Item(s) for the ‘Ismaili News’ Category

Jun 15,2007

Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan atGraduation Ceremony of the Masters of Public Affairs (MPA) Programme at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po),

15 June 2007

Mr. Richard Descoings, Director of Sciences Po
Directors and Faculty of the MPA Programme
Graduating Students and their Families
Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great honour to be with you today.

This is a memorable time for all of you who are graduating today – and for your friends and families. And it is also a special moment in the life of this School – the graduation of the first class to earn the new Master of Public Affairs degree.

The values which Sciences Po honors today are deeply rooted in its history – stretching back now over a century and a third a lot of people have been ahead of you. But the School’s hallmark is that it has always honored the past by embracing the future. The Master of Public Affairs programme -especially its emphasis on international partnerships – is an ideal example of new innovation in the service of old ideals.

Among those ideals has been the principle of educating for leadership, but leadership based not on social standing or material resources but on intellectual merit.

The founders of Sciences Po realized in their time that aristocracies of class must give way to aristocracies of talent – that is, to meritocracies. And the path to meritocracy in leadership is meritocracy in education.

Another value which Sciences Po has emphasized from the start is that of pluralism – an outlook which rises above parochial preoccupations. That outlook is reflected today in your strong international commitments, including your new Master of Public Affairs degree.

I was impressed with this programme from the day I first learned that Sciences Po would join with Columbia University and the London School of Economics in its sponsorship.  And my enthusiasm is reinforced as I look out at the global mix of your first graduating class. I wish I had the time to meet and talk to every one of you.

I had the opportunity to speak just a year and a month ago at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.  I shared with that audience a definition I once heard of a good graduation speaker – they say it is someone who can talk in someone else’s sleep.

I hope that we can break that pattern today.

Toward that end, I thought it might be helpful if I took up a question which may well be on many of your minds:  Just who is the Aga Khan, anyway?  And why is he here?

In response, let me say first that I was born into a Muslim family, linked by heredity to Prophet Muhammad (May peace be upon him and his family).   It was exactly fifty years ago that I became the 49th Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.

The ethics of Islam bridge the realms of faith on the one hand and practical life on the other – what we call Din and Dunya. Accordingly, my spiritual responsibilities for interpreting the faith are accompanied by a strong engagement in issues relating to the quality of life and well being.  This latter commitment extends not only to the Ismaili community but also to those with whom they share their lives – locally, nationally and internationally.

One of the issues which has concerned me the most over these years has been the topic of education.

My forefathers, as far back as a thousand years ago and as recently as a century ago, founded some of the great universities of the Muslim world, and I have continued in that tradition through a program of Aga Khan Academies, a school system, and by establishing the Aga Khan University and the University of Central Asia.

Against this background, you can understand why the success of your new program is of such a great interest for me.
We hear a great deal these days about a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the West. I disagree profoundly. In my view, it is a clash of ignorance which we are facing. And the answer to ignorance is education.

I should note that my own education has blended Islamic and western traditions.  My secondary and university schooling, in fact, was in Europe and in America. But my perspective over these last fifty years has also been profoundly shaped by the developing world.

The Ismailis currently reside – as minorities – in more than 25 countries, mostly in the developing world.  For five decades, that has been my world – my virtually permanent preoccupation. During that time we have built a wide-ranging series of programmes involving these societies – in fields such as health care, education and culture, economic infrastructure and social development, the environment, the arts, and the media – coordinated through the Aga Khan Development Network.
Over this past half century, the pace of change on our planet has been bewildering. And that pace is accelerating.  I was struck last month by the fact that the leadership of France, the U.K. and Germany had changed significantly in just a few months and similar changes are coming in the United States.

As the pace of history accelerates, developments that occurred over fifty years in my lifetime will happen in fifteen or even five years for your generation.  This is why I believe that the most important thing you could have mastered in the course of your studies – as you were becoming “Masters” of Public Affairs – was not any specific body of knowledge, but rather the ability to go on learning.

There is nothing we can do to slow the pace of change, but we can hope to help steer its direction.

As we do so, there are three challenges in particular that I would like to highlight to you today. They are: first, the future of democracy, especially in the developing world; secondly, the central role which civil society can play in that development; and thirdly, the crisis in relations between the West and the Islamic world. These are all areas which are going to affect the world in which you live in the decades ahead.

The history of democracy, especially in areas of Asia and Africa which I know well, has been a long series of jolts and jars.  Today, any thoughtful observer of those regions would have to conclude that democracy has been losing popular confidence as an effective form of government.

In many of these countries, governments, constitutions, parliaments, and political parties are little more than a dysfunctional assemblage of notional democratic vehicles.  Elections are held, constitutions are validated, and international monitors issue their reports, but observing these forms of government is not the same thing as governing effectively.

A recent survey by UNDP of 18 South American countries confirmed that the majority of people were less interested in their forms of government than in their quality of life. In simple terms, most people would rather have a beneficent paternalistic dictator, provided he improved the quality of life, than a less effective, though duly elected, democratic leadership.

The question that must be asked, I believe, is not whether democracy is a good thing in the abstract, but rather how to help democracy perform better in practice.  Do we really know what is going wrong?  And why?  Do we know what corrective steps should be taken?  And by whom?

These are massive questions, and I do not claim to know the answers. But I do believe that significantly more thought must be given to these issues, by the intelligentsia of our world, yourselves included.

As we think about these questions, there are some hopeful signs. Generally speaking, the most successful developing countries are those which have engaged actively with the global knowledge society, those which have accepted and defended the value of pluralism, and those which have created an enabling environment for human enterprise, rather than indulging in asphyxiating policies which discourage human endeavour.

But in too many places, democratic practice is deeply flawed. One problem is simple ignorance of the various forms of democracy.  I attribute this in part to the absence of good education in comparative government.  Holding a national referendum on a new constitution, is no guarantee that the provisions of the constitution have been understood, let alone validated, by popular consent.

In addition, the machinery of government – including the creation and funding of political parties, is often unguided and undisciplined, and widely open to manipulation and fraud. Nor is government performance monitored effectively – by internal processes or by the media.

Finally, the very concept of democracy must be adapted to a variety of national and cultural contexts.  Effective democracy can not be imposed from the top or from the outside.  Democracy’s value must be deeply felt in the daily lives of a country’s population, including the rural majority, if it is to be upheld and promoted.

Against this background, it would be wise, in my view, to prepare ourselves for a time of testing as far as democracy is concerned. We can expect a mix of successes, failures and disappointments, as well as a continuing array of governing arrangements: absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies, single house or dual house parliaments, presidential and other systems, including numerous forms of federalism.  In addition, regional groupings will increasingly play important roles.
Does this picture mean continuing instability in parts of the developing world?  May be.

But I have confidence that if we can ask the right questions about democracy, we will increasingly find the right answers.
In this regard, the fact that history moves at an accelerating pace is both a challenge and an opportunity. I remember how people 50 years ago carelessly referred to many of the developing economies as hopeless “basket cases”, including places that have taken off since – like India and China.

As history demonstrates, so-called backward places can move forward over time. It is not unrealistic to plan for progress.
This brings me to my second major point.  One of the reasons that I am more optimistic than some about the future of the developing world is my faith that a host of new institutions can play a larger role in that future.  I am especially enthusiastic about the potential of what I call “civil society”.

By civil society, I mean a set of institutions which are neither governmental nor commercial, organizations which are powered by private energies but designed to advance the public good. They work in fields such as education, health, science and research. They embrace professional, commercial, labour, ethnic and arts associations, and others devoted to religion, communication, and the environment. Many are targeted to fight poverty and social inequity.

Too often we have assumed that voluntary organizations are too limited to serve great public purposes. For some, the very notion of private organizations devoted to public goals seems to be an oxymoron.

But this skeptical attitude is changing. The power of civil society is becoming more apparent – in your coursework here at Sciences Po among other places. This is all to the good – civil society should have a prominent place in the new equation for social progress, complementing rather than competing with government. And the same thing is true of the private business sector – and the potential for public-private partnerships.

Civil and private institutions have unique capacities for spurring social progress – even when governments falter.  For one thing, because they are intimately connected to the warp and woof of daily life, they can predict new patterns with particular sensitivity.

The development of civil society can also help meet the challenge of cultural diversity, giving diverse constituencies effective ways to express and preserve their distinct identities.

Private institutions also provide good laboratories for experimentation. Because they are multiple in nature, they can try a variety of approaches, sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding, but always learning from their experiences. And because these institutions need NOT make short term accommodations to conventional wisdom or current fashions, they have greater freedom to be controversial – and creative.

Let me move then to my third topic, the crisis in relations between the West and the Islamic world.  I cannot remember a time when these relations have been so strained, or so wide-sweeping in their impact – both across generations and across the world.

I am deeply convinced that the fundamental roots of this crisis are infinitely more political than they are theological.  And we can deal effectively with this crisis, I believe, only if we begin by addressing a complex set of political issues, rather than worrying so much about a conflict of religions.

If you reflect back to the origins of the present flash points, the historical legacy has been consistently political – and frequently explosive.  The present Middle East situation was born at the end of World War I, growing out of the search for a homeland for the Jewish peoples of our world.  The Kashmir conflict was born out of the decolonisation process when Britain withdrew from the then-united India.  More recently, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the British and American invasion of Iraq have further contributed to the turmoil.

But disputes among the three Abrahamic faiths themselves have not been responsible for these conflicts.  Yes, many of the problems have since taken on the colouring of interfaith conflict, but that development is the consequence, much more than the cause, of these tragedies.

Political conflict, of course, has sometimes intensified theological forces which were once less conflictual, particularly in the Islamic world.  Separations within Islam have become more visible, more irascible, and more difficult to address. Some such divisions, such as relations between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims, or between various interpretations of Islam, have historical roots which are centuries old, and have been revived and fanned by political developments.  But other cleavages, between the secular states and the theocracies of the Muslim world, for example, or between the ultra rich and the ultra poor, are essentially the products of modern times – at least in their scope and scale.

Three observations are critical here. First, there really is no one single Islamic world, but a variety of individual situations which need individual analysis.  Second, the faith of Islam, in the vast majority of its interpretations, is not in conflict with the other great Abrahamic traditions.  Third, each crisis we encounter stems from its own specific political context.
Bringing a new sense of peace and order to this complex situation will require great subtlety, patience, understanding and knowledge.  Sadly, none, I repeat none, of these requirements are sufficiently available amongst the main players today.  There is clumsiness, not subtlety, there is impatience, not patience, there is a massive deficit in understanding and an enormous knowledge vacuum.

Too often, there is also a tendency to run away from unpleasant truths. But we will not ameliorate these conflicts unless we address the underlying conditions – especially when economic despair leads to radicalization. It has taken 50 years, and the publication of the Sachar Committee Report, to acknowledge that the Muslims of India are second class citizens.  But is the same thing not also true of the Muslims of Mindanao?  It is perhaps understandable that any religious grouping which has been marginalized economically will see itself as being victimised. But our priority should not be to sharpen religious distinctions but to address human suffering.

Let me also comment on the sharpening of cultural conflict within western societies.

The past few years have been a dispiriting time in Europe – in part because of what many describe as a clash of civilizations in Europe’s midst, triggered by the rapid growth of minority populations.  Perhaps, under a revitalized leadership, Europe can lead the world in meeting that challenge. But it will not be easy.

Cultural conflict in the past was often mitigated by the fact that sharp cultural distinctions were muffled by geographic distance.

But geography as a cushion between cultures has been diminishing in recent years.  The communications revolution has meant “the death of distance”. More than that, cultures are now mixing physically to an extent that would once have seemed impossible.

Economic globalization contributes to the trend. Some 45 million young people enter the job market in the developing world each year – but there are not enough jobs at home for many of them. Immigrants now account for two thirds of the population growth in the 30 member countries of the OECD. Some 150 million legal immigrants now live outside their native countries, joined by uncounted millions of illegal immigrants. Remittances sent home by immigrants total some $145 billion a year – and generate twice that amount in economic activity.

The economic forces that propel immigration are far more powerful and relentless, I believe, than most people understand.  They will not readily or easily be reversed or impeded.

As once homogenous societies become distinctly multi-cultural, the rhythms, colours and flavours of host communities change, inspiring some, but frightening others.  More than half of the respondents in recent European opinion polls have expressed a negative view of immigration.

The frequent result of all these factors has been marginalization – socially and economically – for many minorities. And we need not look very far to see the evidence. To be sure, the victims of marginalization in our world can be found on the floodplains of Bangladesh, the village streets of Uganda, and the teeming neighbourhoods of Cairo. But they can also be found in the banlieu of Paris.

The “Clash of Civilizations” is both a local and a global problem.

The world is becoming more pluralist in fact – but not in spirit. “Cosmopolitan” social patterns have not yet been matched by what I would call “a cosmopolitan ethic”.

One of the great stumbling blocks to the advance of pluralism, in my view, is simple human arrogance. All of the world’s great religions warn against self righteousness – yet too many are still tempted to play God themselves – rather than recognising their humility before the Divine.

A central element in a truly religious outlook, it seems to me, is a recognition that we all have a great deal to learn from one another.

The Holy Quran speaks of how mankind has been created by a single Creator “from a single soul…” – a profound affirmation of the unity of humanity.

This Islamic ideal, of course, is shared by other great religions. Despite the long history of religious conflict, there is also a long counter-history of religious tolerance.

Instead of shouting at one another, our faiths ask us to listen – and learn from one another. As we do, one of our first lessons might well center on those powerful but often neglected chapters in history when Islamic and European cultures interacted cooperatively and creatively to realize some of civilization’s peak achievements.

The spirit of pluralism is not a pallid religious compromise. It is a sacred religious imperative. In this light, our differences can become sources of enrichment, so that we see “the other” as an opportunity and a blessing – whether “the other” lives across the street – or across the world.

Having looked then at the challenges of democracy, the opportunities for civil society, and the nature of our cultural divides, let me return to a point I made earlier – the acceleration of history, the danger of further drift, and the need to master change.
Who is it, I would ask in closing, who is best positioned to pursue such mastery?  Among those who inherit this obligation and this opportunity, I would suggest, are you who are graduating this week from one of the world’s most advanced university programmes, with a title which tells us that you are, each one of you, a “Master of Public Affairs”.

As you graduate, you have my warmest congratulations on all you have accomplished so far, and my prayer that God may be with you, inspiring you and empowering you, in all the good things you will be doing in the days ahead.

Thank you.


Jun 8,2007

Marcus Gee. The Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ont.
Jun 8, 2007. pg. A.25

The cellphone craze has helped seed the hard soil of Afghanistan’s economy

This struggling city is crawling with do-gooders of all kinds, from the United Nations to the Red Cross to Germany’s Goethe Institute. But it’s a fair bet that a single outfit has given more real aid to Afghans than all the humanitarian groups and foreign governments combined. It’s a sharp little cellphone company called Roshan and it’s doing wonders for Afghanistan.

Starting from nothing four years ago, Roshan has built itself into the biggest private business in the country, employing 900 people at good wages. It has invested $300-million in Afghanistan and plans to spend another $75-million a year. The taxes it pays supply 6 per cent of the government’s revenue.

It refuses to pay bribes, setting an example of ethical practice in a society that runs on graft. It is preparing to roll out a staff medical plan that will be the first in the country. It spends $1,500 a person on employee training, sending promising employees to courses in France, Malaysia and the Philippines.

It encourages women to work, still a rare thing in a country where they are often expected to stay covered and at home. Twenty per cent of its staff are women, and each of them gets a lift to and from work by company car to make sure they don’t get attacked or hassled by disapproving men.

Roshan gives back to the community, too, building playgrounds, funding a soup kitchen for homeless children and sponsoring events such as an annual kite festival.

“We’re more than a telephone company,” says Altaf Ladak, Roshan’s Tanzanian-born, British-raised, American-educated chief operating officer. “We’re helping to rebuild the country.”

Coming from another firm, that might seem like mere corporate puffery. But Roshan is something different. It’s half-owned by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, which makes a practice of investing in places where nervous money won’t go.

Afghanistan is certainly one of those places. With a war going on in the south, occasional suicide bombs in Kabul, few working roads, spotty electrical power and a capital without a sewage system, Afghanistan is no treat for investors. The Aga Khan went in regardless, determined to help the country get back on its feet after 30 years of civil war. The leader of the world’s famously charitable Ismaili Muslims, he built a five-star hotel in Kabul and helped start up Roshan (which means “light” or “hope”) in 2003.

The bet is paying off big.

After years of paltry phone service – there were only 20,000 telephone lines in the whole country before the mobile age – Afghans have gone mad for cheap mobile telephony.

Roshan’s first business plan predicted 12,000 subscribers in the first six months. It reached that in three days. Thousands of people waving application forms besieged its offices. Roshan now has 1.3 million subscribers and is adding another 60,000 every month.

Because the mail service barely works and almost no one has a credit card, customers buy phone cards at special shops and kiosks that are sprouting up around the country. Average cost for phone and activation card: $50. For those who can’t afford that, Roshan has 1,500 public call offices, little hole-in-the-wall outlets where those who can’t afford a phone of their own can make a call for 10 cents a minute.

Along with making money for Roshan, the cellphone craze has helped seed the hard soil of the Afghan economy. As in many developing countries, the cellphone is a great enabler, helping people jump over the limitations of an economically backward society and into the future. When a trader wants to know when his shipment of bananas from Peshawar is getting in, he calls the driver. When a carpet-seller needs a loan to expand his business, he calls his brother-in-law in Dubai. Roshan is even rolling out a system that will allow Afghans to use their cellphones as a virtual wallet, with money text-messaged from their accounts.

Interactions like that make the wheels of commerce turn and the process of economic development begin – something all the billions in aid that have flowed into Afghanistan have failed to do.

Roshan is almost single-handedly creating a new, entrepreneurial middle class in Afghanistan. With an average age of just 22, its people are forward-looking, ambitious and ready to learn.

Hamasa Zaki is typical. She grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan. At Roshan, she worked herself up from customer-care agent in a call centre to administrative assistant to sales officer. Now she runs the Roshan network of women phone agents and earns seven times the salary of her policeman father. Hamasa is all of 18.

People like her are Afghanistan’s future. Roshan has given them a place to thrive, and done its country an invaluable service.

Oct 12,2006

Aga Khan

Karim Aga Khan IV, descendant of the prophet Muhammad and spiritual leader of 20 million Ismaili Muslims, discusses the foundations of his faith, the controversy over the pope’s recent statements about Islam and ways of preventing a global clash between religions.

Karim Aga Khan IV: “Nobody will ever convince me that the faith of Islam, that Christianity, that Judaism will fight each other in our times — they have too much in common.”

SPIEGEL: Your Highness, in a lecture Pope Benedict XVI quoted Emperor Manuel as saying: “Show me just what Muhammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as a command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” This quotation from the 14th century has caused great uproar in the Muslim world. Why? And what was your reaction?

Aga Khan: From my point of view, I would start by saying that I was concerned about this statement because this has caused great unhappiness in the Islamic world. There appears to be momentum towards more and more misunderstandings between religions, a degradation of relations. I think we all should try not to add anything to worsen the situation.

SPIEGEL: Benedict XVI did explicitly dissociate himself from the emperor’s quoted statement. The pope’s own position with regard to his lecture is that he wanted it to promote a dialogue; and since then, several times, he has expressed his respect for the world religion that is Islam. Was it just an unfortunate choice of words? Or was he deliberately misunderstood?

Aga Khan: I do not wish to pass judgement on that, nor can I. And it might also be unreasonable for me to presume that I know what he meant. But that (medieval) period in history, to my knowledge, was one of the periods of extraordinary theological exchanges and debates between the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world. A fascinating time. The emperor’s statement does not reflect that, so I think it is somewhat out of context.

SPIEGEL: The theme of Pope Benedict’s lecture was different, it was one of his favorites: the link between faith and reason which, he said, implies a rejection of any link between religion and violence. Is that something you could agree on?

Aga Khan: If you interpret his speech as one about faith and reason then I think that the debate is very exciting and could be enormously constructive between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world. So I have two reactions to the pope’s lecture: There is my concern about the degradation of relations and, at the same time, I see an opportunity. A chance to talk about a serious, important issue: the relationship between faith and logic.


Prince Karim Aga Khan IV is considered to be the direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad and, as the 49th imam, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims. A minority community within the Muslim faith, the Ismailis include some 20 million members scattered across 25 countries in Central Asia, Europe and Eastern Africa. The Aga Khan himself lives near Paris in Aiglemont Palace. Born near Geneva, the prince grew up in Kenya, Switzerland and London before being educated at Harvard. At the age of 20, he succeeded his grandfather as the Aga Khan, thus becoming a religious leader and the administrator of billions in assets. Fed by his family inheritance and a 10 percent tithing fee from Ismaili Muslims, the Aga Khan channels much of the money into the Aga Khan Development Network, one of the world’s most important private development aid organizations. The Aga Khan has two sons from his first marriage — Rahim, 34, and Hussein, 32. He also has a son from his second marriage to the German princess Gabriele zu Leiningen — six- year- old Ali Mohammed. The Aga Khan must name one of his sons as his successor, but that choice will remain a secret until his death.

SPIEGEL: If the pope were to invite you to take part with other religious leaders in a debate about faith, reason and violence, would you accept?

Aga Khan: Yes, definitely. I would, however, make the point that an ecumenical discussion at a certain stage will meet certain limits. Therefore I would prefer to talk more about a cosmopolitan ethic stemming from all of Earth’s great faiths.

SPIEGEL: Does Islam have a problem with reason?

Aga Khan: Not at all. Indeed, I would say the contrary. Of the Abrahamic faiths, Islam is probably the one that places the greatest emphasis on knowledge. The purpose is to understand God’s creation, and therefore it is a faith which is eminently logical. Islam is a faith of reason.

SPIEGEL: So, what are the root causes of terrorism?

Aga Khan: Unsolved political conflicts, frustration and, above all, ignorance. Nothing that was born out of a theological conflict.

SPIEGEL: Which political conflicts do you mean?

Aga Khan: The ones in the Middle East and in Kashmir, for example. These conflicts have remained unresolved for decades. There is a lack of urgency in understanding that the situation there deteriorates, it’s like a cancer. If you are not going to act on a cancer early enough, ultimately it’s going to create terrible damage. It can become a breeding ground for terrorism.

Now to the issue of spreading faith by the sword: All faiths at some time in their history have used war to protect themselves or expand their influence, and there were situations when faiths have been used as justifications for military actions. But Islam does not call for that, it is a faith of peace.

SPIEGEL: It’s true that horrible crimes were committed in the name of Christianity, for example by the crusaders. That was long ago, that’s the past. But jihadists commit their crimes now, in our times.

Aga Khan: It is not so far in the past that we have seen bloody fights in the Christian world. Look at Northern Ireland. If we Muslims interpreted what happened there as a correct expression of Protestantism and Catholicism or even as the essence of the Christian faith you would simply say we don’t know what we are talking about.

SPIEGEL: “The West (will stand) against the Rest” wrote Professor Samuel Huntington in his famous book “Clash of Civilizations.” Is such a conflict, such a clash inevitable?

Aga Khan: I prefer to talk about a clash of ignorance. There is so much horrible, damaging, dangerous ignorance.

SPIEGEL: Which side is responsible?

Aga Khan: Both. But essentially the Western world. You would think that an educated person in the 21st century should know something about Islam; but you look at education in the Western world and you see that Islamic civilizations have been absent. What is taught about Islam? As far as I know — nothing. What was known about Shiism before the Iranian revolution? What was known about the radical Sunni Wahhabism before the rise of the Taliban? We need a big educational effort to overcome this. Rather than shouting at each other, we should be learning to listen to each other. In the way we used to do it, by working together, with mutual give-and-take. Together we brought about some of the highest achievements of human civilization. There is a lot to build on. But I think you cannot build on ignorance.

SPIEGEL: Nonethless, it is striking that a particularly large number of Muslim-dominated states figure among the most backward and undemocratic states in the world. Is Islam in need of an era of enlightment? Is the faith even incompatible with democracy as others claim?

Aga Khan: As I said before, one has to be fair. Some of the political leaders have inherited problems that are in no way attributable to the faith. New governance solutions have to be tested and validated over time. Nor do I believe Muslim states are systematically economic underperformers. Some of the fastest growing economies and some of the most successful newly industrialized countries are in the Islamic world. Now concerning democracy: My democratic beliefs do not go back to the Greek or French (thinkers) but to an era 1,400 years ago. These are the principles underlying my religion. During the prophet’s life (peace be upon him), there was a systematic consultative political process. And the first imam of the Shiites, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Hazrat Ali, emphasized: “No honor is like knowledge, no power is like forbearance, and no support is more reliable than consultation.”

SPIEGEL: If pluralism, civil society and Islam can coexist harmoniously, as was proven in the past, then why is this so seldom achieved nowadays?

Aga Khan: I think we have a very diverse situation in the Islamic world. Wealthy countries with enormous ressources, newly industrialized countries, extremely poor ones.

SPIEGEL: Not many are functioning democracies.

Aga Khan: People speak about failed states. I do not think that states can fail, but democracies certainly can. The failure of democracy is not specific to the Islamic world. Indeed, about two years ago, the United Nations carried out an in-depth analysis of democracy in South America. About 55 percent of the population in South American states said that they would prefer to live under a paternalistic dictatorship instead of an incompetent or corrupt democracy that is not improving their living condition.

SPIEGEL: Most of your Ismaili constituency lives in states that cannot be called perfect democracies: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. What makes democracies fail?

Aga Khan: I ask myself every day what we can do to sustain the multiple forms of democracy, to make these forms of government work, whether it is in Latin America, Africa or the Middle East.

SPIEGEL: And what do you believe to be the answer?

Aga Khan: I admit that I live in a mood of frustration. What is the point in these areas of the world of carrying out a referendum in a population that essentially cannot read and write? What is the point in testing a constitution with a population that knows no difference between a presidential regime or a constitutional monarchy? Elections, constitutions — all this is necessary, but not sufficient. I think we have to accept that countries have different histories, different social structures, different needs, so we have to be a great deal more flexible than we have been.

SPIEGEL: Nor is democracy monolithic. The American model of democracy is no panacea for the rest of the world. Has George W. Bush aggrevated the situation with his particular way of bringing democracy to the Middle East? Can the United States still win the war in Iraq?

Aga Khan: I am very, very worried about Iraq. The invasion of Iraq had an impact across the world like nothing before in modern times. The invasion has unleashed every force in the Islamic world, including the relations between the Arabs and non-Arabs and the relationship between the Shia und the Sunni.

SPIEGEL: You mean the war created a new terrorist base and radicalized people?

Aga Khan: Indeed. It mobilized a large number of people across the Islamic world, who before then were not involved, and indeed I think they did not want to be.

SPIEGEL: Do you share the view of the American professor and Islam expert Vali Nasr that the balance of power in the Muslim world is undergoing a decisive shift, that Shiites could become the most influential force from Baghdad to Beirut, that the future of the Middle East will be shaped by wars between different Muslim factions?

Aga Khan: When the invasion of Iraq took place, we were told two things: (that there would be) regime change and democracy. Well, anyone who knew the situation in Iraq, as you did, I did, but what did that mean? That meant a Shia majority; it could not have been otherwise. Anyone who then concludes that the next issue is a Shia majority in Iraq is going to start thinking, What does that mean in the region, what does it mean in the Islamic world, what does it mean in relation to the West? All that was as clear as daylight, you didn’t even have to be a Muslim or a scholar to know that.

SPIEGEL: In your opinion, was it pure ignorance and naivete that made the Bush government start the war? Was it really about introducing democracy or a strategic decision about conquering oil fields and military bases?

Aga Khan: I wish I could answer that question.

SPIEGEL: Are you in contact with the religious leaders in Iraq, like Grand Ayatollah Sistani? And with the religious leaders of Iran as well?

Aga Khan: We have frequent contacts with important personalities in both countries.

SPIEGEL: What would it take to get you to go to the region as a mediator?

Aga Khan: This is, at the moment, not one of my priorities. One day maybe, we might consider (participating in the) reconstruction (effort).

SPIEGEL: When you compare the invasion in Iraq with the one in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida worked hand in hand …

Aga Khan: … there I see a completely different picture. First of all, the Afghan regime at the time was quasi totally detested by the people; it was equally unpleasant for Sunnis as it was the for Shias and it was totally unacceptable I think just in terms of overall civilized life.

SPIEGEL: Afghanistan is currently being confronted with major problems and the situation seems to be deteriorating by the hour. What went wrong? And what can the West do to make the situation more stable?

Aga Khan: The security situation is indeed very worrying — it is getting worse, especially in the south. Most of our projects are in the capital and in the north where (the situation) is better but not satisfying. We can supply energy from Tajikistan, we can provide civil services. We try to avoid the danger that certain areas in Afghanistan will be rehabilitated more quickly than others. If this development overlaps with ethnic divides you have another problem. But the main problem is that most people in Afghanistan have not seen an improvement in their daily lives. The process of reconstruction does not seem to be penetrating. We have not succeded in bringing a culture of hope to this country. One of the central lessons I have learned after a half century of working in the developing world is that the replacement of fear by hope is probably the most powerful trampoline of progress.

SPIEGEL: President Karzai is a personal friend of yours. Many people see him as a weak leader, and some call him “Mayor of Kabul” because he is unable to control large parts of the country.

Aga Khan: We should do everything to help him. He has an enomously complex agenda to deal with. He is our best hope. And besides, he is the elected leader and we have to work with the parliament.

SPIEGEL: Even if warlords and a former members of the Taliban are represented in Afghanistan’s parliament?

Aga Khan: You either accept the results of democracy or you don’t. Otherwise you talk about qualifying democracy.

SPIEGEL: That means the West should deal with the radical Islamist Hamas as well?

Aga Khan: You have to work with whoever the population has elected as long as they are willing to respect what I call cosmopolitan ethics. Now, it’s true that Hamas has a record of conflict …

SPIEGEL: … of outright terror …

Aga Khan: … but it would not be the only time that movements that have such a record make it into parliament, and even end up in charge of government later on. Can I remind you of Jomo Kenyatta and his Mau Mau movement in Kenya, for example, or the ANC in South Africa? Take away the causes of extremism and extremists can come back to a more reasonable political agenda. That change to me is one of the wonderful things about the human race.

SPIEGEL: You know Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, very well. You recently visited him again in Damascus. In contrast to the American administration, the German government is trying to get him involved in the Middle East peace process.

Aga Khan: I would like to compliment the German government and others in Europe who have taken the decision to invite President Assad to be a party to the peace process. The process of change from decades of political directionalism is something that needs time, as you saw in East Germany. I think there are many reasons to go out of our way to assist Syria in making the transition from the past to the future.

SPIEGEL: If you look back at the years that have passed since World War II — the Cold War between the East and the West, the ideological conflict with communism — would you ever have thought that this conflict could be replaced by one between the West and radical Islamists?

Aga Khan: I beg you, please get away from the concept of a conflict of religion. It is not such a conflict. Nobody will ever convince me that the faith of Islam, that Christianity, that Judaism will fight each other in our times — they have too much in common. That’s why I am talking about this global ethic which unites us all. That’s why we are trying to work with the Catholic Church in Portugal on a program aimed at immigant minorities. I am aware of a sense of disaffection with the society that many young Muslims feel because they think that the Western society has the intention of marginalizing or damaging them.

SPIEGEL: The German government just organized a conference with many different Muslim groups and personalities who live in Germany. Do you consider such a forum useful or is it just window dressing?

Aga Khan: We can avoid misunderstandings by having such a forum where people from different faiths consult each other so they understand what really affects them. Once you have committed an offense all you can do is to try and reverse it. Anyone who knows the faith of Islam, for example, would have known that the caricatures of the prohet were profoundly offensive to all Muslims.

SPIEGEL: Again, this whole affair was misused by radical Islamists. They added caricatures much more offensive than the original ones to incite the masses.

Aga Khan: But I am told that there was an internal debate between the editors of that publication and they actually knew what they were doing. They took a risk and somebody should have said to them, Why get into that situation? Now we are talking about civility, which is a completely different concept. If we are talking about civility in a pluralist society, then how do you develop that notion of civility, particularly where there is ignorance. And that’s the thing that’s worrying. And that’s why I get frustrated when I see these situations that go on and on and on. Because I’m not willing to believe that they are all inspired by evil intent.

SPIEGEL: Provocative, sad and distasteful. But the freedom of the press is one of the highest values in our democracy. We have to balance one thing against the other and we will allow non-believers to express even outrageous opinions.

Aga Khan: I think that you are now referring to one of the most difficult problems that we have and I don’t know the answer. The industrialized West is highly secularized; the Muslim world is much less secularized and that stems largely from the nature of the faith of Islam, which you know and I know has an intrinsic meshing with everyday life. And that is a scenario where people of goodwill need to think very, very carefully.

SPIEGEL: In some of your speeches you mentioned Kemal Atatürk in a positive context. Turkey followed his path and is one of the very few countries with a predominant Muslim population where there is separation of church and state. Would you like to see others go the same way?

Aga Khan: I am not opposed to secularism as such. But I am opposed to unilateral secularism where the notions of faith and ethics just disappear from society.

SPIEGEL: Your Highness, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Stefan Aust and Erich Follath.