After 50 years as the spiritual leader of 15 million Muslims, the Aga Khan is known for his progressive views - and his Irish connections
THE AGA KHAN was at the Curragh to watch the Irish Derby last Sunday. Not that you'd know it. While reporters scurried around trying to pick out the famous faces in the parade ring, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV and his daughter, Princess Zahra, came and went from the race track unnoticed by the 35,000 or so racegoers.
The imam, or spiritual leader, of 15 million Ismaili Muslims doesn't court publicity. But that doesn't stop the western media's fascination with his private life. There's plenty of material to choose from, whether it's his vast wealth (more than €1.5 billion, according to the latest Sunday Times rich list), his hundreds of racehorses or, most recently, his reported hiring of Paul McCartney's lawyer, Fiona Shackleton, to handle his divorce from his second wife.
He agreed to a rare interview with The Irish Times after becoming an honorary doctor of laws at NUI Maynooth this week, but it was requested beforehand that no personal questions be asked. When you are facing a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, it doesn't seem like a good time to ask about celebrity tittle-tattle.
Prince Karim was a 20-year-old student at Harvard when his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, died after naming him as his successor to lead the Ismaili Muslims. The Ismailis, the second-largest group of Shia Muslims, are scattered across 25 countries in five continents.
There was some surprise when the young prince was chosen, thus bypassing his father, Aly Khan, who led a flamboyant life which included joining the French Foreign Legion and marrying Rita Hayworth.
That accession took place more than 50 years ago and the 71-year-old father of four is now seen as one of the most progressive and liberal Islamic leaders.
Through the Aga Khan Development Network, he runs a group of development agencies working in areas such as health, education, enterprise, architecture, culture, micro-finance and disaster reduction. Its programmes are open to all, regardless of gender or religion. The network includes 235 non-profit hospitals and clinics and more than 300 schools.
BECAUSE OF HIS humanitarian work and promotion of equal rights, he has received many decorations and awards, yet he seems genuinely moved by the award from NUI Maynooth.
"I am deeply honoured," he says "because this institution is a remarkable institution in its own right and therefore to receive an honorary degree from an institution such as this is very meaningful indeed."
He hopes to work with NUI Maynooth on projects such as student exchanges and joint research programmes. Maynooth's roots in Catholicism are particularly interesting to him because many universities in the developing world started as faith institutions and are now trying to transform themselves into modern research facilities.
"In the developing world, at least, we have an enormous amount of mediocrity," he says. "Standards are terribly, terribly low and unless those standards are enhanced . . . you are not making a permanent contribution to the processes of change."
So the connection between Ireland and the Aga Khans, which began in his grandfather's lifetime, may well be strengthened. The Aga Khan owns several stud farms here, including his public stud at Gilltown, in Kilcullen, Co Kildare.
"We are not what I would call a commercial enterprise," he says. "We are a traditional breeding operation and therefore our goal is to produce every year, if we can, outstanding thoroughbreds. And Ireland has made a massive contribution to that ever since my grandfather started."
A large bronze statue of his most famous horse, Shergar, stands at Gilltown Stud. The Epsom and Irish Derby winner was kidnapped in 1983 while at stud.
While the IRA was widely thought to be responsible for the kidnapping, no one was ever charged with the crime. Fifteen years later, the Aga Khan still mourns the loss of Shergar.
"I think Shergar was only one aspect of the internal conflict in Ireland, one of the tragedies of this conflict," he says. "Obviously I think it was a massive loss to Irish breeding, but the country has paid a very, very high price for its internal difficulties and there's a lot to be learned about the way it got past that situation.
"I think there's a lot to be learned also about how it got into that situation, because I still see the need to divide between faith issues and political issues."
This is something he regularly emphasises as he urges the western world not to generalise about the Muslim world, saying it would be akin to taking the Troubles as the model for Catholicism.
"Certainly in the Islamic world we are tending to see issues which are political presented as faith issues, which they're not," he says.
The Aga Khan says it is unacceptable that religions are put forward as the major cause of situations when political problems are really to blame.
"The Middle East, after all, is a political issue first," he says. "Kashmir was a political issue first. Even Afghanistan was a political issue first, rather than a faith issue. So I think it's very important to understand what are the main forces that are playing in these contexts."
He is interested in the current debate on whether the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, should be worn in Irish schools and cautions against the issue being used to create division.
"My own sense is that if an individual wishes to associate publicly with a faith, that's the right of that individual to do that, whether he's a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. That is, to me, something which is important," he says.
But he says that people should not be forced to wear the hijab. "To go from there to an imposed process by forces in society, to me is unacceptable. It's got to be the choice of the individual who wishes to associate with his faith or her faith. I have great respect for any individual who wants in the right way to be associated with his own faith. I accept that totally and I would never challenge it."
He is a fervent believer in pluralism in education and thinks people must be taught in early childhood to see those from different backgrounds as equals.
"It's an issue of equity of people in society," he says, adding that he has been encouraging governments in developing countries to provide for equality of opportunity in their constitutions. "So governments have to answer to the question: 'Are you governing in an equitable manner?' "
And how is his advice being received?
"Sensitively," he says. "But it is essential."
IN THE 1960S he founded the Nation Media Group in Africa, and the Daily Nation now has more than four million readers. Street vendors rent out the paper so that each copy is read by 12 or 13 people, he says.
The Aga Khan is now trying to create a network of correspondents across sub-Saharan Africa "so ultimately we're able to become the African information enterprise for Africa, because that doesn't really exist in Africa. It's very much a regional resource or a national resource."
Africa is in a learning process with "fragile democracy, fragile economics", but ultimately he has great hope for the continent. "The African leadership I know is acutely aware of the necessity to move forward in these critical areas for national development. That wasn't the case in the 1960s and 1970s."
Inevitably, talk turns to Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe's controversial re-election.
"I'm not a politician, but what we are talking about again is every African having the right to aspire to a better quality of life. And that is the goal of good government: to improve the quality of life of the individual in society," he says. "If this particular government is failing, then that government is answerable for failing."
He points to the recent crisis in Kenya and says the non-governmental bodies and faith institutions played a key role in resolving that conflict.
Since he left Ireland on Monday, the Aga Khan has embarked on a seven-day visit to the UK to mark his golden jubilee. In 1931, his grandfather's 50th anniversary was celebrated by Ismailis sending him his weight in gold. On another occasion he received his weight in diamonds.
These weighing ceremonies were a widespread means of fundraising by religious groups and local rulers in colonial India and other areas. Ismailis still pay a proportion of their income back to the community, but needless to say the current Aga Khan has never been weighed in gold. Nor would he wish to be.
Four Responses to Islam – Interview with His Highness the Aga Khan
May 30, 2009
Posted by ismailimail in Aga Khan IV.
There are 7 questions, 7 part video excerpts. Click on the photographs or the source link below. Then click on the Aga Khan IV link. Click links to the left for individual video excerpts. Interview is in English.
WAM Dubai, May 30, 2009 – The final episode of the largest-ever Western television production on the history of Islam was aired this week amid positive critical acclaim from scholars and some of Europe’s most influential media.
The three-part documentary, entitled Morgenland (German for Orient), explores the 1,400 year-old history of the Islamic faith, from its beginnings in the early 7th century CE to today. It seeks to educate viewers about the actual meaning of the religion by using an impartial, objective approach, and thus rectifying the often distorted image with which Islam is associated by many in Western countries.
Among the other personalities interviewed for the documentary were Mahmoud Hamzi Zaqzouq, Egypt’s Minister of Religion, Hans Kung, a leading Christian theologian, Aga Khan IV, the spiritual leader of Shiite Ismaili Muslims, and Reza Aslan, one of the foremost American intellectuals on Islam.
“The Power of Wisdom” – His Highness the Aga Khan’s Interview with Politique Internationale
“We are a long way from the democratization of nuclear energy. Maybe I’m naïve but I advocate another approach, which I call “positive proliferation.” The positive proliferation that I would dearly love to see happen is based on a simple principle: yes to energy, no to arms.”
Editor’s Note: Politique Internationale is a French political affairs journal, dedicated in particular to international relations. Over the past 32 years, the journal has been recognized as a highly influential French-language publication addressing international issues. As a prominent French journal, it has published interviews with leaders from France and the entire world, including His Highness the Aga Khan, whose interview with author and journalist Jean-Jaques Lafaye appeared in the spring 2010 issue (#127).
The following English translation of the interview is being published on this Web site with the permission of the journal. It was submitted to the publisher for their review. I am deeply indebted to Politique Internationale for the consent to publish this perceptive interview on this Web site, and thus making it available to a larger audience.
Among the many questions addressed in this interview, including those pertaining to his Ismaili community and Islam in general, the Aga Khan provides his assessment on current issues; among these, how one might solve the problem of political stalemates such as those concerning the Middle East and Central Asia, or how we might address Iran’s nuclear energy programme. In parts of the interview, the Aga Khan candidly speaks of past and present world leaders.
Politique Internationale invites readers of Simerg to read the French text on its Web site by clicking LA FORCE DE LA SAGESSE
His Highness the Aga Khan. Photo Credit: Politique Internationale
ABSTRACT FROM POLITIQUE INTERNATIONALE
“In 1957, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan became the Imam of the Ismaili Muslims (a Shiite branch). In this position, he must take care of his flock’s spiritual life, as well as their economic health. This could be considered almost an impossible task, since there are Ismaili communities in many countries worldwide, from the Middle East and Africa, to Asia, Canada, the United States and Europe. But thanks to the immense fortune his family has built up over the centuries, the Aga Khan has been able to set up projects designed to enhance their lives wherever – or almost wherever – his fellow Ismailis live. For instance he was one of the pioneers in micro-credit operations, helping rural populations take advantage of the slim surplus from their farm production. In this historic document, the leader of the Ismaili Muslims reviews a half-century of philanthropy and shares his vision of Islam, and the relationship between religion and State.”
English Translation of Jean-Jacques Lafaye’s Interview in French
with His Highness the Aga Khan
“The Power of Wisdom”
“the Imamat is an institution whose two-fold mission is to guarantee quality of life and to interpret the faith. The religious leadership of the Ismaili Imam goes back to the origins of Shia Islam when the Prophet Muhammad appointed his son-in-law, Ali, to continue his teachings within the Muslim community”
Jean-Jacques Lafaye: Your Highness, as spiritual leader of Ismaili communities throughout the world, you exert unquestionable influence on the international scene. Nevertheless, you have no wish to be regarded as a political player…
Aga Khan: …or as a politician. From my point of view, even though religious groups and governments have to maintain relationships based on cooperation and mutual respect, religion and politics are two quite different things.
Lafaye: You are the embodiment of the Imamat. Your co-religionists see you as their “lord and master.” What form does your leadership take?
Aga Khan: In both Sunni and Shia Islam, the Imam is responsible for the quality of life of those who look to him for guidance and for overseeing the practice of the faith. There is no division as there is, for example, in the Christian interpretation, between the material and the spiritual. The Imam’s responsibility covers both domains. Hence, his first concern is for the security of his followers; his second is for their freedom to practice their religion; his third is for their quality of life, as I have just mentioned.
I repeat, the Imamat is an institution whose two-fold mission is to guarantee quality of life and to interpret the faith.The religious leadership of the Ismaili Imam goes back to the origins of Shia Islam when the Prophet Muhammad appointed his son-in-law, Ali, to continue his teachings within the Muslim community. The leadership is hereditary, handed down by Ali’s descendants, and the Ismailis are the only Shia Muslims to have a living Imam, namely myself. The other Shia – the Twelvers – revere a “hidden” Imam who will return on the Day of Judgment to take part in the final judgment. It is the presence of the living Imam that makes our Imamat unique. The Sunni are completely different in that they do not accept the idea of continuity of religious leadership by members of the Prophet’s family.
“I think that most conflicts arise out of essentially political problems. I emphasize, it is not about religious but political issues Religion is often no more than a pretext or, even more so, an instrument manipulated by political forces.”
Lafaye: So your community with its worldwide presence is unique within the context of Islam.
Aga Khan: It is indeed unique since it recognises only one Imam who exercises his authority over all Ismailis throughout the world. There are Ismaili communities in the Middle East, Africa, South-East Asia, Central Asia, Canada, the United States and Europe. This diversity is expressed through our cultural and linguistic traditions, and through the variations in the way we practice our religion, but all Ismailis are united by their recognition of a single Imam.
Lafaye: You advocate a humanistic Islam. How do you react to the violent outpourings of certain political and religious leaders in the Middle East and to acts of terror carried out in the name of your religion?
Aga Khan: I studied history – specifically at Harvard – and I feel very uneasy when I see religion being held responsible for all the human problems that no one knows how to solve. When people talk about a “clash of civilizations” my response is that what we are in fact dealing with is a “clash of ignorances.” I think that most conflicts arise out of essentially political problems. I emphasize, it is not about religious but political issues. Religion is often no more than a pretext or, even more so, an instrument manipulated by political forces. Thus, the problems in the Middle East or Kashmir are, in the strictest sense, political but with an added religious dimension. This tendency is not peculiar to the Muslim world. Christian countries have had the same experience. You only have to look at Northern Ireland.
Lafaye: In 2007, you celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of your accession as Imam of the Ismailis. Which have been your greatest successes during that period?
Aga Khan: The Cold War era presented me with my first major challenge. Part of the Ismaili community lived in the Soviet republics. As a result, its members had little or no contact with their Imam. At the time, as well as dealing with the burning international issues of the moment, we were considering what position we should adopt vis-à-vis Communist countries. It was an extremely complex situation. What was our organization’s role in a world where Communist dogma came face to face with capitalist dogma? Not to mention the internal tensions within each country. After ten or twenty years we managed to streamline all our activities and to make sure that the Imamat had at its disposal credible, specialized and competent international institutions capable of operating in many countries and providing effective help to Ismailis throughout the world.
Microloans allow women to improve their standard of living
“Microfinance relies on the honesty of the borrower because he or she is not asked for any guarantee…But as the accounts were checked and discussed in public each week, a kind of public morality came to light in a most remarkable way. Men repaid 98% of their debts, women 99%.”
Lafaye: You were among the first to introduce microfinance – a financial tool which has become the most effective solution in the development of poor regions. Where did that idea come from?
Aga Khan: In the early 1960s we became aware of a horrendous gulf – I use strong words because it was a particularly dramatic situation – separating rural and urban populations in the developing world. The rural populations were completely marginalized. Then we discovered that, in both the West and the developing world, all decisions regarding development support were taken by “urban” organizations. By that I mean that the decision-makers knew absolutely nothing about the reality of the lives of millions of men, women and children who were virtually invisible, lost in the midst of vast regions. National political systems took no interest in these populations, through lack of any effective census arrangements or electoral system. Before our very eyes, the vast majority of Ismailis living in Africa and Asia were being totally excluded from the development process. I have to say quite frankly that this was a terrible discovery. At the beginning of the 1960s, I completely overhauled our development support processes. I decided that our priority was to provide these rural populations in the developing world – isolated, ignored, with no local leadership or contact with the decision-makers in the big cities – with an effective form of aid.
Lafaye: What were your key initiatives?
Aga Khan: First of all, we needed to make improvements to agriculture itself, hence the Aga Khan Foundation’s Rural Support Programmes. Above all, the main thing was to guarantee access to food. It should be remembered that many of our communities were on the brink of famine, for example in the east of Tajikistan during the civil war in the early 1990s, but also in Syria and other countries. We helped consolidate agriculture in the affected areas. I won’t deny the fact that this was more easily done in the former colonies of western nations than in the Soviet Republics where our activities relating to the distribution or sale of the harvests were curbed by the state-sponsored collective farm system. And then we noticed an interesting phenomenon. In general, the farmers managed to produce a tiny surplus, be it daily, weekly or monthly. These surpluses were sold and the money made from their sale was spent in winter when there was no agricultural produce. What could be done to stabilize and multiply these minuscule savings?
In order to consolidate them, we came up with the idea of microfinance and set up village organizations whose accounts could be made public. Microfinance relies on the honesty of the borrower because he or she is not asked for any guarantee. But as the accounts were checked and discussed in public each week, a kind of public morality came to light in a most remarkable way. Men repaid 98% of their debts, women 99%. We established village associations and then created inter-village associations. These groups went to see the banks which in turn lent them money. This marked the beginning of a genuine financial support system, namely microfinance, which is now so well known. Since then, the program has continued to expand, so much so that we now have micro-insurance as a means of guaranteeing access to education and healthcare for members of large families. We have moved from the financial domain into that of social protection. We are developing the program in partnership with the Gates Foundation and are already trying it out in Tanzania and Pakistan.
President Barack Obama and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France have a discussion in the Blue Room of the White House before their joint press availability, March 30, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
“Before these two men [Presidents Obama and Sarkozy] came to power, it seemed to me that major international issues were suffering a kind of paralysis. Fortunately, things have changed. The two presidents belong to a younger generation. Both have shown great open-mindedness and I think they can be trusted.”
Lafaye: You have mentioned women are exemplary. And yet the position of women in Muslim countries is often cause for criticism in the West. What is your stance on this as Imam?
Aga Khan: We must briefly take a look back at history. In pre-Islamic Arabia, women were no more than chattels, sold at the market like cattle. When Islam was in its nascent stages, the followers of Islam decided that this situation was unjust. In Islam, men must respect women and women must respect men. Nevertheless, we are also concerned with avoiding any abuse of freedom that might cause women to be regarded as objects as they are perceived by certain schools of thought in the West. Islam firmly rejects the notion of woman as object. In future, even beyond the Muslim world, I believe it will be the abuse of freedom that fuels debate. Indeed, in many areas people defend the principle of freedom to a point where freedom tends to become depravity, permissiveness and disrespect. At that point, Islam says “no.” And that doesn’t only apply to the problem of the relationship between men and women. Take the economic crisis that is affecting us all. The root of the problem is that certain financial institutions have been allowed too much freedom, which they have abused in a way verging on the immoral.
Lafaye: Which personalities, past and present, do you see as providing moral benchmarks?
Aga Khan: I wouldn’t use the word “moral”, which is delicate. I would sooner say “humanistic.” Who are the men and women who have displayed admirable humanism? In the course of my life I have met all sorts of people. Political leaders, artists, philosophers. Among those who have made an impression on me I can happily include Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, Kofi Annan, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Jomo Kenyatta, who was the first President of Kenya, Derek Bok, who was President of Harvard for a record 20 years, and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who was appointed a Messenger of Peace by the United Nations. All these men possessed or continue to possess one extraordinary quality – the ability to step away from their own value system and put themselves in the place of the people they are dealing with. They knew how to place themselves in another person’s shoes in order better to understand and help that person. It is an ability that I deeply admire, an irreplaceable talent that is unfortunately all too rare.
Lafaye: People like to compare and contrast Presidents Sarkozy and Obama. What do you think of them?
Aga Khan: Before these two men came to power, it seemed to me that major international issues were suffering a kind of paralysis. Fortunately, things have changed. The two presidents belong to a younger generation. Each certainly possesses a young man’s determination and sufficient confidence in his energy, education and intellectual capabilities to be able to say “I am going to take a fresh look at this issue.” Both have shown great open-mindedness and I think they can be trusted. It would be unrealistic to say that they are going to solve every problem. But in my view their rejection of taboos and all forms of inflexibility is very important. And in Russia, too, younger leaders are in charge. There exists throughout the world a desire for change after years that have seen a marked unwillingness to give ground, particularly over the disaster of the war in Iraq, which was horrendous. These young leaders have to begin by repairing the damage done before they take office.
“I had great respect for the man [President Zia]. He was deeply religious and honourable, but he was no theologian. By attempting to make Pakistan more Islamic than it was, he failed to answer a crucial question – what kind of Islam did he intend?”
Lafaye: Can independent financial players like Bill Gates or George Soros counterbalance the weight of international institutions?
Aga Khan: The involvement of these super-rich businessmen in development issues is a wonderful thing. Firstly, it brings a new economic dimension to development aid, based not only on donations but also, and most crucially, on the creation of wealth. It also contributes know-how from the private sector which governments would be unable to provide. In developing countries, there is a huge gap to be filled in this area. Whether in relation to education, healthcare or finance there is no private-public partnership. Not long ago, the financial institutions in many countries were all in the public sector. That is not to say that these institutions were inefficient, but they could be manipulated by successive governments. As regards education, for example, remember the 1970s. At that time, certain governments, in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, tried to create an artificial national unity by encouraging the teaching of languages that no one outside the country could speak. This linguistic nationalism had regrettable consequences at international level. For example, a degree in medicine from Pakistan in Urdu was worthless outside Pakistan, which was absurd.
Lafaye: So let us talk about Pakistan. How do you regard this country whose political life is characterized by the alternation between military régimes and periods of what might be termed democracy and which has now become the crucible for the most radical Islamism?
Aga Khan: It is a country whose huge difficulties date back to its creation in 1947. As you know Kashmir, a part of which is located in Pakistan, remains in dispute to this day. Furthermore, the government in Islamabad has not managed to exert its authority over the north and north-west of the country. In a situation like this instability could be seen as structural. Pakistan’s second great problem dates back to an independence movement which created a nation based on the fact that a particular section of the population were Muslims. But in these regions the religion was itself pluralistic, which meant that from the outset the very thing that bound the nation together also sowed the seeds of division.
Paradoxically, these divisions were reinforced by the Zia ul-Haq’s* policy of Islamisation. I had great respect for the man. He was deeply religious and honourable, but he was no theologian. By attempting to make Pakistan more Islamic than it was, he failed to answer a crucial question – what kind of Islam did he intend? No one ever asked that question. So the Sunni went one way and the Shia another, and then the problem of Afghanistan arose in 1979. I had what I would term a “special” relationship with Zia ul-Haq. I have not forgotten that he helped us to establish our university – the Aga Khan University in Karachi. At our last meeting before he died in 1988, he admitted he had been wrong. He told me, “I think I made a mistake in trying to turn Pakistan into a more Muslim country, because it caused many more internal divisions than we expected.” He was a very honest man.
“In my view, the chief cause of the revolution in Iran originated in the regrettable mismanagement of the economy under the Shah’s régime. I regret to say that, of all the heads of state I have known, he was probably the one with the worst understanding of economic issues – or he was poorly advised.”
Lafaye: You have just mentioned the problem of Afghanistan. What effect did developments there have on Pakistan?
Aga Khan: After the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979, western leaders thought to themselves: “We won’t drive the Russians out through direct intervention, and it would be better to mobilise the Pakistanis.” In its turn, Pakistan called upon the most extremist elements. The result was that ultra-radical groups entered Afghanistan, which is not a nation state, but merely a place where different ethnic groups, tribes and religious ideas come together. These Islamists then swarmed across the entire region, including Pakistan. So Pakistan paid the price for having sided with the West in that endless war. In such a context the military rulers seemed to provide stability. But in Pakistan as in other countries of Asia and Africa, while having the army in power generally guaranteed independence and stability, considerable difficulties prevented the government to become a successful democracy.
Lafaye: While we are on the subject, what are your thoughts on the concept of “democracy for export” as proposed by former US President George W. Bush?
Aga Khan: I believe that George W. Bush’s stance on democracy was merely the result of his wish to justify the invasion of Iraq after the event. But moving beyond the case of Iraq, the important thing is to understand why, at this time and in so many countries, especially those in the developing world, democracy is so fragile. As I see it, one of the main explanations is that the situation arises out of the weakness of what I call “constitutionality.” Indeed, the vast majority of the countries that I know live with dysfunctional constitutions, drawn up at times of historical transition – following independence or regime overthrow – and based on injudicious compromises, frequently adopted to satisfy a tribe, a minority or a religious group. Nowadays, many governments are considering the possibility of redrafting their constitutions. Look at what is happening in the countries of the South and even in Eastern Europe. It’s remarkable.
Lafaye: Do you believe that, in Afghanistan, it will be possible to establish representative government and military institutions despite all the problems facing the country?
Aga Khan: In Afghanistan as in Iraq, despite years of trying it has not been possible to create a local army or police force effective enough to guarantee security. To achieve long-term stability in these countries, western forces would have to remain there for a very long time. Under current conditions, it is extremely difficult to create an effective Afghan national police force. Imagine I am a Shia Hazara and among the other recruits I come across a Pashtun whose father I know murdered my brother. The only solution is to let time do its work. That certainly does not mean that I am advocating a fatalistic view of the situation. I believe we have to pre-empt these political infernos and try to snuff them out them using political tools. The more results we achieve by purely political means, the more success we will have in separating purely apolitical, religious ideas from the politico-theological hotchpotch preached by extremist groups and movements. Today, the world is divided into theocracies and secular states. Sometimes people talk – quite rightly – about the three nations which are, each in its own way, theocratic, namely Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia. If they were to change, you would have a different world. If I dare say it, politics should be left to politicians, and God to God.
A folio from the Diwan of Hafiz, an unsurpassed masterpiece of Persian literature and Iran's contribution to cultural thought
“Iran could even contribute to the worldwide removal of nuclear energy for military use. That is what I told the Iranians several years ago: “Your history is that of an intellectual nation several thousand years old which has brought to Islam all the richness of its culture and its philosophical thought. Keep following the path that is truly your own and the world will thank you for it.”
Lafaye: Doesn’t the Israeli constitution, which does not allow the formation of clear, stable majorities, also impede the achievement of enduring peace between the Jewish state and its neighbours?
Aga Khan: I do not know the specifics of the Israeli constitution well enough. However, as I told you, it makes no doubt that the problem of dysfunctional constitutions is the most frequent source of political instability in a vast number of countries.
Lafaye: What should Israel do now to achieve lasting peace?
Aga Khan: I have never wanted to engage in this debate but I believe there is one fundamental requirement – a viable Palestinian state. Furthermore, I shall surprise you by saying that, as far as I am concerned, one of the conditions for peace is the acceptance of Israel by the Shia minority within the Muslim world. Iraq has a Shia majority, so does Bahrain, and there have always been large numbers of Shia in Lebanon. Let’s not forget that Bashar El-Assad is himself a Shia. This is an essential key, something that President Sarkozy understands very well. Agreement with Sunni countries** is fine, but it isn’t enough.
Lafaye: How do you analyse current developments in Iran?
Aga Khan: The direction in which Iran is moving is very worrying for the whole world, including other Shia nations. In my view, the chief cause of the revolution in Iran originated in the regrettable mismanagement of the economy under the Shah’s régime. I regret to say that, of all the heads of state I have known, he was probably the one with the worst understanding of economic issues – or he was poorly advised. This ineptitude led to growing numbers of pockets of resistance. Khomeini only had to arrive on the scene for the course of history to change radically. I am a Shia and when I heard his speeches I thought that no Shia on earth could remain unmoved by his preachings.
Lafaye: Which brings us to the nuclear issue, always so worrying. Should all nations be allowed access to nuclear power for civilian purposes?
Aga Khan: It seems to me that rules of non-proliferation are now applied to all nuclear technology for both civilian and military purposes. In fact, the conditions for the sale of civilian nuclear energy is like some kind of technological colonization, insofar that the most advanced nations make a point of holding on to all the “keys.”
From this point of view, we are a long way from the democratization of nuclear energy. Maybe I’m naïve but I advocate another approach, which I call “positive proliferation.” I am in favour of the widespread distribution of civilian nuclear power. Of course, careful thought must be given to the conditions under which positive proliferation would operate. How to avoid environmental problems. How to prevent the misappropriation of civilian nuclear power for military purposes. As you know, I have studied history and it has never been possible to halt any globally significant scientific advance. The positive proliferation that I would dearly love to see happen is based on a simple principle: yes to energy, no to arms.
Lafaye: How do you see Iran’s ambiguous attitude to this issue?
Aga Khan: Iran’s current policy in this respect is causing concern in the Sunni world. If Tehran managed to obtain nuclear weapons, certain states in the region could just as easily equip themselves with a bomb, probably with help from the West. The atmosphere is tense, even paranoid. Nevertheless, through the International Atomic Energy Agency, it is important to build up and maintain constructive collaboration with the Iranian authorities in dealing with this issue.
Iran could even contribute to the worldwide removal of nuclear energy for military use. That is what I told the Iranians several years ago: “Your history is that of an intellectual nation several thousand years old which has brought to Islam all the richness of its culture and its philosophical thought. Keep following the path that is truly your own and the world will thank you for it.”
About the Interviewer: Jean-Jacques Lafaye is an author and journalist and founder of the association « Éthique et politique » (1988). His publications include: Saint-Just, l’ombre des chimères, Rocher, 2007; David Shahar, le sacre de l’écriture, Michalon, 2007; Dialogue pour un monde meilleur, Alban, 2008.
*General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq (1924-1988), as Army Chief of Staff, he deposed Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977. He was voted President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan by referendum and governed until his death in a still-unexplained plane crash at the time of the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan. See his interview: “Pakistan: la sentinelle de l’islam?”, Politique internationale, issue 26, Winter 1984-1985.
**It may be noted that the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan formally presented an Arab peace plan during a historic visit to Israel on Wednesday July 25, 2007. The ministers arrived as representatives of the Arab League, the first time the 22-member group had sent a delegation to the Jewish state. The League’s peace plan envisioned full recognition of Israel in return for withdrawal from lands captured in during the 1967 Middle East war. Egypt and Jordan both have peace treaties with Israel and have sent their leaders to the country before, but never on behalf of the Arab League, which consists mainly of Sunni states.
With the exception of the top photo of His Highness the Aga Khan, the other photos shown above are not part of the original interview.
This week on Marketplace Middle East
December 8, 2010 1:39 p.m. EST
Dubai's Burj al Arab hotel.
* The financial crisis caused Dubai's building boom of the 1990s to come to a virtual halt
* This week MME takes a look at how the Gulf is building up a new identity
* An exclusive interview with spiritual leader of the Muslim Ismaili community, Aga Khan
(CNN) -- IN FOCUS -- Architectural Identity
The real-estate sector around the world took a downturn due to the financial crisis and the Middle East was no exception.
For Dubai, the building boom of the 1990s came to a virtual halt, but not before it had designed its skyline to help define its role in the region. Now neighboring Abu Dhabi and Doha are doing the same.
This week, MME takes a look at how the Gulf is building up a new identity.
FACETIME -- H.H. The Aga Khan, Chairman, Aga Khan Development Network
While many countries in the region are using architecture to project their identity, one organization is using it to promote economic development.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is dedicated to improving the living conditions and opportunities for the needy. This week MME conducts an exclusive interview with Chairman, Founder and spiritual leader of the Muslim Ismaili community, His Highness the Aga Khan about growing poverty in the region and the rapid pace of change.
Watch the show this week at the times (GMT) below:
CNN.com: FACETIME — H.H. The Aga Khan, Chairman, Aga Khan Development Network
December 8, 2010 by ismailimail Leave a Comment
FACETIME — H.H. The Aga Khan, Chairman, Aga Khan Development Network
While many countries in the region are using architecture to project their identity, one organization is using it to promote economic development.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is dedicated to improving the living conditions and opportunities for the needy. This week MME conducts an exclusive interview with Chairman, Founder and spiritual leader of the Muslim Ismaili community, His Highness the Aga Khan about growing poverty in the region and the rapid pace of change.
Watch the show this week at the times (GMT): Friday: 0915, 1745 | Saturday: 0445 | Sunday: 0615, 1745
via This week on Marketplace Middle East – CNN.com.
December 10, 2010
Healthy Speed of Change
Posted: 1625 GMT
Spiritual Imam, Aga Khan, whose network encourages investment to foster employment and advance education.
It is rare in the world of BlackBerries, iPads, mobile phones and airport lounges that one can pause long enough to think differently about the shape of the world, in particular the Middle East.
Doha is a city that welcomes a slower pace - despite its breakneck pace of development - and it is where I sat down with the Aga Khan, the Imam of the largest branch of the Ismaili followers, for an exclusive interview. The window of time was limited - 10 minutes to be precise - but precious in its outcome.
The Aga Khan was in Qatar to present a handful of awards for architectural excellence - major projects touching the Islamic world that make a difference to the lives of nearly 1.5 billion people. His Highness is a man who backs his words with action. His network is focussed on what he calls “the construction of civil society” since he believes it is the “greatest guarantor of positive change.”
The network facilitates economic, housing and tourism development in more than 30 countries and encourages investment to foster employment and advance education. But here is the caveat: change must be calibrated.
“I think the issue is not only quality of life. There are many other criteria and one of the ones we are most exposed to as a network of institutions is, 'What is a healthy speed of change?' Because you can move too fast.”
According to the International Monetary fund, Qatar will grow 16% this year and as much as 20% in 2011. In a world of 2% growth in Europe and the United States, the tiny Middle Eastern state could see 10 times the pace of expansion next year.
His Highness was cautious not to point fingers at any countries in particular: For example, I asked him if Saudi Arabia and Egypt can play catch up on the education and poverty reduction fronts. He chose two positive stalwarts in Southeast Asia with majority Muslim populations, Malaysia and Indonesia.
“One cannot generalise when it comes to the Islamic world. If you look at countries like Malaysia or Indonesia they have invested heavily on education and they have seen the benefits of that investment.”
Malaysia is a good case study. It has methodically worked on moving from a resource based economy up the value chain to add high technology and financial services to the mix. It has aspirations of joining the ranks of industrialised nations by 2020.
But the moves Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and the prime ministers who have followed him in Malaysia have been methodical and required patience to maintain a balance within in society.
However, in the Middle East, a lack of patience with the process of playing catch up, says the Aga Khan, could tear at the fabric of society.
“It is not only addressing a form a paralysis of development and extricating yourself from that frozen situation, it is also that societies don’t change that quickly and if you force them to change that quickly you are going to run into another set of problems.”
One of the key problems facing regional leaders is the rapid birth rate and its knock-on effect in the problem of double-digit youth unemployment. Policymakers are in agreement that 100 million jobs need to be created by the end of the decade for the jobless rate to stand still. It is a tall order, but adds the Aga Khan, educating the workforce will, over time, lead to a drop in birth rates, while development will do the same for the unemployment rate.
In the meantime, the Aga Khan wants to keep rural development on the radar of leaders throughout the Islamic world, in part to slow down the massive migration to city centers in search of work.
He said: “It has to be a priority, after all 70% of the Muslim population around the world lives from the land or on the land.”
Posted by: CNN business anchor, John Defterios
Filed under: Business •Marketplace Middle East
By Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent
BAMAKO, Mali – The Aga Khan, now 73 years old, is one of the most active philanthropists in the Islamic world, yet is remarkably unknown.
He is the wealthy leader of a religious group with millions of followers, a Harvard graduate, the grandson of the former president the League of Nations and the stepson of Hollywood bombshell Rita Hayworth; yet when I ask most people if they know who he is, I am usually met with blank stares.
I first thought to interview the Aga Khan in the fall of 2009. I was in a kebab restaurant in Kabul along with Afghans, who, between bites, were looking up somewhat inattentively at a television.
On the screen, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was being sworn in for another term. Like most political events in Afghanistan, the inauguration was highly choreographed. The seating and order of the speakers are highly studied and, at least to those involved, very significant. There were lots of red carpets, big hats, turbans and gold chairs. And prominently seated close to Karzai, was the Aga Khan. I wondered why.
I discovered the Aga Khan and his foundations are among the biggest private donors and employers in all of Afghanistan. His work focuses on cultural development. The mandate is to give both pride and economic empowerment to poor communities by engaging them in the renovation of art, music and architecture. I’ve since seen his projects in Afghanistan, Egypt and Mali.
I met the Aga Khan in Mali’s capital Bamako. He was in Mali to open a park he had funded the renovation of on behalf of the city. Although he has been interviewed for American documentaries and European television stations, he told me this was the first interview he’s ever done with an American television network.
Who is the Aga Khan?
The Aga Khan is a title. It belongs to the leader of a Shiite Muslim community. The world’s Muslims are generally divided into two basic groups: Sunnis and Shiites.
The reality is that Islam is much more diverse. Among Shiites, there are divisions, factions and theological differences. The Aga Khan is the leader of one branch of Shia Islam and his followers are called Ismailis.
Ismailis, who live in over 25 countries around the world mostly in central and southern Asia, believe that the Aga Khan is the legitimate heir to the Prophet Muhammad. There are an estimated 12-15 million Ismailis worldwide who revere the Aga Khan as their spiritual guide. They donate part of their annual incomes to the Aga Khan’s foundations, which he, as leader, re-distributes. Not surprisingly, the Aga Khan’s claim of Islamic heritage is contested by non-Ismailis.
The Aga Khan today
The current Aga Khan assumed the role in 1957 when he was 20 years old. He took the title from his grandfather, the late Aga Khan, who was also one of the presidents of the League of Nations. Most Americans, however, remember the current Aga Khan’s father, Prince Aly Khan who was married to Hollywood bombshell Rita Hayworth.
Much of the Aga Khan’s time today is focused on his charity, the Aga Khan Development Network. During our interview we spoke about the charity, but I also asked his opinion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and increasing tensions and mistrust of Muslims by some Americans.
Engel: We are meeting in a park you have renovated in Mali. Why Mali?
Aga Khan: Mali is a rather unusual country in Africa because first of all it has an effective cultural hub in northern Mali, which is unusual in sub-Saharan Africa ... and we want to work with that. Secondly, it has a form of pluralism in the interpretation of its faith, which is very welcome in the Islamic world.
Engel: I have seen many development projects around the world, particularly American projects. They tend not to focus on cultural development. They focus on economic development, sanitation and works projects. Why do you focus on culture?
Aga Khan: I discovered through work in the architectural field that the cultural dimension of the Islamic world was an extraordinarily powerful trampoline for development. There is a phenomenon that the populations of these cultural sites are often the poorest in the country for reasons which would take too long to explain. So acting in culture, you’re actually developing the quality of life for the poorest people who’ve been recently urbanized. You’re re-establishing value to the culture, you’re giving old a new form, new forms of productivity and you’re creating a totally new economic, socioeconomic environment. In the past it was done with dams for irrigation and agriculture. It was done with roads to sell agricultural goods. It’s being done with microcredit. All of that can link to the cultural programs also.
Engel: There’s also a role of dignity attached to cultural projects. They don’t just make people richer, they give pride. Is that a goal?
Aga Khan: It's giving value back to the cultures. It's helping generations come together because acculturation is one of the problems we’re facing in the Islamic world. The fact that we’re able to rebuild pride in this culture – which is not a culture in the past, but must be one of today and tomorrow also – brings a totally different psychological attitude to the process of change.
Engel: What is the role of the Aga Khan today?
Aga Khan: Well, I’m a Shia imam. I am the only hereditary Shia imam within the Shia community of peoples. And an imam in Islam is responsible for the security of people who are referred to him. He is responsible for the interpretation of faith and he is responsible for their quality of life so those three areas are areas, which are my responsibility.
Engel: Mali isn’t part of your community. Other countries where you do projects are not part of your community. Why reach out?
Aga Khan: We [Ismailis] are obviously a minority in the Islamic world. I don’t think any minority can live divorced from the majority and our interest frankly is to see the countries of the Islamic world move forward in a peaceful and organized way to achieve a better quality of life, but without losing their values. I think that can be best achieved by a series of multiple inputs. Some touch value systems, some touch education, health care and economic sustainability, so that’s why the Aga Khan Development Network has tried to create capacity in all of these areas.
Engel: You have served as the Aga Khan for more than five decades now, do you have a mission? Do you have a goal that you want to achieve?
Aga Khan: I think that the nature of the office of the imam, whether it’s a Shia imam or a Sunni imam, is to have the capacity to achieve results. When my grandfather died in 1957, the Ismaili Imamate did not have the vehicles in the structured manner that it has today to act in these various fields internationally. Today it has that capacity.
Engel: I was surprised, and I think a lot of our viewers will be surprised, by the extent of your activities around the world. Half a billion dollars given out in charity and development every year. It’s a huge network.
Aga Khan: It is a very big network. It’s grown obviously over the years and it’s been driven by recognition of need as time has gone by. We have felt that working in Africa, working in Asia, there were needs that have come up that we did necessarily [have] in 1957.
I will give you an example. If you look at the Islamic world, you will see that its geography is heavily concentrated in the worst seismic parts of our world. Well crisis response and anticipation of these crises wasn’t part of our thinking. Now it would be very silly to ignore for another 50 years the fact that the Islamic world has places where there are earthquakes and people die.
Engel: You live a very private life, you don’t do very many media interviews. It’s a very different public persona than your father. Why have you chosen to stay out of the limelight?
Aga Khan: I have always taken the attitude that it’s better that the work should speak rather than the individual and I have wanted the projects to be meaningful to my community and the people around them. I prefer to let the people who work with me do their work, hopefully effectively.
Engel: How would you describe the state of Islam? Do you think your projects help encourage a more moderate discourse and encourage elements who stand up to extremism?
Aga Khan: I think the Islamic world is suffering from a number of stresses. It’s suffering from stresses within the interpretation of the faith. It’s suffering from stresses in modern statehood, governance. It’s suffering from economic, inherited political stresses, which are today seen as theological stresses, where as they weren’t born in theology. They were born in politics. I think it’s important to create an environment where these stresses don’t become so aggressive that they cause conflict.
Engel: How do you see the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan affecting the Islamic world? Do you see stability in that part of the world?
Aga Khan: I think it will take a long time. I think it’s very dangerous to generalize about these situations, but there are some characteristics that are common and one of them is acute poverty. Northwest Pakistan, northern Waziristan, southern Waziristan, most of Afghanistan, these are areas of the world with horrible poverty. So I think the first thing is to try to replace that fear of poverty and the pain that goes with it by some sense of hope in the future, that things don’t have to be that way but they can change.
Secondly, what is the process of change? How do you bring stability? I believe very strongly in civil society. What I’ve seen in the past 50 years is that civil society is the best guarantor of change.
Engel: Do you think the U.S. military approach is going to be successful? Is it playing a positive or negative role?
Aga Khan: I think it can play a positive role, but it’s not a single solution. There’s no such thing as a single solution. I think there must be to be a process of reduction of conflict and its replacement by the process of development. It's much better that it be done by the police rather than by the military. These are things that have to happen, but they happen too slowly.
Engel: The American global war on terrorism is often seen as a war against Islam on the popular level. Do you think the wars that have been launched by U.S. administrations over the last decade or so have done more harm than good?
Aga Khan: I certainly think the invasion of Iraq was a serious mistake. We had crisis situations before that. We had them in Kashmir. We had them in the Middle East. If you look at the origins of those crises, they were political not religious. At the moment, it’s the horrible conflicts which are dominating the image of the Islamic world and I can say without one iota of fear that is totally wrong, totally wrong. You had wars in the Christian world, you had wars in the Jewish world. But you don’t define them in theological terms anymore, except Northern Ireland.
Engel: You talked about the invasion of Iraq as being a big mistake. What about Afghanistan?
Aga Khan: Well I think the situation in Afghanistan was very, very uncomfortable indeed. It was born of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and that’s where the whole thing started. Then, of course, it degraded because there were all sorts of external influences to try to push the Russians out of Afghanistan. At the time, sadly people didn’t realize that there was such a fracturing of society in Afghanistan.
Engel: Right now there is tension, and you can feel it on the streets, in the United States, in Western Europe, in relations with Muslim communities. What can be done to improve that and why do you think that tension is there?
Aga Khan: I’ve always referred to it as a conflict of ignorance and I still believe that’s the root of the problem. It’s very difficult.
If you look at the history of education in the industrialized world, you go back to the 1960s, there was no presence of Islamic culture. It was amazing. The Muslim world didn’t exist. Why? Because your educational background was a Judeo Christian background. No problem with that, but it didn’t adjust to the new world dimension. It must adjust to that new world dimension and that’s what’s happening now.
PETER MWAURA spoke to the founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, who is also the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, on a wide range of issues — from media ownership in developing societies to religion, development and the quality of life, as well as the risks that wealth disparities pose to regional economic and political integration
Q. You founded Nation newspapers before Kenya’s Independence and championed the cause of the African majority. Today, nearly 52 years later, we are embroiled in internal jockeying for power in a new political dispensation. This often takes the form of inter-tribal rivalry. How do you see the place of journalism in this new political reality?
A. Maybe I should go to the pre-Independence situation in East Africa. If you reflect back over those years, one of the conclusions that everybody would have reached was that these areas of Africa were going to be pluralist societies – pluralist in linguistic terms, pluralist in tribal terms, pluralist in ethnic terms. Therefore, one of the questions just before and after Independence was how these areas of Africa would become successful pluralist states. So my concern with the newspapers at that time was to try to put into the public domain questions about how you build a successful pluralist society.
And that question remains today. It’s not gone away. But I think that people are much more aware of it than ever before. They recognise the risks, they recognise the consequences of things going wrong, So there is greater public concern not to let this happen again. The recent crisis in Kenya has shown that the people of Kenya, not the politicians, but the people of Kenya didn’t want internal conflict among themselves.
Q. Did you see a particular role that the Nation newspapers were going to play in this?
A. Yes, definitely. At the senior levels of management and editorial policy we’ve done everything we can to ensure that the people of East Africa add value to the notion of pluralism rather than see it as an element of weakness. So, certainly, the Nation and others within the Group have to continue on that road. Indeed, that is one of the fundamental editorial policies of the Group.
Q. So there is no question of your taking sides with a particular political bloc?
A. No, not at all. The goal of the Nation Media Group is to remain independent. Most countries in East Africa have multiple political parties. If every political party were to have its own publication, I think, first of all, there would be confusion in the public domain. Secondly, experience shows that political party papers are never very successful economically. So it’s more important that the independent newspapers should cause intelligent reflection on national issues, arms-length evaluation of goals – what are the goals that each party wants to achieve, what success has been achieved in the past — so that there is a serious, intelligent debate about where the country is going.
Q. The phone hacking and police bribery scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World has attracted global attention. As a major investor in the media yourself, what concerns you about this scandal, particularly in the context of emerging democracies such as East Africa’s?
A. In the past in Africa, there has been a tendency to look at the role of the journalists but not that of owners. And, in fact, in the proposed Graduate School of Media and Communications [of the Aga Khan University, initially to be based in Nairobi], we are specifically going to aim at educating the owners because ultimately, it is the owners who are responsible for the products they put on the streets. And they have a clear responsibility to behave in a responsible manner, which in Africa is not the same thing as it would be in the United States, or Canada, or elsewhere in the industrialised world. We are dealing with different problems, different societies, different levels of development, different electorate capacities. So there is a very serious question to be asked about the role of media owners in the developing world.
Q. The question of media ownership and media concentration has been controversial in Kenya, as you are aware. So too is foreign ownership of the media. What are your views on this?
A. Well, I personally would prefer to see a profile of owners whose ultimate goal is to serve the people and the countries in which they operate. And the unilateral or exclusive quest for profit is not in my view, frankly, conducive to that. So I am not concerned about the nationality of the ownership. I am concerned about the purpose of the ownership. I think that’s more important.
Q. You said one of the things you want to do at the Graduate School of Journalism is to educate owners of the media. What else do you want to do with the School?
A. Modern societies are much more sophisticated than they were 50 or 100 years ago and journalists now have to have the capacity to write well. But they also have to have the capacity to understand the subject they are addressing. So a journalist who writes about constitutional issues, who has never dealt in the domain of comparative government, or a journalist who has to write about the results of a major national corporation and doesn’t know how to read a balance sheet, or a journalist who writes about faith issues and has never looked at faith issues as an area of intellectual endeavour, these are journalists who are not sufficiently prepared. So, in the Graduate School, we hope to be able to develop capacities that are not readily available in Africa at the present time.
Q. Media freedom is a very delicate issue in Africa. What do you see as the priority areas that your media should be paying attention to?
A. The priorities clearly are the issues of national interest, which we should be looking at from different points of view. We should be assisting the electorate to evaluate various solutions. We have a new Constitution in Kenya, how is that new Constitution going to impact on good governance, economic development, pluralism in society? The more the electorate is exposed to serious discussion on these issues, the more it will express itself.
Q. Taifa Leo was the first newspaper you published in Kenya. Its circulation and advertising have been declining over the years. The question many people ask is why do you still keep it?
A. What has happened in Kenya is that since Independence, English has become a more and more dominant language and Kiswahili has tended to lose its support at least in urban environments. In Tanzania, the situation is completely different, where the language used is massively more Kiswahili than English. So we have to keep in mind that it’s essentially the rural populations in Kenya that will be reading Taifa because they are not educated in English or not massively so. Secondly, at the time of elections, if you want to communicate effectively to the electorate you cannot ignore the national language; you have to publish in that language.
What’s happening is that in Kenya the print market has changed in favour of English. In Tanzania, it’s gone the other way.
But the central issue is the quality of publications in the national language. I am not sure that we know the answers.
Q. In Birth of a NATION: The Story of a Newspaper in Kenya, it is revealed that Kenya’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta tried to get you to appoint his nephew Ngengi Muigai chairman of Nation Newspapers, which you resisted. Have you had similar requests from other Kenyan leaders and politicians?
A. The first answer I would give is that Mzee Kenyatta was not the person who originated the request. The second thing I would say is that I have actually had the opposite happen. I have had Heads of State ask me to expand NMG into their countries. So I think what’s happened is that as these countries have evolved, and they have been, let’s say, quite frankly under pressure from the Western world to have a free media, they have preferred to work with existing groups that they have observed have one single interest and that is the national interest of the countries in which they circulate.
Q. On your business and social investments in East Africa. Does this reflect a personal attachment to the region or is it institutional? Do you see these investments extending beyond your own reign as the Imam?
A. To start from the beginning, when I succeeded my grandfather, one of the responsibilities I had was to try to enhance the quality of life of the countries where my community lived, whether it was in Central Asia, East Africa or North America. So that commitment has been part of my life since 1957 and will continue during my lifetime. I cannot tell you what my successor will do. But the fact is that wherever members of my community live, and wherever I feel that my institutions can come in to support them, then that’s what we will do.
Q. You have interests in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, which are unstable and sometimes dangerous to operate in; some people would say you are flirting with danger. Is there something deeper behind that involvement?
A. It’s just exactly what I mentioned to you. There are large Ismaili communities in these three countries and since these countries have been through periods of instability and even internal conflict, I have considered it part of my responsibility to assist them to overcome their difficulties and become countries of opportunity for all their populations, not just the Ismaili community. Whether you are dealing with a country which is a post-conflict situation or a post-independence situation or a country that’s coming out of a Soviet environment, my responsibility doesn’t change. I still have to find the appropriate means to contribute to their stabilisation and good governance.
Q. Do you sometimes feel like you are competing with the United Nations development agencies?
A. Nowhere near, we are a completely different type of institution. I am not criticising the UN but I think we are probably a great deal more people-specific than the UN.
Q. With the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan, what lessons can the world learn from that whole experience?
A. I would go back to my first comment. Afghanistan, like East Africa, is a pluralist society, made up of a large number of different communities, different nationalities, different languages, different interpretations of faith. Therefore the first question one has to deal with is, what steps can you take to have a common purpose among all these communities?
This may be naive but I tend to think that most often the common denominator is quality of life. That no matter where the individual or family are living they are going to be concerned about their quality of life. So question number one then with regard to Afghanistan is how do you rebuild quality of life, within the value systems of those communities; you can’t do it outside their value systems, but if you can do it within their value systems, then I think you have an opportunity of doing something worthwhile.
The second issue with regard to Afghanistan is civil society. The history of the developing world in the past 50 years has shown that where government is weak or simply not very competent, human progress is still made when civil society works. When people’s institutions function well, societies continue to develop. So the question in Afghanistan is how you create civil society capacity.
The third issue is security. This obviously is critical. One of the priorities in Afghanistan is a massive increase in the capacity of the police. Civil society expects to see the police, it does not expect to see the military. In provinces of Afghanistan that are more peaceful, where civil society is beginning to be reconstructed, the presence of efficient, effective police is critical.
Q. The global reach of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development suggests that you have taken a view on globalisation. How globalisation has helped your outreach and is globalisation good for Africa?
A. Globalisation is good for Africa if corrective procedures are available for products which are critical for Africa. African economies are clearly still heavily dependent on agriculture. If agricultural products and their global values vary massively from one year to the other, countries can find themselves in very, very great difficulty. So regulation in terms of global pricing for Africa in those situations would be very important indeed. AKFED as an institution has tended to look at the economies of individual countries or regions rather than at the global situation. We are not engaged in any way in South America. So there are parts of the world we have no contact with.
Q. Because there is no Ismaili community there?
A. Yes, and because we are already heavily extended in Asia and Africa. We have plenty to do. We have tended to look at the pillars of economic development in each region or in each country. And there we have found quite a lot of similarities and differences between countries in Asia and Africa. We found similarities in the need to diversify economies, we found differences in the physical or geophysical environments. So there is really no absolute rule. What we do is we try to seek competence in those areas of need. If a rural economy is too dependent on agriculture, we will look at other things. If that rural economy can diversify itself through infrastructure, through the leisure industry, whatever it may be, we will try to help them.
Q. Can you give us some measure of the successes of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development?
A. Well, we are looking at quality of life indicators — indicators that are not the same as those of the World Bank, indicators we have tried to develop through our own experience. We are looking at things like security, longevity, disposable income, access to education and employment. We are looking at what really affects people’s attitudes to their own understanding of quality of life. We did discover that communities around the world don’t have the same value systems. They will interpret their own qualities of life very differently from one part of the country to the other.
Q. And this applies to the 25 countries or so in which you are involved?
A. Absolutely. And there are even differences within the country. Northern Pakistan is very different from Southern Pakistan.
Q. You took over from your grandfather at the age of 20 and since then you have been balancing two things, your role as a spiritual leader and that of head of a vast business network with interests across many sectors. Is there a conflict between the two roles?
A. Well, this is a question I am going to answer quite frankly. This question is asked by a person who has not been exposed to the traditions and ethics of religious leadership in Islam. You come to this question from the point of view of the Christian. If you come to this question from the point of view of a Muslim, that question doesn’t exist; there is no conflict, none at all.
Q. How so?
A. The Prophet Himself (peace be upon him and his family) was married. He managed the assets of his first wife. Imams around the world have businesses, not just the Shia Ismaili Imam. We do not see a conflict and indeed if we lived in an attitude of conflict, I don’t believe we would be living within the ethics of Islam. Islam doesn’t say that a proper practice of the faith means you have to ignore the world. What it says is: Bring to the world the ethics of your faith. If you have wealth, use it properly. But the actual ownership of wealth is not in any way criticisable unless you have acquired it through improper means or you are using it for improper purposes. It is seen as a blessing of God. So this whole notion of conflict between faith and world is totally in contradiction to the ethics of Islam
Q. You are often asked this question?
Q. In the Western world not in the Eastern world. Let me add, however, that the Aga Khan Fund is an institution I created but not for my personal benefit. The purpose of that institution is to sustain the economic performance of the countries in which my community lives. The reason is very simple: If the economies of these countries don’t develop, the quality of life can’t change. There wouldn’t be the resources necessary to improve education, to improve health care, for all the things that people expect.
So the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development is not a personal asset, it’s an institutional asset and its goal is to increase its capacities and to reinvest those capacities in the countries in which it works or in new countries. Secondly, it looks for areas where normal, capitalistic entrepreneurs would not go. Because our goal is not exclusively profit, we invest in high-risk areas where nobody else is going.
Q. From what you’ve said, you are involved in complex economic and social activities; people must sometimes wonder why you don’t prefer a simpler life, leaving the running of your businesses to members of your community?
Well, first of all, they do most of the work and I am very fortunate to have very talented, well educated people. But we have learnt over time that just impacting the economics of the country doesn’t change the quality of life sufficiently. That you need what we call a multi-input process so that society has the capacity to grow its own institutions. So that’s why we consider, for example, education absolutely critical, medicine absolutely critical, poverty alleviation absolutely critical, including things like micro-credit.
Q. I want to draw your attention to the recent uprisings in the Arab countries, especially in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen. What is your prognosis of the sustainability of the change process in those countries?
A. I find it very, very difficult to answer that. There are an enormous number of unknowns and the forces at play are not yet fully identified. I think the forces at play are probably specific to the Islamic world itself. Between various traditions, between various ethnic backgrounds. And I would not be able to predict where this will go, I just don’t know.
Q. The Chinese are emerging as major players in Africa, especially in the construction, mining and telecommunication sectors. How do you see China changing the dynamics of the continent and what are your views on Africa turning to the East for investments?
A. Right from the pre-Independence days in East Africa and in West Africa — because we are also present in West Africa — I have always felt that these regions of the world had to have access to multiple resources. It is impossible to predict over 50 years or more where those global capacities are going to be located.
If you go back to the 1950s, we used to read that China was a basket case, India was a basket case; economists were telling us that those countries could never feed themselves, let alone industrialise. Today, those countries are global powerhouses. Why would one commit Africa not to benefit from those global powerhouses today? The question is whether Africa uses their capacities intelligently, so that it doesn’t find itself exposed exclusively to one or several powerhouses. What you are doing in 2011 is likely to be very different from what you would do in 2061. So I think it’s a question of being wise about the future.
Q. Do you think what Africa is doing it right so far?
A. So far Africa is listening, it’s observing, it will draw its own conclusions because this is a fairly new phenomenon. So I see no discomfort with that so long as it’s in the interests of Africa.
Q. As an investor you have engaged massively in East Africa for almost 50 years. Why do you have so much confidence in this region when attempts at integration have failed in the past and some people continue to say integration will fail again?
A. You know, in the old days you had Kenya, Tanganyika, Zanzibar and Uganda with a number of national institutions and a number of regional institutions – many of them very strong. Those institutions were nevertheless imposed on you because you were in a colonial context. Since then a number of countries have been through all sorts of changes of regime, of government structures, and I think the wisdom among politicians today is that if you can build a common destiny, you will be stronger, you will achieve your goals more quickly. But you need to build a common destiny in such a way that each step is taken intelligently. The European Common Market, and other similar regional organisations such as ASEAN, are all phenomena you can observe and learn from. So I am strongly supportive of the process so long as there is real wisdom and no forcing. But disequilibrium is a real risk. If you bring into a consortium, or a context of multi-state situations, countries that are extremely wealthy and others that are extremely poor, that can be a risk; you can see what is happening today in Europe.
Q. But you are fairly optimistic of the outcome?
A. Yes, yes.
Q. In Uganda your network is involved in building the Bujagali hydroelectric dam, which is supposed to be the largest private investment in Africa. The project has come in for criticism for compromising the environment. Would you say that the goal of development has clashed with that of environmental concerns? Where should the balance be?
A. I don’t think there is any absolute solution. You know the expression: You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. I would say that not just Uganda, but Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, are all in need of energy. Creating energy can be a source of environmental damage. The question is what is the most cost-effective way of creating this energy with minimum damage. I believe the partners in Bujagali have gone through massive environmental analysis and come to the conclusion that this is one of the least environmentally damaging initiatives in East Africa, because it impacts a very, very small area of land and a small percentage of the population, who were all relocated in good conditions.
I have seen situations where energy has been produced by windmills, by solar batteries and the damage that they have done to the environment is simply incredible. Because these types of energy creation don’t work everywhere. And when they don’t work, they get written off in three years but nobody pulls them down. So they stay there and they are awful. We still don’t really know a great deal about the technology of these new energy sources.
Q. There has been another criticism. Because the levels of the water in Lake Victoria are low, the dam is not going to operate to its maximum capacity and therefore the power it will produce will be very expensive...
A. I am not aware of those details frankly, but I am pretty sure that the economists, who have run the figures, know that it’s a solid investment. What I can tell you is that it’s likely to add over 40 per cent to Uganda’s capacity. So it will make a massive contribution to resolving some of Uganda’s energy problems. Now Uganda has oil, it may have gas, but whether the extraction processes are going to be environmentally better than hydro energy, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Q. Your institution’s commitment to education and health has grown tremendously — the schools, the universities and the hospitals. What drives this particular investment?
A. Again, it’s an issue of quality of life. We have seen in the past decades that populations that do not have access to good education are the populations that don’t develop as quickly as they might. Africa in particular has suffered from some of the dogmatism that used to prevail in education. You remember the notion of universal primary education. That was a lovely idea but when it was put in practice, what did you find? You found a dysfunctional relationship between primary and secondary education because secondary education wasn’t developed at the same speed as primary education. Then you found social economists who were telling you 20 or 30 years ago that you shouldn’t invest in a university in Africa because in Africa a graduate would never justify the cost that he was causing the country. So your African universities were decapitated. They were no longer funded.
All these errors in education planning need to be put right. And this can’t be done only by governments. It has to be done in a joint planning process between the private sector and the public sector. So, on the educational front there are a number of corrective processes that I would like to see put in place.
Q. What prompted your development network to set up a Heart and Cancer Centre and not focus on any other speciality?
In health care, what we are seeing is massive changes in the nature of need. Communicable diseases are disappearing from most of the world and now we are seeing non-communicable diseases becoming the major threat to populations around the world. When we set out to analyse the health needs of East Africa in the next 20, 30, 40 years, we found that these are swinging away from communicable to the non-communicable diseases. Now much work has been done in the industrialised world to address issues of heart problems, cancer, etc. East Africa did not have the capacities to deal with those issues. So many, many people from East Africa would go to South Africa, India and the Western world, for care that does not exist in Africa. We decided to bring that care to East Africa.
Q. Why are you so much interested in horse racing and horse breeding? Most people don’t expect you to be.
A. Well I didn’t either. What happened is that my father died unexpectedly and it had been in the family for three generations. I felt it was a tradition I wanted to keep alive. It has nothing to do with my institutional responsibilities but it’s a very interesting activity. So I kept it on as a family tradition.
Peter Mwaura is a senior lecturer in the Department of Communication & Journalism, Kenya Methodist University, and a member of the Complaints Commission of the Media Council of Kenya.
Aga Khan: "Von westlicher Welt nicht wahrgenommen"
03.03.2012 | 14:57 | von Veronika Hofer (Die Presse)
Der Imam Karim Aga Khan erzählt im Gespräch mit der "Presse am Sonntag" von seinem größten Ziel: Ein besseres Verständnis zwischen der muslimischen und der westlichen Welt zu schaffen.
Drucken Senden Merken AAA Textgröße Kommentieren Aus dem Archiv:Was Juden und Muslime zur künstlichen Befruchtung sagen (31.01.2012)Scheidungskrieg: Aga Khan will nicht zahlen (12.01.2012)Ein „Dialog“ mit Führern eines radikalen Monologs (04.10.2011)Kapellari warnt vor Naivität und Vereinfachung von Islam (01.07.2011)Er wurde in der Schweiz geboren und lebt heute in der Nähe von Paris. Für rund 15 Millionen schiitische Ismailiten rund um die Welt gilt er als direkter Nachfolger des Propheten Mohammed
Eine Ihrer ersten Entscheidungen als Imam im Jahr 1957 war es, eine Zeitung in Nairobi zu gründen, warum gerade eine Zeitung?
Karim Aga Khan: Ich habe mich gefragt, ob die afrikanischen Führer sich bewusst waren, dass sie der Öffentlichkeit Rechenschaft schuldig waren. Es gab keinerlei afrikanische Berichterstattung über afrikanische Politik, Ambitionen und Ziele und ich hatte das Gefühl, dass das sehr gefährlich war. Und so starteten wir mit einer Zeitung, die sich auf afrikanische Vorstellungen von der Zeit nach der Unabhängigkeit konzentrierte.
Macht es einen Unterschied, ob Ismailiten an einem Projekt arbeiten oder nicht?
Es macht sehr wohl einen Unterschied. Die Ismailiten sind eine sehr talentierte und gut ausgebildete Gemeinschaft und wir haben das Glück, mit hoch qualifizierten Leuten zu arbeiten. Durch sie bekomme ich einen Einblick in Situationen, den ich ansonsten nicht bekommen würde. Ich werde auch gewarnt vor Dingen, die nicht so gut laufen.
Warum scheint der Blick des Islam auf die westliche Welt mitunter so eng?
Ich denke, dass die Wertesysteme sehr unterschiedlich sind. Ich würde so weit gehen zu sagen, dass es nie nur eine Sichtweise gibt, weil die islamische Welt in sich so pluralistisch ist. Die westliche Welt ist auch pluralistisch und ich denke, dass es immer mehrere Sichtweisen gibt und darüber hinaus ändern sich diese im Laufe der Zeit. Es kommen Kräfte ins Spiel, die man vorhersagen kann oder auch nicht. Aber im Endeffekt müssen diese verschiedenen Teile der Welt lernen, miteinander zu leben. Aus der Sicht der muslimischen Welt ist eines der größten Probleme, dass wir von der westlich zivilisierten Welt nicht wahrgenommen werden. Innerhalb der westlich zivilisierten Welt lehrt man Pluralität der Sprachen, der Philosophie, der Religion, der Kultur, aber bis vor kurzer Zeit gehörte Wissen über die islamische Welt nicht zur Definition einer gebildeten Person.
War das auch Ihre Erfahrung, als Sie in Harvard studiert haben?
Oh ja, absolut. Die islamische Welt gehörte nicht zur Ausbildung.
Haben Sie in Harvard beschlossen, auf diese Ausblendung der islamischen Welt im Westen zu reagieren?
Ja, genau. Das war die stärkste Motivation. Wenn sich Menschen miteinander auseinandersetzen wollen, brauchen sie ein grundlegendes Verständnis. Wenn es das nicht gibt, dann ist es eine schwierige Aufgabe, die Menschen dazu zu bringen, zu kommunizieren und Werte zu teilen.
Sie glauben also, dass zum Beispiel Kunst eine Brücke für einen Dialog sein könnte?
Durchaus. Und tatsächlich war die Kommunikation, was Philosophie und Kunst anbelangt, in der Geschichte immer sehr stark.
Was sind Ihre Erfahrungen hinsichtlich Toleranz und Pluralismus?
Ich arbeite vorwiegend in den Entwicklungsländern Zentralasiens und Afrikas und diese haben sich seit 1957 massiv verändert. 1957 waren diese Länder hauptsächlich geprägt vom Dogma des Kalten Krieges. Heute ist dieses Dogma bis zu einem gewissen Grad verschwunden. Es gibt neue Dogmen, aber dieser spezielle Konflikt ist vorbei. Dieser Kalte Krieg hat zu einer massiven Lähmung geführt. Wenn ich heute zurückschaue, würde ich sagen, das hat sich geändert. Ja, es gibt neue Dogmen, aber keine so lähmenden.
Sehen Sie einen Fortschritt?
Oh ja, deutlich. Denken Sie nur daran zurück, wie westliche Medien in den 1950er-Jahren über China und Indien berichteten. Es hieß, diese Länder würden sich nie selbst ernähren können, wären außerstande, sich zu industrialisieren, und auch eine Verbesserung der Lebensqualität wäre dort unmöglich. Ich sage nicht, dass alles perfekt ist, aber ich kann die Augen nicht davor verschließen, dass all dies sich massiv verändert hat. Und ich glaube, dass das auch einmal auf Afrika zutreffen wird.
Glauben Sie wirklich, dass Sie die westliche Einstellung zum Islam beeinflussen können?
Ich denke, wenn es keinen Dialog zwischen der muslimischen und der westlichen Welt gibt und auch kein Verständnis, und wenn man seine Aktivitäten auf die muslimische Welt beschränkt, dann wird sich das Verhältnis nicht verbessern. Man muss auch außerhalb der islamischen Welt Kapazitäten schaffen, um einen Dialog auf mehreren Ebenen zu schaffen. Die islamische Welt ist erstaunlich stark in den Geisteswissenschaften, aber die westliche Welt hat das nie gesehen. Ich glaube fest daran, dass ein möglicher Grundstock für einen echten Dialog dieser ganze Bereich von Kunst, Kultur und Philosophie sein könnte, diese Bereiche spielen derzeit absolut keine Rolle für einen möglichen Dialog.
Es wäre also ein logischer Schritt, sich auch in Europa zu engagieren?
Absolut. Wir haben schon Agenturen, zum Beispiel in Lissabon, und wir werden noch andere etablieren. Aber wir sind nur ein kleiner Player in diesem ganzen Spiel.
Was können Sie dem beschädigten Image des Islam entgegensetzen?
Ich glaube , da gibt es mehrere Ansätze. In erster Linie geht es um einen Dialog mit nicht-muslimischen Gemeinschaften in der industrialisierten Welt. Aber bedenken Sie, dass es immer mehr muslimische Gemeinschaften in diesem Teil der Welt gibt und diese anerkennen ihre eigene Kultur und ihre eigene Identität. So ein Engagement hat vielfältige Effekte und ermöglicht einen anderen Blick als immer nur auf die Konfliktherde der Welt. Ich würde sogar so weit gehen zu sagen, dass viele der heutigen Konfliktherde auf der Welt nicht zurückzuführen sind auf den Islam als Religion. Tatsächlich liegen ihnen ungelöste politische Fragen zugrunde.
Vor mehr als 100 Jahren hat sich Ihr Großvater, Aga Khan III, schon bemüht, Frauen zu gleichen Rechten zu verhelfen. Wie sehen Sie die Rolle von Frauen in der islamischen Welt?
Das hängt sehr stark damit zusammen, was ich als die Sozialgeschichte der Gemeinschaften bezeichnen würde. Die Geschichte von sozialen Gebilden in der islamischen Welt ist nicht einheitlich. Die afrikanische unterscheidet sich von der asiatischen und von der arabischen. Es wäre falsch von Einheitlichkeit bei Themen zu sprechen, die im sozialen Kontext stehen. Dessen muss man sich bewusst sein. Aber auch wenn es in der westlichen Welt eine große Debatte gibt, letztendlich geht es in der islamischen Welt darum, wie man die Würde von Frauen verteidigt. Und die Regeln sind nicht nur für Frauen! Die westliche Welt sagt oft, dass die islamische Welt auf Frauen herabsieht. Das stimmt nicht. Sie achtet auf männliches Verhalten gegenüber Frauen und dafür gibt es Richtlinien, die genauso klar sind. Es geht von der grundlegenden Absicht her viel mehr um den Schutz von Frauen in der Gesellschaft.
Werden Sie manchmal ungeduldig?
Vielleicht nicht ungeduldig, ich bin besorgt, wenn ich die Ursachen für Blockaden nicht verstehe oder wenn Leute die Blockaden nicht erkennen oder sich nicht mit ihnen konfrontieren. Manchmal neigen Institutionen und Organisationen dazu, Situationen als gegeben hinzunehmen, deswegen können sie nicht geändert werden. Und das kann dazu führen, dass man unter Bedingungen lebt, die nicht sein müssten. Und das muss man infrage stellen.
Sie besitzen einen berühmten Rennstall. Sind Pferde wichtig in Ihrem Leben?
Sie waren ein Unfall in meinem Leben. Ich habe nicht damit gerechnet, dass mein Vater bei einem Autounfall ums Leben kommen würde und er hat, nachdem mein Großvater gestorben war, die Pferde übernommen. Er war das einzige Familienmitglied, das diese Tradition weiterführte. Und dann starb er bei einem Autounfall. Mein Bruder, meine Schwester und ich, wir wussten nichts darüber und Pferde waren nie Teil meines Lebens. Aber die Pferdezucht war drei Generationen lang eine Familientradition, in Indien und dann in Europa und ich war etwas zwiegespalten, ob ich damit weitermachen wollte. Es bedeutete, etwas zu lernen, was nicht Teil meiner Aufgabe war, aber es war Teil meiner Familie. Und so beschloss ich, damit weiterzumachen. Es war mir nicht ganz wohl dabei, etwas zu übernehmen, was Zeit beanspruchte und von dem ich nicht das Gefühl hatte, dass es wichtig war. Heute bin ich froh, dass ich es gemacht habe. Meine Tochter und meine Söhne genießen es und ich glaube, jede Familie hat die Pflicht, eine Tradition fortzusetzen, die es seit drei Generationen gibt.
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