The Globe and Mail
Thursday, May 20, 2004 - Page A25

The way to heal the world

Canada, a country that understands the value of diversity and civil society, is well positioned to share those values and strengthen democracy in the developing world, says the leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, the AGA KHAN

Thursday, May 20, 2004 - Page A25

Canada has successfully constructed a public sphere predicated on the ethic of respect for human dignity. It recognizes and builds on difference, enables a spirit of compromise and consensus in public and legislative policies, and marks out a healthy space for the role of civil society as a sound (indeed, essential) bulwark for democratic processes.

Canada has an experience of governance of which much of the world stands in dire need. Ours is a world of increasing dissension and grave risks for the future relationship between the industrialized world and the developing world. We must create stable states with self-sustainable economies and stable, inclusive forms of governance.

Recently world attention has been focused on the phenomenon of so-called failed states. But apart from nuclear war or HIV/AIDS, the most urgent global threat is not failed states. It is the failure of democracy in the Muslim world, in Latin America, in Eastern Europe and in sub-Saharan Africa.

Nearly 40 per cent of UN member nations are failed democracies. They are the greatest risk to the West and its values. It is essential, and in the West's own interest, to admit to itself that democracy is as fragile as any other form of human governance, and to help correct the situation, rather than referring dismissively to failed states. To my knowledge, democracy can fail anywhere, at any time, in any society -- as it has in several European states. It's self-evident that the existence of political parties and elections do not alone produce stable governments or competent leadership.

Three concepts seem to me to be essential in creating, stabilizing and strengthening democracy around the world: meritocracy, pluralism and civil society.

What role can Canada play, drawing upon her national genius, in creating or enhancing these great underpinnings of democracy in the developing world?

A recent UN audit of democracy covering 18 Latin American countries warns that stagnant per-capita incomes and growing inequality -- in access to civil rights as well as income -- are producing doubt, impatience and civil unrest. The primary, daily concern of peoples everywhere is their quality of life, which is intimately connected to their value systems. The UN report recognizes a crucial fact: "An important relationship exists between citizenship and organizations of civil society, which are major actors in the strengthening of democracy, in the oversight of government stewardship and in the development of pluralism."

My interest in these themes of development and governance arises from my role as the hereditary spiritual leader -- Imam -- of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community. Culturally very diverse, the Ismailis are spread across the globe in more than 25 countries, from South and Central Asia, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, to the United States, Western Europe and Canada. Since succeeding to this office as the 49th Imam in 1957, I have been concerned with the development of the Ismailis and the broader societies in which they live.

The engagement of the Imamat in development is guided by Islamic ethics, which bridge faith and society. It is on this premise that I established the Aga Khan Development Network, a network of agencies that has been active in many areas of Asia and Africa to improve the quality of life of some of the poorest and most diverse populations in the world.

Our long presence on the ground gives us an insight that confirms the UN's assessment -- that a democracy cannot function reasonably without civil-society institutions and respect for pluralism.

A healthy, civil society is an essential foundation that provides citizens with multiple channels through which to exercise effectively both their rights and duties of citizenship. Only a strong civil society can assure isolated rural populations, and the marginalized urban poor, of a reasonable prospect of humane treatment, personal security, equity and access to opportunity.

The second precondition is pluralism -- peoples of diverse backgrounds and interests, coming together in organizations 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.

Around the world we see examples of societies that have rejected pluralism. No continent has been spared from the tragedies of death, misery and the persecution of minorities. Are such high-risk situations predictable? If so, what can be done to pre-empt the risk of a spark that sets human conflict aflame?

The onus is on leadership, in all parts of the world, to build a knowledge base about such situations and consider strategies for preventing them. We must accept that pluralism is no less important than human rights for ensuring peace, successful democracy and a better quality of life.

I am optimistic. Let me cite one example from the perspective of 40 years of experience of agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network. In Northern Pakistan, once one of the world's poorest areas, our network has been working for more than 20 years, with the Canadian International Development Agency as our lead partner.

Once isolated rural communities of different ethnic and religious backgrounds -- Shia, Sunni and non-Muslim -- struggled to eke out a meagre living, farming small holdings in the harsh environment of this mountain desert ecosystem. Relations among the communities were often hostile. The challenge was to create sustainable, inclusive development processes in which everyone could take part and seek joint solutions to common problems.

We established more than 3,900 village-based organizations, from women's initiatives and water usage to savings and credit groups. The quality of life of 1.3 million people dramatically improved. Per capita income has increased by 300 per cent, savings have soared, and there have been marked improvements in male and female education, primary health, housing, sanitation and cultural awareness. Former antagonists have worked together to create new programs and social structures in Northern Pakistan, and more recently in Tajikistan. Hope in the future has replaced conflict born of despair and memories of the past.

This micro experiment with grassroots democracy, civil society and pluralism has also underlined for everyone involved the enormous importance of competence and advancement by merit. Inherent in the notion of merit is the idea of equality of access to opportunities. Talented people can only realize their potential if they have access to good education, good health and opportunity to advance through enterprise. Without this equity, merit does not develop.

Democracies must be educated if they are to express themselves competently, and their electorates are to reach informed opinions about the great issues at stake. Lack of education is perhaps the greatest obstacle to pluralism and democracy.

A dramatic illustration is the uninformed speculation about a clash of civilizations -- conflict between the Muslim world and others. If there is such a civilizational collision, it is not of cultures but of ignorance.

How many Western leaders are aware that the historic cause of the Middle East conflict was a legacy of the First World War? That the tragedy of Kashmir is another unresolved colonial legacy? And that neither had anything to do with the faith of Islam? Or that the use of Afghanistan as a proxy by both sides in the Cold War is a major factor in that country's recent tragic history? Such matters touch the lives of all world citizens. Yet they're simply not addressed by general education in most Western countries.

Humanities curricula in the West rarely feature great Muslim philosophers, scientists, astronomers and writers of classical Islam, such as ibn Sina, al-Farabi and al-Kindi, Nasir Khusraw and al-Tusi. This lack of appreciation of the Muslim world's civilizations is a major factor that colours media stereotypes. So does the tendency to concentrate on political hot spots in the Muslim world, and to refer to organizations as terrorist and Islamic first, and only obliquely, if at all, to their national origins or political goals. No wonder that the bogey of a monolithic Islam, irreconcilable with Western values -- or, worse, a seedbed of violence -- lurks behind Islam's depiction as a faith opposed to, and incapable of, pluralism.

This image flies directly in the face of the respect that Islam's cherished scripture confers upon believers in monotheistic traditions. History is replete with illustrations of Muslims entrusting their most treasured possessions, even family members, to the care of Christians. Muslim willingness to learn from Jewish scholarship in medicine and statecraft is exemplified by the place of honour accorded Jewish scholars at the court of the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs of Egypt. Intellectual honesty and greater knowledge are essential if current explosive situations are to be understood as inherited conflicts driven by inequity -- rather than conflicts specific to the Muslim world.

An excellent example of what is needed in this perilous time is the recent Parliamentary committee report, "Exploring Canada's Relations with the Countries of the Muslim World." It emphasizes the urgent need for communication and general knowledge, and observes, "Understanding Islamic influences on government and state policies, on social and economic relations, cultural norms, individual and group rights and the like, necessarily goes far beyond the question of the extreme, violent-minority edges of Islamist activity."

The need for such rational voices is great. The West must gain a better understanding of the Islamic world, a hugely diverse collectivity of civilizations that continues to evolve in response to many societal influences -- agricultural and rural, commercial and urban, scientific and philosophical, literary and political. Just like other great traditions, the Islamic world cannot be understood only by its faith, but as a total picture whose history is closely tied to that of the Judeo-Christian world.

Canada is helping to bridge the Muslim world and the West. An example: the support given by CIDA and McMaster University to the Aga Khan University School of Nursing. This partnership transformed nursing education, and the nursing profession, in Pakistan, and is now having a significant impact in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Afghanistan and Syria by offering women in these countries new professional opportunities.

Canada is admirably positioned to share with the developing world her experience in humane governance to support pluralism, the development of civil society, and meritocratic premises for action. Fledgling local civil-society institutions in developing countries need expert assistance to strengthen their capacities for management, program design and implementation, fund raising, self-study and evaluation. They need help in defining accountability. And as your Prime Minister told the House of Commons: "One of the distinct ways in which Canada can help developing nations is to provide the expertise and experience of Canadians in justice, in federalism, in pluralist democracy."

My intention is not to embarrass you with too rosy a picture of the Canadian mosaic as if it were free of all tension. But you have the experience, an infrastructure grounded in wisdom, and the moral wherewithal to be able to handle challenges to your social and political fabric.

The Ismaili Imamat strives to ensure that people live in countries where threats to democracy are minimal and to draw on the experience of established democracies which have a vibrant civil society. Canada is such a country. It is for this reason that the Aga Khan Development Network is establishing, in Ottawa, what is to be known as The Global Centre for Pluralism.

This secular, non-denominational centre will engage in education and research and will also examine the experience of pluralism in practice. Drawing on Canadian expertise, and working closely with governments, academia and civil society, the centre will seek to foster enabling legislative and policy environments. Its particular emphasis will be on strengthening indigenous capacity for research and policy analysis on pluralism, while also offering educational and professional development and public-awareness programs.

We inhabit an overcrowded planet with shrinking resources, yet we share a common destiny. A weakness or pain in one corner has the tendency to rapidly transmit itself across the globe. Instability is infectious!

But so is hope. Let us share the gift of pluralism.

This is adapted from the speech given by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Leadership and Diversity Conference last evening in Ottawa.