What are the continuing consequences of the situation in Iraq?

Well I think one of them obviously is crisis between the Shia and Sunni communities. I think that crisis is now extending throughout the region, and I mentioned today [in my speech to Parliament], that it’s actually active in nine countries. I mean, if you make a parallel with the Christian world, what would have been the Christian world’s reaction if the Irish crisis had been active in nine countries. (Pause) It would have been a very, very serious issue. That’s what we’re facing today. That crisis is in nine countries and it is likely to expand further. (Emphasis original)

Interviewer: Peter Mansbridge

 

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Peter Mansbridge: Welcome again, to Canada, Your Highness.

His Highness the Aga Khan: Thank you very much.

PM: This place [the Ismaili Centre in Toronto], it’s going to be wonderful. It’s quite spectacular to look at. What do you hope will be accomplished inside these walls?

AK: Well these are fairly unique buildings around the world. They are meant to be ambassadorial buildings, that is, they seek to express not only what the community is today but what it aspires to be. So they’re buildings that try to look towards the future. They are also buildings that try to articulate external relations so that people can come into these buildings … we can have events here with non-Ismailis. So these buildings are built with a special purpose. They’re not just places of faith, places of prayer.

PM: There’s six Ismaili Centres around the world now.

AK: Yes, yes.

PM: Two of them in Canada.

AK: Yes.

PM: What should that tell us?

AK: That Canada is very important. (Emphasis original)

PM: ‘Cause it’s not just numbers.

AK: No it’s not just numbers. It’s, I think, an expression … oh, I would say it’s not just I think, it’s an expression of long term confidence. You know in the history of the community, since 1957 — like many other communities, not just this one — there’s been such volatility in the last 50 years, and when the community started coming to Canada, the decision was quite clear that this was going to be a permanent home for members of the community who wanted to establish themselves in Canada.

[W]herever I go in this country still today — whether I’m on an assignment, going through an airport, giving a speech — people come up to me, Ismailis, often young Ismailis, and they can repeat sentences that you said in that interview six years ago.

PM: I want to talk about that for a little bit because it’s been close to half a century since so many Ismailis came to Canada and made Canada their home. But first, it was 6 years ago the last time you and I talked, and wherever I go in this country still today — whether I’m on an assignment, going through an airport, giving a speech — people come up to me, Ismailis, often young Ismailis, and they can repeat sentences that you said in that interview six years ago. They remember everything you said.

AK: Thank you.

PM: But what does that say about their faith and their connection to their Aga Khan?

AK: You know I hope in a number of circumstances to express their feelings, to express their thoughts. I am there not only to observe, I am there to interpret and understanding what they are thinking is very, very important indeed. And there’s a form of osmosis between, I think, what we’re trying to achieve in various parts of the world and what the institution is trying to achieve.

PM: Well, as you say, part of your responsibility is to help them interpret their faith.

AK: Right. Exactly.

PM: Now, in the more than half century that you’ve been in the position to do that, how has your faith changed? Has your interpretation of your faith from then to now, has it changed?

AK: No.

PM: And what’s the core of it?

AK: My beliefs. The beliefs of a Muslim. (Emphasis original)

I think what you’re doing, is you’re looking at the interpretation of the faith at the time that you need to make that interpretation.

PM: (After pausing to reflect) So over all that time, nothing has changed … and I don’t mean in a negative way, I just mean in terms of the life experience and how it’s shaped your interpretation of the faith.

AK: Well I think what you’re doing, is you’re looking at the interpretation of the faith at the time that you need to make that interpretation. I don’t think it changes the essence of your belief. The essence of your belief is there.

PM: Hmm. In terms of those Canadian Ismailis, you say that you can see that they came here not just for a visit, they came here … this is their home. This is where their life is now. How do Canadian Ismailis differ from Ismailis in other parts of the world?

AK: Well I think they differ because, amongst other things, they live in Canada. They are Canadians. The value systems of Canada become theirs. I think they share their value systems with Canadians. In the last decades we have found enormous parallelism in the value system. So that in itself is a foundation which you build on. So that’s very exciting. I think there’s a permanency of that parallelism. And in fact we found it recently just the way Canadian Ismailis reacted to the idea of voluntary service outside Canada — to help other communities, build competence, introduce best practice into our institutions, our programmes — that sort of generosity, that sort of thinking of others and not just one’s self, to me is very much part of the Canadian psyche. In that sense the community here is Canadian. Its value system is Canadian.

PM: And of course one of those values is pluralism …

AK: Yes.

PM: which is [sic] become so much a part of your concerns, your beliefs …

AK: Yes.

PM: and what you’re trying to achieve.

[E}very time pluralism fails, in one way or the other it ends up in conflict. It’s either political conflict, or it’s tribal conflict, or it’s religious conflict

AK: Yes. Well I think we’re seeing — around the world really — every time pluralism fails, in one way or the other it ends up in conflict. It’s either political conflict, or it’s tribal conflict, or it’s religious conflict — there are many expressions of conflict — but the fact is that if society does not accept pluralism as a basic, fundamental value then stresses and strains, at some stage or the other, will come out to the forefront. They will create risk. (Emphasis original)

PM: And many of those conflicts that you talk about, they’re based on the lack of pluralism …

AK: Exactly.

PM: are within in the Muslim world.

AK: They’re in the Muslim world, but they’re also in the non-Muslim world. I mean you can see it just recently in Kiev, [Ukraine]. I mean you can see it’s not just the Muslim world. I think the Muslim world is one of the areas, one of the regions, where that’s happening, but I wouldn’t say that it’s the only one. Far from it. So I don’t see this as a Muslim problem. I see it as a global problem. You can’t tell — certainly I wouldn’t pretend to know — when the lack of pluralism is going to create an explosive situation. It’s one of the things all of us are looking at. When does the lack of pluralism become critical? And most of us, in positions of some authority, are trying to judge when that is going to happen, what we can do to avoid that situation becoming conflictual. And that’s where the whole issue of civil society comes in. (Emphasis original)

PM: And how do you avoid it?

AK: I think you avoid it, first of all, by trying to preempt it. So you have to identify it. You have to understand the forces that are at play. And you have to try and give yourself as much time as you can to start acting upon the issues. Because it’s never one issue, at least as far as I’m aware, it’s usually a set of compound issues. So what you’re trying to do is reduce the level of risk. You probably can’t eliminate it, but you can reduce it to a point where it is no longer explosive. (Emphasis original)

PM: Where have you been successful, or where has the world been successful in doing that, since we last met?

AK: Well I think an example I could give you would be northern Pakistan. Where there were villages that were mixed communities, villages which were single communities, they lived in poverty, they lived in fear, they lived in worry and therefore the stresses came from the absence of any quality of life. If you change that, people are no longer sharing poverty and fear, they’re sharing hope and, one hopes, opportunity. And in that part of Pakistan today there is much more harmony than there was when we started the programme. Now it’s true there are external influences coming into that area of the country — not only in Pakistan but in Afghanistan also — but basically the social fabrics are much more intent on looking at a common future than the pain and division of the past. (Emphasis original)

PM: One of the things you talked about, in your speech to the Canadian Parliament this week, was something you’ve brought up before that concerns you and the Clash of Ignorance. While some talk about Clash of Civilisations, you talk about the Clash of Ignorance between civilisations, especially between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world. (Emphasis original)

AK: Right.

PM: We talked about this six years ago …

AK: Right.

PM: with your hope being that time would change that. Now I don’t think you were talking in six year intervals …

AK: No.

PM: you are talking longer than that, but nevertheless one can look back over the last six years and say has there been any headway on that, or are you as concerned now, or even more so, than you were six years ago?

AK: I’m just as concerned. I’m just as concerned because I am apprehensive that predictability is not part of political planning. I am fairly convinced the decision to invade Iraq was not based on an in-depth analysis of what was predictable as to the outcome. And that issue of predictability is very, very important indeed. And you can see today. I mean I think it’s quite clear that decision was an erroneous decision which has had all sorts of consequences in that area and, indeed, in the whole of the Muslim world.

PM: Well lets talk about, about some of that. First of all, you mentioned in your speech in Ottawa — in some ways it goes right to that Iraq situation — you talked about how there could be times when people felt they were well served even by an autocratic government …

AK: Right.

PM: that would benefit them more than being served by an infective democratic government.

AK: Right. Right.

PM: Now you must have thought long and hard before saying that …

AK: Sure.

PM: because that would, could upset some people …

AK: Sure.

PM: to hear that.

AK: Sure.

PM: So what helped shaped your mind to say that?

It’s an error to think that people are going to get into the streets simply because they haven’t had elections, or things of that sort. I think it happens when there’s frustration, when there’s dissatisfaction, when governments fail to take decisions which seem to be in the national interest. And you can see it today, in Kiev, [Ukraine].

AK: I think that if you go back to countries in development — because I speak essentially from the point of view [of] countries in the Third world, not North America or Western Europe — you can see that a number of situations in Africa, in Asia, were politically, maybe undemocratic, but they were productive for civil society. And so long as people had the feeling that they were making some form of progress in the quality of their lives, they accepted that because there was no pressure — how would I call it — no pressure for change. If the system is producing an improving quality of life, people don’t go into the streets. It’s an error to think that people are going to get into the streets simply because they haven’t had elections, or things of that sort. I think it happens when there’s frustration, when there’s dissatisfaction, when governments fail to take decisions which seem to be in the national interest. And you can see it today, in Kiev, [Ukraine].

PM: But some could take those words and say, well, you know lets think that through. If Mubarak had felt that way — and raised the risk of what’s eventually happened in Egypt, since his departure — he could say exactly that. That, OK, I’m an autocratic government but you’re going to have a mess with an ineffective democratic government …

AK: Right. I think …

PM: and you could make the same argument about Iraq, as you just brought up.

AK: But I think the issue there is the change process. It’s the absence of a change process. And I think that’s what we’re seeing today, the absence of an organised, peaceful change process and that’s the key problem that we’re dealing with today. It’s civil society which is saying, quite clearly, we don’t want to live in this context for the next 5, 10, 15 years, so what is the change process? I think that’s one of the basic issues that we’re dealing with today. (Emphasis original)

PM: And in both those two countries it’s still unclear.

AK: Yes. So the change process doesn’t mean that you have clarity. The change process opens the door to change.

PM: What are the continuing consequences of the situation in Iraq?

AK: Well I think one of them obviously is crisis between the Shia and Sunni communities. I think that crisis is now extending throughout the region, and I mentioned today [in my speech to Parliament], that it’s actually active in nine countries. I mean, if you make a parallel with the Christian world, what would have been the Christian world’s reaction if the Irish crisis had been active in nine countries. (Pause) It would have been a very, very serious issue. That’s what we’re facing today. That crisis is in nine countries and it is likely to expand further. (Emphasis original)

PM: But what is the way out? I mean the Western world has no credibility in trying to deal with that issue in a helpful way in those countries.

AK: It’s very difficult to generalise about the problem because it can be an economic problem, it can be an educational problem, it can be a demographic problem — it has different dimensions — so I think you have to dissect the problem to understand exactly what is happening. But at a certain stage, there’s got to be an acceptance in national policy applied by government that pluralism in the domain of faith is part of national rights. It’s that simple. Pluralism has to be defended. And I’m not sure that we know all the answers. And, in fact, probably the answer is in terms of reducing tension rather than eliminating it. You probably can’t eliminate it totally, any more than you could in the Christian world, frankly.

PM: But it seems … I mean clearly you are extremely worried about this …

AK: Yes.

PM: situation.

AK: Yes. I think most Muslim leaders are today.

PM: The answer may be, as you say, simple — the answer is pluralism — but getting there …

AK: Right. Getting there is very complex. Very, very complex. And I’m not a person who’s going to say to you that I know all the answers. What I do know is that whatever is occurring has to be looked at very carefully and it has to be brought under control.

PM: But it always comes down to the who does that?

AK: Well, essentially government.

PM: Governments in the individual countries?

AK: Yes, and I think probably amongst the communities they could agree. Now these conflicts have international ramifications, so you probably want to try to bring those ramifications under control also.

PM: You said earlier that these issues are not just issues in the Muslim world, …

AK: No.

PM: they’re in the whole world. One thing I found — well I found many things interesting in your speech in Ottawa — but of the things on this issue that I found interesting was that you almost had to walk through the basic history not only of your own time, but the basic history of the Muslim world and the divisions within in it …

AK: Right.

PM: to the Parliament of Canada.

AK: (Chuckles)

PM: I mean when we talk about the Clash of Ignorance …

AK: Right. Well that’s it! That’s it!

PM: It’s that basic though …

[M]uch of what I said today, to the Parliament, is so basic that could it be part of general education around the world, simply so that communities, countries, understand what are the dynamic forces in those societies. (Emphasis original)

AK: It’s that basic! And when we talked some years ago, I said to you, one of our biggest problems in the Islamic world, is that we are absent from Western culture. We don’t exist. Now that’s changing, but it’s changing very, very slowly. Very, very slowly. In my view, much too slowly. And I’m not sure I understand why it’s changing so slowly. But much of what I said today, to the Parliament, is so basic that could it be part of general education around the world, simply so that communities, countries, understand what are the dynamic forces in those societies. It’s not new. It’s been there a long, long time. (Emphasis original)

PM: I guess that’s where we’re left after these past 13 years — since 911, since the Clash of Ignorance became very much in the forefront — that leaves you wonder whether, really, anything has been accomplished in trying to pull down those walls.

AK: I’m not pessimistic.

PM: You weren’t pessimistic last time when we talked either. You were convinced that things were changing, but you seem less so now.

s I said, that invasion of Iraq had consequences which were foreseeable, which could have been preempted, and which could have been thought through, wisely. Now as far as I know, none of that happened.

AK: No, I’m not pessimistic. I think the issue is recognised and I think it’s recognised in a much wider spectrum than it was when we last talked. But I’m not sure that that change process is occurring in all the areas where it should occur and quickly enough. I’m not sure of that. I mean what I said today about the differences between Shia Imams and Sunni Imams, that sort of information is so … basic, and these sorts of issues really should be part of general knowledge, you know. And I’m not trying to proselytise in any way. I’m looking at this in terms of … basic knowledge. That there should be this gulf of ignorance still today is something that worries me. And you can see the consequences. As I said, that invasion of Iraq had consequences which were foreseeable, which could have been preempted, and which could have been thought through, wisely. Now as far as I know, none of that happened.

You see even the issue of public opinion, how does public opinion make a judgement on that issue if it doesn’t understand the forces at play? In a democracy, an erroneous foreign policy would be held up as a question about competence, wouldn’t it?

PM: Mmm hmm.

AK: But if that can’t happen, because the public doesn’t understand the issues at stake, then there’s no judgement process. And in the case of Iraq, the judgement process has occurred massively, post-factor.

PM: What about Afghanistan? We haven’t discussed that. We are watching these next couple of months, as the various forces from the West move out, including Canada’s and the Americans’, with great hopes that things are going to be calm and settled there.

AK: Right.

PM: Hope …

AK: Right.

PM: as opposed to what many feel, analysts feel, that it’s going to be the same old story in Afghanistan. Now you have a lot of time and energy and your work invested in Afghanistan. What do you think?

AK: It’s a very fragile time. Let’s be clear. As I said earlier in Parliament, I’m a strong believer in civil society, but civil society can’t grow in a disabling environment. If the Afghan environment becomes more disabling than it is today, then I don’t see a peaceful process ahead because I think there’s going to be a lot of tension among the communities, amongst the various parts of the country. So I’m worried about that, frankly. But, if the political process, the outcome of the political process, is one which looks at how you continue the reconstruction of civil society in the country, I think there’s a good chance it will work. It won’t work all over the country at the same speed. That’s clear. But I hope there would be sufficient confirmation of the positive process of change in areas of the country that the others will say, that’s what we want. (Emphasis original)

PM: This is the north and the east doing well, the south and the west, not so well.

AK: Yes. Yes.

PM: It’s been that way for a while.

AK: Yes, it has. But that can change.

PM: What about the leadership in Afghanistan? Six years ago you still had confidence in Hamid Karzai …

AK: Yes. Yes. Well I think at this point a key issue for Afghanistan now is going to be whether civil society and the development processes will be protected. That’s my big worry.

PM: Do you have confidence that they will under his leadership?

AK: I don’t think it’s a question of his leadership, it’s a question of the competence of the Afghan organisations, the security organisations. Are they well trained enough, numerous enough, well equipped enough, ethnically properly chosen so that the country ….

PM: What’s the answer to those questions?

AK: I don’t know the answers for the whole of the country, I know that in the areas where we are working, we still would like to see much more done and I’ll be frank, I’ll say a lot more done.

PM: So that is yet another worry check box for you …

AK: Yes.

PM: Afghanistan.

AK: Yes. Definitely so.

PM: What would you tell — just as a last question on Afghanistan — what would you tell the family of a Canadian soldier, or aid worker, who went to Afghanistan, [in] the post 911 period, to make a difference and never came home, or came home but not alive. What would you say to them, given what we’re looking at today?

AK: Well I think I would, first of all, say obviously that this is a personal tragedy. I mean that is in any event, that is a basic, a basic, premise. So anyone who loses a child in any part of the world, in any circumstance, is a person who has suffered horrible loss.

I think the solution has got to be we move as quickly as we can, but we also move as effectively as we can, so that these countries of crisis become countries of opportunity, but moving. Not paralysed. If they’re moving then there’s an effort that has been made to assist these countries to move forwards.

I think the reality is that, certainly Canada, United States, Western Europe can not afford, for obvious reasons, to let countries in the developing world go completely, lets say, out of civilised governance. I think that’s obvious. We’ve seen it happen. We saw it in the 60’s. We’ve seen it in the 70’s. So that’s not an answer. So the question is, what are the solutions? And I think the solution has got to be we move as quickly as we can, but we also move as effectively as we can, so that these countries of crisis become countries of opportunity, but moving. Not paralysed. If they’re moving then there’s an effort that has been made to assist these countries to move forwards. And once they have established their own dynamique, once they have got the momentum in that process, then the population’s going to stay with that. They will understand that there’s a hope ahead and they will not want to change that. It’s when there is a sense of despair, a sense of fear, a sense of loss of any hope for generations in the future, that people say, we’ve got to change. And I hope that, at least in areas of Afghanistan, the efforts that have been made by foreign troops to assist the country, will definitely be valued and will produce results. But I’m not going to say that can be even across the country. That I don’t think will be the case. (Emphasis original)

PM: So we’re looking at a split Afghanistan, at best.

AK: I hope we’re looking at an Afghanistan where there will be different levels of performance and various provinces will look at other provinces and say, that’s where we want to go. That’s my hope. But I have to tell you, it’s touch and go.

PM: Last question. Because you have been on the stage,

AK: (Chuckles)

PM: of international leaders for more than half a century — still look pretty young …

AK: (Chuckles) Thank you.

PM: but tell me … it’s always my goal to try and understand something about leadership and you’ve had the close up view, of so many, from, what, Kennedy to the current crop, you’ve seen them all, in countries around the world. Can you pick out one person who symbolised great leadership?

AK: Maybe not one person. I think I could pick out qualities. I’ve seen Heads of State whose capacity to think ahead of their times has been magnificent. I have seen individuals whose intellectual dimension has enabled them to bring forward articulation on forces of society which people hadn’t necessarily recognised but they’re going to be very, very important in the future. So that sort of quality of leadership I admire and I’m not sure that I would feel too comfortable in telling you who those individuals are (chuckles), but they are both European and North American. And I think that there are also perhaps in the developing world, men and women, who have had the faculties of leadership that I have mentioned to you. But I think the developing world has been a more difficult world to have those capacities actually exteriorise themselves. There’s much more stability in the political process in Western Europe and North America than there is in these other countries. But those are the qualities that seem to me really important because, in a sense, they are gifts to future generations and that is, to me, something which is very, very important indeed.

PM: Your Excellency once again, Your Highness, thank you so much for this.

AK: Thank you.

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