I think the notion of time is different. I think in my case, I’m working in an institution whose time context is different from that of a politician…. You start with an idea and then you let it grow…. I think at the moment there is a tendency to want to see political change occurring in the developing world very rapidly. And I think this notion of consultation and democracy is all excellent, but I simply don’t believe that Western forms of democracy are necessarily replicable throughout the developing world I know. And indeed I would go so far as to say at the moment one of our risks is to see democracy fail…. I think you have to be patient, careful, analytical, thoughtful, prudent and build step by step. I don’t think it can be done like mixing a glass of Nescafe.

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Interviewer: Unknown in al-Azhar Park, Cairo

At street level it’s one of the poorest parts of Cairo. And it’s architecturally extraordinary and gradually being renovated by the people who live here.

I think what this project is showing, is that if you do area restoration in historic cities you can actually change the economic standing of thousands of people, who are amongst the poorest because these historic cities are very often concentrations of the ultra-poor. [Emphasis original.]

This bit of Cairo, Darb al-Ahmar, inspired one of the tales from 1001 Nights. A thousand years ago, the ancestors of the Aga Khan put down their roots here and founded Cairo. Today he’s coming here to see how that ancient heritage is reemerging from the dust of centuries….

The Aga Khan began funding work in the developing world in the 1960’s. Back then he was best known for his love of horse racing and high living from his inherited wealth. That reputation has stuck in Britain. Meanwhile as the spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims he’s used the money they pay him in tithes to finance regeneration projects in places as diverse as Kabul, Mostar, Zanzibar and Pakistan.

Restoring historically important Islamic architecture has been at the centre of each project so culture becomes a catalyst for enriching the whole community.

It’s part of a thinking process as to what resources there are in the developing world and the Islamic world which can be used to improve people’s quality of life and restoration hasn’t been thought of in those terms very often in the past…. The largest number of historic cities in the 100 most important cities in the UNESCO list are historic in the Islamic world.

So there’s an opportunity …

So there’s an enormous opportunity but it hasn’t been seen until fairly recently as an opportunity. It’s been seen as a liability to address the needs of these cities.

We chatted in the elegance surrounding the vast park the Aga Khan has created in what used to be an old rubbish dump in the heart of Cairo. Beyond lies the impoverished neighbourhood that is Darb al-Ahmar. The link between substance living and Muslim extremism is a sensitive one but it lends a certain political edge to the work the Aga Khan is doing here.

Well I wouldn’t say that poverty is the only reason for these elements of radicalisation, but it’s certainly one of the reasons. And insofar as we can address poverty in rural environments, poverty in urban environments, we are, I hope, improving the quality of life of the most marginalised in society. And of course in Islam, that is a duty on all Muslims….

[Project manager:] “This project is bringing so many people together and it is making us know each other also much better. We have people from different religions … it’s really about tolerance and about getting all these people together working in such a very important project.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by the Aga Khan. He has a vision of genuinely pluralistic, secular states where people can practise Islam in its various forms alongside very other religion, and the West looks on with respect, not ignorance.

The waves of history, of course, have changed the power of civilisations, one after the other, and therefore if you go back into history, you’re really reviving the pluralism of history and you’re teaching people to think in pluralistic terms and that absence of pluralism in our modern world is, to me, one of the really critical factors that we have to address.

So what to do? The Aga Khan is diplomatic about the limitations of today’s politicians. He said he stresses how non-political organisations, like his own, to be more creative and long-term in their thinking and develop civil values on the ground.

I think the notion of time is different. I think in my case, I’m working in an institution whose time context is different from that of a politician…. You start with an idea and then you let it grow…. I think at the moment there is a tendency to want to see political change occurring in the developing world very rapidly. And I think this notion of consultation and democracy is all excellent, but I simply don’t believe that Western forms of democracy are necessarily replicable throughout the developing world I know. And indeed I would go so far as to say at the moment one of our risks is to see democracy fail.

In this case is there a merit in giving up of the whole concept in the short term?

No. No, no. I think you have to be patient, careful, analytical, thoughtful, prudent and build step by step. I don’t think it can be done like mixing a glass of Nescafe.

On the other side of the world, the Aga Khan has set up a centre for pluralism in Canada and he’s developing programmes in American schools to teach pupils about Islam. In Cairo the next plan is a museum of artefacts found from all the digging and conserving, but the philosophy behind it [is that] the more you remind people of the cosmopolitanism of Islamic history, the more they’ll want the same thing in the future.

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