Speech at the Opening Ceremony of the Ismaili Centre, London

Speech by Mawlana Hazar Imam at the Opening Ceremony of the Ismaili Centre, London on Wednesday, 24 April 1985.

Speech by Mawlana Hazar Imam
At the Opening Ceremony of
The Ismaili Centre, London
Wednesday, 24 April 1985

Madam Prime Minister,
Your Excellencies,
Your Worship the Mayor,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a very great pleasure for us to welcome you, Madam Prime Minister, and so distinguished a gathering for a ceremony which is a most significant one for the Ismaili community: significant because this is the first cultural and religious centre in the Western world to have been built specifically for the community's requirements.

In 1957, when I inherited the responsibilities of the Ismaili Imamat from my grandfather, the late Aga Khan, it seemed inconceivable that we would ever have substantial communities in the West. Our people were too deeply rooted in India and Pakistan, in Syria and Iran, in many African countries and in Central Asia and the Far East.

However, that was before the winds of change had begun to blow across the colonies where many Ismailis lived. Since the late 1950s there have been enormous changes both in the Commonwealth and in the Third World.

During this relatively short time, many developing countries have passed through the entire process of being born as independent nations and of growing to maturity, with all that can mean in human terms. Some of these transitions have been slow and peaceful, some brutally fast. For many people it has been a turbulent quarter century.

Inevitably some Ismailis have lived through periods of such political instability that they have been forced to move, and have sought new homes in countries secured by the peace, the stability and the respect for individual freedom which the older democracies offer. Understandably those from the Commonwealth have often wished to stay within it.

Under this pressure of events, the Ismaili community in the United Kingdom, which until the early 1970s consisted principally of students, has grown in recent years as it has also done in Western Europe, Canada and the United States. Among those who have arrived have been doctors, engineers, accountants and other professional people, as well as businessmen.

They have come to find peace and safety on a permanent basis for themselves and their children; aspiring to add their part to the strength of Britain's economy and of its social and cultural fabric; to work and prosper both for their own and for this country's future.

This, then, is the historical context in which the Imamat and the community have created new institutions in Britain, one of the most significant being this Centre, which you, Madam Prime Minister, are doing us the honour of opening today.

It is probably true to say that eventually Ismailis, like other groups which have settled in the United Kingdom permanently, may lose touch with their original languages and adopt many aspects of British life. But they are certain to seek to maintain their faith and their traditions, whilst accepting what seems best and most appropriate from Western civilisation. This building is more than simply a place of congregation. Through the quality of its design and workmanship, it will be a bridge between the culture of the community's roots and that of its future as well as a symbol of the hopes of people who have lived through change and turbulence and have ultimately found security here in Britain. They are proud that it now joins two other institutions of their community already established in London.

These are The Institute of Ismaili Studies, concerned with academic and ecumenical research, which collaborates with the University of London Institute of Education and McGill University of Canada; and the Aga Khan Foundation, a non-profit international philanthropic agency assisting some 500 educational and health care units or programmes in Asia and Africa. The Foundation is currently privileged to be collaborating with more than 30 other international organisations, both governmental and non-governmental. Among them are the Overseas Development Administration and OXFAM here in Britain, CARE, the Canadian International Development Agency, the Ford Foundation, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation.

As a result of these and other social and economic development activities of the Imamat, particularly in Commonwealth countries, I have become keenly aware of the effects of the recent world recession. In the industrialised nations it has forced radical re-thinking on a number of economic issues and here I would like to pay tribute to the pragmatism which you, Madam Prime Minister, have displayed in facing them. Although the economic problems of the Third World are certainly not identical with those of the West, no impartial observer could fail to recognise an increasing willingness among developing countries to adopt a similarly pragmatic approach, especially in the encouragement of individual endeavour.

Many Third World countries are now reframing their policies. I could quote numerous examples: China, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kenya. As the President of the World Bank, Mr Clausen, observed in a speech here in London in February: “There is evidence enough that the most rapid economic growth in the developing world has been achieved in countries where Governments have recognised that private enterprise has a critical role to play.”

However, the role of private endeavour in Third World societies goes far beyond economic activity alone: it has long extended into health care, into education, into the crucial area of rural development; into almost every aspect of nation building. Nor is the new-found recognition of its worth connected only with competing ideologies, I believe that it is a reflection of the urgent need to make the fullest use of all a nation's available resources, of which in the Third World the efforts of individuals are a major component. Islam emphasises the duty of man to be productive within the context of his family and his society, but warns that enterprise without a social conscience is not acceptable.

When they can be creative, people are far and away the Third World's largest resource. Obviously individuals cannot realise their potential unless governments provide an environment which enables them to do so. It is here in particular, Madam Prime Minister, that I feel the British willingness to articulate and promote fresh ways of thought is of such value. Creative industrialised nations, new or old, can exercise considerable influence in the Third World by encouraging governments there to test new ideas: and those ideas are destined to become increasingly powerful as the revolution in communications exposes more and more people, particularly the vast rural majority of the developing countries, to their impact.

Speaking as a Muslim, I feel that a pragmatic approach can be particularly helpful at a time like the present, when the Islamic world as a whole is subject to pressures, both internal and external, which have had few precedents in its history.

Those internal pressures include conflict between different interpretations of our faith, conducted sometimes openly through war and elsewhere covertly. Meanwhile extraneous forces, such as the famine now blighting much of Muslim sub-Saharan Africa, contrast with the extreme wealth which has come to the desert lands of the gulf, and create an increasing polarisation within the Islamic world.

Against this background, ordinary Muslims strive to express their legitimate desire to identify ways of life and institutions which will reflect their own unique heritage of faith and culture. They strive to find and hold to a path of stability between democracy and totalitarianism, between Islamic belief and secularism, between the pressures of poverty and of wealth.

Responding to this search, many countries are testing economic philosophies in pursuit of forms acceptable to the specific ethos of our faith. Similar enquiry is submitting jurists and the laws by which Muslims live to scrutiny in an effort to restore their Islamic authenticity. Western structures of government, and systems of national consultation, are being analysed with the objective of finding alternatives that are most sympathetic to the societies, culture and faith of Muslims, but which will nevertheless guarantee peaceful, equitable and stable processes of change.

I believe there is a need for the West to show empathy with these aspirations and to recognise that although the example of pragmatism may stimulate thought and activity in the Islamic world, Western methods and criteria of judgement are not necessarily themselves appropriate to the tasks which Muslims face.

I am often struck by the imbalance of comprehension between the Christian and Islamic cultures. Of course, in government and well-informed specialised institutions – universities for example – the perception is accurate. But the general public in the West is too often shown the Ummah – the worldwide community of 800 million Muslims – as a monolithic block of believers whose national political disputes are part of their religion. Such a distorted portrayal of the true background both causes unnecessary misunderstanding of Islamic questions and hinders mature response to them. In reality, certain expressions of political action cannot be considered representative of that faith of peace, which so many millions of people practice every day. Nor, because their majority is rural and isolated, are its feelings reported. The silent majority is indeed silent.

It is my deep conviction that a strong consensus of wisdom does exist within the Islamic world and that the silent majority of Muslims wishes to heal divisions, not to exacerbate them. This desire is one which the Ismaili community, being spread virtually throughout the Ummah, has good cause both to appreciate and to share.

Given a wider understanding of the forces acting upon the Islamic Ummah, I am sure that the industrialised nations can help to add strength to its efforts for peace and the world economy. I believe, Madam Prime Minister, that your presence here today is proof of your own comprehension of the issues involved, and of your willingness to assist in their resolution, as well as being an expression of welcome and consideration for the young Ismaili community now established in Britain.

We are all greatly honoured at your being with us, Madam Prime Minister. It is a source of pleasure and pride to the Ismaili community that this Centre should be situated in the heart of London, and we now look forward to its becoming a valuable addition to this distinguished neighbourhood.