Well if you ask yourself how an institution could be effective in terms of — as far as possible — ensuring security, ensuring the capacity to improve quality of life, then you have to ask yourself what does the institution need in order to achieve those goals? … Then the second thing was: “what did you need to make a difference?” And there the question was: “What could you do?” And the ’60s … the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s were decades of dogma in much of the developing world and it was a conflict of dogmas that we had to deal with between let’s say capitalism, as it was known at the time, and communism, as it was known at the time, and those dogmas tended to dominate political thinking and because of political thinking, they dominated economic thinking, social thinking, etcetera. So it was a time of great difficulty when developing countries were trying to find their way forward, and there were all sorts of, obviously, international interventions — or should I say interventions from outside — where these governments didn’t take independent decisions, they were often caused by others. So we looked at what we could do at that time in education, in healthcare, in economic support. We tried to build individual support systems according to the country we were involved in and this is what has caused the development network to become the way it is now … So the network today is the consequence of field driven needs. [Emphasis original]

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Interviewers: Martim Cabral and Nuno Rogerio

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Martim Cabral: [Introduction in Portugese].

His Highness the Aga Khan: … In fact it actually doesn’t correspond to that, and it’s a title that has become a name, but it’s only in the last four generations that it’s become a name.

Nuno Rogerio: Because we are talking to you as Aga Khan … the fourth Aga Khan, but you have a long history, a long tradition.

AK: A long history of succession of the Imamat.

NR: [It] goes to the Fatimid Empire. There are parts of that history are rather controversial. For example if we go to Alamut and to the kings of Alamut. Is there anything in the history that you find that should be renewed, that people should understand, or not?

AK: Not really. I think that the notion of what Hazrat Ali left, in terms of the interpretations of Islam, the interconnections between intellect and faith, these are all dimensions of Shia Islam which are very important.

In any hereditary office, there are times in history where it’s difficult to know precisely what has happened — whether it’s a monarchy or a faith institution — but I don’t think that’s the issue today. I think the issue today is what the institution is and what it is capable of doing, both for the people who are part of that institution and others.

NR: Do you see yourself … sometimes your title is also … I know that many Ismailis address you as the current Imam.

AK: Yes, the Imam of the time.

NR: Yes. Do you see yourself as a secular leader or as spiritual leader or both?

AK: Ah! Well you see you’re asking a question which comes from a non-Muslim background.

NR: Oh yes. Oh yes. Definitely.

AK: (Laughs) A [person of] Muslim background would not ask that question because in Islam that division doesn’t exist. Leaders of the faith, both in the Sunni world and in the Shia world, have worldly responsibilities which start with security, which involve quality of life, relations with others, so the notion of the divide between faith and world, in terms of the faith, doesn’t exist in Islam.

NR: (Laughing) Don’t forget that I’m speaking from the [inaudible] as a media observer, so I am not giving my opinions.

AK: (Laughing) No, no, no, no …

NR: I’m just addressing what people usually like to know about the role, as you know.

AK: Well, this is the inherited culture of the Judeo-Christian society, or Judeo-Christian societies. I’m just trying to indicate to you that ours is a different interpretation or interface …

NR: What do you think of the present discussion in Islam, of people that think that the faith — [the] Muslim faith — should be a personal faith and not something that should be directed by Imams, by mullahs. That [it] should be something between you and your Creator? There are some people that discuss that now.

Every individual is expected to use his intellect, his knowledge, to help him understand his faith — at least that is the way we interpret the faith.

AK: Yes, but I think that’s always going to be the case. Every individual is expected to use his intellect, his knowledge, to help him understand his faith — at least that is the way we interpret the faith. So I don’t see a conflict of any sort whatsoever. Obviously you can get back to the question of interpretation of the Qur’an, interpretation of the sunna, interpretation of the hadith, but that is as diversified in Islam as it is in the Christian world. In fact there’s probably more diversity in what we call the Ummah, which is the community of Muslims worldwide.

But when we talk about the Muslim world, the Muslim world is diverse as you said, but your institution, especially through the Aga Khan Network, does a lot for everyone regardless of being Shias, or Sunnis, or Ismailis or other … What is exactly the aim of the network?

AK: Well if you ask yourself how an institution could be effective in terms of — as far as possible — ensuring security, ensuring the capacity to improve quality of life, then you have to ask yourself what does the institution need in order to achieve those goals? And the Aga Khan Development Network works at two different levels: it works at the national or regional level — because no community lives in a vacuum and therefore the context in which you live and work is critical — and then there are the specific programmes for the community. And what we have done over the past 50 years is first of all to unify initiatives, because when my grandfather died it was the colonial time, and therefore there were different initiatives in each African country, the Central Asian republics were still part of the Soviet empire, West Africa was still colonised, Bangladesh didn’t exist as a independent country … I mean I don’t need to go into all the details. We brought all this information into one forum so that there was a possibility to have a consolidated view on education, on healthcare, on economic development, etcetera.

Then the second thing was: “what did you need to make a difference?” And there the question was: “What could you do?” And the ’60s … the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s were decades of dogma in much of the developing world and it was a conflict of dogmas that we had to deal with — between let’s say capitalism, as it was known at the time, and communism, as it was known at the time — and those dogmas tended to dominate political thinking and because of political thinking, they dominated economic thinking, social thinking, etcetera. So it was a time of great difficulty when developing countries were trying to find their way forward, and there were all sorts of, obviously, international interventions — or should I say interventions from outside — where these governments didn’t take independent decisions, they were often caused by others. So we looked at what we could do at that time in education, in healthcare, in economic support. We tried to build individual support systems according to the country we were involved in and this is what has caused the development network to become the way it is now where we have found that we needed institutions to deal with natural hazard and human caused hazard — risk. We found we needed institutions to deal with poverty. We found we needed institutions to deal with isolated, rural communities. We needed institutions to deal with education — pre-primary education right up to tertiary education. We needed institutions in healthcare, from public health to tertiary hospital care. And so on and so forth. We found we needed the capacity to diversify economies. There were parts of the developing world where we would achieve at a certain stage maximum agricultural output, but then we had to look at other things.

So the network today is the consequence of field driven needs. [Emphasis original]

NR: It’s curious because we talk about “development” “network” so it suggests, development: betterment. Make lesser things more evolved.

AK: Quality of life.

NR: And network: we mean something global. So in a sense you are anticipating globalisation in lots of ways.

[W]e’ve been looking at issues of regionalisation first because we started with the analysis of capacities in Africa, in Central Asia, etcetera to see whether we could develop capacities only on a national basis, or whether we had to do it on a regional basis. We concluded that we had to do both.

AK: Yes we have. Yes we have. We’ve been looking at issues of globalisation and we’ve been looking at issues of regionalisation first because we started with the analysis of capacities in Africa, in Central Asia, etcetera to see whether we could develop capacities only on a national basis, or whether we had to do it on a regional basis. We concluded that we had to do both. Some institutions had to be regional to be most effective, some had to be national. So we’re working at both levels. Now to say that that ultimately is a global issue may not be correct. I don’t see too many similarities between developing countries in Asia and Africa and the wealthy industrialised world.

NR: It seems that in the ’70s — so lets say less than 20 years after you took possession of the title …

AK: Of the Imamat, yes.

NR: … lots of Ismailis were expelled from Uganda, from Kenya, from Burma, from lots of places and it’s curious that you returned to Africa and you helped all those countries develop.

What caused the differences between what happened to those communities [expelled from Uganda] was the nationality they adopted at the time of independence. At the time of independence the British government gave a choice between keeping the national passport and getting a Ugandan passport. We opted, in majority, for a Ugandan passport.

AK: Well first of all, with regard to Uganda, all Asians were expelled and it didn’t matter whether they were nationals, whether they were not nationals. It didn’t matter whether they were Hindu, or Sikh, or Muslim or Christian. The fact was that anybody who was an Asian was thrown out by Idi Amin. What caused the differences between what happened to those communities was the nationality they adopted at the time of independence. At the time of independence the British government gave a choice between keeping the national passport and getting a Ugandan passport. We opted, in majority, for a Ugandan passport. Any how, these communities left. There was no expulsion from Kenya. On the contrary Kenya was extremely helpful during that crisis. There was no expulsion from Tanzania. On the other hand, there was nationalisation of the economy in Tanzania. So that caused another disruption, obviously. So what has happened, is that these communities have left, in part, but when new governments came into power, the first thing they did was [say] “Please come back and help us correct what we got wrong.” (Laughing)

NR: And you got back and you helped create amazing things. I was in Cairo recently and for instance your network of institutions in Egypt is amazing … from basic to higher industry. Is part of this also present [sic] when you celebrate [signing] agreements with the Catholic University in Portugal?

AK: Yes. Yes. What we’re trying to do is to harness knowledge because we are living in a knowledge society today, more than ever before. There is more knowledge available to society than in human history, I think. And the question is how we harness that knowledge to development processes in poorer countries. And so higher education — particularly institutions that have good research — are critical for us. In addition to which we are very, very eager to develop what I would call a cosmopolitan ethic. That notion of cosmopolitan ethic, in our view, is critical for the future in most of the countries where we are working. And that goes across faith organisations and others.

NR: As you know — let’s not avoid — we talking [sic] about the things where no one has anything to say. But there are also thorny issues, as you know. If I go, for instance, today to Tehran and if I ask some religious leaders there or political leaders about you they would say you are a heretic.

AK: I’ve never heard that from the Iranians, on the contrary we have talked to the Iranians for many, many years. All the community practises its faith in an open manner with the support of the Iranian government, so … Yes, there are differences between twelver Shia and sevener Shia, but that’s the difference. It’s not specifically from twelver Shia to the Ismailis, it’s twelver Shia to all the sevener Shia.

NR: Tell me one thing. When you talk about the present state of affairs — you travel a lot, you talk to all kinds of people — are you worried with the so called Clash of Civilisations scenario and do you think you could do something to contradict that scenario?

I’m very worried. I don’t think since 1957 I have been ever as worried as I am today. I think we are in a genuinely very, very serious situation indeed and I don’t think it’s Clash of Civilisations, I think it’s a Clash of Ignorance.

AK: I’m very worried. I don’t think since 1957 I have been ever as worried as I am today. I think we are in a genuinely very, very serious situation indeed and I don’t think it’s Clash of Civilisations, I think it’s a Clash of Ignorance. I think many of the decisions that have been taken would not have been taken if there had been better understanding in various parts of the world about the differences which exist and what would be the consequences of actions because it’s inability to predict the outcomes which is causing the problem at the present time. And that’s why I say it’s a conflict of ignorance. [Emphasis original]

NR: Do you think that the war that exists [sic] during most of your life time, as Aga Khan from ’57, the Cold War, which was a war of ideologies, is being substituted by another war, where also ideologies are present but under new guises and new names, or this is a different kind of conflict?

AK: It’s a completely different kind of context. When my grandfather died, the main issues were decolonisation: the freedom of countries from colonialism was the critical issue or the freedom of countries within the Soviet Empire, those were the two key issues. Today I don’t think we have that sort of issue at all. I think what we have is a number of political crises which are political in origin and on which faith issues have come on top, but they were not the cause of the issues and that’s why I say we have to deal with the political issues first.

NR: When we talk to Muslim leaders, Christian leaders, Jewish leaders, they all recognise they are part, in some way, of the same civilisation or inheritance — they have a book, they have a revealed religion, the core values are more or less the same, they are monotheistic, they are more or less the same: no one wants to kill, “Thou shalt not kill” should be … — but still these three religions that look like sisters are seen as enemies. What has happened?

AK: You see I find it very risky to say that the religions are in conflict. I don’t share that view.

NR: But there is that the image.

AK: That’s an incorrect image. The reality is you have a series of political situations which either are historic or they are recent and they have become explosive. And having become explosive, as political issues, you have a faith dimension attached to them and this has been true in Northern Ireland, which was a political issue in the first instance. You’ve had these issues in other countries where they are political. The Middle East issue goes back to 1917 and it was a political issue. Kashmir was a political issue in the decolonisation of India. So I think it’s very, very dangerous to say the faiths are in conflict. First of all, the faiths themselves have such multiplicity that you can’t talk about one faith …

NR: A monolith.

AK: … being in conflict with the other. That’s simply not true. What you can say is that there are various components of a given faith which are having difficulties, whether it’s in the Christian world or the Muslim world. That’s part of life. But that you should claim that the faiths, the essence of the faiths, are in conflict — I will not accept that.

NR: When people talk about [the] Aga Khan Network, they usually relate it to a physical place which is Pakistan — I’m talking about the current viewer from the street. Do you see the Network as having a special relationship with Pakistan?

The Imamat as an institution has to be equitable to all the communities around the world …

AK: No. Not at all. Not at all. The Imamat as an institution has to be equitable to all the communities around the world but the Imamat as institution cannot be responsible for internal situations which it doesn’t control, and therefore what we have to do, in terms of institutional response, is adapt to whatever situation we find. And certain situations are more enabling than others, and they change in time. You were mentioning Africa. Africa is a typical case of change, where these countries have gone through different regimes and they have come back now to a situation where they want pluralism, they want human knowledge, they want entrepreneurship and they can’t get from within their frontiers alone. They have to look outside.

NR: As a spiritual leader, do you think that the world — with all the technological advances, that you are also promoting — is getting cleverer and more smart or becoming more stupid (laughs)?

AK: (Laughs) That’s a very difficult question to answer.

NR: Or it depends where you are looking at.

AK: I really wouldn’t be able to give you a generic answer about that sort of thing.

NR: But do you think we will live together today better, in a spiritual sense, than we lived in ’57?

AK: I think there is more freedom to believe than there used to be, and that freedom is very important. I think there is more freedom to manage your own destiny — manage your own economic destiny or professional destiny — than there was in those times and that’s largely due to decolonisation, the collapse of the Soviet Union, etcetera. So in that sense, I think, there is more flexibility than there used to be and that flexibility carries risk and opportunity. If the flexibility goes the wrong way, you’re in the domain of risk, if it goes the right way, you have the domain of opportunity.

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