On the whole, though the Ismaili community wherever it exists is well tolerated by the majority community. Is it because a low profile is deliberately maintained? Or that it does proselytise [sic]?

I think there may be a number of reasons for that. First of all, we don’t seek to proselytise. We don’t seek to tell others that what they practise is wrong or right. There is another aspect which is that whereas these men and women are loyal to their country, they have a faith which is guided by Iman [sic? Imam?]. I don’t think that they have, to my knowledge, ever acted as a monolithic political pressure group. Every individual is free to choose his political outlook, his convictions. The fact that we have consistently remained outside or independent of political pressure situations, that also has meant something that has been desirable. Perhaps the issue that you mentioned at the beginning of our discussion — the fact that we now are more outward than we’ve ever been. Its meant that a lot of our institutions are better understood and hopefully better appreciated. In recent years, there has been a tendency I am very thankful for, of countries welcoming our people and our institutions.

Interviewer: Maruf Khwaja in Dubai

Prince Karim Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismailis, has been making his first ever visit to the Gulf. He arrived in Dubai last Saturday on the invitation of the Defence Minister, Shaikh Mohamed bin Rashid.

For a personage described as the world’s most active philanthropist whose presence in the constituencies of his community spread over 35 countries remains in constant demand, three days in the Emirates could be regarded as a fleeting moment of opportunity both for himself and his hosts to engage in the process of amity. But between engagements virtually without pause, the Prince found time to receive Khaleej Times reporter Maruf Khwaja at the State Guest Palace in Dubai for the first interview given to a newspaper in this part of the world. In the course of an hour and a quarter, the Aga Khan engaged in a lucid discourse on the problems and challenges facing the Islamic and developing world and the contributions he, the foundation he created and his community at large have been making towards their resolution. A brief report based on the interview appeared in our yesterday’s issue. Today we present the text of the interview.

Maruf Khwaja: Your Highness, you have been the Imam of the Ismailis for 25 years now. Your visit to the UAE is part of your programme of engagements for the Silver Jubilee Year. What would you regard as the high point of the years of your leadership, the most satisfying or significant event, one that might have given you the most satisfaction?

His Highness the Aga Khan: It is very hard to pinpoint an event in 25 years of a lifetime spreading over so many different countries. I think, perhaps, the creation of the Aga Khan University in Karachi (Pakistan) is one of the most important events not only in terms of the commitment it represents to higher education but in terms of what I hope will be the functions of the university in the years ahead. Universities are institutions that take tens of years to develop. But in this particular case apart from the time frame, we are talking about a new institution coming up in the heart of the Islamic world — Pakistan geographically is central to this Islamic world. Higher education correctly focused towards the needs of the Islamic and developing world, has immense potential and opportunity. So, I think that is one of the most exciting things. There are other things I recollect, problems which have found resolution but perhaps this would be the single most significant event. And I think it is true to say that an individual doesn’t create more than one university in his lifetime. I think this is a very important development.

MK: Members of the 40’s generation looking back, say 25 years, recall an impression of the Ismailis as an introvertial, relatively isolated community living in a world of its own. But now they seem to be looking and moving beyond those old limits assuming what might be considered to be an extrovertial posture. Can you explain this phenomenon and the role you have played in it?

AK: There have been a number of factors which have contributed to this change. First of all, we live in a world where communication has increased to a very large extent. When my grandfather (Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan) died and I travelled in Africa and Asia and returned to the Western world and mentioned names of places and people whom I met, they were totally unknown or little known. An extraordinary situation existed within the Third World itself. Today this is no longer the case. Today there is much greater worldwide awareness — of names of countries and capitals, of leaders and even indeed of issues. So you should look at the change in the attitude (of the Ismailis) against a background of change in the background itself.

The second thing which has contributed [to an extrovertial posture of Ismailis] has been a decision which I took in the late fifties and another in the sixties which was to seek to have our institutions better understood and, hopefully, recognised and appreciated for what they were, making a significant contribution to national development.

The second thing which has contributed has been a decision which I took in the late fifties and another in the sixties which was to seek to have our institutions better understood and, hopefully, recognised and appreciated for what they were, making a significant contribution to national development. In order to do that one had to de-mystify the institutions, render them more perceptible, more comprehensible, more tangible to large numbers of people. That I think has happened over the last 20 years. It has brought us courage, strength and wider horizons. It has strengthened the institutions considerably. That opening up has occurred because we’ve wanted it to happen. Our experience or what we have learned from that is what I would say is a very, very strengthening exercise. I think the leaders of our community would confirm that.

MK: The greater part of the work of the Aga Khan Foundation is welfare oriented, calling for a lot of expenditure which does not result in tangible financial return. And all of this is conducted in the Third World’s poorest countries where it is said all charitable aid goes into a bottomless breadbasket. Considering its own limits, how does your foundation propose to regenerate welfare finances?

AK: I hate to talk about returns. Whether you talk about business activity or philanthropy, there is wise spending and there is unwise spending. I am not so categorical on the question of evaluating return in social work. There are perimeters [sic, parameters?] (in health care) which enable you to gauge whether the efforts which you have made reduce, for example, the death rate in a given section of a community. You can gauge (in assistance programmes) whether disposable incomes in a depressed economy are catching up with the national levels. The big question I am concerned with is what is the right way to invest in philanthropy. My answer — perhaps more internationally recognised today than it was ten or 15 years ago — is that whereas investment then was in what was called “productive areas of the economy,” now to me the best investment you can make is in people, rather than in capital assets and things like that; or what I would call “envelopmental effort.” You cannot tell in a given rural society, whether of assistance in education or in health or in agriculture, which is going to be most beneficial to an individual family. Therefore you really have to take an envelopmental attitude. The return is really taking that family from a sub-subsistence level to a subsistence level and to a point where that family working hard can start producing some sort of saving for the future generations. Now, that may be a long process, it may be a difficult one. I am not even sure today that it is a process which is fully understood by all organisations and leaders or that it will be more fully understood because that process changes with time, place and conditions. I think it is investing in this form of support for people so they stand on their own feet that you have the greatest result. When you do that you’re no longer talking about a bottomless pit because those people contribute first to their own family environment, then to the local community, ultimately to the nation. I don’t say there will be equanimity between the rich and the poor. I can’t foresee that for the moment.

But on the other point (regeneration of resource) we do act as catalysts for participation by others. We have tried to develop programmes where our knowhow is available to a large number of national and international agencies. By collaborating with them we can share experience, compound the material assets that we have. We have a bigger constituency of knowhow to draw from. In our particular case — the Ismaili community is so widespread — we can bring a very high level of specialised knowhow to the assisting agencies. We do know a substantial amount about the demography of various countries in the Third World.

MK: The Aga Khan University is an institute of higher learning, comparable in academic standards to the best in the world and this is evident in the collaboration with Harvard and MIT. But it is located in a country where like many other developing states the standard of primary, secondary even college education is low and getting lower. How would you expect the university to achieve its purposes if local students competing for places with better educated outsiders lose out? Is not the lopsided effect alarming?

AK: I congratulate you on your perception of the problems because that is absolutely a grave problem. If you raise the standards of higher education (as the university has done in Pakistan), you have to bring into those institutions children who are qualified to benefit. In order to do that you have to look down-wards to the pre-primary, primary and secondary level of education. You have to ask yourself how you can improve these levels of education if you don’t want to find yourself with an institution of higher learning but without the qualified students necessary.

While one should, hopefully, avoid denying primary and secondary education to a large number of students, the fact is that in the years ahead … more attention will have to be given to improving the quality in primary and secondary schools.

I think that in Pakistan, like in many other developing countries, the government found itself caught between the desire to serve a large number of students and the desire to maintain standards. You know as well as I do about the demographic explosion in the Indo-Pakistan sub-continent. It has provoked very great stress on the primary and secondary educational system. While one should, hopefully, avoid denying primary and secondary education to a large number of students, the fact is that in the years ahead (and this is not peculiar to Pakistan, it relates to many countries in Asia and Africa), more attention will have to be given to improving the quality in primary and secondary schools.

In addition to that, it will be necessary to adjust the curricula of these institutions so that you have an integrated system which goes from primary to university level is such a way that graduates are not graduates which come out with a B.A. of no significance to the future economy or future needs of the country. Now in order to do that it will mean a reorientation of the university curriculum. That in itself will have as a consequence a certain reorientation in secondary education and perhaps in due course in primary as well. I am thinking here of the fundamental issues such as teaching of language, science. These are issues which have got to be dealt with in the context of the needs of the next 25 years, not of the next year. It’s going to take acts of courage and foresight by many governments to say “We’re going to take the hard-nosed decision to adjust our educational system to the needs of our country.” [A] typical example is the fact that much of Western society is an urbanised society and much of society in the Third World is forever foreseeably rural. You cannot change the demography of these countries, so right there you have the outlines of a basic issue.

MK: Coming to the public health aspect of the Foundation’s work, there is a large network of primary care centres, clinics and hospitals operating in many poor countries where population planning is a serious challenge. But these centres have not so far ventured into this area of service which is so closely linked to development prospects.

I have not taken decisions independent of national governmental decisions. Members of our community are citizens of each country and I have not felt it right that I should take decisions different from their’s.

AK: (In regard to population planning) I have not taken decisions independent of national governmental decisions. Members of our community are citizens of each country and I have not felt it right that I should take decisions different from their’s. In general terms however once a family is aware of the problem, it will very often find its own solutions within its own practice of its faith, within its own society, in its own economic context. I generally don’t think that there is a sort of magic wand solution. I don’t believe in that. People don’t.

One of the problems is to bring up the issue, to make it understood. Secondly, it is to make sure that whatever solutions are developed, they are socially [and] theologically acceptable. That course depends on the government and the country concerned, it depends also on the faith that is practised, or the sub-division of the faith. But I have not taken, if you ask me, an umbrella decision covering at the same time 25 countries. I have not done anything either that would impede good sense in being applied to this problem. To me it’s a sensitive problem but then there are many sensitive problems in life. You’ve got to deal with them in good sense. There is no other way of dealing with them.

MK: Going back to the education question, there are right here in the Gulf a large number of people who would want to benefit from the educational service of the Aga Khan Foundation, such as in the establishment of, say, an Aga Khan school in Dubai. Is there any chance of that happening

AK: There is nothing at first sight that would dissuade us form [sic; from] extending our educational network. We are committed to improving education wherever we can. But we cannot be effective in innumerable countries, obviously. But wherever we can, we would like to be effective in constituencies that are important to us. Obviously, the Islamic constituency, the Ummah, is fundamental to us. I can well imagine collaborative efforts increasing in the years ahead. In fact, it is my wish that this should be the case. I think there is probably insufficient use of know-how and means because of the national barriers which arise between one country and one community and another. So in principle, the answer is definitely “yes.”

MK: The Industrial Promotion Services Group which you set up in 1963 is concerned with the development of economic and industrial potential, especially in less developed places. Would you consider the extension of its activities here particularly in the light of prospects that such activity might generate finances which could ultimately fund philanthropic activity elsewhere?

AK: I think the first question is whether in a country like Dubai or UAE, generally, the policy is towards larger scale industrialisation. My impression is that the population base here isn’t that large. Perhaps there are questions as to how much that population base should be allowed to grow, whether it should grow through the natural process or through immigration. My feeling, at present, is that a country, at least the UAE, perhaps is not going to seek substantial industrialisation, but what would call selective industrialisation. If that is a correct definition of the concept of economic planning which is here at the moment, than I think the nature of the industrialisation, which is being envisaged, is something where we would feel we can contribute. It may be in passing knowhow or manpower or whatever. Then I think that Industrial Promotion Services Group is envisageable. But I don’t envisage such a substantial policy of industrialisation which we have seen in India or Pakistan or countries like that. I don’t think that is likely to happen here. Elsewhere, we definitely will continue to encourage industrialisation where it is national policy to do so.

MK: The past decade has witnessed the phenomenon of sections of the Ismaili community migrating from places such as Africa, where they were under pressure, to the West such as England and Canada. Has their entry and settlement in Western societies created any serious conflicts of ethical, or cultural values that might be causing you concern.

AK: The process of relatively large numbers of my community moving to the Western countries is a relatively new phenomenon. I can’t really make a judgement or comment now that I might be able to make 10 or 15 years hence. But there have been, certainly, concerns to which we have been seeking solutions which have been difficult to find. And in other areas where those concerns which might have existed in the Third World didn’t exist anymore. I’ll give you one or two cases.

Places of worship: it is extremely difficult in the Western world for a new community to provide in a short span of time a large network of places of worship. Its really a major problem. On the other hand, access to good education, good health facilities, these are problems which are insignificant (in the West) in comparison to what they were (for the emigrants) in the Third World.

As to what will be the future integration between people from the East in these Western societies, its genuinely too early to tell. There are questions being asked both by the immigrant community and by the communities that are there.

As to what will be the future integration between people from the East in these Western societies, its genuinely too early to tell. There are questions being asked both by the immigrant community and by the communities that are there. I have a feeling, frankly, that those questions are exacerbated by world recession. If we were living at a time when more countries were stronger economically, some of these issues would be less sensitive. But the fact is that in the Western world, for example, unemployment today is a major problem. Now unemployment measured against the influx of large numbers of immigrants creates conflict. So there are genuine problems of that sort and they exist and it would be completely wrong to deny that they exist.

MK: On the whole, though the Ismaili community wherever it exists is well tolerated by the majority community. Is it because a low profile is deliberately maintained? Or that it does proselytise [sic]?

AK: I think there may be a number of reasons for that. First of all, we don’t seek to proselytise. We don’t seek to tell others that what they practise is wrong or right. There is another aspect which is that whereas these men and women are loyal to their country, they have a faith which is guided by Iman [sic? Imam?]. I don’t think that they have, to my knowledge, ever acted as a monolithic political pressure group. Every individual is free to choose his political outlook, his convictions. The fact that we have consistently remained outside or independent of political pressure situations, that also has meant something that has been desirable. Perhaps the issue that you mentioned at the beginning of our discussion — the fact that we now are more outward than we’ve ever been. Its meant that a lot of our institutions are better understood and hopefully better appreciated. In recent years, there has been a tendency I am very thankful for, of countries welcoming our people and our institutions.

MK: Is it too early to comment on or draw any conclusions on the objectives and achievements of your awards foundation particularly in relation to the promotion of Islamic architecture? You’re aware that Cagdas Associates of Dubai are nominees for the award.

AK: Oh, no. There we can make comments. About individual projects (the design for Bur Dubai police station) I am not in a position to comment because I am not a member of the Master Jury. I ‘don’t even give them guidelines as to the way in which they should judge. They are informed about the background of the Award, informed about the perception of problems as seen by the Award but judgement as to what a good solution might be is entirely their own prerogative. In fact. I can tell you that the first list of awards took the Steering Committee over which I preside, very much by surprise. I don’t, in any way, want to imply that we disagreed but the whole procedure was totally different from what we expected. I must say that when we understood what was the meaning of the Master Jury decision, the whole of the awards structure was 100 per cent behind the jury. It tells you that the two things don’t go together.

Conclusions: there are conclusions. I think they are very exciting conclusions. The first is that there is an awareness today that the great heritages of Islamic architecture — I use the plural because they are multiple heritages — don’t have to be something in the past. They are the creation of talented, creative people, and talented and creative people live in the Islamic world today. They are working for the Islamic world, outside the Islamic world. So those traditions of the past — there is no need for them to be forgotten or buried or disregarded. That’s the first conclusion.

The third conclusion is that there is no monolithic design concept called Islamic design. Islam has guided the lives of men and women for hundreds of years in many different countries and many different climates. The Islamic world is not going to respond monolithically to the desire to create an architecture of its own. Its going to create its own architecture according to the people, the culture, the climate, materials and the economic conditions, etc. That flexibility should be encouraged.

I think the second conclusion is that most people who are designing today in the Islamic world found an information vacuum in professional terms. There are hundreds of books on coffee tables with pictures about monuments of the 13th or 14th or 18th century Islamic world. But the professional and technical information about the buildings which would be required by people to draw the lessons of the past, is not available in anywhere near the quantity or accessibility that is necessary. That is one of the objectives of both the Aga Khan Awards and the Harvard and MIT programmes. It is to create reference centres for practitioners today. The third conclusion is that there is no monolithic design concept called Islamic design. Islam has guided the lives of men and women for hundreds of years in many different countries and many different climates. The Islamic world is not going to respond monolithically to the desire to create an architecture of its own. Its going to create its own architecture according to the people, the culture, the climate, materials and the economic conditions, etc. That flexibility should be encouraged. So the conclusions are that the problem has been looked at and there are exciting solutions on the horizon but they are not going to be monolithic. They are not all going to be right, and even if they are considered right today they might be considered wrong tomorrow or vice versa. But the attempt, the momentum to design in one’s own culture, one’s own idiom, one’s own faith is there.

MK: The Gulf is a wealthy place, you must have noticed. It has sufficient resources and incentive to provide for its welfare and other needs. But have you discovered during your stay any area of interest in which the Aga Khan Foundation might seek participation or for that matter any commercial possibilities?

AK: I’ve been here only two and a half days. Its my first visit to the Gulf and it would be presumptious [sic], frankly, to make too many statements. However, in the Third World as a result of these changes never before in my knowledge has there been such a heavy demand and such a heavy premium on qualified manpower. The interesting thing is that we’re not just talking about qualified manpower in static terms. We’re talking about re-qualification of people who are already qualified. These may be administrators in public health or education or in public service who need re-qualifying, and teachers, doctors and scientists. There is a tremendous demand today for two things, new people who are qualified plus the re-qualification of existing people. Perhaps this is an area where because of a network of institutions that we run — the access to a large numbers of members of my community who are qualified and many are working here in Dubai, that is an area where there is a possibility of a strong collaborative effort. We ourselves do not have all the numbers of people we would like to have. But I would say that as a community, we are better endowed than many with men and women who have appropriate qualifications for the end of the 20th century. And that after all is a wealth in itself. We certainly do not have the sort of wealth which is in the Gulf areas but the two brought together could have a very substantial impact.

MK: Finally, Your Highness, would you give us your impressions of this visit. How do you feel about having been in Dubai?

AK: I have been very generously and very courteously received. I have met people from the ruling family, business people, intelligentsia, who have a very wide vision of life, who have a very realistic understanding of what is happening. I have been very encouraged by a sense of reality, sense of pragmatism which are two of the most important things in dealing with the world recession today, and in building for the future. There are extremes of riches and poverty in the world today but good sense, pragmatism and clear thinking are essential to both extremes. I have been encouraged to find that is a substantial element in the thinking of most people I met in Dubai. The country is wealthy — there is no country in the world that does not have every day problems that it must resolve — but there is good sense and in today’s divided and often emotional world a good healthy dose of good sense is just the thing that we need.

SOURCES

  • Khaleej Times, Dubai, 15 March 1983

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

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