Dialogue of Civilizations: Aga Khan Celebrates 60 Years of Bridge-Building

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Written by Ana C. Rold

In a 1993 article titled “The Clash of Civilizations” Samuel P. Huntington argued that in the post-Cold War world, Islamic extremism would become the biggest threat to world peace. The essay has become sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. All you need to do to validate it is to turn on the internet or wherever you get your 24/7 “news”. Famously, the journal that published the essay also published a series of other essays sparking the debate: are we or are we not in the midst of a Clash?

Why bring up Huntington today? If you want to look for how the Clash is affecting worldviews you need not look further than President Trump’s speech in Poland last week. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” he said. “Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” If you read and watch the news with the same round-the-clock voracity that most of us do, it’s easy to see that public perception is divided: those who believe the West is in imminent danger from this Clash and those who believe in dialogue.

As His Highness, the Aga Khan celebrates a Diamond Jubilee today—60th year as the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the world’s Shia Ismaili Muslims—we are reminded that interfaith bridges of understanding are not the kind of stories that you hear about every day. Indeed, the 24/7 news cycle is not built to tell “soft news.” But if you fall into the camp of those who seek a world of bridges, you should know about the man who has been building them since he was a 21-year-old. The Aga Khan calls the clash of civilizations a “clash of mutual ignorance.” In his words: “The world we seek is not a world where difference is erased but where difference can be a powerful force for good, helping us to fashion a new sense of cooperation and coherence in our world and to build a better life for all.”

The post-colonial world saw a West disinterested in Asia and Africa. But the Aga Khan saw opportunity in human capital. He founded the Aga Khan Foundation and the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) to empower communities in these regions to help themselves. What does that mean?

Take Tajikistan, for example. In an interview with Diplomatic Courier, CEO of Aga Khan Foundation USA, Aleem Walji, told me of the Foundation’s work in the country as a prime example of development done right. In the 1990s Tajikistan was caught up in conflict and was considered a fragile state. “Over two decades, we created an ecosystem for development,” explains Walji. “We invested in education, infrastructure, broadband, language, and building the capacity of an entire generation of Tajiks.” The investment has been transformative for the region, translating to “youth that are not susceptive to many of the trends that are happening in other parts of the Muslim world…(because) they have access to economic opportunity and social inclusion.”

How massive is this effort?

“We are not trying to boil the ocean,” says Walji. “We work in sub-geographies, with communities and projects we feel we can have the most impact on…through a massive voluntary infrastructure on top of our 80,000 employees.” Not a small feat. The Foundation along with AKDN operate more than 200 health care institutions, two universities in six countries, and 200 schools and school improvement programs in very poor and remote parts of the world.

Inspired by the Islamic ethic of compassion and responsibility to care for the needy, AKDN is working to build an all-encompassing civil society that addresses the needs of vulnerable populations. AKDN has broad mandates including, health, education, architecture, microfinance, disaster reduction, rural development, the promotion of private-sector enterprise, and the revitalization of historic cities. “Our objective is to always fill gaps where public and private institutions are weak or absent,” explains Wajli “but to do it in a way that is building capacity and always alongside governments and private sector.”

We have a tendency to talk about peace in the context of conflict; to talk about health in the context of disease. But that which keeps us healthy is very different from what we need in order to stop pathology when we get sick. Indeed, in tackling our world’s biggest issues, we can look at the pathology or we can look at prevention. According to Walji: “If we look at the broader trend lines, quality of life has improved all over the world.” Maternal and child mortality rates have fallen dramatically compared to 20-30 years ago. So have mortality rates from diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. Although Wajli is modest in his assessment, Aga Khan and his network of development have employed this kind of thinking from the start. Now, we see many organizations following the logic that every citizen has a responsibility to play a productive role in society. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are precisely about that: individuals—not just governments—are empowered to bring about positive change.

This message may get lost in the news shuffle today. “The perceived levels of misunderstanding and mistrust between the Muslim World and certain parts of the West is at the forefront of what we see,” says Wajli. “I think it’s very unfortunate because the headlines don’t really capture what’s happening in the majority of the Muslim World and amongst Muslims.”

Even though the state of the world is improving and mind-boggling technological advancements are making life easier and better, we’ve become captive to our own views. We go to our comfort zones in digital communication wastelands not for dialogue but to reinforce our version of reality. The Aga Khan’s programs and investments are deeds that demonstrate the power of the dialogue of civilizations over the past 50+ years. His success should propel a new generation of bridge builders.

Photo credit:  Education for Marginalized Children in Kenya’s (EMACK) Whole School approach engages parents and community stakeholders in children’s learning processes, develops a community of reading, and supports identification of school challenges and solutions by School Management Committees. These girls attend Our Lady of Nazareth Primary School, which has received support from the project. Photo by AKDN/Lucas Cuervo Moura.

About the author: Ana C. Rold is Founder and CEO of Diplomatic Courier.  She teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host of The World in 2050–A Forum About Our Future. To engage with her on this article follow her on Twitter @ACRold.