His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, was among distinguished panellists invited to advise President Clinton and Secretary Albright on the role of culture in foreign policy. The panel also included Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Italian Minister of Culture Giovanna Melandri, world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, former American Poet Laureate Rita Dove and Joan Spero, President of the Doris Duke Foundation.
Welcoming the Aga Khan as "a powerful voice for culture and development around the world," Mrs. Clinton remarked, "if we want history and identity to be preserved in the global marketplace, culture matters."
In his opening remarks, President Clinton explained the reasoning behind the Conference: "The end of the Cold War's bi-polar world and the emergence of a global information society has given rise to two apparently contradictory forces… the emergence of racial, religious, ethnic, and tribal conflicts within and across national lines" and a global communication system that might "blur all distinctions between our various cultures and render them meaningless." "I still believe," he said "that global culture . . . will be fundamentally positive because it will teach us to understand our differences and affirm our common humanity."
Introducing the panel's comments to nearly 200 prominent U.S. and foreign diplomats, artists, cultural figures, and corporate and foundation heads, the Aga Khan highlighted the following key challenges for cultural diplomacy:
First, the need to enable cultures, especially of the developing world, to be accessible in English in addition to the national languages that were used as "building blocks for nationhood by the countries emerging out of the de-colonisation."
Second, the need to protect cultures in those parts of the developing world where institutions that sustain and promote the arts and the humanities (e.g. museums, conservatories and historic sites) are extremely weak. The precarious state of these institutions, particularly in higher education, not only prevent them from contributing to the survival and re-invigoration of inherited value systems, but may actually risk contributing to their degradation.
A third challenge, echoed by President Clinton, was the need to mobilise resources so that people in the developing world who live from culture, such as artists and musicians, "are able to live in an honourable manner" and in dignity because "the carriers of culture in many of these societies simply do not have the economic context in which they can survive from their commitment to culture."
Finally, the Aga Khan saw the U.S. as having " a global communication capacity which is unique in human history." "It seems to me very important," he emphasised, "that these communication capabilities could be used to enhance understanding of the pluralism of human culture."
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His Highness the Aga Khan is the founder of the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of international agencies working to improve living conditions and opportunities in specific regions of the developing world. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which co-ordinates the cultural activities of the Network, administers: the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the world's largest architectural prize; the Historic Cities Support Programme concerned with the conservation and re-use of buildings and spaces in historic cities through projects in Bosnia, Egypt, Pakistan, Spain, Syria, Uzbekistan and Zanzibar; support for the Aga Khan Programme in Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); in collaboration with MIT, ArchNet, an interactive global Internet-based cyberspatial network that links architects, planners and universities around the world; and the Aga Khan Music Initiative for Central Asia, a collaborative venture with the Silk Road Project to bring Central Asian music to Western Europe and North America, and to revive traditional music in Central Asia itself.
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