The following is a free translation of the article entitled L'Aga Khan: "L'Islam et nous" and the accompanying interview which appeared in the December 28, 1995 edition of Paris Match, pp. 94-97. The interview was conducted by Caroline Pigozzi.
Forty ninth Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, Karim Aga Khan,
at 59 years of age, is the spiritual leader of 20 million faithful.
His religious mission ties-in with [H]is humanitarian concerns.
Considered one of the richest men in the world, [H]e allocates
700 million Francs each year to the Muslim Third World by means
of [H]is development network. He also travels regularly to the
twenty-five countries in which the Ismailis are spread out, often
accompanied by [H]is daughter, Princess Zahra, whose presence
symbolizes the new role of the modern woman in the Islamic world.
He chose Indonesia, whose population is 89% Muslim, for the presentation
of [H]is triennial award for architecture. The spiritual leader
of the Ismailis exclusively answered the questions of our special
envoy Caroline Pigozzi on the role of the Islam of today.
The leader of the Ismailis says to us: "The Muslim world is not what you believe it to be. Nor is it where you believe it to be."
The Aga Khan: "Thirty years after decolonization, the present rulers have a new vision of the world but remain close to France.
Paris Match: Your Highness, what today is the mission of
the spiritual leader of the Ismailis?
His Highness the Aga Khan: My role, first of all, is to interpret and integrate the faith with worldly life. A faith which, for us Muslims, is not separate from our daily existence. Our duty dictates that we must try to help our fellow man. My function also leads [M]e to attempt to ameliorate the quality of life of all classes of society and to manage, based on economic and social plans, the institutional sectors of the Imamat including the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, of which one activity is the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, presented every three years.
P.M.: According to you, what influence does your prestigious
award for architecture have?
A.K.: I created this prize for architecture in 1977, because after having debated the question with many architects, of which a good number were Muslim, we came to conclude that if the great civilizations practically always marked their era with exceptional structures, particularly in the Muslim world - like in the time of the Abbassids, Persians, Fatimids, Moguls or Ottomans, this art, through which the Muslim universe expressed itself with so much diversity and talent, no longer testified the same spirit. Therefore, we had to make an impact on the teaching of architecture, on public opinion and by trying to ensure an architectural renaissance in our world, by directly addressing actual problems every three years through this distinction which emphasizes cultural and social aspects.
P.M.: As forty-ninth Imam of 20 million Shia Ismaili Muslims,
and as a moderate Muslim, you have located your secretariat a
few kilometers from Chantilly. What thoughts inspire you, therefore,
regarding Islamism today as seen from France?
A.K.: The Muslim world is a very contrasted universe. It is made up of Islam; therefore, it is advisable not to generalize, as the West has sometimes got too much of a tendency of doing. Why would one systematically group together a large part of the political and religious theatrics under the generic title of the Muslims? If we were to apply these same methods, we would systematically attribute each attack in the Western world to the Christians. Imagine the resentment that would ensue from such an association! Certain nations which make up the Muslim community suffer from serious political, economic or social imbalances which are again, for the most part, due to the aftermath of colonization. In fact some of these countries in Asia, in the Middle East and in Africa, whether they are monarchies or republics, are continuously searching for a multiparty constitutional democracy, a principle of government with which they are historically scarcely familiar. It suffices to consider the states of Central Asia as evidence. That is why each case is a particular case and demands individual national or even regional treatment.
P.M.: But then how must we interpret the recent attacks
in which France was the target?
A.K.: Alas! We live in an age where there is a strong tendency practically everywhere, not just in the Islamic world, to incite change by way of force. It is a fundamental problem that essentially rests upon the difficulty of impeding political, economic, ethnic or religious situations from degenerating by way of an explosive climate of frustration. Your country has the most important Maghreb Muslim population in Europe, the historical heritage of the "Great Colonial France." In the past the citizens of the ancient colonies not only had French nationality, but also the possibility of moving to France and of being elected to the Parliament. This is how today, a Western democracy like France, must sustain the repercussions of faraway colonial politics, suffer the hazards of an interior situation which disrupts the country of origin, then exacerbates and reflects in the Hexagon.
P.M.: As a knowledgeable observer of African politics with
more than thirty years of experience, do you see a French solution
to the problems of the Third World?
A.K.: It is a fact that the French Republic maintained tight relations with the first governments of independence, because these young states found themselves ruled by intimate friends of France. The majority were not only from the political generation of your government officials of the time; but, in addition, they had generally completed their studies in your universities. Léopold Sédar Senghor and Félix Houphouët-Boigny, notably, maintained permanent contacts with Paris, I would say even human relations that went far beyond the formal institutional framework. Times have changed. We are now in the third generation of politics. The Third World - from which a large majority of the Muslims living in France have come - is constantly changing. Today, political management in the Third World must take place in completely different global and national circumstances. The Soviet Union has disappeared, and with it the conflict of dogma between the East and the West. A good part of the intense efforts of these young states were broken by the liberalization of their economies and actual recession.
"The future of the Islamic world will be determined as much by certain nations of Asia as by the Arab world."
We must be concerned with new challenges: limiting the impact of the demographic explosion, reinforcing national or regional identities to shelter them from the standardization of worldwide communication systems, attaining a spiritual balance in the face of excessive materialism are also questions which the developing world is grappling with in search of answers. It seems to [M]e that one solution resides in the recognition by the West of this reality and the urgency of helping them find answers to these problems before they take on explosive proportions.
P.M.: What future role can France play in the Arab world?
A.K.: For centuries, France has had contacts, I would even say tight bonds with the Arab world, not only in the Maghreb but also in the Middle East, that is to say in Syria, Lebanon, in Egypt and elsewhere All these countries are looking for support to ameliorate the quality of life of their citizens. This search takes place along side the consolidation of their political, economic and cultural institutions, in other words through investments that are not only more expensive but even more necessary for the human resources, which is a condition for survival in a universe that is constantly becoming more competitive and meritocratic.
P.M.: From your comments, it sounds like you are saying
that the Third World of twenty years ago and that of the year
2000 have nothing in common.
A.K.: Absolutely! Moreover, the breakdown of communism unleashed a revolution that radically modified the horizons and the commitments of international organizations. The latter were compelled to face a situation that was unprecedented for them, with new independent states, often politically unstable, and in which economic liberalization risked being very slow and costly. I, as a religious leader, and the institutions that I lead, therefore, had to learn to react very quickly to come to the aid of the Ismailis and other populations of Gorno-Badakshan in Eastern Tadjikistan, in order to avoid a famine emergency. Thus, for the last two years, we have been sending more than 20 000 tones of provisions, clothing and medicines into this high risk zone in order to ensure the survival of these populations. The centralized economic system disappeared with the Soviet Union, and Russia on its own does not have the financial means to sustain all its former republics.
P.M.: So the Muslim world is in the midst of evolving?
A.K.: There is need for a realization: the Muslim world is more vast than the Arab world. Islam, certainly born in Arabia, has since spread into a large majority of non-Arab populations. That is why it is no doubt advisable today to look first toward Asia, that is to say, principally towards Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei - where more than 85% of the inhabitants are Muslim. Because of their political stability and their increasing economic stability, one can be certain that the future of the Islamic world will be determined as much by these nations as by the Arab world. In central Asia, countries like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan are concealing equally enormous riches, and their weight will be felt as soon as they find their political balance and develop their resources. Others in the Middle East, like Jordan, which no doubt finds inspiration in the example of Singapore, whose financial power outsizes its physical area, are trying to become centers of human, technological, scientific and cultural resources. In the Gulf countries, in spite of enormous natural resources and a balanced demography, they are enfeebled by the fact that their riches depend increasingly and significantly on oil. Conscious of this, some of these countries like the United Arab Emirates are attempting to methodically diversify their economy in an attempt to shelter themselves from oil [price] fluctuations.
P.M.: Finally, who in your mind are the strongmen of the
Muslim world of tomorrow?
A.K.: First of all, those who represent serious politics and economic courage among whom I name the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the King Hussein of Jordan, the King Hassan of Morocco, or even the President Suharto of Indonesia, the Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamed of Malaysia or President Akaev of Kirghizistan.