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.
“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: 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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
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.”
Publication date on Simerg: August 18, 2010