Baghdad is one of the great historic cities of the Islamic world. Iraq is not a new country. It’s part of the history of our civilisation. It’s been a pluralist country. Great philosophers, great historians, great scientists. Reverse the question again. What would the Christian world think if a Muslim army attacked Rome? I think there would be a general reaction in the Christian world, not just an Italian reaction….

Well, that [conflict, between the Shia and Sunni in Iraq,] was entirely predictable. Entirely predictable. There was nothing unpredictable. What you were effectively doing is replacing a Sunni minority government in a country that had a Shia demographic majority. And again, take the case out of its situation. What would happen — and I’m sorry to come back to this, but it’s important — if a Muslim army went into Northern Ireland and replaced one Christian interpretation by another? Imagine the fallout that that would cause in the Christian world itself.

Interviewer: Peter Mansbridge

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He is one of the world’s influential Muslims. The spiritual leader of 20 million Ismailis. Friends of Prime Ministers and Presidents and someone who rarely shies away from dealing with the issues that confront the world, whether they concern conflict, development or religion. This week, to talk about all of them, he’s our guest.

Peter Mansbridge: Hello I’m Peter Mansbridge. One on One today with His Highness the Aga Khan. You must love Canada, you keep coming back here.

His Highness the Aga Khan: I do.

PM: What is the quality that you most admire about this country?

AK: I think a number of qualities. First of all a pluralist society that has invested in building pluralism where communities from all different backgrounds, faiths are happy. A modern country that deals with modern issues and not running away from them — dealing with the tough ones. And a global commitment to values, to Canadian values, which are I think are very important.

PM: Lets talk about that a little bit because I wonder whether your confidence in Canada, on a lot of what you just said, has in any way been shattered a little bit in these past few years — especially since 9/11. There have been tensions in this country, as there have been in many other Western countries, between the Muslim and non-Muslim societies on any number of levels — on both sides — about history, and religion and tradition and integration within society. How much has that concerned you?

AK: Well it concerns me and at the same time it doesn’t in the sense that to me building and sustaining that pluralist society is always going to be a work in progress. It doesn’t have a finite end. And so long as there is national intent, civic intent to make pluralism work, then one accepts it is a work in progress.

PM: Let me go a little deeper on that because it raises a question you have often raised and that’s the issue of ignorance. You reject the theory of a clash of civilisations, or even a clash of religions. You believe there’s a clash of ignorance here — on both sides of that divide — and you’ve felt that way for a long time. I was looking through the transcripts of an interview you gave in the 1980s in Canada where you were warning, the West, that it had to do a better job in trying to understand Islam. That clearly hasn’t happened.

[Western ignorance about Islam is] a long-established problem and it’s going to take, I think, several decades before we reach a situation where the definition of an educated person includes basic understanding of the Islamic world. [Emphasis original]

AK: No, it hasn’t happened and a number of friends and people in important places have tried to contribute to solving that problem. But it’s a long-established problem and it’s going to take, I think, several decades before we reach a situation where the definition of an educated person includes basic understanding of the Islamic world. And that hasn’t been the case. And the absence of that basic education has caused all sorts of misunderstandings but above all the inability to predict. Statehood, international affairs, economic affairs are often predicated on the ability to predict. If you don’t know the issues or the forces at play, the ability to predict is severely constrained. [Emphasis original]

PM: What’s been the resistance do you think?

AK: I think essentially historic. I think that the Judeo-Christian societies have developed their own education over decades, and more, and basic knowledge on the Islamic world has simply been absent. And if you look at was required educationally in the 1980s, for example — I was a student in the U.S. — basic education on the Islamic world was absent even on general courses on the humanities, for example.

PM: Is this a one-sided clash of ignorance? I mean …

AK: No, I think there is ignorance on both sides and I think very often there’s confusion. I think more and more there has been confusion between, for example, religion and civilisation. And that’s introducing instability in the discussion, frankly. I would prefer to talk about ignorance on the civilisations of the Islamic world rather than ignorance just on the faith of the Islam. [Emphasis original]

PM: What we’ve witnessed in the last couple of years, not just in this country but in other Western countries as well, is what we call “home-grown terror.” where you see young Muslim men — educated, born in the West, educated in the West — who are moving towards a fundamentalist view, a militant view of Islam. Why is that happening?

It’s very, very risky, I think, to interpret [conflicts in Muslim regions] as being specific to the faith of Islam. It is specific to peoples — sometimes ethnic groups — but it’s not specific to the faith of Islam. [Emphasis original]

AK: Well there is, without any doubt, a growing sense among Muslim communities around the world that there are forces at play that it doesn’t control but which does view the Muslim world with lets say unhappiness or more. I would simply say, however, that if you analyse the situation, I don’t think you can conclude that all Muslims from all backgrounds are part of that phenomenon. Secondly, if you go back and look at that, you will find that a lot of the causes of [the issues of] those communities are people where there’s a long-standing unresolved political crisis.

It’s very, very risky, I think, to interpret these situations as being specific to the faith of Islam. It is specific to peoples — sometimes ethnic groups — but it’s not specific to the faith of Islam. [Emphasis original]

PM: Well that must really concern you. Your followers believe in you, see you as a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, the same Prophet that some of these minority, fundamentalist militant groups hold up and claim as the reason they’re doing the acts they’re doing.

AK: Again, I think, one has to go back and say what is the cause of this situation. With all due respect, if you look at the crisis in the Middle East, that crisis was born at the end of the First World War. The crisis in Kashmir was born through the freedom of the Indian continent. These are political issues originally, they’re not religious issues. You can’t attribute the faith of Islam to them. I think the second point I would make, is this tendency to generalise Islam. There are many different interpretations of Islam. As a Muslim, if I said to you that I didn’t recognise the difference between a Greek Orthodox, or Russian Orthodox, or Protestant or a Catholic, I think you’d say to me but you don’t understand the Christian world. Well let me reverse that question. [Emphasis original]

PM: I hear you. And there are a couple of areas we want to talk about — we’re going to have to take a break — but those are, and include, your belief in Canada as a home of pluralism and your belief to the point where you’re establishing your foundation’s Global Centre for Pluralism here. And also Afghanistan, where both Canada and you share a concern. And I want to talk about that when we return.

And we’re back one-on-one with His Highness the Aga Khan. The spiritual leader of 80 million Ismailis — 20 million Ismailis, sorry, 80,000 here in Canada. Afghanistan, we mentioned it just before the break.

PM: Canada’s role in Afghanistan is well-known — has been since 9/11 — so is the Aga Khan Foundation, which is in there in a big way in development matters. The question is simple really. With all the help that’s been given to Afghanistan, why is the Taliban resurging, not only back in numbers, but back in some sense of popularity? Why is that happening?

I think there are a number of reasons, but the one that I would put forward as the most immediate is the slow process of reconstruction…. [T]here are still acute pockets of poverty in Afghanistan — people who don’t have enough food, people who don’t have access to any education, any health care, and it’s clear this sort of frustration causes bitterness and the search for other solutions. [Emphasis original]

AK: I think there are a number of reasons, but the one that I would put forward as the most immediate is the slow process of reconstruction. There was a lot of hope that once there was regime change and a new government, and a political process had been completed, etcetera, quality of life would change. And it hasn’t changed quickly enough. It’s taken much more time than, I think, many of us had hoped to get to isolated communities in Afghanistan and improve their quality of life. It’s an organisational problem, even amongst the donor countries — there have been differences of opinion; the management of the drug problem has not been a united effort by any means. So there are a number of things that have slowed up the process. And there are still acute pockets of poverty in Afghanistan — people who don’t have enough food, people who don’t have access to any education, any health care, and it’s clear this sort of frustration causes bitterness and the search for other solutions. [Emphasis original]

PM: Well, is there time to turn it around? Because you get a sense that the pendulum has swung back considerably in the last year or so. You’re friends with Hamid Karzai [the President of Afghanistan]. I’ve talked to him a couple of times in the last couple of years, the last time just a month ago. There’s this growing sense among the Canadian people as well, frustration, and a belief that it’s a war that cannot be won.

AK: I would beg to differ on that. I think what we’re seeing in Afghanistan, at least from my own network of activities, is an increasingly visible, two-speed process where in the north and the west you’re beginning to see quantifiable change. In the east and the south, you’re not seeing that. And that two-speed change is going to have to be managed with great care. But it’s not a good reason to give up by any means.

PM: Can you do both at the same time? That’s the debate in Canada: to run a military operation — talking specifically about the south — while trying to introduce aid and development in an area that is not secure.

AK: Very difficult to do. But necessary. I mean, every step counts. And certainly in area where there’s insecurity, I think the availability for populations to participate in these sort of activities does go down when quality of life changes, and I believe the same thing with regard to the drug problem.

PM: How much of the problem in Afghanistan is a result of the decision on the part of the Americans, and the British, to move into Iraq?

AK: Very substantial indeed. The invasion of Iraq was something which has mobilised what we call the Ummah, that is, the community of Muslims around the world. Every Muslim that I have ever talked to has felt engaged by this. [Emphasis original]

PM: On what level? What do you mean?

AK: Baghdad is one of the great historic cities of the Islamic world. Iraq is not a new country. It’s part of the history of our civilisation. It’s been a pluralist country. Great philosophers, great historians, great scientists. Reverse the question again. What would the Christian world think if a Muslim army attacked Rome? I think there would be a general reaction in the Christian world, not just an Italian reaction.

PM: But it seems that, even in the Muslim world, that invasion has caused major divisions, the clash inside Islam itself between Shia and Sunni.

AK: Well, that was entirely predictable. Entirely predictable. There was nothing unpredictable. What you were effectively doing is replacing a Sunni minority government in a country that had a Shia demographic majority. And again, take the case out of its situation. What would happen — and I’m sorry to come back to this, but it’s important — if a Muslim army went into Northern Ireland and replaced one Christian interpretation by another? Imagine the fallout that that would cause in the Christian world itself.

PM: So what happens now? Can Iraq be put back together? And who would be doing the putting back together?

AK: I think that’s a very, very difficult question and I would not want to predict the answer because I think that the whole process of change in Iraq has regional dimensions which have got to be managed. They’re not just national dimensions in Iraq. Those regional dimensions also were predictable, let’s be quite frank about it, and I think they’re going to need to be managed with very, very great care.

PM: Is the answer as some suggest, the splitting of it into three regions with the main two combatants, the Shias and Sunnis, separated by borders?

AK: That’s really, I think, an issue where the leaders of the three communities have got to agree or not. In my life in the past 50 years, I have been uncomfortable with the creation of un-viable states. So I would ask the question if you did do that, what components of Iraq would be stable, viable states in the future.

PM: Who’s showing leadership in this world right now in terms of the major global issues? Who do you look to as a leader, whether it’s a political leader or not? Who’s showing leadership?

I think there are a number of people in the UN system who’ve shown leadership — who have shown balanced judgement on these issues…. And I think, amongst others, Kofi Annan has been remarkable in his understanding of the issues.

AK: I think there are a number of people in the UN system who’ve shown leadership — who have shown balanced judgement on these issues. Because when all is said and done, it’s the balance of the judgement that counts and it’s understanding the issues. And I think, amongst others, Kofi Annan has been remarkable in his understanding of the issues. He’s also had a team of people around him who are very good.

PM: That’s quite a condemnation of the political leaders of our generation that you don’t point to one of them no matter which side of the divide we talked of earlier. You don’t see one there?

AK: Well I’m looking more in terms of the regions of Africa, Central Asia, and I’m asking myself within these contexts, who’s having the greatest influence. And I think that certainly the UN, UNDP, I think the World Bank under Jim Wolfensohn changed direction very significantly and dealt with real human issues and has done a wonderful job. [Emphasis original]

PM: Some people suggest there’s been a movement away, in terms of real leadership, from governments to almost private foundations — philanthropic organisations — yours being one and the Gates Foundation, you can name a number … Bono the singer. Do you see that happening? Is that a good thing?

AK: I see it happening and I welcome it wholeheartedly because what we’re talking about, I think, is accelerating the construction of civil society. And I personally think that civil society is one of the most urgent things to build around the world because one of the phenomena you see today is — in a number of countries where the government has been unstable, etc. — progress has continued where there has been strong civil society. And that’s a lesson that I think all of us have to learn and my own network is immensely committed to that and so what the Gates [Foundation] and others are doing is providing new resources, new thoughts, to create civil society whether it’s in healthcare or education, it’s the combined input which is so exciting and so important. [Emphasis original]

PM: Well we’ll talk about your newest venture when we come back. One-on-one with the Aga Khan.

And we’re back for final thoughts with His Highness the Aga Khan.

PM: We talked earlier, just briefly touched, on the new Global Centre for Pluralism which will be established here in Canada through the Aga Khan Foundation and the people of Canada through the Government of Canada. What is your hope for that? What do you see that doing, accomplishing?

AK: Well, I hope that this Centre will learn from the Canadian history of pluralism, the bumpy road that all societies have in dealing with pluralist problems, the outcomes, and offer much of the world new thoughts, new ways of dealing with issues, anticipating the problems that can occur. Because in recent years I think we’re seeing, more and more around the world, that no matter what the nature of the conflict is ultimately there is a rejection of pluralism as one of the components. Whether it’s tribalism, whether it’s conflict amongst ethnic groups, whether it’s conflict amongst religions, the failure to see value in pluralism is a terrible liability.

PM: Why Canada?

Canada is a country that has invested in making this potential liability become an asset, and I think that Canada has been perhaps too humble in its own appreciation of this global asset. It’s a global asset.

AK: Because I think Canada is a country that has invested in making this potential liability become an asset, and I think that Canada has been perhaps too humble in its own appreciation of this global asset. It’s a global asset. And few countries, if any have been as successful as Canada has. Bumpy though the road is, and, as I said earlier, it’s always going to be an ongoing task. [Emphasis original]

PM: Next year is your Golden Jubilee, 50 years. What’s your — I was going to say what’s your dream for the world in that year but I guess dreams are dreams — what’s your realistic hope?

AK: Well clearly I would like to see the areas of the world [in] which [people] are living in horrible poverty, I’d like to see that replaced by an environment where people can live in more hope than they’ve had. I’d like to see governments that produce Enabling Environments where society can function and grow, rather than live in the dogmatism that we’ve all lived through which I think have been very constraining. And I’d like to see solid institution building because when all is said and done, societies need institutional capacity.

PM: Well those are grand hopes. I’m sure they’re shared by many. How realistic, do you think it is that we can achieve anything like that?

AK: I think we can achieve a lot of that. I think the time frame is what we don’t control. I remember in the mid-50s reading about countries in the Developing world being referred to as “basket cases”. Fifty years later those are some of the most powerful countries in the world. Enormous populations but they’re exporting food when 50 years ago we were told that they’d never be able to feed themselves. They had an incredible technology deficit 50 years ago; today they are exporting technology, home-grown technology. So I think there are a number of cases out there where we can say what we don’t control is the time factor, but society does have the capability to make those changes.

PM: So there is reason for hope?

AK: I believe so, God willing.

PM: It’s been an honour to talk to you.

AK: Thank you very much indeed, sir.

PM: Thank you.

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