Karim Aga Khan: The Imam with the Golden Heart - Paris Match Interview - 1994-12-15
The spiritual leader of 15 million Ismailis - of which 2500 live in France - has made his 24 year old daughter Zahra his privileged partner. The princess grew up in Paris, was schooled in Switzerland, then obtained her degree in Economic Development in the Third World at Harvard. During her trip to Pakistan with her father, the Aga Khan reserved a comprehensive social action program for her. The man who is called the 'richest man in the world', invests around 140 million dollars (700 million French Francs) in the third world each year. Because of this generosity and the activities it generates, two and a half million people receive health care, and fifty thousand youths are able to go to school or university. For the first time in twelve years, the Aga Khan has opened to our two special envoys, Caroline Pigozzi and Jean-Claude Deutsch, the doors to his universe.
During the last ten years, the Aga Khan University has taken in a majority of women to prepare them for medical and nursing studies. Karim Aga Khan, only wears the costume of the Prince of the Thousand and One Nights. Generally, he wakes up at 7 am, but sometimes starts the day at 4 am. He spends six hundred hours every year in his private plane, a Gulfstream decorated with the prince's personal standard. His trips are generally in response to the needs of the Imamat. The Aga Khans did not wait for the invention of the word 'humanitarian' before starting their development activities. Karim had also come to Pakistan to participate in the many activities celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Aga Khan Foundation in that country.
Paris Match: Your Highness, 49th Imam, descendant of Prophet Mohammed, you are the spiritual leader of the Ismailis, a Shia movement of 15 million Muslims. Could we say that you are their pope?
His Highness the Aga Khan: My role as Imam has nothing in common with that of John Paul II, because the pope is elected by a college of cardinals, while the office of the Imam of the Ismailis is a hereditary one. In Islam, contrary to the Catholic Church, there is no clergy in the sense of people having an exclusively religious career. In contrast with the Christian tradition, Islam does not separate the temporal from the spiritual. My duty, in following the example of my predecessors, is to guide the Ismailis, not only in the present time, but also in the daily practice of Shia Islam. This requires me to analyze their level of existence in liaison with their geographic location. The Imams have always had the overall responsibility of living within their time and therefore, before anything else, adapting.
PM: Why have you decided to divide your time principally between Chantilly and Geneva?
AK: Because of its neutrality, Switzerland has been the residence of my family for many generations. It was there, in Geneva, that my grandfather presided over the League of Nations. My children and I were born there. Since then, I have based my organizations of the Aga Khan Development Network there. In 1957, the year that my grandfather passed away, it seemed to me that I had to maintain this tradition with my family. I was already presented with my hereditary function, including all of its political pressures. I also live in France because your country, which has a great comprehension of the problems of the third world, has always maintained excellent relations with the Muslim world; and I opted for Chantilly, no doubt because the interest that my father had for race horses led him to acquire a property. I chose to put in Aiglemont, a personal secretariat with representative staff from eighteen countries (which correspond with eighteen countries in which I am active).
PM: Thirty-seven years of Imamat already.
AK: It is a long time. When my grandfather passed away in 1957, I was twenty years old and suddenly found myself inheriting not only the Imamat, but also the leaders of the community, the majority of whom were closer to my grandfather's generation than my own. In time, I naturally changed them to replace them with leaders who were more in tune with our institutions which were rapidly expanding in Asia, in Africa and in the new regions where the community was settling, in Europe and North America. The institutions that were already in place were strong and well structured, no doubt because outside of his political life my grandfather was personally in charge of them, dedicating whatever little free time he had left to equestrian racing. After his death and the death of my father three years later, I took up equestrian racing, which neither my brother Amyn nor my sister Yasmin were interested in. It is my only real 'job' outside of my official occupations, because my private affairs are distinct and separate from the institutions of the community, and are handled by people other than myself.
PM: Has your role as spiritual leader led you to touch on the delicate question of birth control?
AK: We try to give families, through education and health care, the means to make the right choice. In the third world, where demographic growth is by far one of the most important issues, the people must ask themselves whether the new generations, should take upon themselves the right to impose poverty on their children.
PM: Let us touch on the important subject of fundamentalism.
AK: If fundamentalism means the destabilization of a society, I am certainly opposed to it. We have taken up the annoying habit of linking each sporadic act of terrorism to the Muslim world. It is a painful confusion. The Muslim world is made up of 1 billion believers, living in 30 to 40 countries, speaking 500 languages and dialects, people who come from countries which became Muslim - some at the time of the Prophet, others three hundred years later - some speaking Arabic, others that do not. There is no Islamic entity where 1 billion believers interpret and practice their faith in the same manner. The truth is that you from the west, perceive so badly the Muslim world, that you judge it as though it was only one single block. We have a better understanding of you in the west than you do of us, because you colonized and governed us for some period of time. The destabilizing activities are a reality, but are minor compared to the mass of silent believers that we are. It is sort of like if I said: 'The IRA commits acts of terrorism in England; therefore, all Catholics are dangerous terrorists.' You tend to confuse the religion of people and their political goals. While many fundamentalists have clear and precise political objectives, far less often are their objectives uniquely centered about proselytizing. In some cases even, the West has gone as far as peddling their own ideologies by manipulating the Mujahadeen to remove the Soviets from Afghanistan, and have used extremists to counter the communist threat. The free western world must establish a distinction between political ambitions and the religion of Islam. It cannot be denied that the ideological frustrations of the Algerians, the Jordanians or the Libyans have created extremist movements, but this should not smear the credibility of the entire Muslim world.
PM: What does the Aga Khan, a Europeanized Muslim, think about the debate on the wearing of the Islamic scarf in France?
AK: How do you expect me to forbid someone from openly associating themselves with their religion? The law today is acting on the form, not the underlying significance of this practice. One should not impose oneself in an aggressive manner, but should live serenely within one's faith. If presuring someone to change their beliefs is considered offensive, why should someone change their beliefs just because these beliefs consist of a free individual right? The separation of religion and state implies multiculturalism before anything else.
PM: How are your days organized?
AK: I allocate 90% of my time at Geneva and Aiglemont to institutional tasks. Our offices are open seven days out of seven, because with us Muslims, Sunday corresponds with Friday. I must be available on the week-end to receive institutional directors who pass through. My life is highlighted by official visits to the twenty or so countries where members of the community live, which keep me moving from one end of the year to the next. This takes approximately six-hundred flight hours per year! To gain time, I always make sure I'm accompanied in my private plane by some assistants.
PM: How does the Imam, who is celebrated in the third world, become a private person in Europe?
AK: The hereditary public function is an integral part of my life. It is second nature to me. Although, it is no longer made up of public ceremonies, the Ismaili-Imam relationship is intact. What is surprising is that in the west the community has maintained its traditions and preserved the respect for its religious leader. It is not clear how such a complex function is to be maintained in a world which is constantly changing. My responsibilities require me to spend nearly two months per year among my community to control its variety of actions.
PM: Have you any projects for your children?
AK: Certainly. I made sure my three children discovered the third-world as soon as they completed their baccalaureate, and before they completed their University schooling in the United States while they all continued their indispensable Islamic studies. Choosing to work by my side, Zahra decided to orient her studies at Harvard towards third world development. In fact, during this visit to Pakistan - a country with which she was already familiar - Zahra had her own schedule of meetings and discussions tied to her specific function in the areas of social assistance, feminine activities, and youth and sports activities.
PM: Financier, philanthropist, how do you define yourself?
AK: It is difficult for me to answer you since my mission as Imam encompasses theology, the social sectors, economics, culture and even the environment. Philanthropy is no more significant now than it was in the time of my grandfather. We do not content ourselves only in giving, but we also try to teach local populations to provide for their own needs.
PM: Where do you obtain the resources necessary to finance the development programs of your institutions?
AK: There are multiple sources for funding. Among of the most important are the direct contributions in the work of the Imamat, the partnership with the big national and international development agencies, the local state subsidies, and naturally our own revenues from our enterprises and endowment funds. The money is divided among the diverse types of programs which are subject to rigorous audits for the donors.
PM: Are you still given your weight in gold, platinum or diamonds?
AK: The question of weightings, like many other things, have taken on mythical proportions. For my own part, I have never been weighed against gold or precious gems. It was to celebrate his fiftieth and sixtieth Imamat anniversaries that my grandfather received his weight in gold and diamonds, which have since then entered the legend books. But at the time of his seventieth anniversary, since he was already suffering, the ceremonies marking his platinum jubilee were only symbolic ones. The financial contributions that resulted from these events were used for the local communities. It was through these funds that more than sixty schools here in Pakistan, a large hospital at Nairobi and financial institutions serving the community members in Africa and Asia were created. The western press have falsified the real significance of these weightings, frequently attributing them uniquely to Ismailis, when in fact they also exist with the Sikhs, who also give to a religious figure. The press has gone as far as pretending that this tradition is still maintained today, and that it even happens every year. At the twenty-fifth anniversary of my own Imamat, which was celebrated in 1982, there was no weighting; instead the community defined a certain number of new social projects to celebrate the event.
PM: In the third world, you are reserved a position of head-of-state. Is this important to you?
AK: What counts is the respect given to the community. I am only passing through this country, but the Ismaili institutions are present 365 days of the year and work in liaison with the governments, administration and the many different public and private organizations. I am certain that I benefit from the community's radiance, from the results of their activities and their official recognition by the government authorities.
PM: Are you authoritarian?
AK: The exact term would be more like a director in the sense that I have a very precise vision of what I want. Although I try to be a man of consensus, it bothers me terribly when one of the people working for me makes the same mistake two or three times.
PM: Why does it displease you so much when you see your name ranked among the names of the richest men in the world?
AK: Because that immediately creates the image of an inconceivably large mass of money wasted in any which way. The western world has enough trouble defeating the simplistic and unoriginal image of the prince of the Thousand-and-One Nights. I carry the responsibility of certain institutional activities of the community - in the matters of social, cultural and economic development - which certainly requires the use of many institutional resources. I also have separate, private family investments, and some members of the media cannot stop themselves from considering the whole collection of funds that I manage as one figure, from which they make estimates that are way out of proportion.
PM: Your Highness, what pride do you get from your work?
AK: I am proud of two things. The first is the creation, in a variety of countries, of institutions of the community which posses real autonomy, which do not depend on the intervention, nor the thinking, nor the support of the Imam.
The second is the reinsertion of Ismailis of the third world in countries which have sustained turbulent times - with the agreement of their governments. At the risk of sounding a little modest, I would say that it is the demonstration that the Ismaili community, that its programs and its institutions are respected (that has given me pride). I have no other ambition than to be the prince of a happy Islam. But we are not there yet.