His Highness the Aga Khan
“The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World”
Delivered on November 12, 2015 at Memorial Church
Mark Elliott, Vice Provost
Michèle Lamont, Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs
Ali Asani, Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program
Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion
Members of the Harvard Community
Thank you for your warm welcome.
It is indeed a great pleasure for me to return to Harvard and this wonderful campus. And it is a particular pleasure to be welcomed here by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program—two of the world’s leading forces for informed global understanding.
I am honored as well, to be giving the Jodidi Lecture for 2015, and to join the distinguished list of those who have given this lecture over the past sixty years.
Believe it or not, the Jodidi Lecture actually was founded during my freshman year at Harvard—but I had nothing to do with that! I would note, too, that the Harvard Center for International Affairs was also founded while I was a student here, although it did not yet have the illustrious Weatherhead name.
Now I must admit in all candor that I do not recall attending the Jodidi Lecture when I was an undergraduate, although I am sure I would have benefited from doing so! I was probably having too much fun at Wigglesworth or Leverett House to venture out to something so serious as the Jodidi Lecture. On the other hand, I wonder what I might have thought if some seer had looked into a crystal ball and told me that some sixty years later I would actually be giving this lecture. I might have immediately transferred to Yale!
My ties to Harvard have been reinforced in many ways through the six decades since my graduation, including the fact that my brother and my daughter also received their undergraduate degrees here at Harvard. And I was deeply gratified to come back to receive an honorary degree in 2008.
Whenever I return to Harvard I am impressed both with the wonderful qualities that have stayed the same over time, and also by some of the things that have changed. Surely one of the most notable changes has been the remarkable success in recent years of Harvard’s athletic teams all across the board: individual competition, team competition, women’s and men’s teams. Bravo Harvard!
Of course one cannot arrive in Cambridge this week without noticing that the football team—to mention just one example that remains undefeated again this year.
But it was not always that way. In fact, during the years that I was at Harvard, the football team never had a winning record.
Of course, I am referring here to the “American” football team. Coming from European schooling, what I called the football team is what you probably call the soccer team. And I must tell you that for the men’s soccer team, those were golden years at Harvard—including two Ivy League championships. Goodbye Yale! And I must also tell you, with all due humility, that I was a happy member of that championship team.
Now, you may have been wondering just what I have been doing over these past six decades since I left the Harvard playing fields. Let me begin by saying a word about that topic.
As you know, I was born into a Muslim family, linked by heredity to the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him and his family). My education blended Islamic and Western traditions in my early years and at Harvard, where I majored in Islamic history. And in 1957 I was a junior when I became the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims—when my grandfather designated me to succeed him.
What does it mean to become an Imam in the Ismaili tradition? To begin with, it is an inherited role of spiritual leadership. As you may know, the Ismailis are the only Muslim community that has been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from Prophet Muhammad.
That spiritual role, however, does not imply a separation from practical responsibilities. In fact for Muslims the opposite is true: the spiritual and material worlds are inextricably connected. Leadership in the spiritual realm—for all Imams, whether they are Sunni or Shia—implies responsibility in worldly affairs; a calling to improve the quality of human life. And that is why so much of my energy over these years has been devoted to the work of the Aga Khan Development Network.
The AKDN, as we call it, centers its attention in the developing world. And it is from this developing world’s perspective, that I speak to you today. So what I will be referring to is knowledge that I have gained from the developing world of Africa, Asia, the Middle East. What I will be speaking about has little to do with the industrialized West.
Through all of these years, my objective has been to understand more thoroughly the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and to prepare initiatives that will help them become countries of opportunity, for all of their peoples.
As I prepared for this new role in the late 1950s, Harvard was very helpful. The University allowed me—having prudently verified that I was a student “in good standing”—to take eighteen months away to meet the leaders of the Ismaili community in some twenty-five countries where most of the Ismailis then lived, and to speak with their government leaders.
I returned here after that experience with a solid sense of the issues I would have to address, especially the endemic poverty in which much of my community lived. And I also returned with a vivid sense of the new political realities that were shaping their lives, including the rise of African independence movements, the perilous relations between India and Pakistan and the sad fact that many Ismailis were locked behind the Iron Curtain and thus removed from regular contact with the Imamat.
When I returned to Harvard, it was not only to complete my degree, but I was fortunate to audit a number of courses that were highly relevant to my new responsibilities. So as an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to benefit from the complete spectrum of courses offered by this great university.
Incidentally, I must have been the only Harvard undergraduate to have two secretaries and a personal assistant working with me. And I have always been very proud of the fact that I never sent any of them to take notes for me at my class!
Harvard has continued to be a highly valued partner for our Network since this time. The University played a key role in developing the blueprint thirty years ago for the Aga Khan University—working first in the fields of medicine and nursing education, and now offering a broad variety of degrees on three continents. Another close Harvard relationship has involved the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, launched here and at MIT in 1977.
My concern for the future of Islamic architecture grew out of my travels between 1957 and 1977 in countries with large Muslim populations. What I observed was a near total disconnect between the new built environment I encountered and Islam’s rich architectural legacy. There was no process of renewal, no teaching in architectural schools, no practices that were rooted in our own traditions. Except for the occasional minaret or dome, one of the world’s great cultural inheritances was largely confined to coffee-table books. It seemed to me that this state of affairs represented a monumental menace to our world’s cultural pluralism, as well as a dangerous loss of identity for Muslim communities.
The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture was one response to this situation, as was the creation of the Aga Khan architectural award, which also continues today.
Bringing the art and architecture of the Islamic world to be understood and admired in the West, as it had been in the past, was a goal that also inspired the creation, just one year ago, of the Ismaili Centre and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto—the only museum in the western hemisphere devoted entirely to Islamic culture.
Today, the Aga Khan Development Network embraces many facets and functions. But, if I were trying to sum up in a single word its central objective, I would focus on the word “opportunity.” For what the peoples of the developing world seek above all else is hope for a better future.
Too often however, true opportunity has been a distant hope—perhaps for some, not even more than a dream. Endemic poverty, in my view, remains the world’s single most important challenge. It is manifested in many ways, including persistent refugee crises of the sort we have recently seen in such an acute form. And of course confounding new challenges continue to mount, such as the looming threat of climate change. My interest in climate change has been sharpened by recent studies linking it to the threat of earthquakes. This could be an issue in the high mountain areas of South Asia for example, where so many Ismailis live and are concentrated.
Sixty years ago as I took up my responsibilities, the problems of the developing world, for many observers, seemed intractable. It was widely claimed that places like China and India were destined to remain among the world’s “basket cases”—incapable of feeding themselves let alone being able to industrialize or achieve economic self-sustainability. If this had been true, of course, then there would have been no way for the people of my community, in India and China and in many other places, to look for a better future.
Political realities presented further complications. Most of the poorest countries were living under distant colonial or protectorate or communist regimes. The monetary market was totally unpredictable. Volatile currencies were shifting constantly in value, making it almost impossible to plan ahead. And while I thought of all the Ismailis as part of one religious community, the realities of their daily lives were deeply distinctive and decidedly local.
Nor did most people yet see the full potential for addressing these problems through nonprofit, private organizations—what we today call “civil society.”
And yet, it was also clear that stronger coordination across these lines of division could help open new doors of opportunity. We could see how renovated educational systems, based on best practices, could reach across frontiers of politics and language. We could see how global science could address changing medical challenges, including the growing threat of non-communicable disease. We could see, in sum, how a truly pluralistic outlook could leverage the best experiences of local communities through an effective international network.
But we also learned that the creation of effective international networks in a highly diversified environment can be a daunting matter. It took a great deal of considered effort to meld older values of continuity and local cohesion, with the promise of new cross-border integration.
What was required—and is still required—was a readiness to work across frontiers of distinction and distance without trying to erase them. What we were looking for, even then, were ways of building an effective “cosmopolitan ethic in a fragmented world.”
This often meant working from the bottom up, learning to follow what was sometimes called “field logic.” Most of our initiatives began at a local, community level, and then grew into regional, national, and international institutions.
As we moved forward, we learned a number of important lessons. We learned that lifting health and education services to world class standards was a global promise that could inspire local support. We learned to attack poverty simultaneously with multiple inputs, on a variety of fronts. We learned to work with effective partners—including the not-for-profit institutions of civil society. We learned to see our role as one of supporting the public sector, not competing with it. And we learned the importance of measuring carefully the outcomes of our efforts, and then applying that knowledge.
All of these approaches were facilitated by a determination to overcome linguistic barriers through a language policy that promoted better use of the national language, and network-wide English as a strong connecting tool.
And so our Network grew. Today it embraces a group of agencies—nongovernmental and nondenominational—operating in thirty-five countries. They work in fields ranging from education and medical care, to job creation and energy production; from transport and tourism, to media and technology; from the fine arts and cultural heritage, to banking and microfinance. But they are all working together toward a single overarching objective: improving the quality of human life.
Meanwhile, in the industrialized West, many things were happening that paralleled our AKDN experience. For one thing, an impulse for international cooperation was advancing in the late 1950s at an impressive pace. After half a century of violent confrontation, determined leaders talked hopefully about global integration. New international organizations and cross-border alliances blossomed. And Harvard University decisively expanded its own involvement in world affairs.
When the Jodidi Lectureship was established here in 1955, its explicit purpose (and I quote) was “the promotion of tolerance, understanding and good will among nations.” And that seemed to be the way history was moving. Surely, we thought, we had learned the terrible price of division and discord, and certainly the great technological revolutions of the twentieth century would bring us more closely together.
In looking back to my Harvard days, I recall how a powerful sense of technological promise was in the air—a faith that human invention would continue its ever-accelerating conquest of time and space. I recall too, how this confidence was accompanied by what was described as a “revolution of rising expectations” and the fall of colonial empires. And of course, this trend seemed to culminate some years later with the end of the Cold War and the “new world order” that it promised.
But even as old barriers crumbled and new connections expanded, a paradoxical trend set in, one that we see today at every hand. At the same time that the world was becoming more interconnected, it also become more fragmented.
We have been mesmerized on one hand by the explosive pace of what we call “globalization,” a centripetal force putting us as closely in touch with people who live across the world as we are to those who live next to us. But at the same time, a set of centrifugal forces have been gaining on us, producing a growing sense—between and within societies—of disintegration.
Whether we are looking at a more fragile European Union, a more polarized United States, a more fervid Sunni-Shia conflict, intensified tribal rivalries in much of Africa and Asia, or other splintering threats in every corner of the planet, the word “fragmentation” seems to define our times.
Global promise, it can be said, has been matched by tribal wariness. We have more communication, but we also have more confrontation. Even as we exclaim about growing connectivity we seem to experience greater disconnection.
Perhaps what we did not see so clearly sixty years ago is the fact that technological advance does not necessarily mean human progress. Sometimes it can mean the reverse.
The more we communicate, the harder it can sometimes be to evaluate what we are saying. More information often means less context and more confusion. More than that, the increased pace of human interaction means that we encounter the stranger more often, and more directly. What is different is no longer abstract and distant. Even for the most tolerant among us, difference, more and more, can be up close and in your face.
What all of this means is that the challenge of living well together—a challenge as old as the human race—can seem more and more complicated. And so we ask ourselves, what are the resources that we might now draw upon to counter this trend? How can we go beyond our bold words and address the mystery of why our ideals still elude us?
In responding to that question, I would ask you to think with me about the term I have used in the title for this lecture: “The Cosmopolitan Ethic.”
For a very long time, as you know, the term most often used in describing the search for human understanding was the word “tolerance.” In fact, it was one of the words that was used in 1955 text to describe one of the objectives of this Jodidi Lecture.
In recent years our vocabulary in discussing this subject has evolved. One word that we have come to use more often in this regard is the word “pluralism.” And the other is the word “cosmopolitan.”
You may know that our AKDN Network, a decade ago, cooperated with the Government of Canada to create a new Global Centre for Pluralism based in Ottawa, designed to study more closely the conditions under which pluralist societies can thrive.
A pluralist, cosmopolitan society is a society which not only accepts difference, but actively seeks to understand it and to learn from it. In this perspective, diversity is not a burden to be endured, but an opportunity to be welcomed.
A cosmopolitan society regards the distinctive threads of our particular identities as elements that bring beauty to the larger social fabric. A cosmopolitan ethic accepts our ultimate moral responsibility to the whole of humanity, rather than absolutizing a presumably exceptional part.
Perhaps it is a natural condition of an insecure human race to seek security in a sense of superiority. But in a world where cultures increasingly interpenetrate one another, a more confident and a more generous outlook is needed.
What this means, perhaps above all else, is a readiness to participate in a true dialogue with diversity, not only in our personal relationships, but in institutional and international relationships also. But that takes work, and it takes patience. Above all, it implies a readiness to listen.
What is needed, as the former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson has said, and I quote, is a readiness “to listen to your neighbour, even when you may not particularly like him.” Is that message clear? You listen to people you don’t like!
A thoughtful cosmopolitan ethic is something quite different from some attitudes that have become associated with the concept of globalization in recent years. Too often, that term has been linked to an abstract universalism, perhaps well-meaning but often naïve. In emphasising all that the human race had in common, it was easy to depreciate the identities that differentiated us. We sometimes talked so much about how we are all alike that we neglected the wonderful ways in which we can be different.
One result of this superficial view of homogenized, global harmony, was an unhappy counter-reaction. Some took it to mean the spread of a popular, Americanized global culture—that was unfair and an assessment that was erroneous. Others feared that their individual, ethnic or religious identities might be washed away by a super-competitive economic order, or by some supranational political regime. And the frequent reaction was a fierce defense of older identities. If cooperation meant homogenization, then a lot of people found themselves saying “No.”
But an either-or-choice between the global and the tribal—between the concept of universal belonging and the value of particular identities—was in fact a false choice. The road to a more cooperative world does not require us to erase our differences, but to understand them.
A responsible, thoughtful process of globalization, in my view, is one that is truly cosmopolitan, respecting both what we have in common and what makes us different.
It is perhaps in our nature to see life as a series of choices between sharply defined dualities, but in fact life is more often a matter of avoiding false dichotomies, which can lead to dangerous extremes. The truth of the matter is that we can address the dysfunctions of fragmentation without obscuring the values of diversity.
A cosmopolitan ethic will also be sensitive to the problem of economic insecurity in our world. It is an enormous contributing factor to the problems I have been discussing. Endemic poverty still corrodes any meaningful sense of opportunity for many millions. And even in less impoverished societies, a rising tide of economic anxiety can make it difficult for fearful people to respect, let alone embrace, that which is new or different.
This problem has been compounded by the very advances that have long been the source of so much hope. I am thinking here for example about medical advances that have dramatically increased human longevity. People live longer, but they often find that they have outlived their resources.
The developing world is now facing a major challenge: how does it care for the elderly? Even in more developed societies, social changes have eroded some of the domestic support that once eased the burdens of the aging. How, we must all ask, will we manage the new challenges of longevity?
All of these considerations will place special obligations on those who play leadership roles in our societies. Sadly, some would-be leaders all across the world have been tempted to exploit difference and magnify division. It is always easier to unite followers in a negative cause than a positive one. But the consequences can be a perilous polarization.
The information explosion itself has sometimes become an information glut, putting even more of a premium on being first and getting attention, rather than being right and earning respect. It is not easy to retain one’s faith in a healthy, cosmopolitan marketplace of ideas when the flow of information is increasingly trivialized.
One answer to these temptations will be found, I am convinced, in the quality of our education. It will lie with our universities at one end of the spectrum, and early childhood education at the other—a field to which our Development Network has been giving special attention.
Let me mention one more specific issue where a sustained educational effort will be especially important. I refer to the debate—one that has involved many in this audience—about the prospect of some fundamental clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. In my view, the deeper problem behind any prospective “clash of civilizations” is a profound “clash of ignorances.” And in that struggle, education will be an indispensable weapon.
Finally, I would emphasise that a cosmopolitan ethic is one that resonates with the world’s great ethical and religious traditions.
A passage from the Holy Quran that has been central to my life is addressed to the whole of humanity. It says: “Oh Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women…”
At the very heart of the Islamic faith is a conviction that we are all born “of a single soul.” We are “spread abroad” to be sure in all of our diversity, but we share, in a most profound sense, a common humanity.
This outlook has been central to the history of Islam. For many hundreds of years, the greatest Islamic societies were decidedly pluralistic, drawing strength from people of many religions and cultural backgrounds. My own ancestors, the Fatimid Caliphs, founded the city of Cairo, and the great Al Azhar University there, a thousand years ago in this same spirit.
That pluralistic outlook remains a central ideal for most Muslims today.
There are many, of course, some non-Muslims and some Muslims alike, who have perpetrated different impressions.
At the same time, institutions such as those that have welcomed me here today, have eloquently addressed these misimpressions. My hope is that the voices of Islam itself will continue to remind the world of a tradition that, over so many centuries, has so often advanced pluralistic outlooks and built some of the most remarkable societies in human history.
Let me repeat, in conclusion, that a cosmopolitan ethic is one that will honor both our common humanity and our distinctive identities—each reinforcing the other as part of the same high moral calling.
The central lesson of my own personal journey—over many miles and many years—is the indispensability of such an ethic in our changing world, based on the timeless truth that we are—each of us and all of us—“born of a single soul.”