For Release Sunday, October 30, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group
Above: Aga Khan
Who is the Aga Khan? And why is he being honored?
It’s the question that 6,000 developers from around the United States (plus many from around the world) must have been asking last week as they assembled in Los Angeles for the Urban Land Institute’s 75th anniversary celebration. The organization’s highest honor, they heard, was not, as in previous years, going to a familiar U.S. property developer, planner or far-sighted political leader (last year Chicago’s retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley).
Rather, the prestigious J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development was being awarded to Shah Karim-al Hussayna — a man better known as the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, a sect of 12-15 million believers worldwide who revere him as a direct descendant of and legitimate heir to the Prophet Muhammad.
And why this selection? The ULI award cited the Aga Khan’s “strong leadership, over more than 40 years, in a stunning variety of development and philanthropic endeavors largely benefitting poor and marginalized communities in Asia and Africa struggling to improve their living conditions.”
A point of clarification: this writer was a member of the ULI awarding jury, at the organization’s invitation. We concluded that in this year of the Arab Spring, at a moment of perilous transitions in the relations between Western and Muslim communities, the time was ideal to honor the Aga Khan. First, because of his remarkable record in furthering quality design and physical development, with great sensitivity to communities’ unique histories and cultures.
And secondly, we hoped the award to this thoughtful and effective Muslim leader might be a bridge to broadened exchange of ideas and community building practices between Western and Islamic cultures.
The Aga Khan was born in 1936, schooled in Europe, and became the 49th hereditary leader of the Ismailis in 1957, while a student at Harvard. (His father, Prince Aly Khan, an infamous playboy best known for his brief marriage to Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth, was predictably passed over — a decision made by his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan).
Energetic from youth, the new Aga Khan skied at the 1962 Olympics in Innsbruck, made the cover of Life magazine in 1958, and interviewed President Kennedy in the White House. In 1977 he endowed a Center for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT.
A skeptic might say the Aga Khan has it easy. His family fortune places him on lists of the world’s wealthiest individuals. And he receives a 12.5 percent tithe from his sect’s millions of followers as they follow the ethic of Islam that requires members of the faith to contribute to improving the quality of human life. This income — $625 million in 2010 — flows to the Aga Khan Development Network, which he founded more than 40 years ago.
What’s striking is the breadth of activities this money, heavily focused in the world’s developing countries, supports. There are funds to promote entrepreneurial activity in fragile economies. Cash flows flow to rural development, health, education and strengthening civil society. There are microfinance programs in 20 countries. Planning and building services are provided to improve village planning, housing and construction. There’s an Aga Khan University that offers medical and education field courses at ten campuses in nations ranging from Kenya to Afghanistan, Egypt to Uganda.
Stewardship of the built environment — quality architecture combined with respect for local history and tradition — has been a major focus of the Aga Khan’s activities for decades. The work’s been essential in the Muslim world, where the historic cores of many cities have deteriorated seriously over time.
An example is provided by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which worked to restore a noted historic monument that draws many tourists — the 900-year old Altit Fort in Hunza, Pakistan. But there was a problem: residents had been abandoning traditional housing in the village and building new houses on valuable arable land. So the trust financed a water filtration system to draw people back to the traditional settlement.
Al-Azhar Park in Cairo, sponsored and financed by the Aga Khan’s Trust for Culture and listed as one of the world’s 60 great public spaces by the Project for Public Spaces.
The Aga Khan last year explained such strategies to NBC News: “I discovered the cultural dimension of the Islamic world was an extraordinarily powerful trampoline for development. The populations of these cultural sites are often the poorest in the country. So acting in culture, you’re actually developing the quality of life for the poorest people who’ve been recently urbanized.”
Or on another occasion: “We are increasingly aware that the quality of our buildings can transform the quality of our lives, both spiritual and material.”
At a time when xenophobic voices in the United States thoughtlessly bundle Muslim faith with its fringes of terrorist extremism, the Urban Land Institute’s award to the Aga Kahn represents the value and wisdom of a thought- and value-based approach in a mature society. The country (and world) need far more, not less, of the same.
Comments from ULI Leadership:
From 2011 ULI J.C. Nichols Prize Jury Chair James DeFrancia, principal of Lowe Enterprises, Aspen, Colo.:
The J.C. Nichols Prize recognizes distinguished contributions to community building. Such contributions can, and do, come from many sources and cultures. Through the Aga Khan Development Network, progress and improvements to communities have been undertaken in over 30 countries. The Aga Khan has further been an advocate of standards of excellence through his Award for Architecture. His Planning and Building Services agency has also improved design, construction, sanitation and environmental sustainability. The efforts of the Aga Khan have strengthened both communities and society at large.
From Patrick L. Phillips, ULI Chief Executive Officer:
The jury made a great choice. The work of His Highness the Aga Khan and the AKDN exemplifies the holistic approach to community building that is central to ULI’s culture and ethos. As we commemorate our 75th anniversary year, this award reinforces several things about where ULI is today: we’re a global organization; our mission resonates in emerging markets as well as developed ones; and we’re interested in expanding our view and our impact beyond our traditional constituencies.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is email@example.com.
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