Democracy, Faith and Refugees at the Athens Democracy Forum
Posted: 10/21/2015 5:12 pm EDT
Samreen Hooda - Shamez Babvani
Our democratic institutions are crumbling. The separation of Church and State has inevitably turned into a separation of morals from government, turning governments into skeletal bodies with little to no moral compass.
Many today believe faith, particularly Islam, is incompatible with democracy and that refugees cannot understand or contribute to democracies, yet the Athens Democracy Forum invited two keynote speakers to address the challenges and opportunities of government: a refugee and a Muslim.
Adrienne Clarkson, Hong Kong-born Canadian journalist, politician and stateswoman arrived in Canada as a three-year old refugee in 1942.
"Like all refugees," she said, "I learned the nature of loss and the necessity for reinvention. By surviving you also gain the chance to begin, to be aware, to seek and welcome the new."
"My family, mother, father, brother aged seven and I were given eight hours to prepare to leave under the aegis of the Red Cross to come to North America," Clarkson said. "Out of that experience I gained the courage to continue, the need to survive, and the necessity to never look back...."
And indeed she never looked back, rising through the ranks to become Canada's 26th honorable Governor General.
This is "the promise of democracy," His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, said in his address, "that the people themselves best know how to achieve such progress. But if that promise is disappointed, then democracy is endangered."
That disappointed promise has marred many of today's refugees struggling to escape the tightening grip of extremist philosophies for the promise of a better quality of life. What would have been the potential of three-year old Ayan Kurdi, whose family too sought to bring him to the Canada for a new life?
"I believe that the progress of democracy in our world is fundamentally linked to improving the quality of human life," His Highness added. "A UNDP survey of South American publics some years ago demonstrated that most people preferred an effective authoritarian government to an ineffective democratic one. Quality of life was the prime concern."
This message reverberated around the world these past few weeks. In his address to the Congress, Pope Francis, a son of immigrants himself, also touted that this is the "chief aim of all politics."
"You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good..."
In the last month, Pope Francis and the Aga Khan have shown not only that two historic and powerful religions fully agree on the purpose of government, but also that this ideal government is achievable.
One such example is the Charter of Medina, constituted by the Prophet Muhammad, which brought the tribes of Medina and their Jewish neighbors together under one democratic system, imploring them to work as one community rather than separate entities. It declared freedom in religious belief and assured that representatives of all parties, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, make any decisions that would affect the entire community together.
This charter gave rights to women, set into place a taxation system and a judicial process for dispute resolution. The early Muslim town of Medina was in fact a democracy, where people of different faiths lived, worked and learned together.
"The spirit of pluralism, at its base, is a response to the realities of diversity - a way of reconciling difference on the one hand with cooperation and common purpose on the other. It is an attitude, a way of thinking, which regards our differences not as threats but as gifts - as occasions for learning, stretching, growing - and at the same time, as occasions for appreciating anew the beauties of one's own identity," His Highness the Aga Khan said at Inaugural Ceremony of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa. "One of the reasons governments have failed in highly diverse settings around the world is that dogma has too often been enshrined at the price of more flexible, pluralistic approaches to political and economic challenges."
In today's increasingly plural world, we must see one another as common members of a global community rather than adversaries fighting for limited resources.
"Politics is, instead," Pope Francis said, "an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life."
The Aga Khan Development Network has within its purview this same objective. While influenced by the core values of the Islamic faith, its agencies conduct programs without regard to faith, origin or gender with the goal of bettering the quality of life of those served.
The founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, the Aga Khan believes in investing in long-term growth over short-term profits. One example: Frigoken Limited. To help small bean farmers in Kenya export their surpluses to other countries, the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development started a company with the aim of providing farmers the advice and resources they need to grow their business.
By processing beans throughout the year these small subsistence farmers, many of whom had plots of 2 acres or less, were guaranteed steady incomes year round, helping improve their quality of life and ability to become self-reliant. The company employs over 2,700 people, most of whom are women, and supports over 45,000 small scale farmers in rural areas of Kenya.
Today, Frigoken is the largest exporter of processed green beans from Kenya. Most of these beans are sold on European markets under famous brand names.
The AKDN engages in many such projects, creating opportunities in vulnerable areas through the creation of businesses like the Serena Hotel and Roshan Energy, financing micro-loans for special projects such as vegetable processing plants, pharmacies, bakeries, and hardware stores in parts of the developing world, providing access to quality education and quality healthcare through Aga Khan Health and Education and evens the preservation of cultural heritage via the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Yet amidst headline making statements, all of this work is lost. Rather than helping to bridge this divide, forums of the media are focused on the next hot button issue, the next moneymaking story, the next shocking news.
"The age-old promise of democracy is that social cohesion and public progress could be achieved by consensus rather than by coercion. But genuine democratic consent depends on dependable public information," His Highness added.
Harkening back to the days in ancient Greece when the general populous lived within distance of a "crier's call," His Highness reminded us of the "critical role of competent and independent media voices."
As founder of the Nation Media Group, the first truly independent news outlet founded in Kenya during its independence, His Highness has not given up hope on the worth and noble endeavor of news outlets.
"No, our technologies alone will not save us. But neither need they ruin us. It is not the power of our tools, but how we use them that will determine our future," He said. "...this means prioritizing the role of independent media, and indeed, of a multiplicity of independent voices. Demographic pluralism must be reflected in healthy media pluralism."
The idea that a government can be of and for the people is an ideal that civilizations old and new, religions large and small, and men across time have sought to build. The idea of the ever out-of-reach utopia lies fuzzy in the distant future. Yet the direction towards that ideal democratic governance lies clear: A government that seeks the good of all, where power isn't sought for its own purpose alone, where servant leaders thrive and where the quality of life of the community is improved.
In order to get there we need to ensure that knowledge and information are free flowing so an informed public can make informed decisions for the good of all. We need to ensure that places for open dialogue exist and civil society institutions that take ownership of improving the quality of life, outside the domain of government, thrive. And we need to ensure that people, all people, have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness- even a Muslim and a refugee.
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