Ladies and gentlemen
It gives me great pleasure to chair this symposium organised on the occasion of the Doctorate Honoris Causa of His Highness Prince Aga Khan by this distinguished university, whose theme could not be more current nor more appropriate to the remarkable work in favour of peace, dialogue between cultures and religions and of the respect of human rights which has been developed by the Ismaili Community.
The themes discussed in this Symposium are of great importance and pertinence because a significant part of cultural and social tensions which manifests in our times is derived from the clash between, an increasingly global society on the one hand, and, on the other, local resistances which are created by such society.
This tension is not a recent one. Cosmopolitism with all that it implies in terms of knowledge, comparison, and peaceful existence between different forms of living and thinking have always been a threat for fundamentalisms of religious, nationalist or ideological nature and have always been attacked with great virulence.
In effect, by allowing the free comparison and circulation of experiences between different people and civilisations, cosmopolitism encourages the critical spirit and the freedom of thought and expression, values which are at the core of the democratic and liberal political culture. The scale at which these values have a universal appeal, provokes resistance by all dogmatisms who feel threatened by their pretension to hold the absolute truth.
A cosmopolitan culture is a culture tolerant to the expression of diversity, open to discussion, curious in relation to the other. This tolerance is based on the fight for individual freedoms – of thought, of expression, of religion, of association – as a maximum value of society’s political organisation and has, as its limit, its own intolerance: in other words, we can only not be tolerant before other’s intolerance.
If, on the one hand, this cosmopolitan culture is more alive today then ever, because never have we seen so much travel, free access to information, through television and internet, it also fosters, on the other hand, a strong resistance, especially from fundamentalist sectors which – we must recognise – manifest today in several religions.
This is also related to the controversy created around Prophet Muhammad’s caricatures in a Danish publication that were later reproduced in several western media.
No matter what negative judgement we may make on the sense, opportunity, intension and content of those caricatures, such judgement in no way questions the right to freedom of expression.
Now that the tensions between the West and Islam are particularly exacerbated, common sense, dialogue, tranquillity is, more then ever, necessary.
Having said this, nothing justifies violence –be they orchestrated or at least tolerated – that such caricatures provoked in several countries of the Muslim world. It is not understandable nor acceptable that such caricatures, which were, after all, isolated acts and already criticized by the majority of western governments – be interpreted as a manifestation of xenophobia against Islam and warrant the attacks to Embassies and hatred against the West.
Just as we never accepted the “fatwa” against Salman Rushdie, we cannot accept now that freedom of expression be attacked, questioned by political groups, which unfortunately, do not follow democracy and human rights and which voice we do not hear, with the same vigour, denouncing and condemning terrorists acts much more serious than a simple publication of caricatures, no matter how unfortunate these may be.
The dialogue between civilizations is, without a doubt, very necessary. I keep highlighting this, but this needs to be conducted with openness, good faith and moderation by all parties. It is because of this that the example portrayed by the Ismaili Community is so important. It is a live example of an interpretation of Islam which, without relegating the faith and tradition, follows the evolution of times, opening itself to the dialogue with other religions and cultures. It is my profound conviction that it is, after all, that interpretation of Islam which is shared by the great majority of Muslims, which voice is unfortunately silenced by the noisy extremist actions.