For the future, have you made any basic decisions where Ismaili communities should develop? There are only a certain number of areas in the world where a Muslim group can live with its own traditions. In Western Europe our habits are either misunderstood or totally ignored; [Y]ou can see that Africa, with all its dangers, has tremendous potentiality. I have intense respect for the African; I think in a number of years we’ll find he has brought something new to political concepts. We will make a major effort in that continent….

Do you find left-wing political attitudes are a danger to your Faith? In the Faith itself, every man is equal. So long as this is the dominant element a left-wing attitude is not going to get a strong grasp. What does happen, and this is a danger, is that the left-wing attitudes tend not only to destroy the Faith of a man towards his religion but also the respect of one individual towards another. When the Faith is broken down everything goes with it: the family, society, the individual, the intelligence.

Interviewer: Nicholas Tomalin in Ile de la Cite, Paris

Click here for part I: “The Ruler Without A Kingdom”

Aga Khan talks to Nicholas Tomalin about the problems of guiding his people in a continent in political ferment.

His Highness Prince Karim, Aga Khan IV, occupies tor twenty million Ismaili Muslims in the Indian sub-continent, Africa and the Middle East a position “somewhere between that of a Head of State and a Pope.” Though only 28, he has been their spiritual ruler since he succeeded his grandfather at the age of 19. This frank discussion of his role and duties is his first interview with a Western journalist for two years. The first part appeared last Sunday.

The history of the Ismaili Sect has often been difficult and dramatic. In all the countries where the communities, usually composed of prosperous traders, have lived they have encountered political and sometimes religious problems. If the Aga Khan sees his religious function as preserving his Faith from scepticism, socialism and Western materialism, and has thus been very cautious, he is radical in his economics and resolute in his politics.

When he talks about his diplomatic errands and negotiations for the Ismaili communities all over the world, his face becomes more animated, words come more swiftly. He agrees that he has more political work, and more power, than any previous Aga Khan. This is partly because he can travel faster, he says, partly because things are happening faster.

Since the last war his people have had to cope with two great upheavals. First there was the partition of India, which forced a large number of Ismailis to emigrate to Pakistan and Africa. Now, twenty years later, the countries to which they fled, Britain’s ex-colonies in Africa, are also changing completely.

His Highness the Aga Khan: When my grandfather died (says the Aga Khan) there were certain things that had to be done very quickly. New needs, new ideas, new thoughts. In India, in Pakistan, and particularly in Africa, events were taking place that were not fully understood by Ismailis, nor for that matter by many others.

But I must say they reacted wonderfully when we sat down to discuss these problems and tried to work out our future. Independence in an African country like Kenya, Tanzania or Uganda is not just a political event. It can have, for us, much more of an economic effect. It’s also a psychological problem. It is terribly difficult for people who have established themselves in a new country, adopted its dress and its language, suddenly to find themselves going through another great change. I had to make them realise that this was another complete revolution in their lives.

Nicholas Tomalin: For the future, have you made any basic decisions where Ismaili communities should develop?

There are only a certain number of areas in the world where a Muslim group can live with its own traditions. In Western Europe our habits are either misunderstood or totally ignored … [Y]ou can see that Africa, with all its dangers, has tremendous potentiality. I have intense respect for the African; I think in a number of years we’ll find he has brought something new to political concepts. We will make a major effort in that continent.

AK: There are only a certain number of areas in the world where a Muslim group can live with its own traditions. In Western Europe our habits are either misunderstood or totally ignored; most of the older generation who come here, come for a holiday — but not to live. Iron Curtain countries and China are very problematic. South America is a Catholic area. There are developing communities in the Middle-East, in Southeast Asia, in Turkey, Afghanistan. Pakistan and in Africa.

The Middle East has been, since the end of the first world war, in a difficult situation. If you look at all these areas you can see that Africa, with all its dangers, has tremendous potentiality. I have intense respect for the African; I think in a number of years we’ll find he has brought something new to political concepts. We will make a major effort in that continent.

NT: How many Ismailis there in Africa?

AK: I can’t give you an exact figure. We keep no census, and communities move around so much. I should guess it’s between 750,000 and one million. But it might be much higher.

NT: If Ismailis were advised to move to Britain or America they would find the economic competition very hard indeed. But in Africa they probably have superior commercial and technical knowledge, and therefore will very likely make a great deal of money. Is this commercial consideration as persuasive to you as the religious one — or is this too rude a question?

AK: Absolutely not. This is a fact which every member of my Community recognises. But those who have come to the West have, however, been successful.

NT: Politically, you are in a special position in Africa, dealing simultaneously with many national politicians with entirely different policies?

I don’t myself get involved in local politics, although individual members of the Ismailis may want to do so themselves. As a Community we are not politically powerful enough to influence specific national policies; and even if we were we wouldn’t want to overthrow Government A and bring In Government B … The difficult point for me comes when I find the politics of a State are such that we can no longer practise the religion freely there. But in general countries in Africa are doing well.

AK: Yes, that’s true. I don’t myself get involved in local politics, although individual members of the Ismailis may want to do so themselves. As a Community we are not politically powerful enough to influence specific national policies; and even if we were we wouldn’t want to overthrow Government A and bring In Government B — this would lead to a chain of involvements we want to avoid. Our only possibility is to move out of countries that have policies that do not allow our Faith to be practised freely and move both our people and our money into countries where this normal freedom exists.

It’s a fascinating situation in Africa because there are in the continent three different tendencies. There are States that are building free democratic societies, there are States that are building some kind of socialist society without actually being socialist, and there are completely socialist States.

NT: Do you find left-wing political attitudes are a danger to your Faith?

AK: In the Faith itself, every man is equal. So long as this is the dominant element a left-wing attitude is not going to get a strong grasp. What does happen, and this is a danger, is that the left-wing attitudes tend not only to destroy the Faith of a man towards his religion but also the respect of one individual towards another. When the Faith is broken down everything goes with it: the family, society, the individual, the intelligence. But here again I think in the West there’s too much talk of left-wing politics in Africa. So-called socialism in Africa has little in common with the socialism behind the Iron Curtain. It is simply the desire to give the maximum possible to the maximum number of people.

The difficult point for me comes when I find the politics of a State are such that we can no longer practise the religion freely there. But in general countries in Africa are doing well.

There are troubled areas I watch very closely. You can talk about Angola, or about Gambia, you can talk about the Congo and now Rhodesia — these are areas which may be going wrong. Other countries which are following an unwise economic policy we will gradually leave. There, is one country — I think I had better not give actual names — that the Community was advised to leave eight or nine years ago. In another country in Asia they received advice to split their holdings.

NT: When you advise Ismailis to leave a country, do they do so?

AK: Almost entirely.

NT: Could you specify one case?

AK: Very well. The Community was advised to leave South Africa some years ago.

NT: Was this on moral grounds, or commercial grounds?

AK: Oh, moral. grounds. We are firmly against discrimination whether between African and non-African, African and Asian, African and European, African and Chinese — anybody. If I had felt every individual in South Africa was going to get an equal chance would have told the Ismailis by all means to stay there. The economy is sound. But sound for whom? It isn’t sound for the Asian business man. He’s been pushed out of Johannesburg, he’s been pushed out of Pretoria, pushed out of I don’t know now many towns because of the colour of his skin. He has to carry on his trade twenty miles from the centre. It was a moral decision, but it has even affected commercial considerations.

NT: Are Ismaili Muslims good business men?

AK: Yes.

NT: Does this cause resentment among Africans?

Nowadays Africans are moving into the commerce and trade that was once controlled by Asians and Europeans. The best way my Ismailis can be of use to African countries and help them in their development is to evacuate those fields where our interference might restrict African development …

AK: No. Nowadays Africans are moving into the commerce and trade that was once controlled by Asians and Europeans. The best way my Ismailis can be of use to African countries and help them in their development is to evacuate those fields where our interference might restrict African development, and put our knowledge and capital resources to use in a higher, more difficult field such as the professions, or industry.

NT: Are your Ismaili Communities, very rich?

AK: Not very rich. People believe this because we have a rather socialistic programme — we’ve spent a great deal of money on social services. Naturally if you go to a country and see a very fine Ismaili school with a swimming pool and a hospital with [radioteletherapeutic apparatus] and so on you say these people must be multi-millionaires. They’re not. Just good business people. Sound business people.

NT: You’ve said you consider making investments of two or three million pounds in individual African countries of which you approve. You must be very popular there when you do that.

AK: Obviously if the Community decides to move in one direction or another this will affect the politics and the economy of different countries. If the contacts we have made make the situation look favourable to the type of investment I have in mind, then I would put money in if I also felt it would help the Community that’s living there. But this would be my own investment, a personal thing.

NT: It’s sometimes said that Africans and Europeans are beginning to mingle in schools, but Africans and Asians are still segregated.

The African is so conscious of his lack of education and training, and has such native intelligence, that he often pushes the Asian or European children, who might be tempted to think, ‘Well, my father’s got a good business, if I flunk my exams I can always just knock on his door for a job.’ Nowadays things are very competitive. it knocks the nonsense out of them.

AK: It makes me very sad people should think this. I wish I could show you our schools in Africa. We were the first Asians there completely to drop segregation in our schools, hospitals, health centres and sports clubs. In some places we did this as long ago as 1954. We were in fact often subsidising African children to come to our schools. Everyone said it would mean lowering our standards and so on. We found absolutely the opposite was true. The African is so conscious of his lack of education and training, and has such native intelligence, that he often pushes the Asian or European children, who might be tempted to think, ‘Well, my father’s got a good business, if I flunk my exams I can always just knock on his door for a job.’ Nowadays things are very competitive. it knocks the nonsense out of them.

NT: Speaking of colour prejudice, what do you feel about the new movement of Black Muslims among [black] Americans? Is it an aggressively racialist movement?

[I]n the Qu’ran it very clearly says no Muslim may judge the strength of another Muslim’s beliefs. As a political movement, the Black Muslims arose after I left the States. But I think it is growing because Islam is a very equalising Faith, it’s a comfort to a group under pressure.

AK: That’s a difficult question. On their religion we Ismailis have no view; in the Qu’ran it very clearly says no Muslim may judge the strength of another Muslim’s beliefs. As a political movement, the Black Muslims arose after I left the States. But I think it is growing because Islam is a very equalising Faith, it’s a comfort to a group under pressure.

NT: Do you visit African countries?

AK: Certainly. All the time.

NT: What was your last trip?

AK: Well, I’ll tell you about one recent trip — again I think I’d better not say to where. It was an African country where the question was the economic and social adjustments of the Ismaili Community to independence. There is a problem of citizenship. When independence comes only certain Europeans or Asians can become citizens. Trading permits, taxes and so on all depend on status as a citizen: these problems have to be settled directly. At the top.

Now, in this country the President is worried about the infiltration of Chinese influence. It’s a thing which is on his mind night and day, and he tends to associate with the Chinese anything or anyone who is not of his country. The Ismailis come from the Indian sub-continent; so they found it difficult to get citizenship. I went to settle this problem with the President, so that our position in his country is clear, and the Government right from the top understands what are our aims in life.

Then again, another sort of trip: I’ve just seen over the Fiat factory in Turin. I met Gianni Agnelli — there were a number of things I wanted to discuss with him. His is an industrial empire from which we can draw experience.

NT: Can you tell me precisely where and how?

AK: One of the possible areas is Pakistan.

NT: You mean you might help him put up a car factory there?

AK: That was one of the things we discussed.

NT: Tell me something about India and Pakistan.

AK: During the Indo-Pakistan war times were very difficult there. And they are still very difficult. I’d rather not say more than that

NT: As the leader of a large Muslim Community, with members in both countries, did you have any power as a mediator?

AK: Very little. In fact I don’t think there is any mediation that can be done between India and Pakistan. The difference and the traditions are frozen. Tragically solidified. It is a terrible problem.

NT: Were your people involved in the war?

AK: Yes.

Are your people a warlike people? No. They are peaceful. They could not be more peaceful in outlook.

NT: Are your people a warlike people?

AK: No. They are peaceful. They could not be more peaceful in outlook.

NT: You are fortunate to be a political leader who is unlikely ever to lead his people to war.

AK: Yes, this is so.

NT: With all the strains upon you, are you happy in your work?

AK: Yes, I am happy. I find it fascinating. And I am used to it by now. I would not enjoy any other life as much.

Click here for part I: “The Ruler Without A Kingdom”

SOURCES

  • The Sunday Times, Weekly Review, London, United Kingdom, 19 December 1965, pp. 30

    [Text verified and/or corrected from this source by NanoWisdoms]

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