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His Highness the Aga Khan

Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Graduation Ceremony of the University of Alberta

09 June 2009

 

Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim

Eminent Chancellor
Madame President
Mr. Chairman of the Board
Your Worship the Mayor
Faculty, Graduates, Friends and Family

What a pleasure and privilege it is to be here today, as this great university moves into its second century. I am deeply grateful for your kind invitation, for the wonderful honour you have given me, and for the rich partnership which the Aga Khan University has enjoyed with the University of Alberta. I am pleased, too, that this partnership will be extended under the new Agreement we have just signed between our two universities, along with the institutions of the Aga Khan Development Network.

My warmest congratulations go to all who graduate today and to the families, friends and faculty members who share in your proud achievements.

I read recently about a graduation ceremony like this one which was marred, perhaps, by an excess of confidence. The editors of the class yearbook were great believers in technology and entrusted the final proofreading to the computer program called spell-check, something which you undoubtedly know a thing or two about!

Unfortunately, as The Week magazine reported, it was “a bad week for spell check,” as the automatic program changed the names of several students. For example, Alessandra Ippolito was listed as Alexandria Impolite, while Max Zupanovic was rechristened Max Supernova. And Kathy Carbaugh’s photo appeared next to the name Kathy Airbag.

After hearing this, you may want to check on how your own names are spelled on your programmes and diplomas and what mischief spell-check might do to your name if it had the chance. I for one decided that I should spell check my own name. I found that, while there was no “Aga Khan”, there was something called an “Aga” Cooker. It was defined as one of England’s oldest stoves and ovens …now somewhat outdated … but with a distinctive whistle every time it frizzled the food within!

As you may know, the Aga Khan is, in fact, the Imam, or spiritual leader, of the Ismaili Muslim community, a role I inherited from my grandfather over fifty years ago. Even as the University of Alberta was celebrating its 100th anniversary last year, I was marking my own golden jubilee. To mark both anniversaries, to express my profound thanks, and to celebrate our growing partnership, I am presenting a gift today which reflects both my Islamic heritage and your University traditions. I have just visited a parcel of land within the Devonian Gardens of the University, where we plan to create a traditional Islamic Garden. We hope this space will be of educational and aesthetic value, a setting for learning more about Muslim culture and design, as well as a place for public reflection.

Over these past five decades, much of my attention has been focused on the challenges of the developing world, and it is in this arena that our partnership with the University of Alberta has been most active. The University’s commitment to the global context and the developing world has been inspiring, and the match between your areas of expertise and developing world requirements, as I understand them, has been nothing short of extraordinary.

For many years, your leaders have set priorities which intersect with vital development needs, including such areas as agricultural sciences and nutrition, public health and telemedicine, natural resource management, information technology, environmental and energy sciences, and so many others, including your respect for diversity, and for the rights and the roles of traditional societies. Roderick Fraser, your President Emeritus and a Trustee of the Aga Khan University, is one of the many Canadian visionaries who have helped forge this remarkable record.

I was pleased to read recently the University’s own description of its continuing international goals: increasing joint programmes, encouraging semesters abroad and broadening exchange programmes, building international community service and internship opportunities, and creating new academic programmes with a global perspective.

What an impressive agenda! It represents precisely the sort of outreach from Western intellectual centres which I believe is essential for global progress. And it coincides with a period in which the developing world itself is recognizing, as never before, the centrality of education to its future - and the leading role of North American universities in that process.

Let me mention one more critical element in this picture. The international impact of this University’s work is reinforced by the high regard in which Canada itself is held as a valued development partner. Canada comes to that challenge with impressive credentials; no history as a colonial power, a successful pluralist society, high standards of living, and a readiness to welcome a global leadership role.

In today’s community of nations, a country’s standing is no longer recognized simply by what it can achieve for itself, but just as much by what it can do for others. In this context, Canada has become a world “power” in the best sense of that word.

As young people with a Canadian education, you will be warmly welcomed by the global community if you should choose to spend some time in international activity, making the world your workplace. The path has been well prepared by eminent Canadians who have gone before you.

As I have thought about the challenge of international development and its relationship to education, I have come to identify four key areas of concern. These are issues which have engaged the Aga Khan Development Network for over two decades, including the innovative curricular planning of our schools and universities. I thought I might discuss them briefly with you today.

The first of these themes concerns the faltering instruments of government in many countries of Asia and Africa: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kenya and Uganda, for example, are plagued by dysfunctional constitutional frameworks which ignore inherited traditions, poorly apportion responsibilities among central versus provincial authorities, fail to ensure equity and liberty for minority and tribal communities, and are unresponsive to their vast rural populations.

We are facing, I believe, years and even decades of continued testing among various forms of democratic governance. At the present moment, we may well be seeing more failures than successes.

I feel strongly that students of government from across the world can help address this situation, suggesting a creative range of constitutional options and best practices in places where governmental systems have not yet had time to mature. And educational institutions at all levels should give more attention to the disciplines of comparative government.

This does not mean the imposition of political systems from outside. But it is not enough to replace coercion from beyond one’s borders with coercions from one’s own capital city. Governments everywhere should reflect the will and the aspirations of all their peoples.

One central challenge here is that age-old traditions of the countryside often seem unrelated to the challenges of running a modern nation-state - and plugging it into a changing global economy. Reconciling the global and the local, the urban and the rural, the regional and the national, is one of the great political challenges of our time - and it is a challenge to which Canadians can speak with special insight.

We have also learned that simplistic systems don’t work; whether built around the arrogance of colonialism, the rigidities of communism, the romantic dreams of nationalism, or the naive promises of untrammelled capitalism. But I do believe old governing methods can be improved, and that appropriate, effective new models can be created. And I know that great universities like this one can play an important role in that process.

The second topic I would raise today is the role of civil society in the development process. By civil society I mean an array of institutions which operate on a private, voluntary basis, but are driven by public motivations. They include institutions dedicated to education, to culture, to health, and to environmental improvement; they embrace commercial, labour, professional and ethnic associations, as well as institutions of religion and the media.

Even when governments are fragile, or even nearly paralyzed in their functioning, strong civil society organizations can advance the social and economic order as they have done in Kenya and Bangladesh. Civil society is a complex matrix of influences, but its impact can be enormous, especially in rural environments, where, for example, the need for stronger secondary as well as primary schools is dramatically evident. We have also learned that effective civil progress involves a multiplicity of inputs and a variety of partners - including universities. The broad scope of programmes here at the University of Alberta is a tremendous resource, actual and potential, for the development of civil society throughout the world.

My third theme today is ethics. Neither the political nor the civil sector can accomplish anything of value unless those who steer those institutions are motivated and directed by demanding moral standards.

When we talk about the ethical realm, when we attack corruption, we are inclined to think primarily about government and politics. I am one, however, who believes that corruption is just as acute, and perhaps even more damaging, when the ethics of the civil and private sectors deteriorate. We know from recent headlines about scoundrels from the American financial scene to the halls of European parliaments - and we can certainly do without either. But the problem extends into every area of human enterprise. When a construction company cheats on the quality of materials for a school or a bridge, when a teacher skimps on class work in order to sell his time privately, when a doctor recommends a drug because of incentives from a pharmaceutical company, when a bank loan is skewed by kickbacks, or a student paper is plagiarized from the internet - when the norms of fairness and decency are violated in any way, then the foundations of society are undermined. And the damage is felt most immediately in the most vulnerable societies, where fraud is often neither reported nor corrected, but simply accepted as an inevitable condition of life.

Again, universities are among the institutions which can respond most effectively to such threats. It seems to me to be the responsibility of educators everywhere to help develop ‘ethically literate’ people who can reason morally whenever they analyse and resolve problems, who see the world through the lens of ethics, who can articulate their moral reasoning clearly - even in a world of cultural and religious diversity - and have the courage to make tough choices. And it is clear that the quality of ethical leadership throughout society can in great measure be shaped by our educational institutions.

This analysis brings me to my fourth theme: the centrality of pluralism as a way of thinking in a world which is simultaneously becoming more diversified and more interactive. Pluralism means not only accepting, but embracing human difference. It sees the world’s variety as a blessing rather than a burden, regarding encounters with the “Other” as opportunities rather than as threats. Pluralism does not mean homogenization - denying what is different to seek superficial accommodation. To the contrary, pluralism respects the role of individual identity in building a richer world.

Pluralism means reconciling what is unique in our individual traditions with a profound sense of what connects us to all of humankind.

The Holy Quran says: “O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women.” What a unique and profound statement about the Oneness of humanity!

And yet, just recollect the number of situations where pluralism has failed, dramatically and detestably, in just the last ten years: in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, in Kenya, Rwanda, Darfur and the Congo, in Iraq and in the Balkans and in Northern Ireland – and the list could go on. No continent has been spared.

A pluralistic attitude is not something with which people are born. An instinctive fear of what is different is perhaps a more common human trait. But such fear is a condition which can be transcended - and that is why teaching about pluralism is such an important objective - at every educational level.

In the final analysis, no nation, no race, no individual has a monopoly of intelligence or virtue. If we are to pursue the ideal of meritocracy in human endeavour, then its most perfect form will grow out of a respect for human pluralism, so that we can harness the very best contributions from whomever and wherever they may come.

President Obama cited his own country as a relevant example when he said last week in Cairo, and I quote: “the United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known … we are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the earth…”

All of these considerations have led me to create a new institution that you may have heard about - it is called the Global Centre for Pluralism - a joint project which we have established in Ottawa, in partnership with the Government of Canada. We hope that it will help us all to better understand and implement the pluralistic approaches on which our future now depends.

When peoples think pluralistically, there is no limit to what they can do together, joining forces across a wide variety of divides - and even across long distances - so that a University based in the far western reaches of North America can join hands and hearts with institutions which are, quite precisely, on the opposite side of the planet. As the world shrinks, and as contact among diverse peoples increases, some would argue that we face an inevitable “clash of civilizations.” My own conviction, however, is that we face today “a clash of ignorances.” It continually amazes me, for example, how little is understood about the Muslim civilizations and cultures in the non-Islamic world and how little is taught. When President Obama described the richness of that history in his Cairo speech, he was telling a story which is unfamiliar to many in the West. A pluralistic commitment will call upon educators, everywhere, to address such dangerous ignorances, in this and in other fields.

We live today in what has been called the Knowledge Society. But even as our knowledge advances at lightning speed, we also become more vulnerable to gaps in that knowledge, to what we might describe as Knowledge deficits. Each of the four themes I have outlined today points to a specific knowledge deficit, and each deficit constitutes a challenging obstacle to progress, justice and stability in many countries and for many decades.

The great universities of the world have a special mission - a high calling I believe - to take a leading role in the struggle to narrow and even to eliminate the knowledge deficits which challenge our world - a role which your University has been playing so well.

My congratulations once again. My prayer is that God will be with you, inspiring you and empowering you, in all the good things you will be doing in the days and years ahead.

Thank you.

 

Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim

 

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