Providence, USA, 11 March 2014 — The Aga Khan yesterday warned that the growing power of social media does not always mean more connection between people. He cautioned that the shallowness of new media, intellectual isolation and mutual ignorance are adversely affecting relations between Islam and the West despite the highly interconnected world of today.
“More information at our fingertips can mean more knowledge and understanding,” he said. “But it can also mean more fleeting attention-spans, more impulsive judgments, and more dependence on superficial snapshots of events.”
“Fearful ignorance” must be replaced with “empathetic knowledge,” argued the Aga Khan, by ensuring a thoughtful, renewed commitment to the concept of pluralism and a strong civil society.
The Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims made the remarks during the 88th Stephen A. Ogden Jr. ’60 Memorial Lecture on International Affairs that he gave at Brown University, as part of the college’s 250th anniversary celebrations.
The Aga Khan explained that civil society can assist in creating new governance frameworks as it has done recently in Kenya, Tunisia and Bangladesh, particularly when one understands that there can be no “one size fits all” answer, and the outcomes will be varied. “I believe that the voices of civil society can be among the most powerful forces in our time. Where change has been overdue, they can be voices for change. Where people live in fear, they can be voices of hope,” he said.
Quality civil society, said the Aga Khan, “has three critical underpinnings: a commitment to pluralism, an open door to meritocracy, and a full embrace of … a cosmopolitan ethic,” which he defined as “one that addresses the age-old need to balance the particular and the universal, to honour both human rights and social duties, to advance personal freedom and to accept human responsibility.”
Brown University President Christina Paxson introduced the Aga Khan – whose eldest son went to Brown – as “a returning friend of the University and a Brown parent.” She lauded the work of the Aga Khan Development network (AKDN), saying that Brown recognises and celebrates “the institutions and people throughout the world who champion fundamental values like the discovery of knowledge and the notion that knowledge is a globally shared source of strength.”
In his lecture the Aga Khan warned that a worsening knowledge gap between Islam and the West could become an empathy gap, making it harder to remain open to others. “The struggle to remain empathetically open to the Other in a diversifying world is a continuing struggle of central importance for all of us,” he said.
The Aga Khan said the knowledge deficit between civilisations – but also conflicts within them – have fueled strife across the world. “The harsh truth is that religious hostility and intolerance, between as well as within religions, is contributing to violent crises and political impasse all across the world, in the Central African Republic, in South Sudan and Nigeria; in Myanmar, in the Philippines and in the Ukraine, and in many other places,” he said.
He repeatedly emphasised what he saw as a “problem of fragmentation”, stating that diversity itself, should be a source of enrichment and that fragmentation comes when “diverse elements spin off on their own, when the bonds that connect us across our diversities begin to weaken.”
It is these forces of fragmentation that “can threaten the coherence of democratic societies and the effectiveness of democratic institutions.” For instance, the increasing conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in a number of countries around the world is “becoming an absolute disaster”.
The Aga Khan, who received an honorary doctorate from Brown University in 1996, expressed his admiration for the role that great universities play in responding to governance issues in the developing world, including Muslim societies.
Focusing on developing countries where democracies are a new formation, the Aga Khan acknowledged that “creating new governance frameworks is obviously not an easy task. But it can be accomplished.” He noted “progress is possible when complex issues are subjected to competent, intelligent, nuanced and sophisticated analysis,” based upon “empathetic knowledge.”
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His Highness the Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, and founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). He has been deeply engaged with international development for close to 60 years. His Highness was accompanied to Brown University by members of his immediate family including his son, Prince Rahim Aga Khan, who is a graduate of Brown’s class of 1995.
Established in 1965, the Ogden Lectureship has presented Brown University and its neighbouring communities with authoritative and timely addresses about international affairs with the goal of advancing international peace and understanding. Past distinguished speakers include Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank; King Hussein of Jordan; Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union; His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet; Paul Volcker, Former Chair of the Federal Reserve; as well as other senior diplomats and observers of the international scene.