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H.H. The Aga Khan’s acceptance speech


On September 21, 2016, His Highness The Aga Khan was named the inaugural recipient of the Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship. Below is a slightly edited version of his acceptance speech, given at Koerner Hall in Toronto as part of the closing night of 6 Degrees.

As we discuss the concept of global citizenship – and the spirit of pluralism on which it rests – it is only realistic to acknowledge an increasing frustration concerning the pluralism story. We talk sincerely about the values of diversity, about living with complexity. But in too many cases more diversity seems to mean more division – greater complexity seems to bring more fragmentation – and more fragmentation can bring us closer to conflict.

The stakes seem to get higher as time goes by. So do the obstacles.

One enormous challenge, of course, is the simple fact that diversity is increasing. The task is not merely learning to live with diversity, but learning to live with greater diversity with each passing year.

An aspect of this changing reality is the challenge of human migration. More people are moving, willingly and unwillingly, across national frontiers than ever before. In country after country, the migration question is a central issue of political life. Often it is the central issue. And old habits of mind – including narrow, exclusionary definitions of citizenship – have not met the challenge.

That was true three months ago when Great Britain voted to leave the European Union. It is true in pre-election debates in France and in the United States. It is true in Canada, although Canada has certainly been a world leader in expanding the concept of citizenship. But the challenge is felt everywhere.

Nor is the migration challenge likely to dissipate any time soon, especially as war, and violence, and economic deprivation displace more and more people.

In such a world, the “Other” is no longer a distant someone whom we encounter primarily in the pages of a magazine, or on a video screen, or an exotic holiday trip. The “Other” increasingly is someone who appears in what we think of as “our space” – or even “in our face.” And that reality can be hard to handle.

When the Other is seen as a potential competitor – for a job, for example – even when this fear is unfounded, the challenge to pluralistic attitudes becomes even more difficult. For those who feel insecure, it is tempting to look for scapegoats, for someone to blame, especially when their self-esteem seems threatened.

Often, we then find it easier to define our identity by what we are against, than by what we are for.

Such fears may be culturally based, or economically driven, or psychologically rooted. But they should not be underestimated. And they will not be driven away by nice-sounding words proclaiming lofty ideals.

This is why I emphasize our responsibility to improve the quality of life in places throughout the world where that quality is unsatisfactory. Fighting poverty, improving health and education, expanding opportunity are the first manifestations of a healthy pluralistic ethic.

Pluralism means responding to diversity not only at home, but on a global basis, creating genuine “visions of opportunity” wherever constraints or reversals are in the air.

But the growing challenge to pluralistic values does not happen only when people move physically from one place to another. As new technologies shrink the planet, distant forces become dire threats.

We worry about the perils of environmental degradation, for example, including the spectre of climate change. We see how every local economy can be affected by distant economies. We realize how dangerous forces can spread across national borders: deadly diseases or deadly weaponry, criminal networks or terrorist threats. And often, the human impulse is not to work across borders to meet these dangers, but to withdraw from a threatening world.

One element that complicates this challenge is the way in which we communicate with our global neighbours. We think sometimes that new technologies can save us. If we can connect at faster speeds, at lower cost, across greater distances, with more people – just think what could happen! We would all learn more about one another, and perhaps understand one another better.

But I am not sure that things are working out that way. The explosion of available information often means less focus on relevant information, and even a surfeit of misinformation. Thoughtful leadership often gives way to noisy chatter.

Media proliferation is another challenge. What it often means is media fragmentation. Many now live in their own media bubbles, resisting diverse views. New technologies can make communication seem easier, but they can also make pluralism more difficult.

Yet another dimension of the challenge has to do with the realities of human nature. We often hear in discussions of global citizenship that people are basically alike. Under the skin, deep in our hearts, we are all brothers and sisters, we are told, and the secret to a harmonious world is to ignore our differences and to emphasize our similarities.

What worries me, however, is when some take that message to mean that our differences are trivial; that they can be ignored, and eventually erased. That is not good advice. In fact, it is impossible.

Yes, our underlying humanity should motivate our quest for healthy pluralism. But such a quest must also be built on an empathetic response to our important differences.

Pretending that our differences are trivial will not persuade most people to embrace pluralistic attitudes. It might even frighten them away. People know that differences can be challenging, that disagreements are inevitable, that our fellow humans can sometimes be disagreeable. As Adrienne Clarkson once said, “the secret to social harmony is learning to live with people you may not particularly like.”

My fear is that talking only about our common humanity might appear to threaten people’s distinctive identities. And that can complicate the challenge of pluralism. Who am I? Qui suis-je? We all must pose that question. Answers will grow out of basic loyalties – to family, faith, community, language – which provide a healthy sense of security and worth. But if the call for pluralism seems to dilute those old loyalties, then that new call may not be effective.

Embracing the values of global citizenship should not mean compromising the bonds of local or national citizenship. The call of pluralism should ask us to respect our differences, not to ignore them; to integrate diversity, not to depreciate diversity. The call for cosmopolitanism isn’t a call to homogenization. It means affirming social solidarity without imposing social conformity. One’s identity need not be diluted in a pluralistic world, but rather fulfilled – as one bright thread in a cloth of many colors.

Perhaps the key to resolving the paradox of citizenship is to think about layers of overlapping identity. After all, one can honour a variety of loyalties – to a faith, an ethnicity, a language, a nation, a city, a profession, a school, even a sports team. One might share some of these identities with some people, and other identities with others.

My own religious community identifies proudly as Ismaili Muslims, with our specific interpretation of Islamic faith and history. But we also feel a sense of belonging with the whole of the Muslim world, the Ummah.

Within the Ummah, the diversity of identities is immense, greater than most people realize. These differences are based on language, history, nationhood, ethnicity and a variety of local affiliations. But, at the same time, I observe a growing sense within the Ummah of a meaningful global bond.

When the question of human identity is seen in this context, then diversity itself can be seen as a gift. Diversity is not a reason to put up walls, but rather to open windows. It is not a burden but a blessing.

In the end, of course, we must realize that living with diversity is a challenging process. We are wrong to think it will be easy. The work of pluralism is always a work in progress.

Some of that work will be done in our schools. What I have called the “cosmopolitan ethic” is not something that we are born with, it is something that must be learned. The process does not simply take care of itself. It requires planning, persistence and ever-fresh thinking. It is work that is never finished.

Finally, advancing the cause of global citizenship is not only a matter of building healthy, diversified societies, but also of maintaining them. Inevitably, new challenges will rise. Canada’s Chief Justice, the Right Honorable Beverley McLachlin, spoke last year of how a cosmopolitan society needed to continually sort out the balance between healthy diversity and social cohesion. To do that well, she said, required a respect for human dignity, strong legal institutions, and a pluralistic institutional environment.

For me, that latter strength implies a broadly diversified civil society with a healthy array of private organizations dedicated to public purposes. For pluralism to thrive will require the successful integration of diverse institutions and diverse leadership.

The challenges of global citizenship, in sum, will be many and continuing. What will they require of us? A short list might include these strengths: a vital sense of balance, an abundant capacity for compromise, more than a little sense of patience – an appropriate degree of humility – a good measure of forgiveness – and, of course, a genuine welcoming of human difference.

It will mean hard work. It will never be completed. But no work will be more important.

Photo credit: Chris Young for The Globe and Mail