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  • France’s Minister for Culture and Communication, Frédéric Mitterrand addressing the guests at the ceremony in Paris where His Highness the Aga Khan received the insignia of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (Commandant de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres) and Prince Amyn Aga Khan received the insignia of Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters (Officier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres).
    Farida Bréchemier / MCC
Speech by Frédéric Mitterrand at the presentation of decorations to His Highness the Aga Khan and Prince Amyn Aga Khan

Your Highness,
Dear Prince Amyn,

I have the very great honour of welcoming you here today as individuals who are cosmopolitan in essence, pluralist by religion, and outward-looking through education, and who have magnificently perpetuated a long family tradition of advocating pluralism and social and cultural engagement throughout the world. Of Italian and British parentage, your culture is Indian, you grew up in Nairobi and were educated in Switzerland and America: the planet is truly your home; openness, tolerance and inter-faith dialogue are your heritage. You have each made your mark on the contemporary world.

In paying tribute to you this evening, we are reminded that the Ismaili faith, through its message of peace and bridge-building, is more than ever at the forefront of dialogue between the great monotheist religions. Wherever Ismailis live, we find the particular combination of meditation, tolerance and solidarity that characterises your community. Since the nineteenth century the Ismaili faith has masterfully demonstrated, through its international network of charitable organisations, that its spiritual beliefs are anchored in the secular world.

These values have been upheld and embodied by your family to the highest degree. In welcoming you here this evening we also pay homage to the memory of your grandfather, His Highness the 48th Imam, who had the onerous task of being Secretary General of the League of Nations in 1937 and 1938, in a political climate requiring courage from all who were advocates for peace. We also recall his French wife, Begum Mata Salamat, Mother of Peace, who will always be remembered, particularly by all those she helped, and who rests by her husband’s side on the banks of the Nile in Aswan. I am also thinking of the much-missed Prince Sadruddin, your uncle, who was United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at a key period in the history of this institution with its vitally important mission, and of course of your father Prince Ali Khan, beloved by all, whom fate did not permit to deploy his extraordinary culture and spirit of civilisation to their full extent.


Your Highness the Aga Khan,

I should like today to salute your exceptional cultural work, in all its richness and diversity, and in so doing I hope not to offend your modesty, as I know that, as a man of great worth, you are extraordinarily modest, often distancing yourself from your actions, working silently, far preferring influence to power, and discretion to the spotlight.

You are at once the illustrious descendant of a dynasty entrusted with a faith and a history, and a man resolutely grounded in your own time. A committed humanist, pragmatic idealist and businessman bursting with ideas, you have a thousand and one lives and projects, which you pursue always with the same ardour, convinced of the importance of vitality and creativity. You place your talents primarily at the service of others, and in particular your own people, the Ismailis. More than a passion, this is for you a vocation.

It was in 1957 that you succeeded your grandfather to become 49th Imam of the Ismailis, a direct descendant of the Prophet. At a time of major political and economic change, you played a crucial role in ensuring the cohesion of a faith community of almost 15 million, scattered across 25 countries throughout the world. Having inherited an open understanding of Islam, for you intelligence has a primordial role in faith; first and foremost you advocate compassion, tolerance and the preservation of human dignity. You are both a spiritual and temporal leader, concerned with the well-being of all Muslims, open to pluralism in a way that does you credit. As a head of state without a country, it is your commitment that is your territory.

Your dynamism and creativity as a businessman emerged during your studies at the prestigious Harvard University. A spirited, idealistic student, you were also an apprentice entrepreneur brimming with ideas. At the age of 22 you launched The Nation, the daily newspaper of African independence opposed to British colonialism and a symbol of freedom, later to become one of East Africa’s most prestigious daily newspapers.

Skilfully combining theory with practice, convinced of the importance of a spirit of initiative in development, your advanced thinking on your faith and your sense of personal responsibility led you to carry out aid and development work, the scale, engagement and underlying principles of which were without precedent. This is the Aga Khan Development Network, whose mission is to “improve living conditions and opportunities for the poor, without regard to their faith, origin or gender”. Support for private initiative, which is central to your work, reflects your central credo that human beings are responsible for their own destiny, in accordance with your vision of Islam and its tradition of service to humanity.

Many countries have benefited from your dynamism: from Tanzania to Kenya, a country where you have lived, as well as others including Uganda, Mozambique and Tajikistan. Among the very many development initiatives you have launched I shall single out tonight your exemplary work in the Gilgit region, surrounded by the magnificent landscapes of the Hunza valley. Not only has this region attained self-sufficiency in food production, it has also doubled its per capita income in ten years. Experts from the World Bank have made several trips to the aptly-named Karimabad to take note of the prodigious transformation of a difficult, isolated region into a land of plenty, where you have prioritised health, rural development and the education of women, in the shadow of the apricot trees and the soaring peaks of the Karakorams.

All these initiatives are carried out in line with the attention to perfection that is your hallmark; you apply the criteria of excellence to philanthropy. Your demanding standards are admired. Your hospitals, schools and banks are exemplary models, and organisations bearing the name Aga Khan offer a guarantee of quality to all.

For you culture is a means to peace and a forward-looking tool for Islam. It has a special place amid your many undertakings, convinced as you are of its importance in the global process of improving communities’ living conditions. This belief prompted you to say recently that you had, and I quote, “placed culture at the very heart of the question of development”. It was in this spirit that, in 1988, you founded a specialist agency, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Inheriting from your forebears a passion for heritage, you have been particularly interested in architecture, which, you believe, carries within it “the process of change”, through the impact that it has on people’s individual, material lives. The prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which you founded in 1977, seeks to reward projects that offer innovative solutions for social development using local resources, and is a source of new inspiration for architecture in the Islamic world. In 1987 it was awarded to the French architect Jean Nouvel for his design for the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. In 1992 you also established an extensive programme of support for historic cities, seeking to preserve and restore buildings and urban spaces in the Muslim world, this revitalisation being at once an excellent driver of development and a powerful moral lever. Your work extends across the Muslim world, from Afghanistan to Mali, and also to Europe, in Bosnia Herzegovina.

As a great advocate of culture, fascinated by places that embody a strong cultural identity, you have saved a jewel of French culture, of which the Princess of Cleves said, “of all the places under the sun, there is not one to match it”. I refer, of course, to Chantilly. Like Le Nôtre embarking on a twenty-year plan to create gardens worthy of the estate, you too decided to support an immense twenty-year project for the entire site through your foundation. The estate of Chantilly, its history, salons and collections, are greatly indebted to you. Thanks to you, it will regain its former glory, through the restoration of both the chateau and the collections, the renovation of the grounds and the implementation of a comprehensive improvement plan. The ambition of the great French princes has now been taken up by Your Highness; you have become the architect of a spectacular renaissance, which you mention with great modesty.

Chantilly is also known for its magnificent stables, the world of equestrianism to which you are linked by a strong family tradition, from the legendary epic of the First Aga Khan’s departure from Persia, on horses said to be the finest on earth, to the equally legendary successes of your thoroughbreds. With the renovation of the hippodrome, completed in 2004, you have enabled the racing tradition established in the eighteenth century to continue today with the Prix de Diane and Prix du Jockey Club, celebrations at once festive and prestigious for French equestrianism.

As an Associate Foreign Member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, you are also a keen proponent of cultural diversity and dialogue between the Muslim and western worlds in particular. The two magnificent exhibitions we admired this year at the Louvre, Chefs d’œuvre islamiques de l’Aga Khan museum and Le chant du monde, l’art de l’Iran safavide reflect this belief. You also wish the future Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, designed by the architect Fumihiko Maki, a former student of Kenzo Tange, to be an illustration of the historical, cultural and geographical diversity of Islamic culture and a forum for sustained exchange between the Islamic and western worlds; the future Maritime Museum of Zanzibar, dedicated to presenting the different maritime cultures of the Indian Ocean, is also intended as a centre for dialogue between Africa, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent.

At the launch of the Avignon Forum three years ago you said, “I believe in the power of plurality, without which there is no possibility of exchange”. It is in reconciling pragmatism with idealism that your extraordinary commitment to art and culture has its place in history. It reinforces your tireless struggle to avert the dangers of what you called, at the launch of the Avignon Forum in 2008, the dangers of the gulf between cultures.

Your family has chosen to reside in France, and our secular Republic has become your country. I see this as a sign of the very strong links between republican values and your conception of action.

Your Highness, in the name of the French Republic, we present you with the insignia of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.


Prince Amyn Aga Khan,

It is an immense pleasure and a real honour to pay tribute tonight to a man of the arts, a man of refinement with a keen interest in heritage, and a passionate devotion to French and international culture.

A worthy heir to a family that continually expresses its support for cultural pluralism and has been involved in international work for several generations, you are today the head of many prestigious institutions working to improve the lives of peoples across the world. Like your grandfather, who was President of the League of Nations, and your father, Pakistani Ambassador to the United Nations, after attaining academic success, you now work within the prestigious institution that keeps daily watch on the world, the same United Nations, where you have been a member of the Economic and Social Council since 1965.

In 1968 you were already bringing your dynamism and open-mindedness to the administration of the Imamat’s main development institutions. The strength of your international network and the influence you have demonstrated enable you to play a crucial role there, notably within the Aga Khan Development Network. As a Director of the Aga Khan Foundation, your work in over fifteen countries has enabled you to strengthen and modernise the philanthropic tradition of the Ismaili Muslim community.

As a member of the Board, and Executive Committee Chairman of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), which aims to promote entrepreneurship and the creation of healthy, sustainable economic organisations in the world’s developing regions, you have brought a new vitality and fresh opportunities to populations too often forgotten or isolated. You generously believe that any return on investment must benefit the populations of the countries involved, and them alone.

You have also, with exemplary dedication, contributed to the development of Tourism Promotion Services (TPS), which seeks to develop tourism in certain areas of developing countries, notably in more isolated regions, by building, renovating and managing the tourist accommodation that is crucial to the vitality of local economies.

But, in all these exceptional activities, culture remains a priority. As a Director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), you play a major role in revitalising the physical, social, cultural and economic environment of communities in the Muslim world. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme, the Music Initiative in Central Asia, the ArchNet online resource centre and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are all remarkable awards, organisations and projects, reflecting the dynamism and pertinence of your work.

I must not forget your function as administrator in an institution dear to my own heart: the World Monuments Fund (WMF), the world’s leading private international organisation devoted to the preservation of historic monuments and sites on all five continents. Since its foundation in 1965, the WMF has brought public and private partners together in joint projects that have permitted the restoration of an unprecedented number of historic buildings in over 80 countries.

Lastly I should like to recall, of course, your work as a patron of French culture and heritage. As a great art collector, with an informed passion for heritage, you regularly work alongside prestigious institutions to support them in carrying through their cultural projects.

The greatest French cultural institutions have benefited from your assistance. Reeling off a list of names is not sufficient to illustrate the scope of your engagement. I am thinking of course of the Association pour le rayonnement de l’Opéra de Paris [organisation promoting the development and influence of the Paris Opera], and also of the Louvre, of which you are a patron and with which you are actively involved as a Board member of the Société des Amis du Louvre [Friends of the Louvre]. In 2007, at the opening of a season dedicated to the art and culture of the Muslim world, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture was also involved in an exhibition entitled Chefs-d’œuvre islamiques de l’Aga Khan Museum, which presented almost 80 works from the Aga Khan collections in the galleries of the Louvre. I should like to think that this exhibition was no more than a foretaste of the treasures to be displayed at the new Aga Khan Museum, due to open in Toronto in 2013. Nor should we forget that you were a patron of the exhibition Purs décors ? Chefs-d’œuvre de l’Islam aux Arts décoratifs at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 2007 and 2008.

And now, if I may, I should like to return to the Château de Chantilly, whose Grande Singerie [Great Monkey Room], centrepiece of the grand apartment of the Princes of Condé and the chateau’s finest decorative ensemble, was restored in 2007 through the joint action of the World Monuments Fund and the Fondation pour la sauvegarde et le développement du domaine de Chantilly [Foundation for the Protection and Development of the Chantilly Estate], founded on the initiative of your brother.

Since you are, among other things, the best minister of culture His Highness, your brother, could dream of, dear Prince Amyn, in the name of the French Republic, we present you with the insignia of Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters.