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!

A thoughtful cosmopolitan ethic is something quite different from some attitudes that have become associated with the concept of globalisation in recent years. Too often, that term has been linked to an abstract universalism, perhaps well-meaning but often naïve. In emphasising all that the human race had in common, it was easy to depreciate the identities that differentiated us. We sometimes talked so much about how we are all alike that we neglected the wonderful ways in which we can be different.

Contents

Full Event Video on Vimeo
 

Speech
 

Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim.

Mark Elliott, Vice Provost,
Michele Lamont, Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs,
Ali Asani, Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program,
Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion,
Members of the Harvard Community,
Distinguished Guests:

Thank you for your warm welcome.

It is indeed a great pleasure for me to return to Harvard and this wonderful campus. And it is a particular pleasure to be welcomed here by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program, two of the world’s leading forces for informed global understanding.

I am honoured as well, to be giving the Jodidi Lecture for 2015, and to join the distinguished list of those who have given this lecture over the past 60 years. Believe it or not, the Jodidi Lecture actually was founded during my freshman year at Harvard — but I had nothing to do with that! I would note too, that the Harvard Center for International Affairs was also founded while I was a student here, although it did not yet have the illustrious Weatherhead name.

Now I must admit in all candour that I do not recall attending the Jodidi Lecture when I was an undergraduate, although I am sure I would have benefited from doing so! I was probably having too much fun at Wigglesworth or Leverett House to venture out to something so serious as the Jodidi lecture. On the other hand, I wonder what I might have thought if some seer had looked into a crystal ball and told me that some 60 years later I would actually be giving this lecture. I might have immediately transferred to Yale!

My ties to Harvard have been re-enforced in many ways through the six decades since my graduation, including the fact that my brother and my daughter also received their undergraduate degrees here at Harvard. And I was deeply gratified to come back to receive an honorary degree in 2008.

Whenever I return to Harvard I am impressed both with the wonderful qualities that have stayed the same over time, and also by some of the things that have changed. Surely one of the most notable changes has been the remarkable success in recent years of Harvard’s athletic teams all across the board: individual competition, team competition, women’s and men’s teams. Bravo Harvard! Of course one cannot arrive in Cambridge this week without noticing that the football team, to mention just one example that remains undefeated again this year. But it was not always that way. In fact, during the years that I was at Harvard, the football team never had a winning record.

Of course, I am referring here to the “American” football team. Coming from European schooling, what I called the football team is what you probably call the soccer team. And I must tell you that for the men’s soccer team, those were golden years at Harvard — including two Ivy League championships. Goodbye Yale! And I must also tell you, with all due humility, that I was a happy member of that championship team.

Now, you may have been wondering just what I have been doing over these past six decades since I left the Harvard playing fields. Let me begin by saying a word about that topic.

As you know, I was born into a Muslim family, linked by heredity to the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him and his family). My education blended Islamic and Western traditions in my early years and at Harvard, where I majored in Islamic History. And in 1957 I was a junior when I became the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims — when my grandfather designated me to succeed him.

As you may know, the Ismailis are the only Muslim community that has been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from Prophet Muhammad.

What does it mean to become an Imam in the Ismaili tradition? To begin with, it is an inherited role of spiritual leadership. As you may know, the Ismailis are the only Muslim community that has been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from Prophet Muhammad.

That spiritual role however, does not imply a separation from practical responsibilities. In fact for Muslims the opposite is true: the spiritual and material worlds are inextricably connected. Leadership in the spiritual realm — for all Imams, whether they are Sunni or Shia — implies responsibility in worldly affairs; a calling to improve the quality of human life. And that is why so much of my energy over these years has been devoted to the work of the Aga Khan Development Network. The AKDN, as we call it, centres its attention in the developing world. And it is from this developing world’s perspective, that I speak to you today. So what I will be referring to is knowledge that I have gained from the developing world of Africa, Asia, the Middle East. What I will be speaking about has little to do with the industrialised West.

Through all of these years, my objective has been to understand more thoroughly the developing countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and to prepare initiatives that will help them become countries of opportunity, for all of their peoples.

As I prepared for this new role in the late 1950’s, Harvard was very helpful. The University allowed me — having prudently verified that I was a student “in good standing” — to take eighteen months away to meet the leaders of the Ismaili community in some 25 countries where most of the Ismailis then lived, and to speak with their government leaders.

I returned here after that experience with a solid sense of the issues I would have to address, especially the endemic poverty in which much of my community lived. And I also returned with a vivid sense of the new political realities that were shaping their lives, including the rise of African independence movements, the perilous relations between India and Pakistan and the sad fact that many Ismailis were locked behind the Iron Curtain and thus removed from regular contact with the Imamat.

When I returned to Harvard, it was not only to complete my degree, but I was fortunate to audit a number of courses that were highly relevant to my new responsibilities.

When I returned to Harvard, it was not only to complete my degree, but I was fortunate to audit a number of courses that were highly relevant to my new responsibilities. So as an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to benefit from the complete spectrum of courses offered by this great university. Incidentally, I must have been the only Harvard undergraduate to have two secretaries and a personal assistant working with me. And I have always been very proud of the fact that I never sent any of them to take notes for me at my class!

Harvard has continued to be a highly valued partner for our Network since this time. The University played a key role in developing the blueprint thirty years ago for the Aga Khan University — working first in the fields of medicine and nursing education, and now offering a broad variety of degrees on three continents. Another close Harvard relationship has involved the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, launched here and at MIT in 1977.

My concern for the future of Islamic architecture grew out of my travels between 1957 and 1977 in countries with large Muslim populations. What I observed was a near total disconnect between the new built environment I encountered and Islam’s rich architectural legacy. There was no process of renewal, no teaching in architectural schools, no practices that were rooted in our own traditions. Except for the occasional minaret or dome, one of the world’s great cultural inheritances was largely confined to coffee-table books. It seemed to me that this state of affairs represented a monumental menace to our world’s cultural pluralism, as well as a dangerous loss of identity for Muslim communities. The Aga Khan Programme for Islamic Architecture was one response to this situation, as was the creation of the Aga Khan architectural award, which also continues today.

Bringing the art and architecture of the Islamic world to be understood and admired in the West, as it had been in the past, was a goal that also inspired the creation, just one year ago, of the Ismaili Centre and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto — the only museum in the Western hemisphere devoted entirely to Islamic culture.

Today, the Aga Khan Development Network embraces many facets and functions. But, if I were trying to sum up in a single word its central objective, I would focus on the word “opportunity.”

Today, the Aga Khan Development Network embraces many facets and functions. But, if I were trying to sum up in a single word its central objective, I would focus on the word “opportunity.” For what the peoples of the developing world seek above all else is hope for a better future. Too often however, true opportunity has been a distant hope — perhaps for some, not even more than a dream. Endemic poverty, in my view, remains the world’s single most important challenge. It is manifested in many ways, including persistent refugee crises of the sort we have recently seen in such an acute form. And of course confounding new challenges continue to mount, such as the looming threat of climate change. My interest in climate change has been sharpened by recent studies linking it to the threat of earthquakes. This could be an issue in the high mountain areas of South Asia for example, where so many Ismailis live and are concentrated.

Sixty years ago as I took up my responsibilities, the problems of the developing world, for many observers, seemed intractable. It was widely claimed that places like China and India were destined to remain among the world’s “basket cases” — incapable of feeding themselves let alone being able to industrialise or achieve economic self-sustainability. If this had been true, of course, then there would have been no way for the people of my community, in India and China and in many other places, to look for a better future.

Nor did most people yet see the full potential for addressing these problems through non-profit, private organisations — what we today call “civil society.”

Political realities presented further complications. Most of the poorest countries were living under distant colonial or protectorate or communist regimes. The monetary market was totally unpredictable. Volatile currencies were shifting constantly in value, making it almost impossible to plan ahead. And while I thought of all the Ismailis as part of one religious community, the realities of their daily lives were deeply distinctive and decidedly local. Nor did most people yet see the full potential for addressing these problems through non-profit, private organisations — what we today call “civil society.”

And yet, it was also clear that stronger coordination across these lines of division could help open new doors of opportunity. We could see how renovated educational systems, based on best practices, could reach across frontiers of politics and language. We could see how global science could address changing medical challenges, including the growing threat of non-communicable disease. We could see, in sum, how a truly pluralistic outlook could leverage the best experiences of local communities through an effective international network. But we also learned that the creation of effective international networks in a highly diversified environment can be a daunting matter. It took a great deal of considered effort to meld older values of continuity and local cohesion, with the promise of new cross-border integration.

What was required — and is still required — was a readiness to work across frontiers of distinction and distance without trying to erase them. What we were looking for, even then, were ways of building an effective “cosmopolitan ethic in a fragmented world.” This often meant working from the bottom up, learning to follow what was sometimes called “field logic.” Most of our initiatives began at a local, community level, and then grew into regional, national and international institutions.

We learned that lifting health and education services to world class standards was a global promise that could inspire local support.

As we moved forward, we learned a number of important lessons. We learned that lifting health and education services to world class standards was a global promise that could inspire local support. We learned to attack poverty simultaneously with multiple inputs, on a variety of fronts. We learned to work with effective partners — including the not-for-profit institutions of civil society. We learned to see our role as one of supporting the public sector, not competing with it. And we learned the importance of measuring carefully the outcomes of our efforts, and then applying that knowledge. All of these approaches were facilitated by a determination to overcome linguistic barriers through a language policy that promoted better use of the national language, and network-wide English as a strong connecting tool.

And so our Network grew. Today it embraces a group of agencies — non-governmental and non-denominational — operating in 35 countries. They work in fields ranging from education and medical care, to job creation and energy production; from transport and tourism, to media and technology; from the fine arts and cultural heritage, to banking and micro-finance. But they are all working together toward a single overarching objective: improving the quality of human life.

Meanwhile, in the industrialised West, many things were happening that paralleled our AKDN experience. For one thing, an impulse for international cooperation was advancing in the late 1950’s at an impressive pace. After half a century of violent confrontation, determined leaders talked hopefully about global integration. New international organisations and cross-border alliances blossomed. And Harvard University decisively expanded its own involvement in world affairs.

When the Jodidi Lectureship was established here in 1955, its explicit purpose (and I quote) was “the promotion of tolerance, understanding and good will among nations.” And that seemed to be the way history was moving. Surely, we thought, we had learned the terrible price of division and discord, and certainly the great technological revolutions of the 20th century would bring us more closely together.

But even as old barriers crumbled and new connections expanded, a paradoxical trend set in, one that we see today at every hand. At the same time that the world was becoming more interconnected, it also become more fragmented.

In looking back to my Harvard days, I recall how a powerful sense of technological promise was in the air — a faith that human invention would continue its ever-accelerating conquest of time and space. I recall too, how this confidence was accompanied by what was described as a “revolution of rising expectations” and the fall of colonial empires. And of course, this trend seemed to culminate some years later with the end of the Cold War and the “new world order” that it promised. But even as old barriers crumbled and new connections expanded, a paradoxical trend set in, one that we see today at every hand. At the same time that the world was becoming more interconnected, it also become more fragmented.

We have been mesmerised on one hand by the explosive pace of what we call “globalisation,” a centripetal force putting us as closely in touch with people who live across the world as we are to those who live next to us. But at the same time, a set of centrifugal forces have been gaining on us, producing a growing sense — between and within societies — of disintegration.

We have more communication, but we also have more confrontation. Even as we exclaim about growing connectivity we seem to experience greater disconnection.

Whether we are looking at a more fragile European Union, a more polarised United States, a more fervid Sunni-Shia conflict, intensified tribal rivalries in much of Africa and Asia, or other splintering threats in every corner of the planet, the word “fragmentation” seems to define our times. Global promise, it can be said, has been matched by tribal wariness. We have more communication, but we also have more confrontation. Even as we exclaim about growing connectivity we seem to experience greater disconnection. Perhaps what we did not see so clearly 60 years ago is the fact that technological advance does not necessarily mean human progress. Sometimes it can mean the reverse.

The more we communicate, the harder it can sometimes be to evaluate what we are saying. More information often means less context and more confusion. More than that, the increased pace of human interaction means that we encounter the stranger more often, and more directly. What is different is no longer abstract and distant. Even for the most tolerant among us, difference, more and more, can be up close and in your face.

What all of this means is that the challenge of living well together — a challenge as old as the human-race — can seem more and more complicated. And so we ask ourselves, what are the resources that we might now draw upon to counter this trend? How can we go beyond our bold words and address the mystery of why our ideals still elude us? In responding to that question, I would ask you to think with me about the term I have used in the title for this lecture: “The Cosmopolitan Ethic.”

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.

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!

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!

A thoughtful cosmopolitan ethic is something quite different from some attitudes that have become associated with the concept of globalisation in recent years. Too often, that term has been linked to an abstract universalism, perhaps well-meaning but often naïve. In emphasising all that the human race had in common, it was easy to depreciate the identities that differentiated us. We sometimes talked so much about how we are all alike that we neglected the wonderful ways in which we can be different.

One result of this superficial view of homogenised, global harmony, was an unhappy counter-reaction. Some took it to mean the spread of a popular, Americanised global culture — that was unfair and an assessment that was erroneous.

One result of this superficial view of homogenised, global harmony, was an unhappy counter-reaction. Some took it to mean the spread of a popular, Americanised global culture — that was unfair and an assessment that was erroneous. Others feared that their individual, ethnic or religious identities might be washed away by a super-competitive economic order, or by some supranational political regime. And the frequent reaction was a fierce defence of older identities. If cooperation meant homogenisation, then a lot of people found themselves saying “No.” But an either-or-choice between the global and the tribal — between the concept of universal belonging and the value of particular identities — was in fact a false choice. The road to a more cooperative world does not require us to erase our differences, but to understand them. A responsible, thoughtful process of globalisation, in my view, is one that is truly cosmopolitan, respecting both what we have in common and what makes us different.

It is perhaps in our nature to see life as a series of choices between sharply defined dualities, but in fact life is more often a matter of avoiding false dichotomies, which can lead to dangerous extremes.

It is perhaps in our nature to see life as a series of choices between sharply defined dualities, but in fact life is more often a matter of avoiding false dichotomies, which can lead to dangerous extremes. The truth of the matter is that we can address the dysfunctions of fragmentation without obscuring the values of diversity.

A cosmopolitan ethic will also be sensitive to the problem of economic insecurity in our world. It is an enormous contributing factor to the problems I have been discussing. Endemic poverty still corrodes any meaningful sense of opportunity for many millions. And even in less impoverished societies, a rising tide of economic anxiety can make it difficult for fearful people to respect, let alone embrace, that which is new or different.

This problem has been compounded by the very advances that have long been the source of so much hope. I am thinking here for example about medical advances that have dramatically increased human longevity. People live longer, but they often find that they have outlived their resources. The developing world is now facing a major challenge: how does it care for the elderly? Even in more developed societies, social changes have eroded some of the domestic support that once eased the burdens of the ageing. How, we must all ask, will we manage the new challenges of longevity?

All of these considerations will place special obligations on those who play leadership roles in our societies. Sadly, some would-be leaders all across the world have been tempted to exploit difference and magnify division. It is always easier to unite followers in a negative cause than a positive one. But the consequences can be a perilous polarisation.

The information explosion itself has sometimes become an information glut, putting even more of a premium on being first and getting attention, rather than being right and earning respect.

The information explosion itself has sometimes become an information glut, putting even more of a premium on being first and getting attention, rather than being right and earning respect. It is not easy to retain one’s faith in a healthy, cosmopolitan marketplace of ideas when the flow of information is increasingly trivialised. One answer to these temptations will be found, I am convinced, in the quality of our education. It will lie with our universities at one end of the spectrum, and early childhood education at the other — a field to which our Development Network has been giving special attention.

Let me mention one more specific issue where a sustained educational effort will be especially important. I refer to the debate — one that has involved many in this audience — about the prospect of some fundamental clash of civilisations between Islam and the West. In my view, the deeper problem behind any prospective “clash of civilisations” is a profound “clash of ignorances”. And in that struggle, education will be an indispensable weapon.

Finally, I would emphasise that a cosmopolitan ethic is one that resonates with the world’s great ethical and religious traditions.

Finally, I would emphasise that a cosmopolitan ethic is one that resonates with the world’s great ethical and religious traditions. A passage from the Holy Qur’an that has been central to my life is addressed to the whole of humanity. It says: “Oh Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women …” At the very heart of the Islamic faith is a conviction that we are all born “of a single soul.” We are “spread abroad” to be sure in all of our diversity, but we share, in a most profound sense, a common humanity.

This outlook has been central to the history of Islam. For many hundreds of years, the greatest Islamic societies were decidedly pluralistic, drawing strength from people of many religions and cultural backgrounds. My own ancestors, the Fatimid Caliphs, founded the city of Cairo, and the great Al Azhar University there, a thousand years ago in this same spirit. That pluralistic outlook remains a central ideal for most Muslims today. There are many, of course, some non-Muslims and some Muslims alike, who have perpetrated different impressions. At the same time, institutions such as those that have welcomed me here today, have eloquently addressed these misimpressions. My hope is that the voices of Islam itself will continue to remind the world of a tradition that, over so many centuries, has so often advanced pluralistic outlooks and built some of the most remarkable societies in human history.

Let me repeat, in conclusion, that a cosmopolitan ethic is one that will honour both our common humanity and our distinctive Identities — each reinforcing the other as part of the same high moral calling.

The central lesson of my own personal journey — over many miles and many years — is the indispensability of such an ethic in our changing world, based on the timeless truth that we are — each of us and all of us — “born of a single soul.”

Thank you.

His Highness the Aga Khan IV

Apres lecture conversation with Diana L. Eck
 

JJL: Diana L. Eck: Your Highness, thank you for that speech. It was a great pleasure to listen to, and I think I feel — especially honoured because there are hundreds of people here who would like to be asking you questions this afternoon, and I’m the person who is sort of appointed to do so — and [so] I am delighted and deeply honoured.

His Highness the Aga Khan: Thank you very much.

DLE: You ended with what is a remarkable theological foundation of pluralism. You began with the political situation of the world, and the multicultural situation of the Ismailis. So from all standards you have a basis for underlining pluralism, as one of the most important issues in our world. But I think the theological understanding is one that may be new to many people, who think primarily in terms of the practical issues of day-to-day life.

AK: Right, right. Well I think that’s absolutely correct, and in fact this notion of one humanity, in the faith of Islam, is a very, very powerful force. But it’s not always presented in the form that I tried to present it today. And it is there, it is clear for those who wish to see it and understand it, but not all Muslim societies take that on-board.

DLE: Well, it is interesting because Jewish, Christian and Muslim societies all are founded on theological principles that stress the oneness of God and also that begin with the theology of Creation in the way in which you had. So there should be — and I think there has been — a kind of theological reaching out. I think especially of the Amman Declaration that you were part of, and of the message that was delivered called A Common Word Between Us and You, from so many Muslim leaders to Christian leaders across the country.

AK: I hope that is true. I have been watching in parts of the world [where] that has become a thought process. I am fearful of the parts of the world where that is not part of, let’s say, government philosophy, but I think that, in time, this understanding of unity of human society, will end up by being seen as a condition sine qua non of good governance. I think you will see governments fail because they do not practise this principle. They will have so many divisions within them, so many attempts at achieving positions of power by certain groups or influence by others, that it will be impossible to create a sense of nationhood, a sense of building around common values, which after all is what most governments would wish to have.

DLE: I think one of the most striking things about the writings you’ve done on these issues and speeches, like we’ve heard today, is your relentless linking of issues of poverty and education and human development with the foundation of pluralism, as you’ve just articulated.

AK: Well, if you try to analyse the causes of poverty in the developing world, as we have tried, there is absolutely no doubt that the marginalisation of communities is one of the fundamental causes of this poverty. And this marginalisation is so structured in society that minorities find it very difficult to break out of that situation. And the work that you are doing here, in your field of pluralism, teaching about pluralism, having people understand that it is not a threat. On the contrary, it is a foundation of civil society in the modern world. These things I think are absolutely essential. I think the more we have seen societies work, which are fractured, putting little groups of people in one box or another box, that is a way of guaranteeing conflict and poverty.

DLE: One of the things I think that we take from this, is because your Centre for Global Pluralism really looks at global issues which are so important, it also is the case that so much has changed in the United States and indeed in Canada — and indeed at Harvard, since the days that you were in Leverett House with two secretaries — and that is the tremendous movement of people as migrants, as refugees from one part of the world to another, and, in the US with the 1965 Immigration and Nationalities Act, the opening of the US to immigrants really from all over the world, so that’s really changed the face of Harvard, and the message that you bring is one that is very relevant to universities today. I’m not sure how large the Harvard Islamic Society was when you were here.

AK: Well in fact, it didn’t exist I think until Sir Hamilton Gibb came to teach here at Harvard. My recollection is that he was the juried professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford, if I’m not wrong, and he came to Harvard from Oxford and he started the program here at Harvard. But that’s my recollection — that’s a long time ago.

DLE: You know the thing that’s amazing today, as you would walk around Harvard you would see dozens and dozens of women going just from here to Leverett House wearing hijab, that you would find a very active Islamic prayer space just next door, in one of the floors of the freshman dormitory, and some places were the Juma prayers every week are in the largest lecture halls where they can remove all the chairs. So the transformation of our university from being a rather parochial university in some ways, to a global and cosmopolitan university is something that has not only to do with the fact that people come here from all over the world, but that our own nation has changed so much and these issues of marginalisation that you speak of, that are divisive in so many ways, are issues that that America faces profoundly in dealing with race and culture, and indeed with a multi-religious society.

AK: Well I’m deeply pleased that Harvard has … is moving towards what Harvard wants to be, even when I graduated. And I remember President Bok telling me extensively about how he was seeing Harvard becoming a global university rather than a US university. That was, in his mind at the time, the goal for this university, and what you are saying today is that that goal is in the process of being achieved. So I have to say well, alhamdulillah. That’s wonderful.

DLE: Well it’s been achieved but we haven’t really moved in some ways from what our current President Drew Faust calls “the necessity of moving from diversity to belonging.” To a sense of really creation of a community that is respectful of our differences, which are so many, and that move, I think one of the profound things that I hear you say, time and again, is that pluralism doesn’t just happen by itself. It requires a certain amount of conviction and support of institutions across the spectrum of civil society.

AK: I think that’s absolutely right. And indeed I would encourage education on pluralism even in secondary education. And in fact neuroscientists are saying that newly born children recognise the pluralism of other children being next to them in a cot even if they can’t see the child. So the individual, the human individual, has [an] extraordinary means of sensing somebody who is from a different society. But that sensing has nothing negative in it. It’s a constatation [Eng: ascertainment] — I can’t find the word in English, but you know what I mean. So I find that very, very exciting that when children are born the notion of differences in background or race, is not at all a feature which has value attached to it, neither negative nor positive. It’s a constatation.

DLE: That issue that you have raised again and again, that our differences are part of the richness that we bring to life, we could say, from a theological standpoint, that’s a God-given difference from scattering of people from this one soul.

AK: But I have to nonetheless point out that many countries, in the developing world where we have been working, were governed on the principle of divide of communities. For years we worked in countries where the educational system was African, Asian or European. There was no single educational system in those countries. So that is the phenomenon which people have inherited even today and which is difficult to overcome. I can remember situations where hospitals were not entitled to take people of different backgrounds.

DLE: In the development network that you have created spanning the world, I know education is a very big piece of this — from the Aga Khan Universities to local education that must be a daunting task. A few years ago, your daughter Princess Zahra was here and spoke at the Harvard School of Education about her role in this with a great attention to women’s education. I’m not sure if that is a particular emphasis that you bring, but it certainly is one that is profoundly important.

AK: Well my grandfather in fact pushed very hard to have women’s education as part of our overall educational process, so that’s part of the way we think, the way we live today. Now you were talking about universities etc., and it’s clearly a critical issue that in the developing world, the universities should upgrade their performance and that their degrees should be recognised, that their research should be of global importance. And I was taught, when I came to Harvard, that plagiarism was a bad thing, well I am here to plagiarise (laugh) — and I don’t hide it — from Harvard.

DLE: When you talk about the cosmopolitan ethic that emerges from this recognition of difference and yet a foundation in human oneness, the elements of that are what? What would you say are the elements of a cosmopolitan ethic?

AK: I think the first of all you need to accept the premise that human society is pluralist, and it has been pluralist for as long as we know about the human race, if I’m not wrong. So there is a basic premise that has to be accepted, that issue of accepting pluralism also means that you need to attach equity to that notion. If there is no equity in pluralist societies, then you don’t have functioning pluralist societies, you don’t have institutions that function properly etc. And I have admired a number of governments in developing countries for example, where without saying it, they have fought very hard to create equal opportunity for various communities in various parts of the country, whereas that was not the case in colonial societies.

DLE: So equity would be one element of that ethic …

AK: Equity would certainly be one element.

DLE: And a respect for justice would be another piece of it?

AK: Respect for justice and I would say equal opportunity for the intelligentsia … I have seen situations where there has been an attempt to marginalise the intelligentsia of a given community and that of course is an extremely unwelcome feature of a society.

DLE: One of the things I recall from having been involved with interfaith leaders, not that I am one myself, but I’m an observer of these events, was the effort over a number of years ago, to create a global ethic, out of the distinctive ethical norms of different religious traditions and even of secular traditions and there were certain things everyone could agree on. And I think equality, justice, opportunity, dignity, etc. were very much agreeable. When it came to what equity meant, I hesitate to say the biggest issue in equity among these dignified religious leaders was the issue of women and men, and whether gender equity, whether that really meant gender equity. It seems to me that is an issue to a great extent and yet my own impression of the Ismaili community, is that leadership in jamatkhanas and other elements of the Development Network and leadership in these positions is shared by women and men. Am I right about that?

AK: Absolutely, and in fact I have spent considerable time trying to make sure that whether it’s leadership amongst women … the community could benefit from that. Leadership qualities [are] not gender driven so actually, if you don’t respect the fact that both genders have competencies, outstanding capabilities, you are damaging your community by not appointing those people.

DLE: So as we think about, I’m thinking now about the kind of responsibility that you have both for the spiritual as well the material well-being, the welfare of the Ismaili community — but as you put it, it’s not just the welfare of the Ismaili community but those with whom they share their societies as well.

AK: Absolutely.

DLE: So in those, are there societies in which you find it almost impossible to have leadership of women in your own community rise?

AK: No, not really I think. I think people tolerate our decisions, I’m not sure they are always welcome (laugh).

DLE: That seems to have struck a chord here.

AK: I think the women in the audience know what I mean. (Laughter and applause)

DLE: So as you think about your successor, is there any chance that Princess Zahra could, or would not that be tolerated?

AK: No that would not be tolerated.

DLE: We were very impressed with her here. But we have not met your two sons.

AK: Well she is the first member of my family who’s received a University degree. So she is an important member of my family because the gender balance is all now Harvard related. (laugh) Not Radcliffe.

DLE: One of the things that has been so, I’m sure very much on people’s mind, is that to intentionally cultivate pluralism in a society, there are some societies in which the civil society and our educational institutions are welcoming of this. But of course, pluralism within our own religious communities is often a very difficult thing, and I speak as a Christian who knows perfectly well the number of anti-pluralists there are within the Christian tradition and people who are convinced that the only possible way of conceptualising religious truth is through the lens of the Christian tradition. This also is probably true in the Muslim tradition and the effort that must be made, to cultivate the kind of appreciation of mutual respect and difference, is certainly a huge task.

AK: I would strongly agree that pluralism is a subject that is taught; it’s not instinctive in a human society.

DLE: It’s not instinctive.

AK: It’s not instinctive. So I would strongly support any initiative at any level of age — that is, from the newly born child up to the post-graduate student — that there should be continuous exposure to the notion of pluralism in society. It’s much easier with children obviously than with grown ups. But to me, it must be a feature of any modern society in any part of the world. I can’t travel in any part of the world today, without observing the amazing mix of backgrounds of people today that wasn’t there years ago. And that is happening more and more through happy events, unhappy events — you can see what is happening with refugees today. But I am more worried about societies preparing themselves to accept foreigners. That’s not a big story of success in my mind. The only country that I can think of that actually has a process is Canada.

DLE: And you have lived certainly in France, and have deep connections in England as well. And you have seen the ways in which they are struggling with the diversity of their own societies.

AK: Absolutely and for different reasons, but they are struggling, and in many ways I consider them somewhat unprepared.

DLE: I think the preparedness here in the United States is also very much, I mean the Pluralism Project has been studying the changing religious landscapes of the US for 25 years. And I think, along the lines of your point, if I had been teaching Kindergarten in Houston, Texas, I would have realised far earlier how much our society had been changing. But it wasn’t until till the 1990’s that the children of this new immigration came to college and began transforming our own demographic and university in which we live and teach.

AK: Well I think that your point is very important, because what you are effectively saying is [there is] awareness in United States of the issue. I am thinking of countries where there has not been that awareness until much too late.

DLE: Yes and among some Americans as well, even though scarcely, you can’t really find a state in the US where the Muslim and Hindu and Sikh presence hasn’t become a significant one. But still, we hear this in some of our public leaders, this is only a slow dawning awareness. They sometimes don’t like it as well.

AK: Yes, I realise that, but, I mean, I think these are people who are thinking against, or in contradiction, with a road-map that you can extend from history and you extend that road-map and you reach the correct conclusions.

DLE: You have often said, and I think it’s right, as we look at the world today that the instability and divisiveness of societies is infectious, and at the same time you say so is hope. So can you give us in conclusion just a sense of the infectiousness of hope from your experience.

AK: Well, I think I mentioned in my comments, to me one of the most important issues for society in any part of the world, is that it should be driven by hope. The moment that people of any generation, of any age, lose hope, it is a very, very damaging thing for that community, that society. So creating circumstances of hope, is to me very, very important indeed. And much of the Aga Khan Development Network their work is to try to assist countries to become countries of opportunity. That is one of the main goals that I have, that as many countries where the community is living should be countries of opportunity. [The] definition of opportunity, of course, is a different thing, but a life that sees itself with no opportunity is a very, very sad prospect.

DLE: Your Highness this has been a great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with you and thank you for your return to Harvard for this afternoon. Thank you very much and may you come again and again.

AK: Well thank you for your generosity and your questions.

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