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Aga Khan stresses importance of pluralism

Aga Khan emphasizes collective responsibility, cracks jokes in talk on tradition and technology

Prince Karim Aga Khan IV ’96 hon. P’95 said during a lecture Monday that the hardest part of speaking at Brown again since delivering the baccalaureate address in 1996 was “that you have to explain what you got wrong the first time.” It was hard to imagine that the thorough, well-spoken 49th hereditary imam of Nizari Ismailism would be prone to carelessness.

But he insisted. “I think I actually underestimated what happened in the 18 years ahead,” he said, acknowledging that back then, “you would not have had any Facebook friends, and you would not be following anyone on Twitter, and perhaps more sadly, no one would be following you,” to much laughter from the audience.

Introduced by President Christina Paxson, the Aga Khan’s speech was a Stephen A. Ogden Jr. ’60 Memorial Lecture on International Affairs and focused on the importance of a relevant education.

The Aga Khan is the founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, whose agencies include the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, founded in 1967 to fight rural poverty and hunger in disenfranchised nations, and the Aga Khan Education Services. The latter include the Aga Khan Academies, residential private schools in Africa and Asia following the International Baccalaureate curriculum, and the Aga Khan Universities, which place an emphasis on pluralism and collective responsibility, according to the event brochure.

The Aga Khan described how his “own education has blended both Islamic and western traditions.” He said his position is “not a political role, as has been mentioned, but let me emphasize that Islamic belief sees the spiritual and material worlds as inextricably connected. Faith should deepen our concern for improving the quality of human life in all its dimensions.”

After his lighthearted foray into social media humor, the Aga Khan adopted a more serious tone. “We often think about technological innovation as a great source of hope for the world, (and) we hear about how the Internet can reach out across boundaries, helping us all to stay in touch,” he said.

But the success of our use of modern communication depends on “how human beings go about using or abusing their technological tools,” the Aga Khan said, fearing “centrifugal forces in our time, the forces of fragmentation” that can “threaten democratic institutions.” He described how technological access to constant information can lead to “more fleeting attention spans, more impulsive judgments and more dependence on superficial snapshots of events.”

In light of the temptation to “live more of our lives inside smaller information bubbles, in more intense and often more isolated groupings,” the Aga Khan stressed that “greater connectivity does not necessarily mean greater connection.” With more room for error, the enriching nature of diversity is lost, he said, noting that “the problem comes when diverse elements spin off on their own, when the bonds that connect us across our diversities begin to weaken.”

He cited the West’s perception of the Islamic world as an area where it is important to “replace fearful ignorance with empathetic knowledge,” describing how “knowledge gaps so often run the risk of becoming empathy gaps,” the topic of his first speech at Brown, which he still sees as pertinent. “The struggle to remain empathetic and open to the other in a diversifying world is a continuing struggle of central importance to all of us,” he said.

To solve these problems, the Aga Khan called for a “thoughtful, renewed commitment to the concept of pluralism” to foster the “essential unity of the human race.” He described the importance of “the capacity to integrate knowledge, to nurture critical thinking and ethical sensitivity” in preparing “well-informed leaders who are sensitive to a wide array of disciplines and conflicts and cultures.”

After his speech, the Aga Khan participated in a question-and-answer session with Paxson, who drew from a list of questions contributed by members of the Brown community.

In response to a question about the Aga Khan’s work “to improve public health,” he said his organization has noted a significant change in disease spread in the developing world. “If you speak to most of the governments in the developing world, they are particularly unhappy about the cost of non-communicable diseases,” he said.

This dissatisfaction means focusing on “hospital beds, tertiary care” and an effort to “use technology to link rural, isolated areas to (their) own networks,” he said.

When Paxson asked what advice he had for students “looking forward to making a difference in the world,” he noted the importance of being able to access the world, saying, “If you speak seven languages, your horizons are widened.

“If you want to be a global citizen, then prepare yourself for that — it’s a different set of goals,” he added.

Lastly, the Aga Khan acknowledged the importance of persevering despite mistakes. “Everybody makes mistakes — never regret them, but correct them,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a perfect world or a perfect life.”


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