Item(s) for July, 2007

Jul 11,2007

How do you explain your faith to people who do not share your truth claims and who find your sacred practices foreign?

As a minority within a minority within a minority in the West – a Muslim, a Shia, an Ismaili – I have long struggled with that question.

When I was a child and I had to explain why I was fasting from food and drink on a certain day, or why I wore an Arabic symbol for God on a chain around my neck, I would put my head down and mutter: “My mom makes me do it.”

In a world where people from different faith backgrounds are in constant contact with one another, and there are forces who actively seek to sow division between diverse people, we need better ways to build understanding. We need what I call a ‘public language’ of faith, a language which highlights the history of our traditions, and the good works they are doing for the broader world.

Every tradition has a history, and while yours might be different from mine, I expect that you will have more understanding for who I am and how I practice faith if I tell you a little about where I come from. And every tradition has a core which seeks to serve others. And if I tell you about how the people, institutions and leader of my faith are helping people live more peaceful and prosperous lives, I think that you will have deeper respect – perhaps even admiration – for my tradition.

Today, on one of the holiest days of my life, I want to use this public language of faith, in the hopes that it will provide a window of understanding into my tradition and community.

Today, I celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Imamat of my spiritual leader, the Aga Khan.

I am an Ismaili Muslim, one of 15 million members of a Shia Muslim community spread across 25 countries. Ismailis, like all Muslims, affirm the Shahada – that there is no god but God and Muhammad is God’s messenger. Like all Shia, we believe that the Prophet Muhammad appointed his cousin and son-in-law Ali to lead the Muslim community after his death. Ali was known as the first Imam (this is not to be confused with the small ‘i’ imam, as in the person who leads Muslim congregational prayers), a designation that carried with it the unique ability to interpret the meaning and application of the Holy Qur’an in changing times. The Imam, according to Shia tradition, chooses his successor from within the Ahl al-Bayt, or the family of the Prophet. Over the course of history, disputes arose over the appointment of certain Imams, and the Shia split into multiple communities.

Today, the Ismailis are the only Shia community with a living and present Imam. The current Aga Khan is the 49th in the line of Imams recognized by Ismailis. Previous Imams have played a significant role within the Muslim ummah and the wider world. Ali was not only the first Shia Imam, he was also the fourth Caliph of the entire Muslim community. Ismaili Imams laid the foundation for the modern city of Cairo in the 10th century, and built there one of the world’s most ancient universities, Al Azhar. This Imam’s immediate predecessor, Sultan Muhammad Shah, served as the President of the League of Nations and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

As an Ismaili, I look to the Aga Khan for religious guidance. But one does not need to have a spiritual allegiance to the Aga Khan to admire the work of his institutions. As the Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – an innovative and highly effective association of health, education, cultural and economic development institutions – he has helped literally millions of people in forgotten parts of the developing world live more peaceful, prosperous and dignified lives.

Consider these concrete examples:

-There are 300 Aga Khan schools in the world, educating 62,000 students and employing nearly 5000 staff.

– There are over 200 Aga Khan health centers in the world, caring for nearly two million and employing nearly 10,000 staff.

– The AKDN is currently building the University of Central Asia, whose purpose is to foster the human and social capital for democracy, pluralism and prosperity in a region that gets far too little attention.

– When a tragic earthquake struck Kashmir in 2005, AKDN helicopters were amongst the first to arrive on the scene.

Two particularly distinctive aspects of the AKDN is its understanding that culture – architecture, poetry, music, calligraphy – is a crucial part of human existence, and its commitment to nurturing effective private enterprise in developing countries. On the culture front, the AKDN built Al Azhar park in Cairo and restored Humayan’s Tomb in India. It has supported everything from indigenous music in Tajikistan to Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. Regarding effective private enterprise, Roshan, a mobile phone company that the AKDN owns a 51% share in, is the single largest private employer in Afghanistan.

A substantial amount of this work is funded by the private resources of the Aga Khan and the Ismaili community. (I serve on the National Committee of the Aga Khan Foundation in the USA, which raises money and awareness for AKDN programs around the world, especially through the Partnership Walk). But all of it – the hospitals and schools, the private companies and university courses – is non-sectarian. In fact, these programs are specifically designed to nurture pluralism. As the Aga Khan once said, “Tolerance, openness and understanding toward other peoples’ cultures, social structures, values and faiths are now essential to the very survival of an interdependent world. Pluralism is no longer simply an asset or a prerequisite for progress and development, it is vital to our existence.”

There is a guiding philosophy, an animating ethos, behind the AKDN – Islam. Over and over again, the Aga Khan has emphasized that his work for mercy, compassion and dignity emerge directly from his commitment to Islam.

So while many people call the Aga Khan a leading philanthropist, I believe that term captures neither his inspiration nor his vision.

He is the Imam of the Ismaili community. He is a Muslim.

“On Faith” panelist Eboo Patel is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core and the author of “ Acts of Faith.”


Jul 9,2007

Spiritual leader’s 50 years of guidance recognized with events throughout the year in Calgary

Graeme Morton, Calgary Herald
Published: Saturday, July 07, 2007

Calgary’s Ismaili Muslim community is ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ascension to the Imamat of their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan.

While the actual anniversary will be marked at five local Ismaili jamatkhanas (places of gathering) next Wednesday, events are planned throughout the year, says Sameera Sereda a volunteer with the Shia Ismaili Muslim Community of Calgary.

Born in Switzerland in 1936, the Aga Khan became Imam to the world’s Ismaili Muslims on July 11, 1957, succeeding his grandfather. He was a 20-year-old Harvard University student at the time.

For Ismailis, the Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad,” Sereda says. “That direct link of a living descendant is very special to us; it speaks of 1,400 years of history.” Sereda says the Aga Khan’s mission as leader of the world’s Ismailis is multi-faceted.

“As our spiritual leader, his role is to interpret the faith and to advance the well-being of the Ismaili community from both a spiritual and a worldly aspect and improve the quality of life of the societies in which Ismailis live,” she says.

“But it goes far beyond that. We are called to contribute positively to our community and our world; that’s a fundamental ethic of Islam.” The Stampede is a prime time for local Ismailis to pitch in, Sereda says. A pancake breakfast this morning under a large tent near the airport is expected to draw 8,000 people. It will help celebrate new bonds being forged between Calgary Ismailis and Habitat for Humanity to help tackle the city’s need for affordable housing.

“For us, volunteering and giving back to our community is a faith-based value,” says Sereda, a Calgary legal recruiter. Sereda says in recent years local Ismailis have formed partnerships with a number of local social agencies to offer both their sweat and expertise.

“Habitat for Humanity is the latest in that history and it’s going to be a long-term commitment,” Sereda says.

Sereda says the Aga Khan Development Network, an umbrella organization active in many of the world’s poorest regions, embodies the social conscience of Islam expressed through concrete, humanitarian action.

“Its work in health, education and many other fields is completely non-denominational. It responds wherever the need is greatest, specifically in areas of Africa and Asia,” she adds.

Calgary is home to about 10,000 of Canada’s estimated 90,000 Ismailis.

The first major wave of Ismaili immigration to Canada came in the early 1970s, spawned by the mass expulsion of South Asians from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin and turmoil in other East African nations.

One of those was Calgary writer Mansoor Ladha, who has met the Aga Khan twice; first in 1968 as a young reporter in Tanzania, the second time as a leader of Edmonton’s Ismaili community in 1979.

“In Tanzania, I interviewed him about economic development and political issues of the time such as apartheid in South Africa,” recalls Ladha.

“In Edmonton, it was very much a visit by our spiritual leader. What struck me was how effortlessly and eloquently he could speak in either world.

“You could immediately tell the impressive qualities of the man that have made him so respected,” says Ladha, who is writing a book about Ismaili settlement in Canada.

The Aga Khan, Sereda says, has always had a strong affinity for Canada, a country he holds up as an example of a progressive, pluralistic society in a turbulent world. In partnership with the federal government, he is opening the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. It will act as an institution for research, study and promotion of pluralistic values and practices in culturally diverse societies worldwide.

“Even within our Calgary Ismaili community, there are people from many different countries,” Ladha adds.

Sereda says Ismailis will take the next 12 months to celebrate the Aga Khan’s leadership over 50 years, but also “to search our own hearts for what we can do as individuals to serve mankind.” She says she expects the Aga Khan will visit as many of the 25-plus countries where Ismaili Muslims live as he can in the next year.

“The last time he was in Calgary was 1992, so we hope we’ll be on his list.”

Jul 3,2007


The EastAfrican

Afghanistan has turned to a development model first tried in Nairobi in 1986 to give its reconstruction a badly needed burst of energy after nearly three decades of war against Russia and a civil war.

The meeting in 1986 in the Kenyan capital was hosted by then President Daniel arap Moi and it was there that the Aga Khan raised, for the first time, the need for governments to provide an enabling environment to attract investments. 

Kenya at the time faced some of the problems bedevilling Afghanistan today, with reluctance by foreign investors to move into a high- risk environment topping the list.

It was at the Nairobi meeting that the phrase “enabling environment” was coined. It signifies the presence of political stability, safety and security, citizens’ rights, predictable democratic practices and efficient legal and administrative frameworks. 

Last week, a similar message was passed on to Kabul during a high-level conference believed to be the largest such gathering held in the Afghan capital in recent years. It was jointly organised by the Afghanistan government and the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) to help spur development in the war-weary country. The World Bank, the United Nations Development Fund and the Asian Development Bank were also involved in hosting the Conference, which was attended by the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his First Vice-President Ahmad Zia Massoud and several Cabinet ministers and government officials.

The prescription was one that any country that has seen its economy looking up in the recent years knows only too well — open up for business, ease movement of goods and services into and out of the country, fix the infrastructure, attract foreign investment and ensure a secure environment, the ingredients for the so-called enabling environment.

While the case at hand was the reconstruction of Afghanistan, many lessons abound for other developing countries, especially Kenya and the Eastern African region, where the idea was first planted.

Badly in need of foreign investment to set it on the path to growth, Afghanistan is reaching out for goodwill from key regional and world heavyweights in politics, business, aid and civil society.

Key leaders who have chosen to help the country rise, and who participated at last week’s Enabling Environment Conference, included Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the Aga Khan, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, Celtel founder Dr Mo Ibrahim and Prince Amyn Aga Khan. Others were representatives from the World Bank, the UNDP and the Asian Development Bank.

The conference provided a rare opportunity for the state, business and civil society — including multilateral institutions such as the World Bank — to come together and discuss the measures that needed to be taken to set the mountainous country on the road to development.

The challenge is huge, but two aspects stand out. First is the need to reduce the insecurity orchestrated by Taliban insurgents, who are yet to accept defeat five years after they were deposed from power post-9/11. Second is the long-thriving growing of opium poppy has ensured that the country remains the chief producer of the heroin worldwide.

The deliberations gave birth to eight action points, whose implementation was seen as key to the country’s development:

1. Enactment of laws to establish the basic legal and regulatory framework that will encourage private sector involvement in social and economic development.

2. Strengthening the governance and operations of civil society organisations to enhance their contributions to the country’s social and economic development.

3. Alleviation of constraints hampering the operations of the private and public sectors.

4. Involvement of the private sector in the provision of public services through private-public partnerships (PPPs) and other means in areas such as power generation and distribution, water supply, transportation infrastructure and social development.

5. Facilitating access to land by clarifying property rights, simplifying procedures for the transfer of titles and allowing for longer-term leases.

6. Significantly expanding the outreach of a broad range of financial services throughout the country.

7. Building the structures, systems and capacity of mediation and arbitration tribunals to ensure efficient and impartial resolution of disputes.

8. Instilling active practice of social responsibility and philanthropy that leads to the institutionalisation of private (business and individual) support for economic and social development through civil society.

Setting the pace at the beginning of the conference, the Aga Khan called for a “great alliance” of government, communities and business to help drive growth in the developing world.

He said that while there are plenty of cases of good work by each of the three, their potential to improve lives is watered down by the fact that they apply their efforts separately.

The Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, was joined by several world leaders in calling on governments in developing countries to pursue policies that drive development by accelerating business growth.

“Laying the state’s political foundation is a necessary first step for an enabling environment, but even effective government can take us only so far,” said the Aga Khan, who marks his 50th anniversary as the leader of the Ismaili Community this year. “And that is why we have been talking more in recent years about two other sectors: first, what I often call the role of civil society; and, second, the capacities of the private sector.”

He said one of the major obstacles to development today “is that the efforts of all three sectors are too often scattered and fragmented”.

President Karzai told the conference that the long-term future of Afghanistan would depend on Afghans themselves. “Afghanistan’s prosperity today and in the future will be linked to our ability to attract and support private business,” he said. 

Malaysian Premier Badawi said one of his country’s key decisions in the 1980s was to progressively reduce the role of the state in conducting business. “We made the private sector, not the public sector, the primary engine of growth. We opened and liberalised our economy,” he said.

Speaking to journalists later, the Aga Khan urged patience with emerging countries as they work on reconstructing their economies.

“Society does not change that quickly,” he said. “I don’t expect a country that has just come out of decades of civil war to change within a few years,” the Aga Khan said in response to reports that some local businessmen had misgivings about the Kabul Government’s commitment to implementing the conference’s action points.

He discussed AKDN’s involvement in organising the Enabling Environment Conference as part of efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.

“Here we are talking about a young government working with a constitution that has not been tested?. What people are looking for is confidence in the process of change,” he said.

The Aga Khan said it was important for development agents to understand the value systems that drive poor communities and to find ways of working with them to improve their living standards.

He added that there is a need to develop civil society at the community level to help in driving growth.

“Ultimately, it is civil society that brings development. It is not the money, it is the institutions. You need money, but what changes lives are the institutions,” said the Aga Khan.

He said there were instances where international development agents have misled emerging countries, citing Africa, where countries that attained independence 50 years ago were discouraged from investing in higher education.

“Experts looked at the cost of producing a Bachelor of Arts graduate on a balance sheet and realised the individual would never bring back the money put into higher education. As a result, many African countries did not invest in higher education. 

“Several years later, experts came back and declared higher education in Africa a disaster,” he said, adding that many of the affected countries were today turning to civil society to help them provide decent higher education.

When he took the floor, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said the key to growth for the developing world were bold policy reforms, each country’s diaspora and the repeal of foreign investment caps.

Mr Aziz said most of these decisions required great courage, adding that experience around the world shows that the three things have helped emerging countries sustain development.

“In Pakistan, we are already seeing the benefit of the government having insisted on reforms that saw ministries solely focused on policy formulation, new institutions created for regulation and business left to the private sector,” he said.

He said the second thing was tapping the often immense potential inherent in a nation’s diaspora, citing the case of China: “The single-most important factor that propelled China’s growth initially was the Chinese diaspora.” 

The third point, he said, was allowing unlimited access for foreign investment in national economies. He discounted investment caps favoured by some countries to limit the level of equity that foreign investors can hold in different sectors.

“I call it the investment rate card. They tell you that as a foreign investor, you can only hold 30 per cent in this sector and 50 per cent in the other. In Pakistan, we have no such rate card,” he said in a keynote address during the closing of the conference.

Mr Aziz said developing countries should compare equity and debt: “If you go for equity, you pay back if the investment makes money, but if you go for debt, you pay back either way.” 

The PM said such policies have helped his country sustain annual growth for eight years, consistently registering more than 7 per cent in the past five years.