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opinion

Fifty years ago today, Prince Karim Aga Khan, at the age of 20, became the 49th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community. He succeeded his grandfather, Sir Sultan Shah Aga Khan, and is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed through the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, Ali (the first imam), and his wife Fatima, the Prophet's daughter.

Fifteen million Ismailis worldwide will be celebrating the milestone, including the 80,000 in Canada, many of whom came as refugees following the turmoil in Uganda in the 1970s. But this is also an opportunity for others, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to appreciate what this particular Islamic leader has done.

From my first encounter with the imam 18 years ago, and the many meetings since, I learned several lessons.

I came to understand that we are experiencing less a global clash of civilizations and more a clash of ignorance. The lack of appreciation of the Muslim world's civilizations is a major factor that feeds negative media stereotypes and public attitudes. We in the West must seek a better understanding of the Islamic world and its textured mosaic of views that continue to evolve.

Due to globalization, modern communication and extensive migration, people of different cultures are intermingling more than ever. Notwithstanding this, the Aga Khan points out that societies that have grown more pluralistic in makeup are not always more pluralistic is spirit. He has called for a new "cosmopolitan ethic" rooted in a strong culture of tolerance.

Since the Second World War, the most common ingredient of state failure and conflict has been the inability, or unwillingness, of some people to recognize that human society is essentially pluralist. And successful pluralist societies are not accidents of history; they evolve by deliberate actions, nurtured through education, a strong civil society and respect for human rights.

Hence the Aga Khan Development Network's commitment to fostering those tools. I have visited projects in Africa and Asia that give expression to this view that a democracy cannot function reasonably without the institutions of a civil society and genuine respect for pluralism. In Afghanistan, in particular, this is vital to the country's success.

While I have no doubt about President Hamid Karzai's personal commitment to a pluralist view, there have been some disquieting signs of intolerance in the evolving Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. I suspect these issues will be the major point of creative tension in our development programming in that country.

Clearly, we need to create a better understanding of how pluralism, tolerance and human rights develop within emerging democracies.

The AKDN strives to ensure that people have the opportunity to live in countries where threats to democratic development are minimized. To achieve that, the network draws on the experience of established democracies such as Canada that have a vibrant civil society. This is why in Ottawa, the Aga Khan is establishing The Global Centre for Pluralism. This secular, non-denominational institution will work closely with governments, academia and civil society to foster the necessary legislative and policy environments for nascent democracies. Its emphasis will be on strengthening new democracies' capacity for research and policy analysis on pluralism, while offering educational and professional development as well as public-awareness programs.

Ignorance, intolerance and zealotry are equal-opportunity curses to all religions and are chasing faith out of public life. This needs to change, especially in a post-9/11 world, and the Aga Khan offers an effective antidote to all of them.

In this Jubilee year of the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, I encourage fellow non-Muslims to challenge our collective ignorance and to appreciate anew the foundation that pluralism is to global conflict resolution and democratic development.