Monday, 22 October 2001

The Aga Khan: "I am amazed by the ignorance of Islam".

Says the leader of the Ismaelits: this is not a conflict between civilisations but of reciprocal prejudices and stereotypes.".

The Taliban: "Through the Koran, they condemn themselves. The Koran prohibits the enforcement of a religious practice or of a faith. This is why the regime of the Taliban condemns itself, but it is not right to associate it with Bin Laden and to associate Bin Laden with Islam.".

The veil: "This is a tradition which respects women. Certainly differences with the Western world exist, but one must consider the essence and the ethical significance of rules and principals. The veil for women is a tradition which precedes Islam, and was introduced as a sign of respect.". Nava Massimo

The interview on the attack on terrorism: The leader is the 49th descendant of Mohammad, one of the principal spiritual leaders of Muslim Shi'ites: "Religious extremism may come about through the Arab world's sense of frustration of unsolved problems.". The Aga Khan: "I am amazed by the ignorance on Islam" and he continues: "This is not a conflict between civilisations but of reciprocal prejudices and stereotypes."

PARIS - He is one of the spiritual leaders of Islam who best knows the land and the people of Central Asia, the area which holds the world in suspense. He is the Imam, the religious leader and guide of the Ishamilite, whose communities are spread in various countries of Asia and Africa, but also in Europe and in North America. Throughout Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and West China, there are more than five million Ishmaelite.

His Highness, the Aga Khan, is the 49th direct descendant of Mohammad, through Ali, his cousin who married Fatima, the Prophet's daughter.

The Aga Khan is engaged in ambitious projects concerning society, economics and education, which aim at maintaining and developing humanity in the Third World, from Mozambique to Tanzania, from Pakistan to the ex Soviet Republics, to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakistan, from Bangladesh to India.

One of the socio-economical programmes in the northern rural areas of Pakistan, in the region of Hunza, has obtained recognition from the World Bank and the methodology has been successfully "exported:" to many other countries.

The "Corriere" (one of the main Italian newspapers) met him at Aiglemont, his residence - cum - secretariat for the multiple institutional activities This is a splendid estate within the forests which surround the enchanting castle of Chantilly, north of Paris. The suburban quarters of the Maghreb seem far away, but so close, both in France as in the entire West, to the heart of the problem, the confrontation between religions and cultures, which is not a direct consequence of well being and of knowledge, for this land which favours intolerance and exclusion.

From this sort of directorate, the Aga Khan organises his:"Development Networks" of initiatives and institutions dedicated to the enhancement of the living conditions of the Developing Countries. It functions with humanitarian aid to economic development, to education, to health, with the conviction that wherever in the world, the ethnic and religious instability is largely due to poverty. If there is poverty, there is no hope in life. The tensions, the ethnic and religious conflicts, the violence, all find fertile soil in poverty and ignorance.

Does the same apply to the Taliban regime: "I know the situation well. The Taliban are a peculiar phenomenon which originates pivots around the Arab world and Pakistan. They have imposed an interpretation of Islam which had never been imposed on the Afghan population before and which has never existed in the theological context of the country until some ten years ago. They are a singular reality which cannot be considered representative of the Islamic community of the area. We have been engaged in this area for years, where a part of our community is concentrated. Around 750,000 to one million Ishmaelites lived in Afghanistan prior to the war, and our people have also been forced to flee. In Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands have been persecuted; we have been direct spectators of a human and civilian disaster."

How do you explain the tie between the religious regime and the terrorism of Bin Laden? "The conflict with the Soviet Union after the Red Army's invasion; the help and the military training received, also from the West to the Mujahiddin, voluntary soldiers which came from other countries, and, after the Soviets withdrew, the civil war between ethnic fractions.

"Afghanistan was left to its own destiny. There was no economic assistance, no support for the reconstruction of the political institutions, no international initiative. It was a destiny which even the ex Soviet Republics which surround the northern frontiers risked; there, the orgnisational and political weakness could have favoured the Taliban insurgence.

"When we started to work in this area, we were immersed in a scenario of immense poverty, of cultural conflicts and of latent tensions between ethnic and religious groups which were forced to live in close contact within social relationships. For instance, in the Central Asian republics, the Russians had assured social equality to women, but a few Kilometers away, the women started to live in accordance to local traditions.

"Afghanistan, abandoned by all and conquered by the Taliban, became an immense training camp for international terrorism. It was used in various situations, many times, and for diverse motives, and even today it is still the huge crossroad for drugs.

But the Taliban regime bases itself on a rigid interpretation of the Koran; in a certain sense, the regime is an absolutist theocracy. And Bind Laden, who the Taliban protect, is reflected as a hero of the Holy War. Terrorism seems also the son of religious extremists. "The planet's conflicts are not a problem which involves only Islam. One needs only to reread history and observe today's World. Ireland, Sri Lanka, Kashmir Chechnya, Balkans, Africa. Religion can become an instrument of conflict, but rarely, in today's world is it a principal cause.

"It is true that types of religious extremism may also come about through the Arab world's sense of frustration on unsolved problems, first and foremost that of the Palestinians. When suffering and internal conflicts are endless, inevitably, they become international. But the outcome of the Taliban's regime in Afghanistan is failure: of the civil world, of the international community.

"No individual, no country or international organisation, irrelevant of whether it is Islamic or not, which has undertaken negotiations with them (the Taliban) - and there have been many - has been successful in convincing them that their ways were contrary to the principals and objectives acceptable to a modern human society.

How do you explain the wariness of the Islamic world in expressing an explicit and total condemnation of the Taliban? "When one speaks of Islam there is often an unfounded generalisation. One underestimates a political, religious and cultural pluralism, not very unlike those present in Christianity and in the West. Many Islamic countries have tried to change to situation in Afghanistan, but it is evident that Kabul's regime has also been conditioned by strategies and external financial support from some disputed Muslims who do not, in any way, represent the Muslim World.

"The condemnation of terrorism and of the Taliban's system of government appears to me clear and fairly unanimous. It is another thing to express condemnation to the strict religious practices of the Taliban: no Muslim has the right to judge the way in which another practices faith.

According to many scholars, it is the very absence of a spiritual authority which "excommunicates" radicalism which is the principal obstacle for the evolution of Islam. Do you agree? "The problem is wrongly posed and it does not concern the fundamentals of Islam. In fact, in the Shi'ite credence, one exalts the value of the intellect, of the spiritual guide, therefore of interpretation. But Western thought tends to confuse the bond between spirituality and secularism with a sort of compromise between State and Church. These are different levels, which involve the individual and the community in which one lives, not the political authority of the State. . The Koran prohibits judging the way in which another Muslim practices faith, but it also prohibits the enforcement of a religious practice or of a faith

"In the world of Islam, which is nearly a fifth of the Earth's population, there are significant examples of religious practices which conform to a moral concept of the faith. The Koran edicts the ethics of responsibility as an obligation for those who have civilian authority, to enhance the well being and the development of their community. This is something which the Taliban have not done and it is because of this that their regime condemns itself. In these conditions, Islam even says that trust in authority must be denied.

The Western world asks itself about a possible conflict between civilisations, between concepts of society and of morals which are considered irreconcilable. What would you like to explain or to reprimand the West? "I am a Muslim who lives in the West and I continuously ask myself as to the how and why of this situation. The political and economical relationships between the West and the Islamic world show that a good understanding exists with different countries and that there are also strong ties. There is no conflict between civilizations, but only a large measure of ignorance, a lack of wishing to deepen mutual knowledge. It is a conflict of stereotypes and of prejudices, not of civilization. Today, in the papers too, many explain and comment. But how many, for example, know the difference between Shi'ite and Sunni, between jihadism (fundamentalists) and radicalists, between the Muslim-Arab world and the Asian and African Muslim people?

"There is an enormous confusion in schools and in universities. Hence in the general culture of the West there is no education regarding the Muslim world and the fundamental principal of the Koran are unknown: i.e. ethics, the learning of acknowledging faith in every moment of life, with coherent behaviour.

"It is also because of this that Islam did not secularise itself as did Christianity. We do not distinguish between earthly motives and spirituality, we do not deliberate the question of choice, in accordance with St. Augstine's concept. But the diversity of concepts exists also in Christianity. Diversity, if it stimulates discussions and encounters is a positive value. For the West, to understand the Muslim world and Islam, is to understand first of all the pluralism of peoples and their interpretations and to avoid considering the Taliban as representatives of the entire Muslim world.

What could be the Western world's reaction if a Muslim affirmed that the Inquisition and the IRA represent the Catholic world? There are however, aspects of the Islamic society about which the West cannot but wonder. As an example: the increasing number of Mosques in the West and the difficulty of building Churches in the Islamic world, the conditions of women, the development of democratic institutions, the liberty of the mass media.

"It is not possible to generalise on these aspects also, because this causes one to consider a system better than another, albeit not understanding the moral criteria

"Our community and the institutions we have created - and we are certainly not unique - are examples of openness, without distinction of race, sex and religion. We have established the first supranational university: the University of Central Asia, with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakistan which will be utilised by a population of 30 million, scattered in the entire region. This is an opportunity to develop an executive staff trained in managing a mountainous territory which includes Western China, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey

Islam knows of diverse evolutions in many corners of the world, even if, in certain environments, the challenge of modernisation and globalisation is lived as fear of Westernisation and loss of identity.. In the past, Christianity developed in diverse areas of the Middle East, from Lebanon to Iraq and in Africa, especially during colonialism. Certainly, differences with the West exist, but one must consider the essence and the ethical significance of rules and principals. We will have to question ourselves on values and ethics and on the decadence of a society without rules.

"The veil for women is a tradition which precedes Islam, and was introduced as a sign of respect.of women and not of submission, i.e. against the concept that woman is an object of the society of men.

On which points could common interests be found? "The necessity to recognise the ethical standards of society is a common exigency. If ethical values collapse, the society itself will collapse and this has been demonstrated throughout the history of humanity.

"I think that monotheistic religions, having an analogous belief in an only God, should and must dialogue. The three religions which Abraham inspired have many more common facets than those which divide them. Religion must be a means by which to affirm the ethical significance of existence, irrelevant of one's faith. If we want social development, to meet halfway, to dialogue, peace, we cannot neglect ethics and the impact which education and culture have on social growth.

"My message is one of hope and however difficult to realise, it is not utopian.

In the meantime arms are being used, and the problem of Bin Laden must be solved. Do you approve of the bombings on Afghanistan? "It is well known to all that several networks of international terrorism exist and that they are expanding and that their objective is destabilisation.

"Cancer is a phenomenon of human life, if you do not cure it in time, it becomes invasive and terminal. Analogously, situations such as that of Afghanistan are part of the history of humanity. Certainly, other solutions existed, but one should have courageously intervened before. No one can say that one did not know.

"Today I hope that, once the "cancer" has been eliminated, the international community will truly concern itself about the future of Afghanistan, of the refugees, of the reconstruction of the country, of the preparation of an executive staff and of democratic institutions.

"All ethnic groups must be able to return to their homelands, to live in security, to have the right to profess their own religion, to be able to enjoy a valid educational system and the opportunity of economic growth.

"It is essential to totally eliminate the production and traffic of drugs, which are the main sources for financing guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

Do you believe, that in this scenario, the role of the Northern Alliance may be a decisive factor? And do you think that the King of Afghanistan, presently in exile in Italy, could have a role in revitalising Afghanistan? "The Northern Alliance has already played a decisive role, because it repressed the Taliban's total possession of the country and it also impeded the occupation of the neighbouring countries thereby avoiding the "cancer's" ramification Unfortunately, it lost a man like Massaoud, one of the few who realised the necessity of abandoning a military status in order to construct a social development project.

"On the other hand, the Northern Alliance does not represent, and does not desire to represent, the entire population of the country. A transitional government will therefore have to posses ethnic and religious foundations which can represent the pluralism of Afghanistan. In these years of activities in the region, we have known and have established ties with other leaders and other communities who are interested in peace and in development

"For Afghanistan, I am convinced that King Zahir Shah is an important figurehead, because, obviously excluding certain extremist groups, he has the trust of the majority of the Afghanistan. In any case, it is obvious that any new government will need the UN's total support. It will also be essential that it can count on a social and economical reconstruction, equal for all Afghani ethnics and which should be fully effective as soon as possible.. The quality and the speed with which assistance is offered, will be fundamental for the new government to obtain the population's support and credibility .

Massimo Nava