Sept. 22, 2006
News Article
Simon Denyer

West and Islam in "conflict of ignorance" -Aga Khan

NEW DELHI (Reuters)
Ignorance and rejectionism lie at the heart of the conflict between the Western and the Islamic worlds, the Aga Khan, spiritual head of the world's more than 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, said.

Prince Karim Aga Khan urged a renewed effort to promote pluralism and tolerance through education, while also addressing festering political disputes and desperate poverty which have contributed to rising extremism.

Talking to a small group of journalists in New Delhi, he said the world was grappling with "a conflict of ignorance".

"It is not a conflict of civilisations. It is an enormous gap of understanding. And because that understanding is not there, the ability to predict, anticipate, reflect becomes that much more difficult," he said.

The Aga Khan is considered a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad and the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, who are scattered in some 25 countries and constitute the second largest Shia group in the world.

On Friday he laid the foundation stone for a new Aga Khan Academy in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, part of a network of residential high schools being established in more than a dozen countries to promote pluralism and tolerance.

Better education was crucial in the developing world to lift people out of poverty, give them hope and promote ethical values which should underpin civil society, he said.

But it was also important in the West, where an understanding of the diverse civilisations of the Islamic world is often lacking. Islam, he said, was a "highly tolerant faith" but this was not always understood.

"The knowledge of the different civilisations of the Islamic world, the knowledge of the pluralism of that world, the plurality of interpretations of Islam, of the languages of Islam, of the democracies of Islam is very, very shallow indeed."

"And I think that is a significant contributor to misunderstanding," he said.


Instead, many societies are turning in on themselves.

"What is at the heart of the issue is ... rejectionism," he said. "I am deeply worried about that. All education systems need to come to terms with these issues, to educate people about other societies and civilisations."

"It is going to be a long and slow process," he added, "but we can't continue the way we are."

The 69-year-old Aga Khan, a British citizen, lives in France and heads a worldwide network of charities that promote rural development, education, health care and culture.

He is also a billionaire businessman and one of the world's leading race-horse owners.

Rejecting the idea of a conflict between faiths, he said it was political, not religious, conflicts that lay at the heart of many of the world's problems, contributing to rising extremism.

These conflicts had been allowed to fester and the world was now dealing with the consequences, he said.

"Put those political issues on the front burner. Step on the accelerator just as hard as you can, know how to step on that accelerator, and deal with these issues. Don't let them pullulate decade after decade after decade," he said.

At the same time the world could not afford to keep ignoring countries and regions of acute poverty, where people are going to become desperate, "if they are not desperate already".

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