Philanthropic initiatives cannot be contemplated exclusively in terms of economics, but rather as an integrated programme that encompasses social and cultural dimensions as well….

[Strengthening pluralism] is critical to the development of peace and humankind in the 21st century. [But] we must educate for it.

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Interviewer: Dana Micucci in Boston

“The instability that we see around the world, from Afghanistan to Central Europe, is a consequence of the rejection of cultural pluralism,” said the Aga Khan, a man who knows a great deal about cultural pluralism. He blames that rejection on the enormous gulf of knowledge between the Islamic and the non-Islamic world, a situation that, he said, leaves him deeply saddened.

It is late September, and the Aga Khan is speaking to an interviewer in a Boston hotel suite, where he has come to introduce the latest brainchild of one of his favourite causes. Called ArchNet, a collaboration among the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it is billed as the world’s largest on-line resource for the study of Islamic architecture, urban planning and landscape design.

But right now he is addressing the heightened perceptions of a post-9/11 world. The entire Islamic faith, which he describes as being as “diverse in its beliefs and practices as Christianity,” is, he said, often wrongly identified with a single destructive element.

No one would look upon [the Irish Republican Army] as representative of Christianity. The attempt by communal groups, be they ethnic, religious or tribal, to impose themselves on others aims to eradicate the cultural basis of group identity, and without cultural identity social cohesion gradually dissolves.

With tensions at a boiling point in the Middle East, the United States threatening war with Iraq and Muslim charities facing increasing scrutiny as potential underwriters of terrorism, the Aga Khan finds himself straddling a cultural divide in which his various roles as billionaire philanthropist, spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims and globe-trotting businessman give him a perspective that is unusual, to say the least.

The Aga Khan, a Harvard graduate who as a young man considered becoming an architect, has long been a champion of modern and traditional architecture and of historic preservation. He is the patron of the world’s richest architectural prize, a $500,000 award given triennially to groups of architects whose projects contribute to social, economic and cultural development in the Muslim world. His new venture, ArchNet, is part of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, which he founded in 1977 at Harvard and at M.I.T.

To the Aga Khan, cultural and economic development are part of the same continuum.

Philanthropic initiatives cannot be contemplated exclusively in terms of economics, but rather as an integrated programme that encompasses social and cultural dimensions as well.

As an example, he cites his work in Afghanistan. This year, the Aga Khan Development Network made a $75 million donation to reconstruction and long-term efforts in Afghanistan, including programs for distributing food, resettling refugees, providing social services and restoring historic buildings.

“In Afghanistan, he’s using his resources to benefit both the Ismailis and the larger community,” said Vartan Gregorian, the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, of his friend the Aga Khan. “The Shia Ismaili Muslims are an enlightened, inclusive group who believe in education and progress, self-help and equality between men and women. He’s an example of a modern Islamic leader who’s building bridges between cultures, dispelling the notion of Islam as a monolithic faith and rightly presenting it as a mosaic of many different voices.”

“He puts his money where his beliefs are,” said James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, which has joined with the Aga Khan to finance programs in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Instead, the Aga Khan chose Toronto as the site for the Islamic museum and cultural centre, which will house his collection of art and historical manuscripts. He cited Toronto’s tradition of inclusiveness as one reason for his choice.

The project is an example of his crusade to “build unity in diversity.” Strengthening pluralism in all corners of the globe, he said, “is critical to the development of peace and humankind in the 21st century.” But, he added, “We must educate for it.”