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His Highness the Aga Khan

Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Avignon Forum: The value and importance of cultural diversity and its role in promoting peace and development (Avignon, France)

16 November 2008

 

Please also see: Discours en français

Minister of Culture and Communication,
European Commissioner for the Information Society and the Media,
Ministers,
Representatives of the European Union,
Representatives of international organisations and institutions,
Representatives of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Region and the Département of Vaucluse,
Your worship, the Deputy Mayoress of Avignon,
Representatives from the world of culture and economy,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Mr President of the Republic and you, Madam Minister, I’m honoured and delighted to have been invited to say a few words at this Avignon Forum.

You have asked me to talk a little about my experience of a subject that you know is very dear to my heart:

"The value and importance of cultural diversity and its role in promoting peace and development"

In fact, exactly fifty years ago, when I inherited the Imamate from grandfather, I discovered that wars, indifference, negligence and the drive to standardise cultures through colonisation, or the desire to modernise the built environment, had resulted in the irreparable loss of important cultural characteristics in developing countries, particularly those in Muslim countries.

In other words, the distinctive cultural features of those countries, whose key importance is stressed by UNESCO’s definition, were being eroded.

Something had to be done.

I want to talk to you today about my efforts to defend these cultures, through the Aga Khan Development Network, and specifically through its dedicated agency, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

This Trust for Culture focuses its activities in three main areas:

  • the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme,
  • the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and
  • an Education and Culture Programme.

These activities, which are themselves subdivided into a variety of subsidiary programmes in many countries, obey three key principles:

  • to increase the beneficiaries’ independence,
  • to involve local communities, and
  • to secure the support of public and private partners.

I thought it would be best, in the allotted time, to give you three examples of projects carried out within the framework of this institution, so they might serve as a useful point of reference for the discussions that will take place in this Forum over the next few days.

All our programmes have three aspects in common:

  • they are carried out in a poor environment where there are considerable centrifugal, sometimes even conflicting, forces at play;
  • they are designed to have maximum beneficial impact on the economies of the populations involved and their quality of life in the broadest sense of the term;
  • they are planned in the long term, over a period of up to twenty-five years, enabling them to become self-sufficient both financially as well as in terms of human resources.

That said, the first example I shall talk about is a programme being run in the field of intellectual works, namely music.

I should like you to consider the complex history, diversity and inventiveness of the music of countries like Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Afghanistan.

Sadly I discovered that the musical cultures of Central Asia were struggling for the reasons I gave a moment ago. Not only were they being consigned to oblivion, but the musical models imposed on them from outside, often with ulterior political motives, were creating a colourless cultural uniformity.

These processes have resulted in a loss of identity, not only in the field of music discussed here, but also in many others.

In a world that claims to be globalised, there are some who might regard cultural standardisation as natural, even desirable.

For my part, I believe that marks of individual and group cultural identity generate an inner strength which is conducive to peaceful relations. I also believe in the power of plurality, without which there is no possibility of exchange. In my view, this idea is integral to the very definition of genuine quality of life.

With regard to the example of music used here, through the Trust we met the challenge by creating the Aga Khan Music Initiative. We called this project the “Silk Road”, since all the countries concerned were situated along that unique route linking China and Europe.

The long-term objective is:

  • to boost education and research;
  • to train new generations of young artists;
  • to contribute to the revival of festivals, concerts and performances in the countries from which the music originated;
  • to bring the music to audiences not only in neighbouring countries, but also in other Muslim countries and the West.

We are now witnessing a true musical revival in these faraway countries. Furthermore, the great advantage of this type of programme is that it not only promotes cultural pluralism, but also underscores the legitimate function of pluralism as a principle of social organisation, which may be harder to comprehend.

Although this result cannot be measured with the tools of an economist, it unfailingly contributes every time to a renewed awareness of specific cultural characteristics and a considerable improvement in the quality of life. This is no doubt the reason why, when a community has witnessed and participated in an experiment to promote pluralism, it is eager to see it applied in other areas.

Equally important as the rediscovery and worldwide circulation of traditional music, is that young architects should be able to draw inspiration freely from all traditions, starting with their own, and this is my second example. Architects in the East should have access to the best sources in the West and vice versa.

It was with this aim in view that the Aga Khan Trust for Culture created ARCHNET, basing it at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to ensure its future growth as technology progresses.

Once again, this is an intellectual work, an online forum, and an electronic encyclopaedia of the built environment.

This tool allows architects from developing countries in particular to gain access to knowledge and techniques so that they can construct buildings for which there is no precedent in their history, such as airports, hospitals or modern office blocks, without precluding the integration of elements from their own culture. In other words, although there is no question of dismissing the technical contributions of modernity, they must be assimilated into their intended socio-cultural context.

Our objective, when we created ARCHNET, which has now been achieved, was to create a global community of architects, town planners, teachers and students sharing their knowledge online, in the field of the built environment. According to the most recent figures, this community now has over 60,000 members. By October, the number of “hits” on the website and web pages visited was 30% up on last year.

My third example is the restoration by the Aga Khan Trust of historic cities and their parks. We have done work in this field in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Bosnia Herzegovina, Egypt, Syria, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Zanzibar and Mali. We have therefore helped breathe new life into rural and urban economies by revitalising the historic sites and buildings that form the living environment for people who are among the poorest inhabitants of the countries concerned.

In this context, it is only right to mention the incredible impetus provided by public-private partnerships. I’ll quote here Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India in 2004, who said: “I hope that more public-private partnerships can be evolved to maintain and restore the monuments of our ancestors, which often lie in a neglected condition in our cities and towns.” I must say that I was particularly delighted to hear him make this statement at Emperor Humayun’s Mausoleum, near Delhi, which was restored as the result of an effective partnership between the Indian state and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

We have learned how effective and valuable public-private partnerships can be. This is exactly the lesson I have put into practice for the restoration of the Chantilly estate, a programme that I am personally running in conjunction with the Institut de France, the town of Chantilly, the Département de l’Oise, the Picardy Region and France-Galop.

The impact of these particular examples can be measured with traditional economic tools, such as the effect on a given demography and the quantifiable improvement in quality of life parameters. This leads me to hope, for the first time, that this type of activity can be financed by the large international financial agencies, without our running the risk of being called financial carnivores.

So my experience concurs with what the Minister was saying earlier: “Culture isn’t a world apart, it lies within an all too real economic context.”

Finally, I should like to put into different words something I have already said indirectly: I am very concerned about the gulf between cultures.

However, this gulf is not what has mistakenly been called the clash of civilisations.

This gulf is potentially just as dangerous as a clash, because ignorance about other people and a lack of understanding of the valuable benefits of plurality can lead to contempt, hatred and war.

A gulf however can be filled in, whereas a clash is irreparable.

We are all profoundly aware of this gulf and this is fundamentally why we take action. I have given you several examples, but there are many others, like the Aga Khan Museum which is to be built in Toronto to become the specialist centre for Islamic art in North America and initiate exchanges with all the leading museums in the West.

I sincerely hope that these partnerships will be able to develop with governments, international organisations and their development agencies. They have supported and helped us greatly in the past and I’m sure that this tool will provide new ways for them to continue their activities.

As this Avignon Forum is being held under the aegis of the French Presidency of the European Union, I should like to end by paying tribute to the effective cooperation that exists between the European Union and the development agencies of many Member States on the one hand, and the Aga Khan Development Network on the other. And since we are in France, I should particularly like to express my pleasure at the cooperation that exists with the French Development Agency and its network.

I hope I have demonstrated the hugely beneficial effects of serious initiatives in the field of culture, whether they can be measured in economic terms or can be perceived in terms of the progress made by pluralism and, as a result, the improvement in quality of life. Culture is not just an added extra or a luxury. QED.

Thank you.

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