Douglas & McIntyre

Interviews with author(s) of “Where Hope Takes Root”

His Highness The Aga  Khan

His Highness The Aga Khan

January 2006

This conversation between His Highness the Aga Khan and Peter Mansbridge, host of CBC Televisionís Mansbridge One on One, originally aired on October 28 and 29, 2006.

Peter Mansbridge: You must love Canadaóyou 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 and faiths are happy. A modern country that deals with modern issues, not running away from them but dealing with the tough ones. And a global commitment to values, Canadian values, which I think are very important.

PM: I wonder whether your confidence in Canada has in any way been shattered in these past few years, especially since 9/11. There have been tensions in this country, as in many other Western countries, between the Muslim and the 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: It concerns me, and at the same time it doesnít. To me, building and sustaining a pluralist society is always going to be a work in progress. It doesnít have a finite end, and so long as there is national intent, civic intent to make pluralism work, then one accepts that itís a work in progress.

PM: Let me go a little deeper on that, because it raises a question you have often raised: the issue of ignorance. You reject the theory of a clash of civilizations, or even a clash of religions. You believe thereís a clash of ignorance here, on both sides of the divide, and youíve felt that way for a long time. I was looking through transcripts of an interview you gave in the 1980s in Canada in which you were warning the West that it had to do a better job in trying to understand Islam. That clearly hasnít happened.

AK: No, it hasnít happened. A number of friends and people in important places have tried to contribute to solving that problem, but itís a long-established problem, and itís going to take, I think, several decades before we reach a situation where the definition of an educated person includes a basic understanding of the Islamic world. That hasnít been the case, and the absence of that basic education has caused all sorts of misunderstandings, above all the inability to predict. Statehood, international affairs, economic affairs are often predicated on the ability to predict. If you donít know the issues and the forces at play, the ability to predict is severely constrained.

PM: Whatís been the resistance, do you think?

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

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

AK: No, I think there is ignorance on both sides, and very often there is confusion. I think, more and more, there has been confusion between, for example, religion and civilization. And thatís introducing instability into the discussion, frankly. I would prefer to talk about ignorance regarding the civilizations of the Islamic world rather than just ignorance about the faith of Islam.

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

AK: There is, without any doubt, a growing sense amongst Muslim communities around the world that there are forces at play they donít control but that view the Muslim world withóletís say unhappiness, or more. I would simply say, however, that if you analyze the situation, I donít think you can conclude that all Muslims from all backgrounds are part of that phenomenon. Second, if you go back and look at it, you will find in a lot of those communities a long-standing, unresolved political crisis. Itís 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 itís not specific to the faith of Islam.

PM: 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 for their actions.

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 are not religious issues. You canít attribute the faith of Islam to them. The second point I would make is this tendency to generalize Islam. There are many different interpretations of Islam. As a Muslim, if I said to you that I didnít recognize the difference between a Greek Orthodox and a Russian Orthodox or a Protestant and a Catholic, I think youíd say to me, ďBut you donít understand the Christian world.Ē Well, let me reverse that question.

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

AK: I think there are a number of reasons, but the one 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, etc., peopleís quality of life would change, and it hasnít changed quickly enough. Itís taken much more time than many of us had hoped to get to isolated communities in Afghanistan and improve their quality of life. Itís an organizational problem. Even amongst the donor countries, there have been differences of opinion, and 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 donít have enough food, people donít have access to any education, any health care, and it is clear this sort of frustration causes bitterness and a search for other solutions.

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. Youíre friends with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, and I have talked to him a couple of times in the last few years. There is a growing sense amongst the Canadian people as well of frustration and a belief that itís a war that cannot be won.

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

PM: Can you do both at the same timeóthatís the debate in Canadaórun a military operation, Iím 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. Every step counts. Certainly in areas where there is insecurity, I think the ability of populations to participate in these sorts of activities does go down when quality of life changes. 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 that has mobilized what we call the Ummah, the community of Muslims around the world. Every Muslim I have ever talked to has felt engaged by this.

PM: On what level?

AK: Well, Baghdad is one of the great historic cities of the Islamic world. Iraq is not a new country, it is part of the history of our civilization. It has been a pluralist country, with 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 even in the Muslim world that invasion has caused major divisions, the clash within Islam itself, between Shia and Sunni.

AK: That was entirely predictable. Entirely predictable. What you were effectively doing was placing a Sunni minority government in a country that had a Shia demographic majority. And again, take the case out of its situation. What would happenóIím sorry to come back to this, but itís importantóif a Muslim army went into Northern Ireland and replaced one Christian interpretation with another? Imagine the fallout that would cause in the Christian world itself.

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

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

PM: Is the answer, as some suggest, the splitting of the country into three regions, with the main two combatants, the Shia and the Sunni, actually separated by borders?

AK: Thatís really an issue where the leaders of the three communities have got to agree or not. In my life, in the past fifty years, I have been uncomfortable with the creation of unviable 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: Whoís showing leadership in the world right now, in terms of the major global issues? Who do you look to as a leader?

AK: There are a number of people in the un system who have shown leadership, who have shown balanced judgment on these issues. Because when all is said and done, it is the balance of the judgment that counts, and it is understanding the issues. Amongst others, Kofi Annan has been remarkable in his understanding of the issues. Heís also had a team of people around him who are very good.

PM: Itís quite a condemnation of the political leaders of our generation that you donít point to one of them, no matter which side they are on of the divide we talked of earlier. You donít see anyone there?

AK: Iím looking more in terms of the regions of Africa, Central Asia, and Iím asking myself, within these contexts, who is having the greatest influence? Certainly the UN, UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], I think the World Bank under Jim Wolfensohn changed direction very significantly and dealt with real human issues and has done a wonderful job.

PM: Some people suggest that thereís been a movement away, in terms of real leadership, from governments to private foundations, philanthropic organizations, yours being one. The Gates Foundation, and you can name a number; for example, Bono, the singer. Do you see that happening, and is that a good thing?

AK: I see it happening and I welcome it wholeheartedly, because what we are talking about, I think, is accelerating the construction of civil society. I personally think that civil society is one of the most urgent things to build around the world. One of the phenomena you see today is that, in a number of countries where governments have been unstable, etc., progress has continued when there has been a strong civil society. And thatís a lesson that I think all of us have to learn. My own network is immensely committed to that. What the Gates Foundation and others are doing is providing new resources, new thoughts to create civil society, whether it is in health care or education. It is the combined input that is so exciting and so important.

PM: A new Global Centre for Pluralism will be established here in Canada through the Aga Khan Foundation and the Government of Canada. What is your hope for that? What do you see that accomplishing?

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

PM: Why Canada?

AK: Because I think Canada is a country that is invested in making this potential liability become an asset. Canada has been, perhaps, too humble in its own appreciation of this global asset. Few countries, if any, have been as successful as Canada has, bumpy though the road is. As I said earlier, it is always going to be an unfinished task.

PM: In 2007 you will mark your Golden Jubilee, fifty years. I was going to ask, whatís your dream for the world, but I guess dreams are dreams. Whatís your realistic hope?

AK: Well, clearly, I would like to see the areas of the world that are living in horrible poverty, Iíd like to see that replaced by an environment where people can live in more hope than they have had. I would like to see governments produce enabling environments where society can function and grow, rather than live in the dogmatisms that weíve all lived through and that, I think, have been very constraining. And Iíd like to see solid institutional building, because when all is said and done societies need institutional capacity.

PM: Well, these are grand hopes. Iím sure they are shared by many. How realistic do you think it is that we can achieve anything like this?

AK: I think we can achieve a lot of that. I think the time frame is what we donít control. I remember in the mid-1950s reading about countries in the developing world being referred to as ďbasket cases.Ē Fifty years later, these are some of the most powerful countries in the world. They have enormous populations, but they are exporting food, when fifty years ago we were told they would never be able to feed themselves. They had an incredible technology deficit fifty years ago. Today they are exporting technology, homegrown technology. So I think there are a number of cases out there where we can say, what we donít 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.

CBC Television-Mansbridge One On One, Jan 18, 2006
Read more >>