By Nizar Motani
(Where Hope Takes Root: Democracy and Pluralism in an Interdependent World by His Highness the Aga Khan, with an introduction by The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, published by Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, Canada, 2008. 153 pp).
Who is the Aga Khan? And why should one buy this rather expensive ($24.95)* hardback?
His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, henceforth the Aga Khan, is the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad. He succeeded his grandfather Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III on July 11, 1957. It is his dual mandate, as the hereditary imam, to ensure the spiritual and material well-being of his Ismaili Muslim followers and to promote a better quality of life for all in the wider communities.
A compelling argument for reading his thirteen speeches and the interview is made by Adrienne Clarkson, the former Governor-General of Canada, in the introduction: “In these remarkable speeches collected in Where Hope Takes Root, the Aga Khan explains the principles that inform his profound belief that civil society, democracy and mutual understanding must be encouraged and strengthened in order for the world to be a better place.” (p. 3.)
Referring to the international organization founded and shaped by the Aga Khan, she continues: “This intersection of faith and society has led to initiatives that have made a profound difference in the developing world…. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has improved the lives of some of the poorest, most deprived and most diverse populations in the world.” (p. 3.)
The Aga Khan’s book succinctly highlights AKDN’s fifty years of experience, experiments and accomplishments in specific countries of Africa and Asia in diverse fields leading to sustainable development and inter-communal cooperation.
On June 5, 2008, the Aga Khan received an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. The citation, recognizing an amazing array of his extraordinary achievements, is commendation enough to familiarize oneself with the recipient’s worldwide activities. The Aga Khan was honored, among many other things, for his “abundant works and eloquent words which create hope across ancient divides.” AKDN was described as the “planet’s most important private organization which had stimulated economic opportunities, enriched cultures and the built environment, founded hundreds of innovative schools” as well as academies and universities and clinics and hospitals. He was further acclaimed for his “strong voice of reason in a quest for mutual understanding between the Islamic world and the West….” and for his forceful advocacy of pluralism and democratic values.
Other locations and occasions where he was a recipient of honors, keynote speaker or actually presented awards on behalf of AKDN, are a clear indication of his international stature. The thirteen speeches delivered between September 2002 and October 2006 constitute the body of his Where Hope Takes Root. His audiences were as varied as the places were prestigious and far apart: graduating classes at Aga Khan (Karachi, Pakistan), Columbia (New York) and Toronto (Canada) universities; German Ambassadors (Berlin) and German clergy and scholars (Tutzing); European Bankers and donors and patrons of culture (Amsterdam and Tashkent, Uzbekistan); architects, builders, scholars and urban planners (New Delhi); diplomats, governmental and private civil society institutional leaders in Evora, (Portugal) and Oslo (Norway) and Gatineau and Ottawa (Canada).
Though expertly tailored to each specific event, one distinct central question recurs in all his speeches: how to “nurture healthy, competent democracies?” He offers several concepts or suggestions based on five decades of AKDN’s multifaceted activities in 30 countries in Africa and Asia. These are pluralism, civil society and appropriate education.
“Pluralism is the recognition that people of diverse backgrounds and interest, organizations and projects of different types, and different kinds and forms of creative expression are all valuable and therefore deserving of recognition and support by government and society as a whole. Without support for pluralism, civil society does not function. Pluralism is also essential for peace, a statement that is unfortunately documented by armed conflict in the context of cultural, ethnic or religious differences on almost every continent” and is especially critical for Central Asia given the demography of the region. (pp 25-26.)
The second intertwined precondition for enhancing pluralism and democracy is a “healthy civil society”. It “provides citizens with multiple channels through which to exercise effectively both their rights and their duties. ….. only a strong civil society can ensure both isolated rural populations and the marginalized urban poor a reasonable prospect of humane treatment, personal security, equity, the absence of discrimination and access to opportunity.” (p. 43.)
The Aga Khan has defined civil society to include “an array of institutions that operate on private, voluntary basis but are driven by public motivations.” These civil society institutions dedicated to health, education, environment, culture, science and research and the various trades and professions should include religious institutions and the media. (p. 107.)
Another “democratic pillar is…..rigorous, responsible and relevant education. We must do a better job of training leaders and shaping institutions to meet more demanding tests of competence and higher standards of excellence.” (p. 107.)
AKDN’s multilateral approach through its tiered educational system of schools, academies of excellence, universities as well as cultural and music initiatives, have laid foundations of meritocratic societies and broadened the graduates’ horizons so they can address the current “Clash of Ignorance” bedeviling Muslim-non-Muslim relations. (p.30.) Significantly, the Global Center for Pluralism — a joint Canadian government and Ismaili Imamat think tank — was activated with the appointment of Board of Directors in Ottawa on May 27, 2010 under the Chairmanship of the Aga Khan.
The last chapter embodies a wide-ranging discussion between the Aga Khan and Peter Mansbridge, a prominent Canadian TV personality, in which the Ismaili Muslim Imam is critical of Western ignorance of pluralistic Muslim societies and subsequent blunders in Afghanistan and Iraq. They also touch upon global terrorism, unresolved conflicts in Kashmir, Palestine and sub-Saharan Africa.
The format of this publication, featuring speeches whose central themes recur in all of them, is prone to repetition. Evidently the Aga Khan wants his vehemently universal message to reach all corners of the world without having to buy his book. Therefore his official website: www.akdn.org and full contact information are provided. The website has these same speeches as well as numerous other studied and pioneering addresses, list of partners, publications, employment opportunities and introductory articles about the Aga Khan and the Ismaili community that he leads.
Date article posted: December 7, 2011
Copyright: Nizar Motani. December 2011.
About the author: Nizar Motani was born in Kampala, Uganda, where he attended Aga Khan Primary and Secondary schools. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the then the University of Nairobi, Kenya, he went on to obtain a doctorate in African history from the University of London (SOAS).
His dream of lecturing at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, was shattered by Idi Amin’s expulsion of the Asians. Instead, he accepted a visiting lecturership at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine, USA), and later taught at Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, Michigan).
After serving as the first Publications Officer at the newly-established Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, he returned to America starting a new, non-academic chapter in his life. Since 1989 he has been residing in Atlanta, Georgia, mainly engaged in real estate and financial fields. He periodically writes essays and book reviews on the Mortgage industry and on Ismaili and East African subjects.
Editor’s note: This is a slighty edited version of the actual book review published in Journal of Third World Studies, 2009.
In addition to www.akdn.org, we recommend the following links for speeches and interviews of His Highness the Aga Khan:
NanoWisdoms Collection – Where Hope Takes Root and More (for published speeches, interviews and writings given by the Ismaili Imam — a great archive created by Mohib Ebrahim)
One on One: Peter Mansbridge with His Highness the Aga Khan (on this Website)
“The Power of Wisdom” – His Highness the Aga Khan’s Interview with Politique Internationale (English translation – a Simerg exclusive)
*Listed at $24.95, this work may be purchased for less at Amazon and other fine on-line book sellers.
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