Évora, Portugal, 12 February 2006 - Modern societies must improve the rigour and relevance of their educational curricula, strengthen the institutions of civil society and build a strong ethical framework of tolerance and respect if they are to be stable and secure democracies, able to protect the interests of their citizens, His Highness the Aga Khan said today.
He was speaking at an international symposium at the University of Évora entitled: “Cosmopolitan Society, Human Safety and Rights in Plural and Peaceful Societies.” Earlier in the day, the Aga Khan was awarded the Honoris CausaDoctor Degree at a University ceremony presided over by Portuguese President, Jorge Sampaio and Rector, Manuel Patricio. Attendees included the Portuguese Minister for State and Foreign Affairs, Diogo Freitas do Amaral, international diplomatic representatives, members of the senate and faculty of the university, and local dignitaries.
Speaking at the Symposium, also chaired by President Sampaio, the Aga Khan said that the inability of political and civil leaders in rich and poor nations alike to protect citizens from an array of persistent stresses - ranging from poverty and the impact of natural disasters to civil disorder - represents a failure of democracy to achieve its ideal.
“For many centuries, it was the conviction of enlightened people that societies would truly come to grips with their problems once they became democratic,” he said. “The great barrier to progress, they said, was that governments listened to the special few - rather than the voice of the many. If we could only advance the march of democracy, they argued, then a progressive agenda would inevitably fall into place. But I am not sure that such an analysis holds up any longer.”
He noted that nearly 40 per cent of UN member nations are now categorized as “failed democracies” and too often failures were the result of sheer incompetence, both personal and institutional. Corruption, lack of an informed electorate and superficial media reporting, combined with weak or divided legislatures that lack expertise to deal with complex problems -- all contribute to democracies making poor decisions.
The Aga Khan said the challenges of democracies were compounded by the rapid growth of cosmopolitan populations as a result of increasing migration. Consequently, nations are becoming more pluralist, but these cosmopolitan social patterns have not yet been matched by “a cosmopolitan ethic.”
He called for an ethical sensibility which can be shared across denominational lines and which can foster a universal moral outlook. “The search for justice and security, the struggle for equality of opportunity, the quest for tolerance and harmony, the pursuit of human dignity - these are moral imperatives which we must work towards and think about on a daily basis,” he said.
In addition to a stronger ethical framework, modern societies require greater focus on education to build democratic competence for leaders and the electorate, as well as stronger institutions of civil society.
“Democratic society requires much more than democratic politics,” he said. “Governments alone do not make democracy work. Private initiative is also essential, including a vital role for those institutions which are collectively described as “civil society.
“Sometimes, in our preoccupation with government and politics, we neglect the importance of civil institutions,” he said. “A thriving civil sector is essential to renewing the promise of democracy.”
In addition, rigorous, responsible and relevant education is needed to meet today’s more demanding tests of competence and higher standards of excellence. We must move beyond the notion that better education simply means wider access to formal learning and ensure that educational systems develop quality curricula that address issues confronting leaders and citizens in the 21 st century.
“For too long, some or our schools have taught too many subjects as subsets of dogmatic commitments,” the Aga Khan said. “Economic insights, for example, were treated as ideological choices – rather than exercises in scientific problem solving.
“An important goal of quality education is to equip each generation to participate effectively in what has been called ‘the great conversation of our times.’ This means, on the one hand, being unafraid of controversy. But it also means being sensitive to the values and outlooks of others.”
Referring to the offensive caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, first published in a Danish newspaper, the Aga Khan said it was more a “clash of ignorance” than a clash of civilisations. The newspaper had conceded it had not realised the sensitivities it had raised with the caricatures.
“To attribute the problem to ignorance is in no way to minimise its importance,” he said. “In a pluralistic world, the consequences of ignorance can be profoundly damaging.”
Too many in the debate had confused liberty with license.
“This is not to say that governments should censor offensive speech. Nor does the answer lie in violent words or violent actions. But I am suggesting that freedom of expression is an incomplete value unless it is used honourably, and that the obligations of citizenship in any society should include a commitment to informed and responsible expression.”
He hoped that the controversy might also be an educational opportunity: “an occasion for enhanced awareness and broadened perspectives.”
The University citation for the Honorary Doctorate recognised the Aga Khan for “material and spiritual service to humanity” as well as “the extraordinary work of economic, social, cultural and educational assistance” through the Aga Khan Development Network. It also cited his commitment to “creating bonds and promoting dialogue between civilizations and cultures, namely between the East and the West.” The University was founded in 1559 by Cardinal Henrique, later King of Portugal. The city of Évora is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage city in recognition of its diverse Muslim and Judeo-Christian cultural history and architectural heritage.
In his laudatory remarks at the award ceremony, Professor Adriano Moreira, a former Portuguese foreign minister and former Vice-President of the Assembly of the Republic, said the Aga Khan “has been unbreakably guided by the defence of human dignity that is available equally to all, without distinction as to ethnic, cultural or religious backgrounds.”
In thanking him for his participation in the Symposium, Rector Manuel Patricio described the Aga Khan as “an international personality of the highest importance.”
In December 2005, the Government of Portugal and the Ismaili Imamat signed a Protocol of Cooperation signalling their common intent to work toward the improvement of the quality of life of vulnerable populations in Portugal and the Portuguese-speaking countries of Asia and Africa.
The Protocol establishes the framework under which the Government of Portugal will work with the agencies and institutions of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), one of the largest private development networks in the world, to implement initiatives for social, cultural and economic development.
The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) was founded by His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th Hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Ismaili Muslims. It is a group of private, non-denominational development agencies working to empower communities and individuals to improve living conditions and opportunities, especially in sub-Saharan Africa , Central and South Asia, and the Middle East . The Network’s nine development agencies focus on social, cultural and economic development for all citizens, regardless of gender, origin or religion. The AKDN’s underlying ethic is compassion for the vulnerable in society. Its annual budget for philanthropic activity is in excess of US$300 million.
The Ismaili Imamat’s engagement with Portugal began with the establishment in 1983 of the Aga Khan Foundation, Portugal, now the fourth largest foundation in the country. Its range of activities includes groundbreaking research and innovative programming in the areas of early childhood education and responses to social exclusion and urban poverty. In Mozambique, agencies of the Portuguese Government have collaborated on the implementation of the AKDN’s Coastal Rural Support Programme in northern areas of the country as well as a programme which builds capacity of civil society and enhances the technical skills and qualifications of professionals. Portugal has also supported AKDN resettlement of displaced persons in post-Taliban Afghanistan, as well as efforts by FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance, an AKDN affiliate, to assist populations in East Timor affected by major civil disturbances.
For more information, please contact:
Aga Khan Foundation, Portugal
Tel: 217 229 001
Fax: 217 229 011