Interview with H. H. Prince Karim Aga Khan IV: THE POWER OF WISDOM - 2010-Spring
Interview with His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV
THE POWER OF WISDOM
(translated from french)
Interview by Jean-Jacques Lafaye
Prince Karim Aga Khan IV
Spiritual leader of the Ismailis since 1957
Author and journalist. Founder of the association « Éthique et politique » (1988) 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.
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.
J.-J. L. — You are the embodiment of the Imamat. Your co-religionists see you
as their “lord and master”. What form does your leadership take?
A. K. — 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 practise 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 descendents, 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.
J.-J. L. — So your community with its worldwide presence is unique within the
context of Islam.
A. K. — 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 practise our religion, but all
Ismailis are united by their recognition of a single Imam.
J.-J. L. — 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?
A. K. — 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 civilisations” 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 emphasise,
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.
J.-J. L. — In 2007, you celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of your appointment
as Imam of the Ismailis. Which have been your greatest successes during
A. K. — 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 organisation’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, specialised and competent international institutions capable
of operating in many countries and providing effective help to Ismailis
throughout the world.
J.-J. L. — 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?
A. K. — 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 marginalised! Then we discovered that, in both the West and the
developing world, all decisions regarding development support were taken by
“urban” organisations. 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.
J.-J. L. — What were your primary initiatives?
A. K. — 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 stabilise and
multiply these minuscule savings? In order to consolidate them, we came up with
the idea of microfinance and set up village organisations 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 programme 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 programme in
partnership with the Gates Foundation and are already trying it out in Tanzania
J.-J. L. — You have mentioned women’s exemplary conduct. And yet the position
of women in Muslim countries is often cause for criticism in the West.
What is your attitude to this, as Imam?
A. K. — 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. The earliest
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.
J.-J. L. — Which individuals, past and present, do you see as providing moral
A. K. — I wouldn’t use the word “moral” which can be misunderstood. 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 UN. 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 sadly all too rare.
J.-J. L. — Many people like to compare and contrast Presidents Sarkozy and
Obama. What do you think of them?
A. K. — 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 took office.
J.-J. L. — Can independent financial players like Bill Gates or George Soros
counterbalance the weight of international institutions?
A. K. — 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.
J.-J. L. — So let us talk about Pakistan. How do you regard this country whose
political life is characterised 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?
A. K. — It is a country whose huge difficulties date back to its creation in 1947.
As you know, Kashmir, which is part of its territory, 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.
J.-J. L. — You have just mentioned the problem of Afghanistan. What effect did
developments there have on Pakistan?
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.
A. K. — After the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979, western leaders
thought to themselves: “We won’t drive the Russians out through direct
intervention, it would be better to mobilise the Pakistanis.” In its turn Pakistan
called upon the most extremist Sunni. Result: 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
J.-J. L. — 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.
A. K. — 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!
J.-J. L. — Do you believe that, in Afghanistan, it will be possible to establish
representative government and military institutions despite all the
problems facing the country?
A. K. — 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 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.
J.-J. L. — 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?
A. K. —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
J.-J. L. — What should Israel do now to achieve lasting peace?
A. K. — 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 [of Syria] 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
J.-J. L. — How do you analyse current developments in Iran?
A. K. — 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.
J.-J. L. — Which brings us to the nuclear issue, always so worrying. Should all
nations be allowed access to nuclear power for civilian purposes?
A. K. — 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
colonisation, 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
democratisation 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.
J.-J. L. — How do you see Iran’s ambiguous attitude to this issue?
A. K. — 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.”