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The Ismailis of Tajikistan - A hopeful Aga saga

Saturday, 2016, August 20
Khorog at rush hour

In the poorest bit of the former Soviet Union they look to a leader of yore
THE region of Badakhshan, which covers most of the eastern half of Tajikistan but hosts barely 3% of its population, is probably the poorest bit of the former Soviet Union’s poorest country. Scraping a living at the rugged western end of the Pamir mountains, its people feel remote from the government in Dushanbe. Their biggest town, Khorog, where anti-government violence has broken out twice in the past four years, is slap on the border with turbulent Afghanistan to the south. Warlords and drug-traffickers, often one and the same, frequently hold sway on both sides of the frontier. The inhabitants, most of whom follow the Ismaili version of Shia Islam, were generally on the losing side of the vicious civil war that ravaged Tajikistan from 1992 to 1997.

Their biggest benefactor by far is the Ismailis’ hereditary leader, Prince Karim Aga Khan. A Swiss-born British citizen, he is resident mainly in France; one of his horses recently won the Epsom Derby, one of the grandest British races of the year; he also skied for Iran in the 1964 Winter Olympics.

His most ambitious educational project in Badakhshan is a branch of the nascent University of Central Asia, created under the auspices of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which is said to employ 80,000 people in the 30-odd countries where the Ismailis’ 15m-strong diaspora resides. Along with campuses in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, its remotest academic outpost is in Khorog. The AKDN does an array of other good works in eastern Tajikistan.

The authorities in Dushanbe have sometimes viewed the munificent 79-year-old Aga Khan with suspicion, as he is so much more popular than they are in the fastnesses of the Pamir. But he goes out of his way to stay on polite terms with them and to keep out of formal politics, paying for charitable works in the capital and elsewhere, and investing in telecoms, energy and tourism. The Serena Hotel, part of a worldwide chain his family owns, is the best hotel in Dushanbe. The Ismaili faith puts much emphasis on pluralism, education and social justice—things that Tajikistan still badly lacks.

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