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  • "We honour an exceptional man, we honour a huge friend of mankind, we honour a courageous visionary, and we honour a person building bridges between societies," said His Excellency Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's Minister for Foreign Affairs, during his laudatory remarks.
    AKDN/Zahur Ramji
Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the presentation of the Tutzing Evangelical Academy Tolerance Prize to the Aga Khan

Your Highness,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

According to Ilya Trojanov: “The world is wide and salvation lurks everywhere!”

But it is not at all easy to find! That is why foreign ministers are perpetually on the move. For many, salvation is yet to be found, but while searching for it I have met a man who yesterday was my guest and today is yours.

We are honouring an exceptional man. We are honouring a great friend of humanity, a courageous visionary, a builder of bridges between religions and society.

We are honouring a man whom, through our conversations, I have discovered to be exceptionally intelligent, knowledgeable and pleasant to talk to. A citizen of the world who intrepidly fights day after day against resentment and backwardness on almost every continent.

A man who shows us a face of Islam that many of us do not know and sadly all too often we do not want to know: an Islam that is open, tolerant and willing to engage in dialogue. An Islam that is not in conflict with free, democratic and pluralistic societies. In short: I cannot imagine a more appropriate winner of the Tolerance Award than His Highness the Aga Khan!

You once said, Your Highness, that poverty and extremism must be combated by one and the same means: by sustainable improvement in living conditions. Only where people have jobs, access to education and satisfactory healthcare can democratic, pluralistic societies emerge.

That is your guiding principle. On this basis you created the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) which carries out cultural, educational and development projects. Today, the network is the world’s largest private development aid organisation.

Your aims were and are ambitious: you set out to create sustainable structures in trouble spots. You set out to build pluralistic civil societies and thus stabilise entire regions over the long term. And that precisely in places where at first it seems impossible.

"A bulwark for democratic processes” is how you yourself describe and understand your task. Your organisation works for the common good, regardless of origin, gender or creed.
From the many regions in which the AKDN operates, let me single out one which is increasingly becoming the focus of attention: Central Asia.

The region has a turbulent history.

Centuries ago the mythical Silk Road passed through here, permitting a fruitful exchange of different cultures and religions. In the fifteen century in Bukhara, the ancient and prosperous trading city in western Uzbekistan, the ruler Uleg Beg built Central Asia’s first university. In those days cities like Bukhara and Samarkand played a central role in the Islamic history of ideas. The reputation of their artists and scholars spread as far as Renaissance Europe. The inscription which Uleg Beg had inscribed above the door of the university read: “Strive for knowledge – that is the duty of all Muslims, every man and every woman”.

The glory of the Silk Road has faded. Today the states of Central Asia are faced with serious economic and social problems. In many places there is a lack of democracy and violence rules. Intellectual life is restricted by civil war and its repercussions. The education system is in a desperate state. Indeed, Tajikistan is one of the world’s poorest countries.

And it was precisely there in Tajikistan that, a few years ago, that the Aga Khan launched a particularly ambitious project: the University of Central Asia.

In collaboration with the government of the day he founded a university to serve all the countries of Central Asia with campuses in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The Aga Khan believes – agreeing to some extent with Uleg Beg – that access to education is the key to the future of the region. And he makes it clear that access is open to women as well as men. He is guided by the slogan “Strive for knowledge” which is what is required most of all from men and women, regardless of their religion. The region needs new minds, new thinkers. Only then will it be possible to solve its problems and shape its future.

The University of Central Asia is only one of many examples. The network’s list of relief projects is long and impressive. The Aga Khan’s co-workers are active in more than 30 countries.

In Pakistan alone, over the course of 20 years the AKDN has initiated nearly 4,000 development projects in rural areas.

In Afghanistan the network operates in 21 districts.

The AKDN has already invested 80 million dollars in the country – more than many European states. The AKDN runs schools in Kenya, builds hospitals in Ivory Coast, and provides micro-credits in Burkina Faso.

Part of the network’s policy is to form numerous partnerships. It cooperates in a variety of ways with governmental and private organisations. I am glad that the AKDN also cooperates with Germany. And only yesterday in Berlin we had a long and for me extraordinarily interesting discussion about how to make that cooperation even closer and to develop more joint projects.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is already cooperating with the Aga Khan Foundation, for example in Kabul on the reconstruction of an historic garden complex dating from the sixteenth century.

Through the work of experts from GTZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit) and the AKDN an entire district in the middle of Cairo was transformed from a huge refuse dump to a spacious park. the Federal Government is working with the AKDN in Central Asia and some African countries.

We value this partnership highly, because the Aga Khan’s development projects always have two distinguishing features. They have a holistic approach. That is to say they are not limited to economic aspects but embrace social and cultural dimensions. And the projects – irrespective of the political situation – are designed to last.

We also support one of the basic principles of his work which is still of immediate relevance. In the past years – and incidentally long before 11 September 2001 – the Aga Khan has worked indefatigably for greater pluralism within the Islamic world and greater understanding between world religions.

The cartoon controversy has made one thing clear in recent weeks and months: many people perceive a chasm between us in the “West” and people in the Islamic world. And this chasm threatens to become even deeper.

There are too many misconceptions and prejudices on both sides. Ideas are shaped by too many stereotypes. This ignorance has been and will continue to be exploited by demagogues and extremists. Exploited, for example, by transforming hurt religious sensibilities into hatred and violence against people of other faiths or those who think differently. And in Europe too there is prejudice – we too must learn more about Muslims and the Islamic world. We too must avoid creating and even reinforcing feelings of alienation because of ignorance.

Indeed, history shows us that East and West have been connected for over a thousand years. There has always been a lively exchange in commercial, social and cultural domains. The western world owes so many technological inventions and discoveries to the Arabs: the decimal system, the compass, and magnetism. You are all aware of the insights of Arab scientists whose ideas have been of enormous benefit to the West.

We must succeed in once again conveying more strongly to people the importance of this connection which has been so useful to both sides. We are trying to do this in a variety of ways and not solely through the Foreign Ministry’s cultural and education policies.

But I am particularly delighted about a completely new joint project. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with the AKDN would like in future to include an introduction to Islam in our training programme for future diplomats.

We need more people who will fight bravely and determinedly for tolerance, both within their own societies and religions and towards others. I fear there are still too few on either side who build bridges and support the cause of pluralism and tolerance.

We need open and constructive dialogue and cooperation.

But dialogue with world of Islam can only be credible when both sides can be both critical and self-critical.
And, by the way, this is not only necessary because of Europe’s relationship with the Arab world! No, it is also necessary because of the process of change within our own European societies!

For Muslims are, of course, part of the social mosaic in Europe. More than 3.5 million Muslims live in Germany. And while it is crucial to promote understanding between people of different cultures and religions it is just as important also to create within our society tolerance and understanding between people with other cultural backgrounds.
And for that we also need signs and symbols!

Only on Wednesday I sat down and talked with German artists, German artists with – to use the current phrase – a migrant background. I spoke with artists who have one thing in common: they all carry within them the experiences and traditions of at least two cultures! And we agreed to make these riches visible. Culturally, the German nation was and still is a nation that has gained from migration.

Like many economically and technologically strong states, Germany owes a very great deal to immigration, also in the cultural sense.

And we in Germany are not nearly proud enough of those who once came here as foreigners and chose Germany as their home.

Tolerance is not exactly an emergency measure to enable us to endure things we do not understand. Tolerance demands openness, creativity, commitment, persistence and above all courage. Today’s prizewinner sets us an example of all of these in his daily work!

We have reason to feel not only respect but also for gratitude!

I also wish to thank our host.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This year the Tolerance Award is being presented for the fourth time. I congratulate the Tutzing Evangelical Academy on its great commitment. It has – without a shadow of a doubt – become one of our country’s most important institutions when it is a matter of actively encouraging communication.

The award to the Aga Khan recognises that, with his personal commitment to his work and his clarity of vision, the Aga Khan is an inspiration to us all.

“We have a duty,” the Aga Khan once said, “to leave the world a better place.”

I can think of no better guiding principle.