I have thought about [the Salman Rushdie issue] a lot; it saddens me. It’s a very sensitive issue, the Rushdie issue, (he said, citing it as proof of the) stunning lack of knowledge (in the west about Islam and its 1 billion followers)…. The law of blasphemy in England could have been looked at before the Rushdie book, and there may have been some way of dealing with the whole issue of what is blasphemy for any faith in the U.K…. That is a serious issue for them because the law of blasphemy applies only to the Church of England, not even to the Catholic Church. So they have a serious problem…. But, of course, once you have a book like the Rushdie book, any debate on the issue becomes impossible.

INCOMPLETE: We regret that from this interview, only limited portions made public by the reporter are available below. We would be very grateful if any of our readers who may have the complete transcript would kindly share it with us. Please click here for information on making submissions to NanoWisdoms; we thank you for your assistance.

Interviewer: Haroon Siddiqui

Canadian life “remarkable”

Canada is an example to the world on how to treat minorities, the Aga Khan says.

There are many, many aspects to the Canadian way of life that are simply remarkable — in the way it looks after its minorities, the freedom it gives them to keep their own identities, (the spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims told The Star in an interview).

The Aga Khan is in Toronto as part of a 13-day visit to Canada. He met Prime Minister Brian Mulroney Friday in Ottawa and will speak at a dinner in downtown Toronto tomorrow arranged by the Ismaili community, with many federal cabinet ministers in attendance….

(The Aga Khan, who lives in France, said his Canadian followers) should think of themselves as very privileged, not just materially but in many different ways in Canada.

(He urged his Western followers to) try and establish a credible dialogue (with the mainstream societies of their adopted lands). Build smaller mosques in more places, (he said). There’s a sensitivity in the Western world about — what’s the right word? — blatantism.

Aga Khan hopes to bridge a chasm

He has been called a king without a country. A New Age man. A Muslim Prince Charles, doing charitable works and admonishing architects to pay attention to the environments and the people they serve. But His Highness Aga Khan IV — in Toronto this week — is more like a U.N. Secretary-General, walking the political minefields around the globe, serving many constituents and, especially, representing Islam to the West and the latter to the Muslim world. Given the chasm dividing the West and Islam, especially in the wake of the Salman Rushdie affair, it’s no mean task.

But here’s a man who sees no dichotomy in being modern and being a practising Muslim, a businessman and a spiritual leader — like the Prophet Muhammad himself.

… The Aga Khan and his people have no country of their own. They are minority everywhere. This background is essential to grasping his mission. To the orthodox, the Ismailis are fringe Muslims and their urbane, horse-loving religious leader not exactly the embodiment of spirituality. To protect the interests of his community, he can’t afford to offend Sunni or Shiite leaders. He’s more at home dealing with Western leaders with whom he’s on friendly terms — Pierre Trudeau vacationed twice aboard his yacht — but he’s appalled at the West’s hostility to Islam and Muslims. So, his message to the West is:

(re-connect with the Muslim world, especially the millions living in North America and Europe; teach Islam in schools and universities; stop placing on) an opprobrium of guilt (about their faith because of historical stereotypes).

To the Muslim world, he says:

(Don’t hark back to the past; abandon fundamentalism — it’s) divisive and damaging to the Islamic world’s ability to deal with the modern world; (be modern without giving up your faith; practise birth control to get economic progress; be efficient, follow the West’s) principles of meritocracy, (demand) good governance (from your leaders to get economic development).

To Muslim minorities in the West:

(be aware that you’ve entered the new world) with a political liability, religious liability and ethnic liability; (overcome them but) maintain individuality strong enough to keep the essence of the practice of the faith; (learn) not just the language but the vocabulary (of the West; build infrastructures to help each other).

Above all, the Aga Khan has to juggle the contradictions inherent in who he is. Son of a British mother and a graduate of Harvard, this product of the West has to lead a religion of the East.

… How can he, a heavy hitter himself in the world of horse racing, be a religious leader?

Horses in no way compromise what I do, (he says with a chuckle. Noting that orthodox Muslims raise the issue of betting, not so much horse-breeding, he adds he does not gamble; others do on his horses).

I mean, other people drink, I don’t drink. I can hardly be held responsible for other people’s habits.

That the 55-year-old Aga Khan has succeeded in being acceptable to the West is not surprising. The remarkable thing is that he’s managing to make a dent in the larger Muslim psyche as well.

Rushdie “offensive” but murder is a crime

The Aga Khan says he found Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses “offensive” and “totally unacceptable” but he does not support Islamic Iran’s call for the author’s death.

I don’t think there is a practising Muslim who wouldn’t have felt offended (by the book). I think one has to put it that bluntly.

This book is something which as a Muslim I find totally unacceptable (he said).

However, speaking carefully and in measured tones, he rejected the 1989 fatwa, religious decree, by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini enjoining Muslims to kill the Indian-born, British author for his alleged blasphemy against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Without naming Khomeini, the Aga Khan urged Muslims in the West to:

(obey) the law of the land (where they live and avoid) a frigid, rigid attitude that leads to a standoff.

Rushdie’s 1988 novel led to mass protests in India and Pakistan in which 16 people died. He went into hiding following Khomeini’s decree, which was renewed by Iranian religious leaders after the ayatollah’s death, despite the author’s Dec. 1990 apology and renewal of his Islamic faith. The novelist, who has since renounced his repentance, remains under Scotland Yard security, moving between safe houses and making only rare public appearances. The Japanese translator of his book has been murdered and its Italian translator tortured by assailants.

The Aga Khan, who usually stays clear of political issues, said he has pondered long about the Rushdie issue:

I have thought about it a lot; it saddens me.

It’s a very sensitive issue, the Rushdie issue, (he said, citing it as proof of the) stunning lack of knowledge (in the west about Islam and its 1 billion followers).

(Without naming Viking Penguin Inc., which issued the hardcover edition, the Aga Khan said the publishing house should have known that the book would have caused) that level of offence (to Muslims).

Asked if an author should be killed for offensive words, the Aga Khan said:

I have always had as a premise that the law of the land must be the law of the land. If you don’t accept that as a premise, I don’t think you can say that I wish to have a right to live in this country rather than that country…. My view is the view of the Prophet (Muhammad) — accept the law of the land where you live, (so long as it does not interfere with one’s basic faith).

Then he proceeded to comment on Britain’s law of blasphemy which British Muslims tried unsuccessfully to have amended to include offences against all faiths, not just the Church of England:

The law of blasphemy in England could have been looked at before the Rushdie book, and there may have been some way of dealing with the whole issue of what is blasphemy for any faith in the U.K…. That is a serious issue for them because the law of blasphemy applies only to the Church of England, not even to the Catholic Church. So they have a serious problem…. But, of course, once you have a book like the Rushdie book, any debate on the issue becomes impossible.

SOURCES

  • Canadian life “remarkable,” pp A1, Aga Khan hopes to bridge a chasm pp A18, Rushdie “offensive” but murder is a crime pp A18, Toronto Star, 8 August 1992

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

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