SPEECH AT THE OUTREACH DINNER HELD AT THE ISMAILI CENTRE - 1994-08-09
Source: Typescript (6 pp.)
Your Worships, Your Excellencies, My Lords, Ladies and Gentleman
It is a particular pleasure for me to be amongst so many friends of the Ismaili community in the United Kingdom.
I cannot help reflecting upon the history which brings us all together in the heart of London, when standing here in The Ismaili Centre, so close to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Ismaili community in Britain traces many of its roots to this country's former colonies in Africa and in Asia. Over the past half century, Ismailis have established themselves as one amongst many immigrant communities that have been settling these shores ever since the Romans, under Claudius, founded London. Indeed, it is not far from this very site in Kensington that a few young Ismaili students and families first gathered to share the experiences of life in post-war London during the Empire's twilight years. And many more came when, following the dawn of newly independent Asian and African states, the hope of freedom was from time to time marred by political turmoil. Ismailis, resident in a large number of countries in Asia and Africa were, like others, affected by the upheavals which sometimes accompanied the creation or the early years of these countries.
As the presence of the Ismailis in Britain changed from a handful of adventurous students to an increasingly large, permanently established community, originating from different parts of the Third World, speaking different languages and with very different economic and educational backgrounds, the leaders and I were faced with the difficult question of determining the steps that we should take to assist the community to establish itself well and definitively in the United Kingdom. We concluded that centres of social and religious life were a condition sine qua non to enable the community to practice its faith, maintain its traditions, and protect its identity. We responded to the need for the community to organize its governance on the same patterns as those to which it was accustomed in its countries of origin. Finally, we agreed that an economic safety net had to be created to protect those at greatest risk, and which, in time, might hopefully become a springboard for their economic take-off.
In seeking to build these pillars around which the Ismaili community could establish itself successfully in England, we decided to share our aspirations and needs with a number of British entities and institutions, and it is with sincere gratitude that I can say tonight that we received friendship, support and encouragement. It was, for example, the Greater London Council which, on learning of our requirement for a significant centre in London, recognised its desirability, and encouraged us to tender for the prestigious site where we are gathered this evening. We were able to develop with Lloyds Bank, a lending programme specifically tailored to the needs of the community, and which to date has assisted more than one third of the total Ismaili community now resident in Britain.
But adaptation is neither a simple process, nor one that can be completed in one or two generations, Still, today, there are Ismaili children born in this country, who like many other immigrant children, grow up sometimes unable to speak their ethnic language and who learn and adopt as their own, ways which their parents always considered alien or worse. Many of these young people themselves seek to preserve their cultural heritage and to strengthen their bonds to their communities of origin.
For this to happen, educational materials that reflect the rich humanistic and cultural dimensions of Islam have to be accessible to them in English. Such materials of the required calibre, unfortunately, are not always available, either in the country of settlement, or in the country of origin. Also, for religious education effectively to complement what children learn in secular schools, it has to be intellectually stimulating and pedagogically sound.
The Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, over the past two decades, has grappled with these issues and its scholars, working closely here with institutions of higher learning have, this year, completed the first stage of a multi-year programme with materials in English, French and Portuguese, in addition to Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Gujerati.
I am hopeful that, through interventions of this type, our youth will learn to recognize that, whilst true success must be determined largely by merit, meritocracy and competition must not be permitted to erode their traditions of compassion and care for the less fortunate -- for it is those traditions, rooted in our faith and history, that should temper the harshest consequences of free market economics.
The settlement of the Ismaili community in Britain has not been a unique phenomenon: even more members who left the acutely troubled areas of Asia and Africa in the last 35 years have established themselves in Canada and the United States. And there, too, they have successfully built for themselves new lives.
A particularly noteworthy achievement of these newly established communities in Britain, Canada and the United States is that their institutions, open to people of all faiths and origins, work hand-in-hand with their governments and other development agencies to make a significant contribution to the improvement in the quality of life of those particular countries of the Third World from which they originated.
Let me cite, very briefly, and in no particular order, a few examples:
The Aga Khan Foundation (United Kingdom), in this, its twenty-first anniversary year, has been awarded the largest single grant ever made by the European Commission to a Non-Governmental Organization. This grant is for rural development programmes in India. More recently, the European Union has been involved with the Aga Khan Foundation in the provision of emergency food and humanitarian assistance in Tajikistan.
Another major partner is the Overseas Development Administration. Both agencies have worked closely with our institutions on internationally acclaimed rural support and primary health care programmes in northern Pakistan, school improvement programmes in Kenya and Uganda, and early childhood education programmes in India and Tanzania.
The Foundation in the United Kingdom has obtained commitments amounting to some 40 million since its establishment. While most of this has come from the European Union and ODA, the generous support of NGO's such as Oxfam and Charity Projects has been invaluable, as have the contributions of thousands of individuals throughout the country.
In East Africa, the Commonwealth Development Corporation is an important co-investor with the World Bank's private sector arm, The International Finance Corporation, in tourism projects sponsored by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development.
The University of London's Institute of Education has, for years, collaborated with the Institute of Ismaili Studies in training teacher-educators.
Oxford University is a major partner in the newly established Institute for Educational Development of The Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan.
Resources have similarly been mobilised in Canada and in the United States where the total funding committed to Aga Khan Development Network projects since the early 1980's has been close to 90 million. Today the Network is in partnership with some 40 governments, multilateral agencies, and Non-Governmental Organisations across the globe.
Hopefully such initiatives, and certainly the end of the Cold War, will enable many countries in the developing world to move more rapidly toward greater prosperity, and although this may not occur evenly in all of the countries of interest to the Ismaili community, it is my hope that many will adjust successfully to multiparty democracy, free market economics and a world likely to be restructured into regional trading alliances.
This, in turn, may ease the burdens of those immigrants who, at times, have had to sustain families in their countries of origin. As those in the developing world assume greater control over their destinies, so their relatives in Britain will be free to build a sounder and more stable future for themselves.
Thinking back over the circumstances in which the largest numbers of Ismailis immigrated into the United Kingdom not so very long ago, it seemed improbable that that same community would have established itself so successfully in the West. Even less probable was for it to become a significant contributor in bringing positive change -- through human and material resources -- to those very same countries from which it had emigrated.
This remarkable achievement is in many ways due to the warmth, understanding and tolerance shown by friends such as you gathered here tonight, and I am aware that many of you, too, have your roots in the developing world. On the Ismaili community's behalf, and my own, I would like to express to you our most sincere gratitude and appreciation.