular reference to matters as they affect the Muslim world, including Africa, Asia and the Near and Middle East.
I will begin by quoting from Minister Fischer’s remarks to the 40th Munich Conference on Security Policy this past February. He noted that efforts to foster peace and security must go far beyond security matters alone. He said, and I quote: “social and cultural modernisation issues, as well as democracy, the rule of law, women’s rights and good governance, are of almost even greater importance.”
Minister Fischer was referring specifically to dealing with the issue of terrorism. I certainly agree with his point about that. I also believe the issues he raises are of broad and permanent concern to the developing world. Even in parts of the developing world where terrorism is not an issue, improving the quality of life is critically dependent upon advances in the areas he identified.
I would like to focus today on what I believe are three essential pre-conditions for the successful transition of the poorest areas of the world into modern, peaceful societies. They are:
In my view, these must be critical components of any global development policy. Not only are they mutually reinforcing, they also permit developing societies to gradually become masters of the process and to make that process ultimately sustainable.
I believe we must work in each of these areas simultaneously. But we should not expect to make progress in each one at an equal pace. Nor should we plan for them to occur in sequence. We must also anticipate and plan for setbacks and failures. This requires a multilateral deployment of resources for capacity building. Otherwise, millions suffer while we await perfection.
Let us look first at democracy.
In the 1990s, the term “failed state” gained currency to describe the situation in places like Afghanistan and Bosnia or Liberia and Somalia. Today, such descriptions simply divert attention from the real issues. For, apart from Weapons of Mass Destruction, HIV/AIDS or climate change, the greatest global threat today is not failed states – states themselves do not fail – but the failure of democracy in nearly forty per cent of UN member-nations. These failures cross much of the Muslim world, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa.
In my visits to African countries such as Mali and Uganda, to Middle East countries such as Syria and to Asian countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, leaders in all levels of society have expressed to me their deep concern and frustration about the failure of democracy and its consequent inability to put governments in authority that can meet the expectations of the people. They would welcome assistance supporting education about democracy.
Unfortunately today, in more and more developing countries where there is a tradition of legislative elections, we are witnessing a splintering of national political parties into factions, based around narrow interests. Coalition governments are being cobbled together by leaders with little experience in managing multiple factions.
We only need to look at the recent history of Western Europe to understand the difficulty such coalition governments may face in delivering effective, democratic governance. For many years, the lifespan of governments in some countries was measured in months. Building consensus for corrective constitutional changes, and implementing them, was equally challenging,
What logic is there to think, therefore, that an African government suddenly having to manage a fractious coalition after years of single-party majorities will be able to address this issue maturely? If it cannot, how will it meet the expectations of its people for a better life?
The point is this: democracy is fragile. It is susceptible to failure at any time, in any society. The experience of Europe in the last fifty years should also be a sobering reminder of another unfortunate truism. Elections and the existence of political parties do not by themselves guarantee stable governments, competent political leadership and respect for the constitution. Nor do they guarantee good economic management and the absence of corruption.
If this has been the experience in the birthplace of modern democracy, I must urge you to be patiently supportive of democratic experiments in the Middle East and in the wider developing world.
Sometimes I read that Islam is in conflict with democracy. Yet I must tell you that as a Muslim, I am a democrat not because of Greek or French thought, but primarily because of principles that go back 1400 years, directly after the death of Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him).
At that time, Muslims debated how best to implement the premises he had established for being qualified for leadership. The principle of wide public consultation for selecting leadership for matters relating to affairs of state and civil administration was adopted by groups that coalesced into the Sunni branch. The parallel principle of hereditary leadership was preserved among the Shia. Muslims of the time also established that leadership in social governance was to be selected on the basis of merit and competence. These principles, cemented 14 centuries ago, are consistent with democratic models that exist around the world today.
A quick analysis of the map of the Near and Middle East shows the strong probability that numerous forms of democratic government are likely to be tested in the coming decades. Some states will test republican democracy, others will test constitutional monarchy, and yet others will test various forms of theocratic government.
It is impossible to predict the outcomes or the pace of change. What we can predict with some certainty is that the kaleidoscope of changing patterns will be driven by internal forces, as has already been illustrated in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Personally, I do not see how it could be otherwise, given the multiplicity of stakeholders and the absolute necessity that all must be consulted if consensus is to be achieved and maintained.
Therefore, I strongly believe these indigenous elements must be nurtured and supported. We must ensure they have a solid grasp of the elements that sustain, or weaken democracy, and its institutions.
Any development strategy, therefore, must include education and support for developing a wider understanding of the institutions and processes of constitutional democracy.
Formal education, beginning at the secondary school level, can play a part. But so too can such programmes as exchanges of working groups of parliamentarians, legislative officers, senior government officials, and the panoply of civil society participants, including journalists, educators and lawyers. We must seek to build breadth and depth of understanding of the culture of democracy, both in theory and in application.
Let me turn now to the issue of pluralism.
We have all witnessed how inattention to, or worse, the rejection of pluralism, has bred destructive conflicts across the globe affecting a great many cultures, races, nationalities and religions. Sadly, these insights have been dramatically verified by events in such varied situations as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They underline how fundamental it is in the developing world for democracy to be built around an absolute priority to manage and legitimise pluralism.
Pluralist societies do not happen by themselves as accidents of history. They are a product of enlightened education and continuous investment by government and all forces of civil society in developing value and recognition for one of humanity’s greatest assets: the diversity of its peoples.
Is it not, therefore, the responsibility of enlightened leadership everywhere to ensure that pluralism, and education about pluralism, occupy the centre stage in any agenda of global priorities?
And yet school curricula in Western and developing countries rarely give young people a sound understanding of their own cultures let alone the diverse religious, linguistic, social and artistic forces of communities around them. These perceptions have led the AKDN’s primary and secondary schools, and particularly its new network of academic centres of excellence – the Aga Khan Academies – to experiment with education curricula that make the case for a pluralist worldview.
It is one that builds on differences of outlook, ethnicity, religion and culture. This initiative will benefit from collaboration with some of the leading international schools, including Salem in Germany, who are working with us in an International Academic Partnership.
It is my profound belief that the Judeo-Christian world will find it a hopeless endeavour to try to address the issues of democracy, civil society and pluralism in the Muslim world unless a major effort – and I mean an absolutely major effort – is made by the Judeo-Christian world to acquire deeper and wider knowledge about Muslim civilisations. This is a first step toward building dialogue and understanding.
The effort I am describing will have to be systematic and extended over many decades to be successful. It must reach a wide spectrum of students in secondary schools and not be restricted to the specialised knowledge of higher education as it is today.
In this regard, I applaud the initiative the German Government has made in introducing material about Islam into the public education curriculum.
As a Muslim, I accept that such a truly comprehensive effort is likely to cause unwelcoming reactions from a large number of forces in the Judeo-Christian world.
Relations between this world and the world of Islam historically have been conditioned by inter-faith attitudes. They were vividly and brutally illustrated at the time of the Crusades. Then, the issues were focused upon which faith was best placed to redeem the individual soul. Proselytisation was probably the single most powerful driving force.
In recent decades, inter-faith dialogue has been occurring in numerous countries. Unfortunately, every time the word “faith” is used in such a context, there is an inherent supposition that lurking at the side is the issue of proselytisation. But faith, after all, is only one aspect of human society.
Therefore, we must approach this issue today within the dimension of civilisations learning about each other, and speaking to each other, and not exclusively through the more narrow focus of inter-faith dialectic.
Such an approach would also be immensely beneficial to the Muslim world. It would result in its much greater emphasis on learning about the pluralism and richness of its own history, and about the diversity of the countries, cultures, religious institutions and interpretations of Islam. Learning must not be restricted, as it often is, to matters of theology.
Today, theological interpretation and proselytisation continue to divide among Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant interpretations in the Christian world as it does in the Islamic world between Sunni and Shia and their various sub-divisions.
I would hope to see the day when the definition of an educated person in Judaeo-Christian culture would include an intelligent understanding of the Muslim world.
That person would appreciate the eminent position of Islamic civilisations in human thought and knowledge. That would include an understanding of their tradition of research and achievements, from philosophy and the arts, to the sciences, architecture and engineering.
The current void of knowledge makes it impossible to establish a dialogue because you cannot build a dialogue based upon ignorance. With whom do you have dialogue? Without meaningful dialogue, you cannot construct coherent and sustainable foreign policy because you will not have the ability to predict. You will not understand the forces at play.
How would the handling of the situations in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq and the wider Middle East, or the Philippines, have been different if the main players had benefited from a thorough understanding of the history and culture of those regions?
Let me turn now to civil society. None of the initiatives I have discussed can be effective in the absence of a robust civil society which is critical to supporting pluralism and ultimately, effective democracies.
Civil society includes charitable organisations and NGOs. It also encompasses organisations charged with maintaining best practices such as legal societies and associations of accountants, doctors and engineers. It includes trade associations, unions and journalist groups. Village organisations, women’s groups, micro-credit entities and agricultural co-operatives are important components as well. Some organisations are primarily urban, others primarily rural, while still others provide links and support to both urban and rural environments.
Civil society makes an enormous contribution to human development, filling the gaps between government, the business sector and the family. It does things the state cannot and thus supports citizens in nation building.
Most important, civil society underwrites human progress. It acts as a stabiliser or buttress in times of economic slowdown or social stress. When democracies are failing, or have failed, it is the institutions of civil society that can carry an added burden to help sustain improvements in quality of life.
In his Munich remarks, Minister Fischer recognised the importance of partnerships in building indigenous capacity of civil society in developing countries.
I wholeheartedly welcome the principle of partnerships. Civil society institutions in developing nations must have expert assistance if they are to be a bulwark for democratic processes and are to play a role in helping people improve their living conditions. Partnerships can take many forms. They include the twinning of institutions, the secondment of experts in education and healthcare, and the provision of continuing education for practitioners in fields such as nursing, journalism and the charitable and not-for-profit sectors.
Germany and AKDN already collaborate on a wide and expanding scale in areas of risk and sensitivity such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Through a great variety of village and community organisations, we encourage people to overcome their antagonisms, and work together to find solutions to common problems in the search for a better life.
Northern Pakistan is an excellent example of how this support for civil society and pluralism can buttress democracy. We have been working in that isolated region for more than 20 years, and with German participation since 1992. Some 3,900 village-based organisations have been created, dealing with a range of issues from women’s initiatives, to water usage, to savings and credit. Economic growth has been impressive and hostilities born out of despair have been replaced by co-operation and hope for the future. In recent local elections, many of the leaders of these village-based organisations sought and achieved elected positions.
The lesson here is that democracy can work even in the most remote rural areas, which is where much of our vital work is concentrated, if one is patient and works to build up indigenous capacity.
The AKDN has begun to formalise its support for democracy, pluralism and civil society through the establishment of a Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. This education and research centre will work closely with governments, academia and civil society to foster legislation and policy to strengthen local capacity for enhancing pluralism. We would welcome the participation of the German government in helping transport the fruits of this venture to the developing world.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am immensely grateful for the collaboration between the AKDN and the German development institutions. It illustrates the scope of partnership between the West and the developing world, especially the Muslim world.
I have the hope and the confidence that our partnerships will continue and be characterised by a willingness to innovate, to take risks for great reward, and to have the patience and determination for the long term commitment required.
I have attempted to share with you the lessons of very specific development experiences of AKDN and our partners in Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East.
All of you assembled here have the ability to shape the future direction of the world for the better. Each of you, in your role in diplomacy, may reflect upon how the issues I have identified might help in addressing, in a strategic way, the kaleidoscope of changing patterns in the regions and areas of responsibility in which you work.
Is sustaining democracy a serious issue in our quest to transform developing nations into peaceful and productive modern societies? How can we nurture and support the growth of civil society? What are the educational and cultural approaches that can support greater pluralism, understanding and dialogue?
And finally, by responding to these issues, can we reduce risk and increase the probability of success in helping the people of the developing world to attain a better life?
Thank you for your kind attention.