Speaking at Brown University on Monday, the Aga Khan — the spiritual leader for some 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims worldwide — focused on the potential of social media and Internet-based technology to bridge cultural divisions.
But the 77-year-old Harvard graduate, whose appearance was part of the university’s 250th anniversary celebration this month, also warned of how that technology can shield people from how complex the world really is.
“More information at our fingertips can mean more knowledge and understanding, but it can also mean more fleeting attention spans, more impulsive judgments and more superficial snapshots of events,” said the Aga Khan, whose given name is Prince Karim Al Husseini. “Our world grows more complex, but too often the temptation is to shield [ourselves] from complexity.”
Addressing what some have referred to as the “inevitable clash” between the Muslim world and the industrialized West, the Aga Khan, who is believed to be a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed, argued that there is “much more in harmony” between the two cultures.
Centuries ago, he said, Islamic culture flourished because of its “inclusiveness,” with “great Muslim centers of learning” bringing together people from different cultures to enrich mankind’s understanding of the world.
“What the West has seen of the Muslim world has been through a media lens of instability and confrontation. What is highly abnormal in the Islamic world often gets mistaken for what is normal,” the Aga Khan said. “That is all the more reason for us to work from all directions to replace fearful ignorance with empathetic knowledge.”
On the continued tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims — Islam’s two major sects — he called for a “thoughtful, renewed emphasis” on “pluralism” and “civil society.”
“Does the Holy Koran not say that mankind is descended from a single soul?” said the Aga Khan, who is the 49th imam, or spiritual leader for Ismaili Muslims, a branch of Shia Islam. “In an increasingly cosmopolitan world, it is essential that we live by a cosmopolitan ethic, one that honors human rights and social duties [and] advances personal freedom.”
Born in Switzerland and currently living in Europe, the Aga Khan is also chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, a nonprofit development organization he founded in 1981.
In his prepared remarks and a question-and-answer session with Brown University President Christina Paxson, he highlighted that organization’s work in the areas of health care and education in Africa and Asia.
The Aga Khan said universities and non-governmental institutions like his must continue to be agents for change in the developing world.
“The success of democracy will require more than democratic governments,” he said. “In places where people live in fear, they can be voices of hope.”
The message resonated with a number of those in attendance Monday.
“There was just so much in there about Brown and the role these top Western universities should play in development,” said Aarish Rojiani, a high school senior from Georgia who attended with his family and was among many Shia Ismaili Muslims in the packed auditorium. “It was a great point to make at a place like this.”
Tahira Dosani, a Brown graduate who lives in Washington, D.C., said she was impressed by the Aga Khan’s remarks about technology: “He said global connectivity doesn’t necessarily mean more connection. I think that was powerful.”