Your Highness, is there a message that you would like to leave the Syrian people?

Well first of all, the respect and admiration that I have for Syria in its historic role within the Ummah. Secondly the notion that progress does not mean occidentalisation. Progress in the Ummah means moving forward in quality of life, but not giving up your identity, not giving up your value systems. Indeed our values systems are massively important for the future. [Emphasis original]

Interviewer: Reem Haddad

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Reem Haddad: Your Highness thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to interview you. Now the Aga Khan Network has done work all over the world and what’s the idea behind this work?

His Highness the Aga Khan: Well I think the nature of the role that I have requires me to look not only at issues of faith but at issues of quality of life and therefore the Aga Khan Development Network was an attempt to create capacity to improve quality of life of the peoples in the countries where we work. And it’s a system of agencies — it’s not one agency — because as time has gone by we’ve found different needs and therefore we’ve tried to be field driven so that we have a network of agencies which can work together in any relationship as is required. Whether it’s a post-conflict relationship, whether it’s a post-colonial relationship, whether it’s countries that are coming into a federal relationship, we have to adapt the relationship to the agencies to each circumstance. So that’s one aspect. [Emphasis original]

RH: So, Your Highness, when you speak about quality of life, does that mean you’re actually choos[ing] a place where people are not living very well and you try and give them something better?

AK: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. We are field driven and we look at parts of Asia and Africa where we hope we can be effective, where the Network can come together. And one other characteristic of the Network is that it’s not a banking system in the sense that the Network commits and commits without time limit to the processes of change. Most development agencies have a different way of working — they lend money and then they … [Emphasis original]

RH: That’s right and for a period of time only.

AK: Yes, exactly … whereas we don’t work in a set time-frame. Sometimes the problems or the need to create change will take 15 or 20 years and then you have to create institutions that will do that work.

RH: Right. Well we’re just in front of the citadel of Aleppo. Why did you choose the Aleppo Citadel to do your project?

Well what has worried me, frankly, is that one of the downsides — at least from my point of view — of globalisation is the disappearance of identity and I think disappearance of identity is very dangerous and I was worried that we would suffer disappearance of identity within the Ummah.

AK: Well what has worried me, frankly, is that one of the downsides — at least from my point of view — of globalisation is the disappearance of identity and I think disappearance of identity is very dangerous and I was worried that we would suffer disappearance of identity within the Ummah. And, therefore, in trying to enhance the pluralism of the identities of the Muslim world, it seemed important for us, amongst other things, to enhance the value of cultural assets that have come to us from history, but use them also as a trampoline so that people in the Ummah become creative in their own terminology, in their own value system, with their own symbols, and therefore we’re working not only in looking at the past, but we’re also trying to work with young people in various areas — just tell to them “Create according to your own value system.” You don’t have to have to copy other people’s value systems. Modernisation does not mean occidentalisation. [Emphasis original]

RH: That’s right. And usually the copies are just quite bad copies …

AK: Yes. Yes.

RH: … that have no significance in this area of the world.

AK: Yes. Yes.

Well one of the things we found which was absolutely amazing when I started the Award for Architecture, [was when] we looked at the schools of architecture in the Islamic world — and it just sounds unbelievable but it is true — there was not one single professor who had been educated in the Islamic world about Islamic history and art. They were all formed in Western schools of architecture. (Laughs)

RH: [Inaudible]

AK: It’s stunning.

RH: It’s absolutely when we have something like that (pointing at the Citadel). Can we talk a little bit about your project for the Azhar Park?

AK: Yes. Yes.

RH: Just to move from Aleppo to the Azhar Park.

AK: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Well in looking at this issue of enhancement of cultural assets and bringing them forward, one of the biggest challenges — which the Western world has addressed [but] which we have to address — is whether we are moving these assets forwards with resources that become productive for society, because they have to become productive. And what we were able to do with the Azhar park, was we were able to use the creation of the park as a trampoline for social change in Darb al-Ahmar. And there are about two hundred thousand people — ultra poor people — who live in Darb al-Ahmar and so the notion of making significant commitments to cultural assets is to not only enhance them but enhance their role in economic and social development of the populations that live around. We think that around this project [the Citadel in Aleppo] there are about a hundred thousand people who will be impacted by the economic outfall and the social outfall of what we do here.

RH: And in [inaudible] seeing work all over the world, basically, it seems to be a continuing effort. I’m not talking only about the work of the Network, but in a larger and more historical sense, you continue work that began a thousand years ago. Like in Cairo what was built by the Fatimid caliph and you came a thousand years later to beautify it. Is this a trend that you follow?

AK: In a certain extent it’s a trend because essentially we’re working in Asia and Africa. We’re working in countries where we’ve had a long established relationship or where there is a new relationship which is important and it can be partially driven by the presence of the Ismaili community, but it can also be driven by regional constructs. Central Asia has regional construct which is moving forwards. Eastern Africa has a regional construct.

RH: You have projects in Central Asia?

AK: Oh yes, very much so. In Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan.

RH: OK! Oh right. OK. So you believe in public-private cooperation?

I think today there are some areas of development which have to be dealt with at the national level by the government. There are other areas which are best handled by private initiative and not necessarily initiative for profit, just private initiative — civil society. And the two really have to work together to be effective …

AK: Very much so. Very much so. I think we lived through the 60’s and the 70’s in a conflict of dogmas and that paralysed a lot of processes. And I think today there are some areas of development which have to be dealt with at the national level by the government. There are other areas which are best handled by private initiative and not necessarily initiative for profit, just private initiative — civil society. And the two really have to work together to be effective and so I very much encourage the notion of dialogue, public-private discussion. I think it’s highly important. The notions of conflict between the private sector and the public sector is something I hope will never, never come up again. [Emphasis original]

RH: Would you say it’s difficult to actually find that point where both parties are happy?

AK: I think it is. I think it is a question of will and then it has to be adapted to each type of situation because it’s going to be different if it is in the economic sector, or the cultural sector.

RH: And talking of the economic sector, you’ve already got a micro-finance programme in Syria and soon you’re going to be launching the first micro-finance institute in Syria. How do you view the role of micro-finance in society?

AK: Our involvement in micro-finance started in rural development because what we found was that by using micro-finance in rural environments we were able to give village communities financial resources that they could use for their own development. And then we found that this whole area of micro-finance — which in simple terms is lending on trust — is an extraordinarily powerful way to support poor people in many, many different ways because it can be for education, it can be for healthcare, it can be for cultural rehabilitation, it can be for commerce — there are practically no limits because there is no notion of pledging assets. [Emphasis original]

RH: Oh right.

AK: You see? So it’s a question of trust between the institution and the individual or families or whatever it may be.

RH: And you must have had many success stories out of this?

AK: I think of it as one of the most powerful and least developed instruments to deal with poverty and I think that we’ll be able to move from micro-finance into micro-insurance. I’m hoping that one day we’ll be able to say to thousands of poor families, “Come together in a common program and we’ll find ways so that you can finance the education of your children, protect yourselves from ill health, and …” At the moment poverty is such a massive force of destabilisation, of lack of hope, that’s it’s affecting millions and millions and millions of people. One of the domains of that is lack of access. You see very often poverty is thought of in material terms. It’s not. [Emphasis original]

RH: No it isn’t.

AK: No. Poverty is lack of access to quality of life.

RH: That’s right.

AK: And anything you can do to change that really has a massive impact.

RH: Sort of enlightening. That’s enlightening [inaudible]. Absolutely. In your opinion can architecture be a way of expressing Islamic culture?

AK: It has been since centuries and centuries and that’s not specific to the Islamic world. Architecture has been often expressions of faith, it has been expressions of ambition, it has been expressions of power, it has been expressions of hope. It’s very interesting in the sense that it’s the only art form that affects quality of life. It is the only one. There’s no other one. And people when they have a beginning of improvement of quality of life the first thing, or one of the first things they do, is to improve their housing. So that sort of momentum towards improving the physical environment is part of human society.

RH: But do you think, actually, that now Islamic architecture is not to the forefront as it was before?

AK: Well, as I said earlier, I think we tended to go away from our roots and we have to come back to our roots so that the relationship, for example, of space to place, the symbols of Islamic architecture … there are enormous numbers of factors which influence our environment: construction materials, land values. And what we, I think, need to do, is to try to make sure that, for example, public spaces — which have always been a very powerful element of our environment, and indeed the Qur’an itself refers to our duty to pass on an improved quality of environment … and so public spaces are important. Water is a symbol … [Emphasis original]

RH: Water is a big problem actually.

AK: … is a big problem. The height of the minarets is a very important issue. And so these are the sorts of things that we need to remember, to reflect upon.

RH: Does the Aga Khan Network do anything in the way of promoting Islamic architecture on an individual level, lets set aside big projects like the one [,the Citadel of Aleppo,] behind us?

The historic city is, generally speaking, a concentration of the ultra-poor. There are many factors that cause that. So if you impact a historic city, you’re first of all impacting the quality of life of the ultra poor …

AK: Yes. Well, when I started the Award for Architecture, we had a number of seminars in the Muslim world and many of the architectural communities and the building communities said to us, “Fine, we understand the problem. We like the way you’re approaching it because it has to have a multiple approach, but let’s get away from dialogue and move into action. Show us, don’t only talk to us.” (Laughing) So we then entered into two areas, one was education — where I created this programme at Harvard and MIT in Islamic architecture to train younger generations — and the second thing we did was we looked at specific situations, which was, essentially, the historic city. And the historic city is a development process, not only a cultural process. The historic city is, generally speaking, a concentration of the ultra-poor. There are many factors that cause that. So if you impact a historic city, you’re first of all impacting the quality of life of the ultra poor, then you’re reviving a cultural asset, then you’re learning what has caused the degradation of the environment and what you can do to stop that happening elsewhere. So there are many lessons there.

RH: In your speech at the opening of the citadels yesterday, you spoke about the Ummah, and you spoke with a lot of nostalgia, I thought. How do you feel about that, about the fact that a lot of the cities — as you said one third of the cities listed in UNESCO actually are from the Ummah — and now they are not in a very good condition?

AK: Well I think there are number of factors that the Muslim world and others don’t control. One is the phenomenon of urbanisation. That is a process. You can slow it up, but you probably can’t stop it. So one of the features of slowing down the urbanisation process is improving the quality of life for the rural environments. In most of our countries the populations are between 70% and 80% rural. In industrialised societies, 1 1/2% of the population produces a 100% of the agricultural output. So I think that what we have to try and do is accept the notion of urbanisation, but do it in such a way that we improve the quality of the urban environment and in our societies the open space has always been a major feature, particularly of high profile monuments. So when you talk about the citadels, when you talk about mausolea, you talk about mosques, very often they are extraordinary environments. And just one typical example, is the Taj Mahal.

RH: That’s right. That’s right. That’s an amazing place.

AK: It’s an amazing place and that is also taking symbolism from the Qur’an that has been translated into the concept of the space around.

RH: You were saying in one of your speeches that you have to look back in order for us to look forwards and how does your work rejuvenate Islam and help Muslims face the modern challenges that now they are facing?

AK: Well I think first of all we need to — I don’t mean to be pretentious — but our history within the Ummah is massively pluralist and I think the first thing we need to do is recognise the incredible value of that pluralism.

RH: It’s a very important point for all of us in Islam which people don’t really speak about.

I don’t want to see a situation — which I’ve seen or see in other parts of the world — where faith becomes something which you access on certain opportunities …

AK: Well, because our history, our peoples are pluralist we benefit from the talents of all these peoples, all their histories, but in order to do that we have to accept that within the Ummah there are differences. But that’s the same of any society, Christian societies and others. So pluralism to me seems to be very important. The second thing that’s important is social values. Because in Islam the relationship between deen and duniya is different than in the Christian world, the ethics of Islam impact everyday life and we have to try and keep that as a fundamental value of the Islamic world. I don’t want to see a situation — which I’ve seen or I see in other parts of the world — where faith becomes something which you access on certain opportunities and … [Emphasis original]

RH: When you choose, when it serves you best.

AK: … when you choose. Exactly.

RH: When it serves you best. Absolutely. You speak a lot about the Clash of Ignorance, and that seems to be a much, much better way of describing the Clash of Civilisations …

AK: Yes.

RH: Can you just elaborate?

AK: Well I think that if you look at modern education — modern education has been driven in the last centuries essentially by the Judeo-Christian societies — and because it has been driven by Judeo-Christian societies, the presence of the Islamic world and our history, our philosophy, in the knowledge base that is coming from the Western societies is not there. We’re absent. And being absent causes an enormous vacuum of understanding, of appreciation, of respect, and I think it’s up to us to now make a much greater effort to illustrate the extraordinary history that we have. The fact that we accept pluralism, the fact that we have great philosophers … [Emphasis original]

RH: How can we improve that though? It seems to be such a difficult job.

AK: Yes, it’s difficult because we’re moving against long established historic trends, but that’s not a good enough reason not to do it.

RH: I want to talk a little bit about Syria. You do a lot of work with Syria and you speak about the speciality of Syria. You say Syria is a special place. Can you tell me more about that?

AK: (Laughs) Well, my academic studies were in Islamic history, as you probably know, and when Islam expanded out of Arabia, one of it’s first areas of interfacing with non-Muslim societies was in Syria and it was the first contact between the Muslim world and an established Judeo-Christian society. And it resulted in enormous quality of life and even, at times, theological partnerships — for example, in the areas of mysticism, etcetera — because at that time it was the East Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire. So historically Syria was one of the very earliest situations in which Islam came into contact with non-Islamic established societies, so it’s one of our earliest case studies.

RH: How did your visit go and how was your meeting with the President?

AK: Well I would like to take this occasion to thank the President, the First Lady, the Prime Minister, the Government for the wonderful support they’ve given us to work in Syria. I hope that AKDN will be one of the contributors towards progress in Syria. And …

RH: Do you have any future projects in Syria?

AK: Oh very much so.

RH: Can you just tell me briefly?

AK: Yes, yes certainly. What we want to do — because the nature of the Aga Khan Development Network is a multi-input system — we would like to impact areas of Syrian development, not just one. And therefore, we’re looking at support in education, we’re looking at support in health-care, we’re looking at support in economic development, we’re looking at support in cultural development, so the agreement we had in 2001 established the relationship which gave us that potential, and now we’re looking at a rehabilitation of this whole area around the Citadel, we’re looking at expanding micro-…

RH: So it could be new housing and things like that?

AK: Well first we’ll continue to work on the Citadel, then we will be working on the public spaces around the Citadel, then we’ll be working on the conversation into a hotel in the area. We’re going to develop an extraordinary set of buildings in Damascus — historic houses — into a boutique hotel and …

RH: That would be in Old Damascus?

I think that reviving culture is a way of illustrating your history to people who don’t know about it.

AK: In Old Damascus. And there, for example, the goal is to teach foreign visitors about our culture. I think that reviving culture is a way of illustrating your history to people who don’t know about it. And so that’s what we’ll be doing. We’ll be extending micro-credit massively and developing new areas, collaborating with some of the First Lady’s initiatives also. So that’s also what we’re going to be doing.

RH: And just at the end, Your Highness, is there a message that you would like to leave the Syrian people?

AK: (Laughs) Well first of all, the respect and admiration that I have for Syria in its historic role within the Ummah. Secondly the notion that progress does not mean occidentalisation. Progress in the Ummah means moving forwards in quality of life, but not giving up your identity, not giving up your value systems. Indeed our value systems are massively important for the future. [Emphasis original]

RH: Thank you very much.

AK: You’re welcome. Thank you. Thank you.

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