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The Toronto Star
May 1, 2005
Updated at 02:05 AM

Ignorance poses a danger to West, says Aga Khan

Haroon Siddiqui talks to Ismaili leader who decries ill-informed democratic states

Second of two parts

"You can be an educated person in the Judeo-Christian world and know nothing I mean, nothing about the Islamic world."

That's the Aga Khan talking.

The soft-spoken 68-year-old spiritual leader of the 15 million Ismaili Muslims is on the phone from his head office in France.

He has explained how his admiration of Canadian multiculturalism prompted his $40 million gift to initiate a Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. He hopes it will distill the Canadian formula and export it to a troubled world. (See Thursday's column on http://www.thestar.ca)

We then move on to the related topic of relations between the West and the Islamic world.

It's an issue on which he has been blunt, a departure from his diplomatic self, which he is by nature and of necessity, the latter dictated by the temporal needs of his people who live as a minority in two dozen nations.

Part of his thinking is best seen in two speeches, one to a conference of diplomats in Berlin last fall and another this month to the Nobel Institute in Oslo:

"I read that Islam is in conflict with democracy. Yet I must tell you that as a Muslim, I am a democrat not because of Greek or French thought, but primarily because of principles that go back 1,400 years" (to the Prophet Muhammad) "wide public consultation in choosing leaders" and "merit and competence in social governance."

On the so-called clash of civilizations: "What we have is not a clash of civilizations but a clash of ignorance. This ignorance is both historic and of our time."

It is "illustrated by events in Iraq. No less deplorable is that the 9/11 attack was a direct consequence of the international community ignoring the human tragedy that was Afghanistan at that time. Both the Afghan and Iraqi situations were driven by a lack of understanding."

Asked to enlarge on those themes, he told me:

"One of the difficulties is that the Western world does not understand the pluralism of the Islamic world, which is heavily, massively pluralistic, even more so than the West. But the West does not understand it because it has not included the Islamic world in the teaching of what we call `general knowledge.'

"This is a very important issue in democracies because democracies presume that the electorate is capable of commenting on major issues of national or international importance, and of choosing good government," which, in turn, would formulate informed foreign policy.

So, "unless there is a better understanding of the Islamic world, democracies are not going to be able to express themselves on Islamic issues."

The gulf is not going to be bridged by what he calls "the narrow focus of the interfaith dialectic," but by broad education, starting at school, and dialogue between citizens, civil society groups and governments.

This is essential, he has said, because "you cannot build a dialogue based upon ignorance."

Asked about a statement he made that peace and security cannot be about security alone, he said: "Instability and civil conflict are very often situations which have been preparing to explode for a long time. Many have been predictable, for there have been no steps to pre-empt these explosive forces from blowing up, so they do end up by blowing up.

"There are a number of causes: extreme poverty, despair and ethnic conflict ... This is true of Africa, of Europe, etc."

What about the anti-Americanism sweeping the world?

"It is, of course a problem. And the first to know that are the Americans themselves.

"Fact is, there are a number of situations between the West and the Islamic world which have been problems for decades, others which are new.

"It's going to be very important that there be a common attempt to address these situations. The longer they have lasted be it the Middle East or Kashmir, or whatever the more explosive they have become."

But, overall, "I don't see it as a conflict between the Judeo-Christian world and the Islamic world. They are essentially either historic conflicts or political conflicts of our time.

"They are not conflicts between the faiths themselves."

Haroon Siddiqui writes Sundays and Thursdays. hsiddiq@thestar.ca.