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His Highness the Aga Khan

Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan at Graduation Ceremony of the Masters of Public Affairs (MPA) Programme at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po)

15 June 2007

 

Please also see: Discours en français et Related Material

Mr. Richard Descoings, Director of Sciences Po,
Directors and Faculty of the MPA Programme,
Graduating Students and their Families,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour to be with you today.

This is a memorable time for all of you who are graduating today - and for your friends and families. And it is also a special moment in the life of this School - the graduation of the first class to earn the new Master of Public Affairs degree.

The values which Sciences Po honors today are deeply rooted in its history - stretching back now over a century and a third a lot of people have been ahead of you. But the School’s hallmark is that it has always honored the past by embracing the future. The Master of Public Affairs programme -especially its emphasis on international partnerships - is an ideal example of new innovation in the service of old ideals.

Among those ideals has been the principle of educating for leadership, but leadership based not on social standing or material resources but on intellectual merit.

The founders of Sciences Po realized in their time that aristocracies of class must give way to aristocracies of talent – that is, to meritocracies. And the path to meritocracy in leadership is meritocracy in education.

Another value which Sciences Po has emphasized from the start is that of pluralism - an outlook which rises above parochial preoccupations. That outlook is reflected today in your strong international commitments, including your new Master of Public Affairs degree.

I was impressed with this programme from the day I first learned that Sciences Po would join with Columbia University and the London School of Economics in its sponsorship. And my enthusiasm is reinforced as I look out at the global mix of your first graduating class. I wish I had the time to meet and talk to every one of you.

I had the opportunity to speak just a year and a month ago at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. I shared with that audience a definition I once heard of a good graduation speaker - they say it is someone who can talk in someone else’s sleep.

I hope that we can break that pattern today.

Toward that end, I thought it might be helpful if I took up a question which may well be on many of your minds: Just who is the Aga Khan, anyway? And why is he here?

In response, let me say first that I was born into a Muslim family, linked by heredity to Prophet Muhammad (May peace be upon him and his family). It was exactly fifty years ago that I became the 49th Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.

The ethics of Islam bridge the realms of faith on the one hand and practical life on the other – what we call Din and Dunya. Accordingly, my spiritual responsibilities for interpreting the faith are accompanied by a strong engagement in issues relating to the quality of life and well being. This latter commitment extends not only to the Ismaili community but also to those with whom they share their lives - locally, nationally and internationally.

One of the issues which has concerned me the most over these years has been the topic of education.

My forefathers, as far back as a thousand years ago and as recently as a century ago, founded some of the great universities of the Muslim world, and I have continued in that tradition through a program of Aga Khan Academies, a school system, and by establishing the Aga Khan University and the University of Central Asia.

Against this background, you can understand why the success of your new program is of such a great interest for me.
We hear a great deal these days about a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the West. I disagree profoundly. In my view, it is a clash of ignorance which we are facing. And the answer to ignorance is education.

I should note that my own education has blended Islamic and western traditions. My secondary and university schooling, in fact, was in Europe and in America. But my perspective over these last fifty years has also been profoundly shaped by the developing world.

The Ismailis currently reside – as minorities - in more than 25 countries, mostly in the developing world. For five decades, that has been my world – my virtually permanent preoccupation. During that time we have built a wide-ranging series of programmes involving these societies - in fields such as health care, education and culture, economic infrastructure and social development, the environment, the arts, and the media – coordinated through the Aga Khan Development Network.
Over this past half century, the pace of change on our planet has been bewildering. And that pace is accelerating. I was struck last month by the fact that the leadership of France, the U.K. and Germany had changed significantly in just a few months and similar changes are coming in the United States.

As the pace of history accelerates, developments that occurred over fifty years in my lifetime will happen in fifteen or even five years for your generation. This is why I believe that the most important thing you could have mastered in the course of your studies - as you were becoming “Masters” of Public Affairs - was not any specific body of knowledge, but rather the ability to go on learning.

There is nothing we can do to slow the pace of change, but we can hope to help steer its direction.

As we do so, there are three challenges in particular that I would like to highlight to you today. They are: first, the future of democracy, especially in the developing world; secondly, the central role which civil society can play in that development; and thirdly, the crisis in relations between the West and the Islamic world. These are all areas which are going to affect the world in which you live in the decades ahead.

The history of democracy, especially in areas of Asia and Africa which I know well, has been a long series of jolts and jars. Today, any thoughtful observer of those regions would have to conclude that democracy has been losing popular confidence as an effective form of government.

In many of these countries, governments, constitutions, parliaments, and political parties are little more than a dysfunctional assemblage of notional democratic vehicles. Elections are held, constitutions are validated, and international monitors issue their reports, but observing these forms of government is not the same thing as governing effectively.

A recent survey by UNDP of 18 South American countries confirmed that the majority of people were less interested in their forms of government than in their quality of life. In simple terms, most people would rather have a beneficent paternalistic dictator, provided he improved the quality of life, than a less effective, though duly elected, democratic leadership.

The question that must be asked, I believe, is not whether democracy is a good thing in the abstract, but rather how to help democracy perform better in practice. Do we really know what is going wrong? And why? Do we know what corrective steps should be taken? And by whom?

These are massive questions, and I do not claim to know the answers. But I do believe that significantly more thought must be given to these issues, by the intelligentsia of our world, yourselves included.

As we think about these questions, there are some hopeful signs. Generally speaking, the most successful developing countries are those which have engaged actively with the global knowledge society, those which have accepted and defended the value of pluralism, and those which have created an enabling environment for human enterprise, rather than indulging in asphyxiating policies which discourage human endeavour.

But in too many places, democratic practice is deeply flawed. One problem is simple ignorance of the various forms of democracy. I attribute this in part to the absence of good education in comparative government. Holding a national referendum on a new constitution, is no guarantee that the provisions of the constitution have been understood, let alone validated, by popular consent.

In addition, the machinery of government - including the creation and funding of political parties, is often unguided and undisciplined, and widely open to manipulation and fraud. Nor is government performance monitored effectively - by internal processes or by the media.

Finally, the very concept of democracy must be adapted to a variety of national and cultural contexts. Effective democracy can not be imposed from the top or from the outside. Democracy’s value must be deeply felt in the daily lives of a country’s population, including the rural majority, if it is to be upheld and promoted.

Against this background, it would be wise, in my view, to prepare ourselves for a time of testing as far as democracy is concerned. We can expect a mix of successes, failures and disappointments, as well as a continuing array of governing arrangements: absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies, single house or dual house parliaments, presidential and other systems, including numerous forms of federalism. In addition, regional groupings will increasingly play important roles.
Does this picture mean continuing instability in parts of the developing world? May be.

But I have confidence that if we can ask the right questions about democracy, we will increasingly find the right answers.
In this regard, the fact that history moves at an accelerating pace is both a challenge and an opportunity. I remember how people 50 years ago carelessly referred to many of the developing economies as hopeless “basket cases”, including places that have taken off since - like India and China.

As history demonstrates, so-called backward places can move forward over time. It is not unrealistic to plan for progress.
This brings me to my second major point. One of the reasons that I am more optimistic than some about the future of the developing world is my faith that a host of new institutions can play a larger role in that future. I am especially enthusiastic about the potential of what I call “civil society”.

By civil society, I mean a set of institutions which are neither governmental nor commercial, organizations which are powered by private energies but designed to advance the public good. They work in fields such as education, health, science and research. They embrace professional, commercial, labour, ethnic and arts associations, and others devoted to religion, communication, and the environment. Many are targeted to fight poverty and social inequity.

Too often we have assumed that voluntary organizations are too limited to serve great public purposes. For some, the very notion of private organizations devoted to public goals seems to be an oxymoron.

But this skeptical attitude is changing. The power of civil society is becoming more apparent - in your coursework here at Sciences Po among other places. This is all to the good - civil society should have a prominent place in the new equation for social progress, complementing rather than competing with government. And the same thing is true of the private business sector - and the potential for public-private partnerships.

Civil and private institutions have unique capacities for spurring social progress - even when governments falter. For one thing, because they are intimately connected to the warp and woof of daily life, they can predict new patterns with particular sensitivity.

The development of civil society can also help meet the challenge of cultural diversity, giving diverse constituencies effective ways to express and preserve their distinct identities.

Private institutions also provide good laboratories for experimentation. Because they are multiple in nature, they can try a variety of approaches, sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding, but always learning from their experiences. And because these institutions need NOT make short term accommodations to conventional wisdom or current fashions, they have greater freedom to be controversial - and creative.

Let me move then to my third topic, the crisis in relations between the West and the Islamic world. I cannot remember a time when these relations have been so strained, or so wide-sweeping in their impact - both across generations and across the world.

I am deeply convinced that the fundamental roots of this crisis are infinitely more political than they are theological. And we can deal effectively with this crisis, I believe, only if we begin by addressing a complex set of political issues, rather than worrying so much about a conflict of religions.

If you reflect back to the origins of the present flash points, the historical legacy has been consistently political - and frequently explosive. The present Middle East situation was born at the end of World War I, growing out of the search for a homeland for the Jewish peoples of our world. The Kashmir conflict was born out of the decolonisation process when Britain withdrew from the then-united India. More recently, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the British and American invasion of Iraq have further contributed to the turmoil.

But disputes among the three Abrahamic faiths themselves have not been responsible for these conflicts. Yes, many of the problems have since taken on the colouring of interfaith conflict, but that development is the consequence, much more than the cause, of these tragedies.

Political conflict, of course, has sometimes intensified theological forces which were once less conflictual, particularly in the Islamic world. Separations within Islam have become more visible, more irascible, and more difficult to address. Some such divisions, such as relations between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims, or between various interpretations of Islam, have historical roots which are centuries old, and have been revived and fanned by political developments. But other cleavages, between the secular states and the theocracies of the Muslim world, for example, or between the ultra rich and the ultra poor, are essentially the products of modern times - at least in their scope and scale.

Three observations are critical here. First, there really is no one single Islamic world, but a variety of individual situations which need individual analysis. Second, the faith of Islam, in the vast majority of its interpretations, is not in conflict with the other great Abrahamic traditions. Third, each crisis we encounter stems from its own specific political context.

Bringing a new sense of peace and order to this complex situation will require great subtlety, patience, understanding and knowledge. Sadly, none, I repeat none, of these requirements are sufficiently available amongst the main players today. There is clumsiness, not subtlety, there is impatience, not patience, there is a massive deficit in understanding and an enormous knowledge vacuum.

Too often, there is also a tendency to run away from unpleasant truths. But we will not ameliorate these conflicts unless we address the underlying conditions - especially when economic despair leads to radicalization. It has taken 50 years, and the publication of the Sachar Committee Report, to acknowledge that the Muslims of India are second class citizens. But is the same thing not also true of the Muslims of Mindanao? It is perhaps understandable that any religious grouping which has been marginalized economically will see itself as being victimised. But our priority should not be to sharpen religious distinctions but to address human suffering.

Let me also comment on the sharpening of cultural conflict within western societies.

The past few years have been a dispiriting time in Europe - in part because of what many describe as a clash of civilizations in Europe’s midst, triggered by the rapid growth of minority populations. Perhaps, under a revitalized leadership, Europe can lead the world in meeting that challenge. But it will not be easy.

Cultural conflict in the past was often mitigated by the fact that sharp cultural distinctions were muffled by geographic distance.

But geography as a cushion between cultures has been diminishing in recent years. The communications revolution has meant “the death of distance”. More than that, cultures are now mixing physically to an extent that would once have seemed impossible.

Economic globalization contributes to the trend. Some 45 million young people enter the job market in the developing world each year - but there are not enough jobs at home for many of them. Immigrants now account for two thirds of the population growth in the 30 member countries of the OECD. Some 150 million legal immigrants now live outside their native countries, joined by uncounted millions of illegal immigrants. Remittances sent home by immigrants total some $145 billion a year - and generate twice that amount in economic activity.

The economic forces that propel immigration are far more powerful and relentless, I believe, than most people understand. They will not readily or easily be reversed or impeded.

As once homogenous societies become distinctly multi-cultural, the rhythms, colours and flavours of host communities change, inspiring some, but frightening others. More than half of the respondents in recent European opinion polls have expressed a negative view of immigration.

The frequent result of all these factors has been marginalization - socially and economically - for many minorities. And we need not look very far to see the evidence. To be sure, the victims of marginalization in our world can be found on the floodplains of Bangladesh, the village streets of Uganda, and the teeming neighbourhoods of Cairo. But they can also be found in the banlieu of Paris.

The “Clash of Civilizations” is both a local and a global problem.

The world is becoming more pluralist in fact - but not in spirit. “Cosmopolitan” social patterns have not yet been matched by what I would call “a cosmopolitan ethic”.

One of the great stumbling blocks to the advance of pluralism, in my view, is simple human arrogance. All of the world’s great religions warn against self righteousness - yet too many are still tempted to play God themselves - rather than recognising their humility before the Divine.

A central element in a truly religious outlook, it seems to me, is a recognition that we all have a great deal to learn from one another.

The Holy Quran speaks of how mankind has been created by a single Creator “from a single soul…” – a profound affirmation of the unity of humanity.

This Islamic ideal, of course, is shared by other great religions. Despite the long history of religious conflict, there is also a long counter-history of religious tolerance.

Instead of shouting at one another, our faiths ask us to listen - and learn from one another. As we do, one of our first lessons might well center on those powerful but often neglected chapters in history when Islamic and European cultures interacted cooperatively and creatively to realize some of civilization's peak achievements.

The spirit of pluralism is not a pallid religious compromise. It is a sacred religious imperative. In this light, our differences can become sources of enrichment, so that we see “the other” as an opportunity and a blessing - whether “the other” lives across the street - or across the world.

Having looked then at the challenges of democracy, the opportunities for civil society, and the nature of our cultural divides, let me return to a point I made earlier - the acceleration of history, the danger of further drift, and the need to master change.
Who is it, I would ask in closing, who is best positioned to pursue such mastery? Among those who inherit this obligation and this opportunity, I would suggest, are you who are graduating this week from one of the world’s most advanced university programmes, with a title which tells us that you are, each one of you, a “Master of Public Affairs”.

As you graduate, you have my warmest congratulations on all you have accomplished so far, and my prayer that God may be with you, inspiring you and empowering you, in all the good things you will be doing in the days ahead.

Thank you.

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