Canada: 'A model for the world'

The wealthy Muslim leader and philanthropist was in Ottawa this week to discover the secret of the nation's multicultural success. But he was critical of the U.S. for its simplistic views of good and evil. 'I will not stigmatize a whole population as being evil, whether they are Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu. I can't do that,' he told JOHN STACKHOUSE and PATRICK MARTIN

Saturday, February 2, 2002 – Print Edition,
Page F3 - The Globe and Mail

In the dead of winter, the cold and grey of Ottawa is not an obvious destination for one of the world's wealthiest and most influential men. With his own jet, an estate outside Paris, stables of horses and luxury hotels on several continents, the Aga Khan can choose to go almost anywhere.

Yet the handsome, wealthy and erudite leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims said he was eager to spend two days this week in Ottawa because, after Sept. 11, he wants Canadians to know they are "a model for the world."

"Canada is today the most successful pluralist society on the face of our globe, without any doubt in my mind. . . . That is something unique to Canada. It is an amazing global human asset," he said.

"You have created a pluralist society where minorities, generally speaking, are welcome," he continued. "They feel comfortable. They assimilate the Canadian psyche. They are allowed to move forward within civil society in an equitable manner. Their children are educated. And I'm not the one who is making the judgment. Look at the international evaluation of Canada as a country and the way it functions."

After a 90-minute lunch with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the Aga Khan sat down for a rare and long interview in which he urged Canada to hold itself up to the developing world as a model for the 21st century.

Normally shy of political debate, he also had strong words for those in the West who see Muslim nations as an enemy and for the direction of U.S. President George W. Bush's foreign policy. "I find it very difficult to pass a moral judgment on all Iranians or all Iraqis. I will not do that," he said just a day after Bush's historic State of the Union address that targeted three alleged terrorist states -- North Korea, Iran and Iraq -- two of which are Muslim. "Can you imagine," the Aga Khan asked, "how sensitive that is for every Iranian living in the world to say, 'The President of the most powerful country in the world today stigmatized me as an evil person?' "

Nearly 45 years have passed since Karim Khan, whose father was once married to film star Rita Hayworth, inherited his position from his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan. The elder Khan, who decreed that the Aga Khan title could not go to either of his two sons, wanted the Ismaili people to be led by someone who was raised and educated in "the new age" -- a time of decolonization, worldwide migration and a threatening Cold War. Karim was a student at Harvard University when he became the Aga Khan IV.

Born in Geneva, raised in East Africa and then England, and accustomed to the jet set of Europe, the youthful Aga Khan married a glamorous British model, Sally Croker-Poole. But he eschewed the celebrity set and has spent most of his adult life championing and funding some of the world's most successful grassroots development programs, from the northern mountains of Pakistan to the lowlands of Kenya. The New York Times once estimated his wealth at $1.4-billion (U.S.), but others have put it at far less, because of failed hotel investments in Europe and a costly divorce from Croker-Poole in the early 1990s (he remarried Gabriele zu Liningen in 1998).

His causes have been helped by the Ismailis, who, as a group, are successful in business and tithe a portion of their income to His Highness, who is expected to invest their charitable donations in good works.

As much as he is known in capitals around the world, the Aga Khan still shuns the limelight. This week, he slipped quietly into Washington and Ottawa to discuss the reconstruction of Afghanistan, relations between the West and Muslim nations, and his ongoing struggle against global poverty.

For his only interview in Canada, the Aga Khan -- dressed in a blue business suit -- sat next to a roaring fire in Chrétien's official guest house at 7 Rideau Gate, and spoke like an intellectual decathlete, moving nimbly from gender issues in the Middle East to media biases in the United States, landholding patterns in Pakistan and the psychological impact of communism's downfall in Tajikistan.

But his most pressing concern was the need for pluralism -- globally as well as in most developing countries -- and what he called a Canadian model.

"Canada has succeeded in an area where the developing world has one of its greatest needs: How do you build pluralist civil society in the developing world? Look at Africa. Look at Asia. What is one of the characteristics? The inability of different groups of people to live together in peace in a constructive environment to build civil society."

Part of the Aga Khan's mission in Ottawa was to ask Canadian leaders about the reasons for the country's peaceful development, and how that could be translated to poorer, more divided countries.

While in Washington, he said, the new Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, told him in a private meeting that Canada is the one country where the pluralism of society and the successful management of that pluralism is something he and others in Afghanistan want to look at.

In contrast, he fears that the Bush administration may be further dividing the world -- stripping it of any pluralistic hopes -- by declaring one side to be good and the other evil. The State of the Union address only added to his concern. "I have to tell you very frankly I will not stigmatize a whole population as being evil, whether they are Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu. I can't do that. If he [Bush] wants to say the people in government are responsible for things he doesn't like, that's his prerogative. I'm not sure the divide is quite that clear frankly," he said.

Rather than good versus evil, he sees the gulf as one of law. "I think it is the issue of law and the way law is applied in these countries, which is the central issue. And there, there are all sorts of different tones. You can't say all the countries of the developing world, or the Muslim world, are either law-abiding countries or lawless countries. I interpret it in those terms, rather than 'you're with us, or you're not with us.' "

Since Sept. 11, the Aga Khan has assumed an even greater role as a voice of moderate and modern Islam -- a bridge between extreme elements in both the West and Muslim world.

"It's important to make the difference between the faith of Islam and the people of Islam. They are not the same thing. . . I think it's important for you to accept the premise that there is enormous plurality in the Muslim world. African Islam, Asian Islam, Central Asian Islam, Arab Islam. Even within the Arab world, there is enormous difference.

And he believes the West's ignorance about Islam helps to explain why so few Muslim leaders have tried, or even wanted, to explain their faith, culture and people since the terrorist attacks. "I think they do as much as they can, taking into account the absence of the understanding of Islam in the Western general knowledge. What does it know about the Islamic world? Is anything taught in secondary education? Does anybody know the names of the great philosophers, the scientists, the great theologians? Do they even know the names of the great civilizations? It is very, very difficult for Muslim leaders to articulate a vision against such a vacuum in knowledge."

The gulf in understanding extends to social values, he has found. He believes most Muslim countries are becoming less restrictive, albeit slowly. Certainly, his view of Islam is at odds with the extremists, especially on the role of women in society.

But he also does not want Muslim countries to embrace Western notions of social liberty. "I find it very difficult to validate the concept, for example, that Islam says a woman cannot be educated. Or that Islam says a woman cannot work. I think what Islam says is that men and women have to live in a dignified manner in civil society.

"I think Islam says there is a tendency for the male half of society to dominate, and at times become overbearing. You in the Western world have laws. You recognize that risk in society, and you recognize it by laws in work, by laws in equity of employment, and things of that sort. . . I think in the Islamic world there will be an acceptance that women must function and are entitled to function in civil society in a proper, overt manner."

For those in the West who wish to impose a different standard -- on the role of women in society, for instance -- he insists that it would be wrong to hope Western values will become universal. For one, the pace of change in many societies is slow, and any pressure to speed it up would invite a backlash.

The image of a world made up of different civilizations has gained popularity since Sept. 11, but the Aga Khan fears such views have led to a simplistic, and incorrect, view of a homogenous Islamic world -- and a poor grasp of the differences between faith and politics in that world.

"First of all, a lot of people [after Sept. 11] didn't ask, 'Is this Islam the faith or is it political forces within the Islamic world?' Second question: 'Is it political forces within the totality of Islam, or only a part of Islam?' Third question: 'What are the motivations of those forces?' It took some time before the Western media started putting together the picture in the complex nature that it is."

That the Aga Khan, who is steadfastly neutral in his politics, willingly wades into the controversy over motives involved in the terrorist attacks says something about the frustrations of many Muslims in the wake of the tragedy. While not defending the attacks, he believes that the United States has been too quick to dismiss the so-called context around them. He suggested that only more conflict can come as a result.

"I think what we are seeing from part of the Islamic world is a sense of profound injustice which has been part of our history for many, many decades." And he said part of the Islamic world is reacting to that. "Why are we being treated unjustly? And worse, why is this injustice specific to one part of the world? You look at other areas of the world [than the Middle East], the Western world has been generally equitable. Certainly the Palestinian situation is one that is perceived by the Arab world, and by many people in the Islamic world, as a profound injustice."

But he said Kashmir and the way events developed there since the partition of Pakistan from India is another example where there is a sense of injustice. "Take the case of Mindanao [in the southern Philippines] . . . a community of people who felt they were isolated, abandoned, left aside from the development process. It's not only the Islamic world. I'd like to avoid the feeling that this is specific to the Islamic world. It's much more specific to ethnic differences, demographic differences, economic inequity, political situations which remain unresolved."

If the West wants to combat terrorist forces in these troubled hot spots, he said economic development and political change would be more effective than military action, even in areas such as Mindanao where al-Qaeda cells are thought to operate. "It is amazing how much can be done if you go in with economic support, social services, dialogue, bringing the community together, focusing on hope in the future rather than looking backwards in despair. That looking backwards in despair is probably one of the most divisive forces that you will ever find in Third World countries."

Although the West has actively promoted its model of democratic and secular government as a useful vent for such resentment over the past decade, the Aga Khan warned that the transition to new forms of government is slow and bumpy. In the Central Asian Republics, he said, he continues to be amazed at the transformation in thinking -- from communism to capitalism, for instance -- that people are expected to accomplish in years, when decades may be needed.

Where there is hostile opposition to governments in the Islamic world -- such as in Algeria and Pakistan -- he said he often finds a root cause in an economic stagnation that is unable to meet the demands of fast-growing and increasingly educated populations. And the unemployed youth can see Western-based financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, as the cause of their troubles.

"When they find that their economies are constrained because somebody says, 'Well, you're going to go into a period of recession because your governments have been spending too much,' that creates frustration."

In Afghanistan -- a country he has been close to since childhood, given his family's roots in what is now Pakistan and Iran -- the Aga Khan said the challenges of development will be more immediate. "Problem No. 1 is security. Problem No. 2 is keeping the people fed. Problem No. 3 is rebuilding what can be rebuilt, in quick enough time so that the slide into collapse, which we've been observing for so long, starts getting reversed."

While foreign money is not a pressing concern, human skills are. He said large numbers of expatriate Afghans must return to help rebuild the country, and security forces -- possibly with foreign soldiers among them -- will be needed to help.

He has already pledged to be part of that process. Two weeks ago, the Aga Khan Development Network announced $75-million (U.S.) to support the first stage of reconstruction. His new University of Central Asia, which specializes in the development of mountainous countries, may be more critical still to a new Afghanistan finding its feet and its place in a region of once-quarrelsome countries that are slowly coming together again.

When the interview ends, the Aga Khan's handlers are eager to get him to the airport before they lose the slot for his jet to take off. But first there is another matter.

On the cold, grey street outside, an Ismaili family is waiting by their old Chevrolet for His Highness to emerge. They have brought their young daughter, who has never seen the imam. The father beams with pride. The mother cannot contain her tears. But the girl -- Ismaili, Muslim, Canadian, blue jeans -- just looks curious. She says she wants to become a journalist.