Globe and Mail Interview (4th), John Stackhouse, ‘The Aga Khan’s world view’ (Toronto, Canada)
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[M]y sense is we are looking to the future for a massive increase in nuclear use around the world. To me, that’s on the cards. And it’s on the cards in the industrialised world, it’s on the cards in the Third World…. (1)
I think we have to make the intellectual effort to jump ahead of that issue and ten or 15 years from now, many, many countries will have to go to nuclear energy, they don’t have an alternative.
I think [Canada] should encourage the introduction of nuclear capacity. It should be part of the global process. I don’t see how these countries can industrialise themselves without that.
Interviewer: John Stackhouse, Editor-in-Chief
The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims and renowned philanthropist, spoke to The Globe and Mail Friday in a conversation that ranged from the prospects for Afghanistan to his profound admiration of Canadian pluralism.
On the day he received honorary Canadian citizenship, the Aga Khan urged the West to remain in Afghanistan for as long as necessary to achieve stability, and said he hoped Canada would continue to provide development aid after its military commitment expires in 2011. He offered one criticism of NATO’s plan, however, saying efforts should be concentrated on professionalising the Afghan police, rather than the Afghan army, where NATO has focused its training.
The Aga Khan, who traces his ancestry directly to the prophet Muhammad, is seen as one of the Muslim leaders most closely engaged with the West. His foundation carries out development work in areas such as education and health care in Africa and Central Asia.
The following is a full transcript of that conversation.
John Stackhouse: I interviewed you, if you’ll recall, in 2002, and I was reading through the interview and thinking how the world has changed since 2002. That was when you made some very interesting comments about Canadian pluralism, and you referred to Canada as a model for the world. We wanted to start by asking how Canada, well the world, changed. The BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India and China] countries are more influential. I don’t think anyone knew the term “BRIC” in 2002. The world has different models, perhaps, than in 2002 and I’m curious how you see Canada’s place in the world being different today than then and how the world has changed as well.
I think one of the key issues is this question of the future, regionalism. I think we’re seeing regionalism becoming a more and more international factor in the way countries relate to each other.
His Highness the Aga Khan: Well, I think one of the key issues is this question of the future, regionalism. I think we’re seeing regionalism becoming a more and more international factor in the way countries relate to each other. I would give you the East African community as one example of countries that in the past were part of a colonial system. Not all five of them, one wasn’t part of it. But today you have five African countries you’ll [sic] see their national interest to enter into a constructive group, particularly economic and social, and they’re working towards that. So I think that’s one phenomenon we will see more and more of, and I think the European communities can be … So I think we’re seeing that as a phenomenon.
So one of the questions facing Canada is going to be: What is Canada’s new position in relation to these wider groupings? You always had this intimate relationship with the United States, but I think that Canada has so many assets to offer — which it doesn’t always recognise — that it will be welcome in a number of these constructs in one form or the other. So I think you have enormous international opportunity and it’s really for you to take what you want to take.
JS: Does Canada still have the same relevance, especially in areas like East Africa, as we had a decade ago?
AK: I would say more than ever before. And the reason is that you are still today, in my view, the case study of a pluralist society. And if you look around the world, at least the world I work in, you can see how these stresses and strains are causing havoc today as they caused havoc ten years ago. Look at what’s happening in Kyrgyzstan, look at what happened in Kenya, you see these issues coming out all the time, all the time. They’re not going away. And I think that Canada still has a very, very important role in trying to, in a sense, show that this is always going to be a work in progress. There’s not a definitive solution. It’s always going to be a work in progress. But the methodologies that have been used in Canada to achieve the outcome I think are very, very important indeed. And I’m not seeing that happening in very many countries today. I’m seeing on the contrary the division of communities: linguistic, religious, ethnic, tribal. And so in that sense, Canada remains a very important example.
I think in the other area, relationship between what I would call the state economy, is another critical issue that Europe is trying to deal with that many developing countries are trying to deal with … and finding the correct balance is, I think, something which is ahead of us. It’s not solved. I don’t think Europe has found the answers. I don’t think south of Canada either has the answers. So that’s another major state issue that all the countries that I’m working in are going to be working on. They have to come to grips with that.
JS: It’s interesting that you raise Africa and suggest that Canada is more relevant than ever, yet we’ve cut our aid to Africa rather significantly in the last couple of years. Does that change Canada’s image?
AK: I hope not. I’m not aware of that perception frankly. I think what happens probably is Canada, at the time of, let’s say, economic review, decided that they were better off concentrating on certain areas of the world, and that decision I assume is reversible. So I’m assuming if that is a policy taken at a given time in given circumstances, it’s not a permanent policy. I think that, for example, in the case of Afghanistan I believe that even if the troops leave in 2011, your aid to Afghanistan will remain a significant part of your international commitments. So I consider that, if I may express an opinion, a very, very wise decision. Because my experience has been that you don’t build stability in two years. It takes a long time.
JS: How long would you suggest for Afghanistan, because this is a very troubling question for a lot Canadians who have seen a lot of Canadian money spent, but more importantly, many Canadian lives lost in Afghanistan, and I think collectively we’re wondering: Have we done the right thing, and what should we be doing in the future?
[In Afghanistan] you cause those areas to look to the rest of the country, which is stabilised, which is moving forwards, and sooner or later somebody is going to say, “that’s the better option for us.” … [W]ord of mouth is an amazing force, you know? And it’s so basic. It’s, “Who has water? Who has energy? Who has communications? Who has stable crops?”
AK: Well, Afghanistan, I think, at the moment is a bit of a patchwork situation, where you have areas of the country which are effectively moving forwards with the reconstruction of civil society, with local capacity taking all of international support and all that sort of thing. And you have other areas where there’s absolutely no progress of that sort whatsoever. So I think at this stage, the key issue it to try to create a majority of situations in the country which are actually moving forwards. That is, you shrink the area of problems and instability and you cause those areas to look to the rest of the country, which is stabilised, which is moving forwards, and sooner or later somebody is going to say, “that’s the better option for us.”
JS: Who’s going to say that in Afghanistan? Because it’s such a decentralised society.
AK: It’s true, but in Afghanistan, like other countries in Asia and other countries in Africa and even Europe, people look over their shoulders and ask, “Is the grass greener next door?” And they’re constantly making comparisons. And word of mouth is an amazing force, you know? And it’s so basic. It’s, “Who has water? Who has energy? Who has communications? Who has stable crops?” You know, those are the things that really count in those environments.
JS: Security, of course, is also important and right now NATO forces are providing a lot of the security. Do you think that should continue?
My hope, frankly, is that more effort will be put into the police rather than the military. Because I think civil society functions better with the police than it functions with the military. And if you want to build a civil society, you build it with police. I may be wrong, but I think that’s a critical issue…. The process of rehabilitation, I think, should be regulated by national police, not by the army. The army should only be called in if the situation gets out of hand.
JS: How long?
AK: Until the Afghan country or the Afghan state has the capacity to underwrite security. My hope, frankly, is that more effort will be put into the police rather than the military.
JS: Why’s that?
AK: Because I think civil society functions better with the police than it functions with the military. And if you want to build a civil society, you build it with police. I may be wrong, but I think that’s a critical issue.
JS: Stephen [Northfield] is our foreign editor and manages all of our reporters in Afghanistan — fortunately we have not lost any as other media have.
Stephen Northfield: I wonder too — there’s the perception that Western troops in Muslim countries have been a constant source of strain, and a source of propaganda, for the side of the equation that wants to force the issue. Is it possible to have a constructive outcome where Western troops are working in Muslim countries like Afghanistan? Is it wrong-headed from its conception?
AK: That’s really a case-by-case issue, I wouldn’t generalise on that, you know. But I think most countries that I know like to have their own army under their own command. I think the same is true, they need effective police. The process of rehabilitation, I think, should be regulated by national police, not by the army. The army should only be called in if the situation gets out of hand. But in normal daily life, that is where I think the presence of the police and the competence of the police is very, very important indeed. Now there are all sorts of caveats to that. It’s not easy. Because they have to be trained, they have to be equipped, they have to know how to handle certain things. And Afghanistan doesn’t have that today.
JS: You started off talking about the emergence of regionalism in the world, and I wonder about the region around Afghanistan, which has not been a constructive player for that country. Is there any indication of that changing in your view?
AK: Yes. very definitely.
JS: Where do you see that?
AK: Well, I think that to the north, Tajikistan has for a long time been a relatively stable neighbour with the interests of Afghanistan well understood and there hasn’t been any form of disruption there. I think the situation between Pakistan and Afghanistan is in the process of changing. And it’s changing slowly, but it is changing. And because it’s changing there is a greater commonality of view about the future. Now for a long time that has been impacted by Indo-Pakistani relations. And I think that issue, if it can be kept under control, could facilitate a new relationship between the government in Pakistan and the government in Afghanistan. At the present time, the critical issue is the army in Pakistan, and what they intend to do in Waziristan, etc. The stabilisation of Western Pakistan is a critical issue. What I think very often is misunderstood is that this has historically been an area out of control. At the end of the British Empire, the tribal areas were called the tribal areas, and they remain being called the tribal areas. And they were tribal areas, have been tribal areas. So central authority has no tradition there. There’s no history of central authority.
JS: But you see that changing?
JS: Do you believe the people of, say, Waziristan are starting to appreciate central authority?
AK: Appreciate might be too strong a word. [laughter]
AK: I think the reintegration of areas of countries like Pakistan after — 1947 to 2010, what’s that, over 50 years? — reintegrating areas which have not been under control after 50 or 60 years of quasi-autonomy is pretty tough going. And it’s not an Asian phenomenon, this is true of Africa also.
JS: What elements are needed to make that progress further, that process of reintegration?
AK: I would say security, civil society, and a meritocratic approach to development, particularly in regard to human resources, because those three elements brought together could underwrite a continuous process of change.
JS: Do you have a problem with legitimacy though? I think there’s a similar problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan that outside the capitals and outside of the larger urban centres in Pakistan, there’s very little sense in sort of recognition of the federal voice. How do you create that sense of sort of integration if it doesn’t exist? In the remote areas of Afghanistan, the capital is completely irrelevant.
It’s amazing, the capacities of small communities to organise themselves. They know their priorities. It’s not Kabul that’s going to tell them this is the water distribution you need … And we certainly found that the whole development process is accelerated massively when small communities have one or two young educated people who are going to run with the endeavour.
AK: You’re absolutely right, and I think that is a major liability. But it’s also an opportunity. If civil society starts building itself locally, people look to the local society. In the regions in Northern Afghanistan, they don’t know what’s going on in Kabul. They know a great deal more about what’s happening across the river in Tajikistan than what’s happening in Kabul — but that’s the whole problem of developing areas outside the cities of Asia and Africa. That’s a long-standing problem. We’ve seen it for decades in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. So you’re right, it’s starting from a very, very low base. But you have to start that initiative, you have to sustain it, and if you have the capacities to sustain it, it will take off. It’s amazing, the capacities of small communities to organise themselves. They know their priorities. It’s not Kabul that’s going to tell them this is the water distribution you need, this is the distribution of schools you need, or these are the markets you need to get to with your goods. It doesn’t happen that way.
JS: You mentioned meritocratic development. Can you expand on that please?
AK: Well, I think in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, areas of Pakistan also, many areas throughout the developing world, the competence of younger generations is an absolutely essential issue. If you can harness that competence and you have competent younger generations, they will underwrite the processes of change. If you don’t have educated youth, then you will have nothing to work with. You have to try to change older generations’ attitudes, you have to try to teach them new knowledge. And we certainly found that the whole development process is accelerated massively when small communities have one or two young educated people who are going to run with the endeavour. These are not necessarily big communities either.
JS: Does that include girls?
AK: Yes, without any doubt.
JS: But there’s some resistance to that in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
AK: It is so in many, many countries, and it’s not only the Islamic world. You have to be careful. We’ve experimented with that, and if you accelerate women’s education ahead of men’s education you create an imbalance in the local community. It’s a very strange phenomenon. But the traditional social relations are so strong that the educated girl opposite the uneducated boy is an equation for disaster.
[S]ometimes outside various parts of the world [social relations, family relations, relations between generations} are looked at rather simplistically, … [A]ny massive disequilibrium between the quality of women’s education and the quality of boy’s education is very, very undesirable.
JS: How does that manifest itself?
AK: You know, sometimes outside various parts of the world these things are looked at rather simplistically, but unless you’ve really lived them and experienced the outcome you get things wrong. So any massive disequilibrium between the quality of women’s education and the quality of boy’s education is very, very undesirable.
JS: How do you insert yourself in that without seeming to just support the old patriarchal systems that have initiated those cultures? That would be a very difficult balance.
AK: I think the first question is: Who is the provider of the boys’ education and who is the provider of the girls’ education. Because ultimately, you have to work with the providers. And in most cases it’s either the provincial governments or the national ministry or the central government, so you need to make sure this process of education is not gender specific. If it is gender specific, its automatically a cause of problems.
Stephen Northfield: John mentioned the 2002 interview at the beginning and I read it as well, and I was struck at the time at the very fraught time in the wake of the 9/11 attack and your sense of discomfort with the way Muslims were being generalised about, generally speaking, but even at some of the higher political levels. Many years have passed since then and so I was curious generally: that relationship between and the reverberations of those events, how have you seen the development and the change in the relationship generally between the Muslim world and other parts of the West? And specifically, I was wondering how much hope you place in [U.S. President Barack] Obama, who is obviously a totally new character who hence made at least overtures to try to correct a situation that created so many problems …
AK: As I told you in 2002, I don’t like working in generalisations, and I don’t think the Islamic world is a part of the world that should be generalised about. I think situations are totally different, for example, even within the Arab world, between the … Gulf states, or the historic states of Iraq and Syria, etc. I think what President Obama did was first of all address a generic message to what we call the Ummah, that is, the constituency of Muslim communities around the world, to say: If you have the impression that the United States has a central policy which is anti-Muslim, forget it, because that’s unbelievable. I think that message started a process of rethinking of the Islamic world, because it came from a man who has knowledge of the Islamic world … so that I think levied a basic premise. I don’t think it changed everything around the Muslim world, but it struck a new beginning.
In that sense, I think it sent a very strong message, because it said we want to do things differently. Since then, they have done things differently. They have on the basis of the cultures that are involved on the interests of individual countries, they have opened doors, sometimes they’ve been led by Washington, sometimes they’ve been led by Paris, sometimes they’ve been led by London, but there is a case-by-case situation which is changing. And I think if you go back to the interview in 2002, I mentioned to you at the time that is precisely what I was hoping for; that is, the wisdom of the case-by-case situation. Get away from this notion of this is one big blob of humanity and states … that is simply not true. So I think that there is a process of change which I see as very encouraging, very encouraging. And yet to be frank, these things are not going to be unravelled in one month.
JS: How do you see attitudes in predominately Muslim countries changing towards the West over the past decade?
AK: Again, I find it difficult to comment on Muslim countries generically. I will say the African Muslim countries or the sub-Saharan countries first of all have never had that basic inimical attitude. So they are Muslim, but they are not directly involved for example with the Middle East issue. From that point of view, I don’t think we can assume anything was changed … by what happens in the Middle East. They have their own separate criteria, they have their own set of issues. Take Malaysia, Indonesia, Southeast Asia generally, these are, I suppose, what we would call newly industrialised countries. They have strong economies, they have competent institutions, and their own internal political systems are the things they are concentrating on first. So I think if you are talking about Southeast Asia, you have a different situation again. But the Middle East remains a major problem. And it is a major problem. There are major issues. Their nuclear programme is an issue, actually. But I would tend say that the picture is not total, it is actually a divided set of issues. But from what I can tell, this has been recognised and people are working on it.
JS: But when you say the Middle East is a problem, does that suggest that attitudes in the Middle East towards the West or towards the United States are worsening?
AK: No, I don’t think they’re worsening. I think they’re changing.
JS: In what ways?
I think there are new dialogues taking place, there are new attitudes towards parties in the Shia world and that’s very, very important indeed. Previous policies appeared to be exclusive to that in the Sunni world. I think that’s changed. The Shia world is part of the Islamic world.
AK: Well, I think there are new dialogues taking place, there are new attitudes towards parties in the Shia world and that’s very, very important indeed. Previous policies appeared to be exclusive to that in the Sunni world. I think that’s changed. The Shia world is part of the Islamic world. If you look from an Islamic point of view, how do you talk to the West and ignore the Catholics versus the Protestants or the Orthodox? You can’t do that. That’s the same for the Muslim world. So I’m pleased that there are new dialogues.
JS: Can you give examples of those dialogues, especially with the Shia?
AK: Yes, I think there is a new dialogue with Damascus, which when we met in 2002 wasn’t in place. That dialogue is important because it has a ripple effect into Lebanon. It has possibly a ripple effect into Iran. It may have a ripple effect into Yemen. So, you know, these situations are processes of change. And I’m not going to say today I can predict where they’re going. What I can say is that last time we met those dialogues weren’t happening. So I think that is again an area of hope.
JS: Can you share any insight into the situation in Iraq and how that is affecting the rest of the region and the region’s relations with the West?
AK: We don’t have an institutional presence in Iraq. So I’m probably less expert on that situation than I would be on Afghanistan or Pakistan. But I think that you have somewhat the same situation as you had in Northern Ireland. That is you have communities of faith who have historically disliked each other. Now that’s part of the demography of the country. That’s been the situation for years and years. That may be one of the issues that needs to be addressed, and addressed in a sophisticated competent manner. Because if that is not done, the whole political process will be conditioned by the inability to have those two major communities living together in peace. And there are multiple forces playing. There is the theological force, the ethnic force — so you have these multiple forces that are playing out there, and I find it personally very difficult to predict where this is going to go. But I could also say unless there are solutions that are worked out, we’re facing a long-term situation there. But as I said, I’m not an expert on Iraq.
JS: If I could go back to Stephen’s question about America’s image in many parts of the world, but particularly the Middle East, Obama came in and gave the world much hope and there was much hope in for Middle East. There’s some debate over whether that’s fading or sliding. Do you have a good sense of that?
AK: I obviously don’t know what President Obama is thinking on this issue. But I don’t see how it can ever disappear from the major international agenda from the United States and the world agenda. It is a major issue. And if you turned that problem around and said that issue didn’t exist any more, you ask the question: What our world would be like? It could be a very, very different world. So I consider this one of the stable long-term political issues that’s got to be solved. It’s simply something that isn’t going to go away.
JS: You mentioned Iran as another source of concern. How should we in the West view Iran?
[How the West should view Iran] is an extremely complex question. It is an extremely complex question. I think one of the issues is: What is it that you want from Iran? I don’t have a lot of clarity on that, frankly. Are we talking about the nuclear issue? Are we talking about regime change? Are we talking about a decentralised or a free economy? What are we talking about when it comes to the situation of Iran? … And I’m not sure that outside Iran, in the Western world, there is clarity on that either.
AK: That is an extremely complex question. It is an extremely complex question. I think one of the issues is: What is it that you want from Iran? I don’t have a lot of clarity on that, frankly. Are we talking about the nuclear issue? Are we talking about regime change? Are we talking about a decentralised or a free economy? What are we talking about when it comes to the situation of Iran? I personally don’t have a lot of clarity. First of all we’re talking about the nuclear issue. Then we’re talking about an electoral process that everyone thinks is infamous, if I can use that word. We’re talking about a relationship between faith and state which is unclear. So I find it very difficult to understand when I look at the Iranian situation. What is the priority issue that we’re really talking about? And I’m not sure that outside Iran, in the Western world, there is clarity on that either. I don’t know whether you have the same feeling.
JS: I think the enigmatic quality of Iran is the thing that makes the situation so frightening — it raises the odds of a misunderstanding. And that’s always the issue. It’s not always clear what the other side wants. It’s not always clear who’s speaking on whose behalf.
AK: But do you have an understanding? All the issues you’ve just enumerated, what is it that are the priority issues that have to be solved?
JS: I think you’re right there is no clarity, but I think the overarching concern particularly for the United States and Canada, as allies of Israel, is the nuclear programme and how that may threaten Israel.
AK: Right, right. No I mean I accept entirely that the nuclear issue is a very important issue, particularly because there is, I think, a growing momentum in denuclearisation, and I think that’s very intelligent for all of us, I support that. On the one hand, I understand the divide between military use and civil use of nuclear energy is a very, very fine line and extremely difficult to govern from outside a given country. That’s, I think, the real break point. Now I’m not a nuclear expert but I understand that is one of the real problems.
JS: And made all the worse by the fact that Iran is essentially not a member of the international community — it’s not allowed to, or arguably does not want to, participate in a lot of multilateral forums and organisations that are designed to help regulate things like nuclear power and civilian nuclear use.
AK: I mean my sense is we are looking to the future for a massive increase in nuclear use around the world. To me, that’s on the cards. And it’s on the cards in the industrialised world, it’s on the cards in the Third World. (1)
JS: So we should get used to that?
AK: I think we have to make the intellectual effort to jump ahead of that issue and ten or 15 years from now, many, many countries will have to go to nuclear energy, they don’t have an alternative.
JS: That’s very interesting in the Pakistan-India environment, which Canada was a key player in the 1970s, as you know, for both countries in developing their nuclear programs. And it has created a lot of uncertainty and discomfort in Canada that those countries went on to develop nuclear bombs. We feel, rightly or wrongly, we may have contributed to that. How should Canadians view the growth of nuclear power in those countries?
AK: I think you should encourage the introduction of nuclear capacity. It should be part of the global process.
JS: But you understand that nuclear power…
AK: In civil terms? I don’t see how these countries can industrialise themselves without that.
JS: Do you feel comfortable with Pakistan rapidly developing a civilian nuclear power program?
AK: I think so long as it’s demonstrably civil, yes. I have no problem with that.
JS: One might argue that in Pakistan that is hard to demonstrate given the interlinks between the military and the civilian government.
AK: I can’t really comment on that.
JS: Should we be pushing for more democratic progress in Pakistan?
AK: You know the issues of democracy in Pakistan are very long-standing. They’re not new. If you have countries in the developing world which have layers of dysfunctionality, you have to be intellectually honest and say what is the cause of that? In many of the countries we work in, one of the main contributors to dysfunctionality is constitutional dysfunctionality. This constitutional dysfunctionality is sometimes a consequence of decolonisation. Sometimes it’s a consequence of the Cold War. I happen to believe that this constitutional dysfunctionality is one of the major problems of our time. In the developing world, in Eastern Europe, in South America, if you make a list of countries with constitutional debates on the agenda, you’d be surprised how many there are.
JS: We’re sitting in one right now. We’re world experts in constitutional challenges.
AK: No comment. But if you think about the issue, it’s very easy to criticise a regime or a Parliament, to say you haven’t done your job, but if the basic document of statehood doesn’t enable and encourage good governance, doesn’t have the means to change itself in a constructive way, to take into account new processes, you have a very tough problem. So the internal process of governance is a very problematic issue and it’s problematic for Pakistan, and very problematic since 1947.
JS: Do you see any signs of that changing?
AK: I think there’s a recognition that constitutional issues in many countries need to be addressed. How that is addressed is very, very complex. Look at what’s happening in Kenya. You have a constitutional process, the constitution was printed, and somebody, between the approval of the constitution and the printing of the document introduced two words which changed the whole nature of the constitution. These are examples.
So I think this whole domain of constitutional government is massively important.
Do you think countries like Canada should try to take an active role in [assisting with the Developing World’s constitutional issues]? Definitely yes. I’ll tell you why. I think in this area, the case study, where the case has been resolved, is massively important.
JS: Do you think countries like Canada should try to take an active role in that or would that be imposing our values on others?
AK: Definitely yes. I’ll tell you why. I think in this area, the case study, where the case has been resolved, is massively important. The more the case studies of the Western world are made known, analysed, commented on, critiqued if necessary, is essential. Ultimately you’re looking at what are the processes of change. You’re not only looking at the outcome, you’re looking at how the process of change occurs. I would even give you the Afghan constitution. I think if you speak to international organisations, international diplomats, they would say the Afghan constitution is problematic.
JS: But to take that on now is to almost invite civil conflict.
AK: Very often these constitutions have been developed as balancing acts at a historic time. Look at the Lebanese constitution. So there are so many cases around the world that we all know.
JS: Canadians as you know have been involved in the constitutional process in Kenya, in Sri Lanka and in those situations it’s evolutionary but there’s been some challenges when political parties and ethnic groups have taken advantage of..
JS: Yes, loopholes. Constitutional ideas and I think that confounds some Canadians who are involved and feel they are being played or manipulated.
AK: That issue is: What is the predictability of constitutionality? And that is a tough question. Societies are changing around the world and constitutions have to have the ability to change.
JS: It’s a great challenge in every country.
One of my worries is that in our parts of the world we’re not educated for that. We’re trying to introduce into our curricula in secondary school comparative government. We think that every young educated person has to have a basic understanding of the methodologies of human governance. What works, what doesn’t work …
AK: It’s an enormous challenge. One of my worries is that in our parts of the world we’re not educated for that. We’re trying to introduce into our curricula in secondary school comparative government. We think that every young educated person has to have a basic understanding of the methodologies of human governance. What works, what doesn’t work, what’s different between a presidential system and a parliamentary system, multiparty system. Most of the countries we work in are not only multiparty systems, but they’re not bi-party systems. Democracy, when it has 62 national parties, can be a very severe problem. I don’t like throwing blame. I prefer to analyse the problem and try to see what is the answer. This isn’t a secret, I think we can say we’ve just got the agreement of the International Baccalaureate Organisation to add a number of subjects to our educational system in the developing world, adding subjects that we consider necessary but that aren’t necessarily necessary in the United States or Canada but are necessary there.
JS: Subjects like comparative government, does that meet any resistance in any societies as a subject introduced in curricula?
AK: I can’t answer that as we’re just bringing it in, but it’s certainly a subject that all of us have defined as being very, very important.
JS: You’ve said Canada should play a role. What kind of role do you see Canada playing?
AK: You are a centralised country with a number of provincial capacities. That’s a format that has been used in a number of countries that’s not unique to Canada. What are the case studies in the governance history of Canada where you’ve had to make adjustments, where you’ve had to get public support? What is the role of the referendum? A referendum in an educated country is one thing. A referendum in an uneducated country, it doesn’t stand any value at all in my eyes. So it’s the mechanics of this sort of thing. Wherever we can learn in the developing world we’re going to be very, very fortunate.
A referendum in an educated country is one thing. A referendum in an uneducated country, it doesn’t stand any value at all in my eyes…. [If] you consult a population that has no knowledge whatsoever about the choices of constitutional government, about the success rate of constitutional government, about the problems of constitutional governments, and you ask them to vote. Intellectually, what is the credibility of that?
JS: Do you extend that thought about referenda in uneducated countries to voting generally?
AK: Very much so.
JS: So voting is not a good idea in uneducated countries?
AK: I don’t know what the alternative is. But I can’t say that consulting an uneducated population that doesn’t understand the questions it’s being asked, you know, you have a referendum on a constitution, you consult a population that has no knowledge whatsoever about the choices of constitutional government, about the success rate of constitutional government, about the problems of constitutional governments, and you ask them to vote. Intellectually, what is the credibility of that?
Stephen Northfield: Is it the lack of education or is it the fact that the uneducated population is open to manipulation? Because that seems to be as much a problem in terms of referenda and voting generally…
AK: You’re absolutely right. And of course the absence of understanding means manipulation is much easier, because uneducated people can get up in the public domain and say anything.
JS: We pushed, as a country, voting on a number of countries such as Afghanistan, saying you should have open elections the way we do. You’re suggesting that’s not necessarily a good idea?
I’m saying elections is one thing, but it’s not the only way to ensure government, because the forces at play in many situations are not national forces, they’re much more local forces. They’re governed by local relationships. In Africa the tribal relationships remain very, very strong…. And the process of change is very, very slow. I get upset when I sense impatience in the face of that because you can do much more damage by showing impatience in the face of that than working with that process.
AK: No, I’m saying elections is one thing, but it’s not the only way to ensure government, because the forces at play in many situations are not national forces, they’re much more local forces. They’re governed by local relationships. In Africa the tribal relationships remain very, very strong. But you don’t see it until there’s a crisis. If you look at what happened in Kenya, Kenya became independent in … 1963. So 50 years after independence a crisis occurs, what happens? Tribal killing across the country. Why? Because those social relations have been there for centuries and they are so strong they remain. Families integrate, marry, do business, on the basis of those relationships. It’s a little like de-socialising ex-socialist states. It’s a question of how quickly people change, not what you want people to, it’s when people actually change. And the process of change is very, very slow. I get upset when I sense impatience in the face of that because you can do much more damage by showing impatience in the face of that than working with that process.
JS: The modernists would argue that modernisation in any society is going to overcome tribal or ethnic difference. You point out that in Africa that has not been the case. It may take time, yet there’s been an acceleration of modernisation and economic growth in Africa and not a simultaneous deceleration of tribalism.
AK: There is a younger generation of educated youth in Africa and they’re moving forward. The question is, is there equity in access to education? If there’s inequity of tribal people or whatever it is, you have a problem. So we talked about meritocracy. If the meritocracy is inequitable, what do you [sic]? Cause societies to deepen the fissures? One of the things I admire about Canada, in your plural society, is that you have made meritocracy work across all the communities in Canada. I’ve observed that, I’ve watched it, I’ve admired it, and I say to myself, how has Canada succeeded in doing it? You have to tell me the answer. What I can tell you is that would be a primary objective for me in the developing world.
Stephen Northfield: You say education is key in containing the latent, destructive forces of tribalism, but is it because it teaches people to look at a wider world, or is it education that leads them to opportunity? Is education the key or is it opportunity?
AK: I think it’s changing people’s priorities. Introducing new priorities. In the professional world, in the government world, in the international world, and it’s no longer looking backward. It’s trying to develop new capacities to underwrite the processes of change. I think the newly industrialised countries have found that in a very interesting way.
JS: On the issue of meritocracy you made a very interesting point about how focusing on gender can skew outcomes and also create divisions, rather than focusing on root problems like education. As you know, the G20 summit is going to be just across the street here in a few weeks. The government of Canada is pushing maternal and child health as a principal issue. One might argue that’s a gender-based approach to community health. Are we taking the wrong approach?
AK: No, you’re taking the right approach. I base my answer what I have learned from neuroscientists. The Aga Khan University and the University of Central Asia are looking at what are the faculties, what are the areas of knowledge that we have to educate future generations. You have in Canada some of the leading neuroscientists. The neuroscientists are telling us the process of human development is more rapid and more lasting in the child from birth to four than at any other time. I’m not a neuroscientist but I have to believe the knowledge they have is true. We are looking at the whole issue of education and we are saying what we have to do in the developing world is … we have to go back to early childhood education. And we have to try and make sure that early childhood development process is as strong as possible.
We’re not talking about the kids play area. We’re talking about food, about intellectual stimulation, discovery, the whole process of development.
JS: One of the other learnings that has emerged is that birth spacing also matters to child development. Of course birth spacing brings in other, more contentious issues, which many countries are trying to come to grips with, because that requires family planning. How do you feel about the notion of working toward birth spacing as a noble goal for childhood development?
AK: I think that’s an individual issue. I don’t think you can make a general statement that it’s right or wrong. Societies will make their own choices. What I think they have to be able to do is make choices that are predicated on good knowledge. That is important. So whatever measures they choose, they’re free to choose from my point of view, but they have to be predicated on good knowledge. And that’s not available to us in many parts of the world.
JS: One of the challenges for many Canadians is we have a fairly significant knowledge base in this sort of area, yet if we try to share that with other countries it’s seen as an imposition with cultural values attached. Should we leave it to other countries to come to grips with it?
AK: I think you have to let societies make their own calls on these issues. I think you’ll find societies will call, because they’re changing. There’s no doubt. There’s an economic impact which is very important. There is a clear relationship between economic progress and the number of children per family. That’s a universal truth.
JS: Indonesia and Malaysia are good examples of that.
AK: Exactly. So I think societies have to have their own dynamic. The more isolated they are, the more time it takes for that dynamic to change. That’s what you’re seeing in Afghanistan. Not only in Afghanistan, Pakistan also.
JS: You’re seeing Prime Minister Harper this afternoon. What will you ask him or suggest to him?
I’d like to see Canada more vigorous in internationalisation of your knowledge of a pluralist society, because it’s not an accident in Canada. You see, societies are not pluralist by accident. They’re pluralist by the will of the government, of the people, of civil society but there is a will. At least that’s my view.
AK: What would I suggest to him? I’d like to see Canada more vigorous in internationalisation of your knowledge of a pluralist society, because it’s not an accident in Canada. You see, societies are not pluralist by accident. They’re pluralist by the will of the government, of the people, of civil society but there is a will. At least that’s my view. And you have made that a fundamental principle of the Canadian identity. Immigrants into this country know that. They recognise it, they see it, they sense it. Today I’ll be commenting on the fact that when my community came here they weren’t only immigrants they were encouraged to keep their social structures, their economic structures, their relationships among families. In how many other countries do you know that happening? So there’s a massive accumulated quantity of knowledge and experience here.
JS: I think we’ve used up all our time but this has been excellent. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us.
AK: You’re very kind.
- Note by NanoWisdoms: At the dawn of the nuclear age there were two competing nuclear reactor technologies: uranium based reactors and thorium based reactors. The prototype Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) built in 1965 utilised thorium and had none of the waste product, safety, proliferation, and other issues associated with uranium based reactors. LFTR is now under intense research in many countries including India and China.
More information about LFTRs can be found here: Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, American Scientist, Volume 98, July-August 2010, http://www.energyfromthorium.com/pdf/AmSci_LFTR.pdf
- Text (secondary source): ismaili.net
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