Item(s) for August, 2008

Aug 5,2008

António Marujo and Faranaz Keshavjee

Courteous, ever smiling, those who are close to him say he is demanding. That is what happens in the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of agencies working in fields such as micro-finance, rural development or even in lucrative sectors such as tourism, aviation, banking or industry. Shah Karim Al-Husseini. Aga Khan IV, as he designated by the Ismailis, took on the role of 49th hereditary Imam of the Time (since Prophet Muhammad), on July 11th 1957.

He was in Portugal , some days ago, to mark the conclusion of his Golden Jubilee.

PÚBLICO – In 1976, you mentioned that Prophet Muhammad understood the importance of new solutions for the daily lives that would not affect the principles of Islam. Does this motivate the undertakings of the AKDN?

Definitely. Firstly, the notion of dealing with poverty. Islam has a group of very strong orientations on how to help people, which is different (no more or less better) from the Christian world. For example, in Islam, we do not use the terms philanthropy or charity [as in Christianity] .

Islam says that the best form of charity, to use the term, is by helping people to become self-sufficient. It is to give in such a way that the person becomes master of one’s own destiny. This is a very clear affirmation to all Muslims, and it underlies our health programmes, educationt it is helping people to help themselves. The same is applicable to micro-finance. Whatever the need of the poor, one should help to resolve it. One does not specify material poverty, disease, or divisions within the family.

Does daily life carry the same importance as eternal life?

In Islam, they are the same thing. One cannot separate faith from the world. This is one of the greatest difficulties that the non-Muslim world has, because the judaic-christian societies developed with that notion of separation. For the Muslims, that separation is not possible. We are expected to live our faith every day, in every hour.

One of the difficulties that we are facing in the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, is the articulation of the difference in values in a comprehensive form. However, this does not mean that we are in conflict. They are just different values.

One of the differences is laicality, debated in countries such as as Portugal , Turkey , France . For many, faith should remain confined to a private space. You mentioned that Islam doesn’t separate faith from the world. How do you perceive this notion?

I would like the non-Muslim societies to accept the values of Islam. If Islam says that we do not separate the world from faith, the Western world should accept that. I would go further and say: it is a wonderful way to live! It is an extraordinary blessing to be able to live our faith everyday! Making ethic the way in which you live your daily life, and not only in occasions such as death, a marriage or a birth.

I am not criticising anyone. I am saying that secular society, by the nature of secularity and the demands of time, provokes in people the need to first place the world and faith after. This is not a part of Islam.

Upon receiving the Award for Tolerance from the Tutzing Evangelic Academy , in Germany , you stated: “Instead of shouting at one another, we should listen to each other and learn from each other”.

You said that “fear is the source of intolerance”. In spite of your words and those of several religious leaders, many believers do not listen to this message. What is yet to be done?

There will always be limits in inter-religious dialogue, when religions, in their essence, cannot attain a consensus above a common platform, when proselytism is, therefore, worth more.

There are several forms of proselytism and, in several religions, proselytism is demanded. Therefore, it is necessary to develop the principle of a cosmopolitan ethic, which is not an ethic oriented by faith, or for a society. I speak of an ethic under which all people can live within a same society, and not of a society that reflects the ethic of solely one faith. I would call that ethic, quality of life.

I have serious doubts about the ecumenical discourse, and about what it can reach, but I do not have any doubts about cosmopolitan ethics. I believe that people share the same basic worries, joys, sadness. If we can reach a consensus in terms of cosmopolitan ethics, we will have attained something which is very important.

The Qu’ran has a very important ayat [verse], in which God says: “I have created you” – “you” means mankind – “male and female, from one sole, only one soul”. This is the most extraordinary expression on the unity of the human race. It is within this context that we must work.


Aug 5,2008

PDT Bamiyan, Afghanistan —

Sanjeev Gupta thinks it’s about time war-torn Afghanistan had a tourism industry in a peaceful corner of the country.

Gupta, a regional program manager for the nongovernmental organization, the Aga Khan Foundation, says that even though some areas are too volatile to visit, Bamiyan in central Afghanistan is safe and has an abundance of cultural, historical and natural treasures to lure international travelers.

“Bamiyan has a lot of tourist potential,” Gupta said. “We need to correct the perception of Afghanistan. The whole country is not dangerous.”

The Aga Khan Foundation, based in Geneva, created the Bamiyan Ecotourism Project to develop tourist infrastructure, train guides, cooks and hoteliers, and raise awareness of the region’s natural attractions. It’s a $1 million, three-year program.

Tough sell

Gupta concedes the task of establishing a tourism industry is a daunting task even in a relatively safe province like Bamiyan.

Since the Soviet invasion in 1979 and three decades of war, few tourists have traveled to Afghanistan. The United States and many other Western governments have issued travel advisories strongly discouraging nonessential travel to Afghanistan. And there are no commercial flights. Tourists must travel the 150-mile, 10-hour journey from Kabul on a dirt road that winds high up into the snowcapped Koh-i-Baba mountains before dipping down into the verdant Bamiyan Valley. The alternative road is controlled by the Taliban, who were ousted in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

But Gupta sees a long-term plan. “It’s not that we’re starting the program today and tomorrow there are hordes of tourists coming,” he said. “But it builds a base.”

To be sure, Bamiyan is already a success story in the post-Taliban era.

Virtually free of opium poppies, Bamiyan’s fields are bursting with potato plants. Scores of schools have been built, with girls 45 percent of provincial students, up from almost zero in 2001 under the fundamentalist Taliban. In stark contrast, 590 schools have closed in southern Afghanistan and 300,000 students have been left without classrooms due to Taliban attacks, according to the Associated Press.

History of visitors

And Bamiyan does have tourist infrastructure. Ever since the days of the fabled Silk Road that linked Rome to China, the province has been a stop for international travelers from Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to first lady Laura Bush. In June, the first lady met with women training at a police academy and toured the construction site of an orphanage.

Tea shop owners at the edge of one lake say that on Fridays, the Islamic weekend, the parking lot fills with dozens of cars – most belonging to picnicking Afghan families.

In past years, most tourists came to see two giant statues of Buddha, at 174 feet and 125 feet, which were built a century before the birth of Islam out of the red sandstone cliffs 1,500 years ago. At the time, Bamiyan was a thriving center of Buddhism.

In 2001, at the height of its power, the Taliban government used rockets and tanks to destroy the Buddhist landmarks, which they considered to be idols of infidels.

Now, Bamiyan wants its history back.

Push to rebuild

Gov. Habiba Sarabi – the only female governor in Afghanistan – says she hopes at least one of the Buddha statues will be rebuilt, a difficult project that several organizations have offered to fund, but that is still awaiting approval from the Ministry of Culture. In Kabul, opinion is divided on whether the restoration of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic sixth century history is an appropriate program.

Bamiyan also boasts Afghanistan’s first national park, a 220-square-mile zone around Band-i-Amir – six sapphire-blue lakes set amid barren sandstone badlands. Getting there, however, takes a three-hour drive in a 4×4 vehicle over a rocky road between rusting carcasses of Soviet tanks and toothy 10,000-foot-tall mountains that have not been entirely cleared of land mines. Sarabi hopes that one day a paved road will link Kabul to Band-i-Amir.

“Tourism can bring a lot of income and a lot of change to people’s lives,” she said.

But Abdul Razak, who was sitting in the empty restaurant of his 18-room Roof of Bamiyan Hotel, says tourism has a long way to go before becoming a reality. “Bamiyan (security) is OK, but outside of Bamiyan is bad. The most important thing for tourists is peace.”

On a recent Sunday, Pei-Yin Lew, a 22-year-old Australian medical student, enjoyed the calm of the Band-i-Amir lakes in the new national park.

“One of the main reasons I wanted to come to Afghanistan was to see these lakes,” she said, standing above the string of brilliant blue lagoons. “It’s truly beautiful here.”

Afghanistan tourism

Afghanistan’s political instability has taken a toll on its nascent tourism industry.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, there have been no reliable statistics, but industry officials agree that visitors have declined dramatically in recent months.

The bombing this month outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 41 people, and a January attack on the capital’s only five-star hotel has cut business by 70 percent, according to André Mann, founder of the Great Game Travel Co. in Kabul, which offers customized adventure treks.

“Things can change rapidly,” Mann said. “We’ve had some setbacks. We’re a little discouraged, but we’re hoping for a better 2009.”

U.S. travel advisory

The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens against travel to any area of Afghanistan.

“No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, either targeted or random, against American and other western nationals at any time.

“There is an on-going threat to kidnap and assassinate U.S. citizens and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) workers throughout the country.”


Aug 1,2008

Don Cayo, Vancouver Sun

CALGARY – The era when Europe was locked into or just breaking out of what we call the Dark Ages is also known as the Golden Age for Muslims. From the 8th century to the 12th and even beyond — in some places as late as the 15th or 16th century — Muslims led the Western world in wealth, power and learning.

I knew this before I visited Timbuktu — a great Muslim city of yore — in 2004. At a time before the discovery of the New World’s glitzy treasures, nearly all the gold in Europe came from West Africa. The usual route it took included camel caravans across the Sahara, and they emanated from Timbuktu.

What I didn’t know before my visit was this: So great was this legendary city as a centre of learning that in some years the value of books it exported exceeded the value of its gold.

Fast forward to 2008, a time when Western perceptions of Muslim learning are at a precipitous low. The dominant vision seems to be of doctrinaire mullahs in shabby madrassas inculcating the young with ideas that feed, at best, bigotry toward the West and, at worst, terrorism.

While it’s sadly possible to find examples of just such schools, I’ve travelled enough to know this perception is neither a complete nor a fair picture. But it was refreshing, nonetheless, to attend a weekend event here that reminded me just how far off base it is in relation to some Muslims in many parts of the world, including a vibrant community living productively in our midst.

I was an adjudicator for the first national ISTAR awards, a new level added to decades-old regional programs that recognize high achievement from Canadian Ismaili students in a variety of categories — academic excellence, arts and culture, leadership and community service, science and technology, and sports.

And when they say “high achievement,” oh boy, they mean it. I’ve judged a variety of competitions over my career, including the Jack Webster Foundation’s highly competitive Seeing the World fellowship for young B.C. journalists, and I’ve never faced such difficult choices.

I judged the ISTAR’s leadership and community service category, and I found good reasons in every application to put it at the top of the pile, and no clear reason in any to put it at the bottom.

The depth and breadth of involvement in both secular and faith-based good works was astonishing, as were the energy, commitment and skill.

But, as with my earlier visit to Timbuktu, I did learn some new things about this Muslim group at the ISTAR awards ceremony here on Saturday.

Tom Kessinger, deputy chairman of the international Aga Khan Development Network — the No. 2 man to the Aga Khan, the hereditary leader of the Ismailis — noted that education, though not always in the formal sense, is at the root of virtually all his organization does.

The AKDN is a huge development organization — it’s hard to say exactly how huge, as much of its funding comes from the private wealth of the Aga Khan and donations from his followers and those figures aren’t made public. It’s a complex web of non-profit and for-profit ventures, but, Kessinger noted, all have education at their core.

I should have guessed.

I’ve written not only about non-profit AKDN work to improve education in East Africa and other parts of the developing world, but also about some of its for-profit work in areas that range from growing and processing beans to running high-end hotels.

The goal of these enterprises goes far beyond profit. (See my blog entry “Celebrating foreign aid that works” to access detailed stories on these projects.)

In the bean project, for example, farmers are trained to produce profitable cash crops that don’t interfere with their traditional subsistence.

In the hotels, local people don’t just do menial work — they’re recruited and trained for every kind of job. Even the crafts they display and sell are hand-made and one-of-a-kind, not the mass-produced kitsch found on every downtown street corner and tourist market in poor cities worldwide.

Even in AKDN’s innovative pre-schools for children of families whose members may have never seen a classroom, a big problem is that the teachers they custom train — young women with no other job options — are lured away by other schools.

Nashir Samanani, president of the Ismaili Council for the Prairies, quoted the Aga Khan as saying education should be “the polar opposite of indoctrination.”

The young people I met here on the weekend — and those whose long and impressive bios I pored over trying to split enough hairs to identify a winner — are, I think, shining examples of what he means.

In my world of journalism where good news is most often no news, we don’t write often enough about things like this. But I think it’s important to note that, all these centuries later, learning is still central to Muslim culture in some parts of the world — Canada included.


Three students from Metro Vancouver — two from the same family — won a total of five of the 18 top prizes in the first-annual ISTAR competition for Canadian Ismaili students held to mark the 50th jubilee of the Ismailis’ leader, the Aga Khan.

Aaria Rahim, a Grade 12 graduate from Vancouver who is entering a program in ethics, society and law at the University of Toronto, was named student of the year in the Grade 11-12 age group — a prize that includes a trip to a developing country of her choice. She also won first place in both the leadership and community service category and the arts and culture category.

Another Vancouverite, Shakir Rahim, was runner-up in the same category.

Shakir and Aaria are not related, but Aaria’s brother, Aarman, also won first place in the Grade 10-11 leadership and community service category plus two second-place finishes — arts and culture and science and technology. The other first prize for a B.C. student was the Grade 10-11 arts and culture award won by Aliza Vellani.

Second-place prizes went to Ashraf Amlani in post-secondary science and technology, Rafiq Charani in post-secondary sports and Rafiq Baloo in Grade 11-12 sports.

Third-place prizes went to Rafiq Salemohamed in Grade 10-11 academic excellence, Aquil Virani both in Grade 11-12 academic excellence and in Grade 11-12 arts and culture, Aalia Chatur in post-secondary leadership and community service, and Safiya Dhanani in Grade 11-12 science and technology.