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BBC Monitoring Europe - Political

Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring

October 9, 2006 Monday

Ismailite Shi'i leader defends Islam in interview with German news magazine

LENGTH: 2891 words

Text of interview with Ismailite Shi'i leader Karim Aga Khan IV by unidentified interviewer; place and date not given, entitled "'Islam means reason'" published by German news magazine Der Spiegel website on 9 October; website introduction; subheadings inserted editorially

Karim Aga Khan IV, descendent of the Prophet and spiritual ruler of 20m Ismailites, on the foundations of his faith, the dispute over the Pope's lecture, and the chances of avoiding a war of religions

Prince Karim Aga Khan IV is considered the direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, and as the 49th imam is the spiritual ruler of the Ismailite Shi'is. The denomination of just under 20m believers is scattered among 25 states from Central Asia to Europe and East Africa . The headquarters of Aga Khan, 69, is his Aiglemont Palace near Paris . Born near Geneva , raised in Kenya , Switzerland and London , a graduate of Harvard, enthroned at 20 after the death of his grandfather, the religious leader manages a fortune in the billions derived from his family inheritance and the contributions of believers, a 10 per cent "church tax". Most of it goes into the Aga Khan Development Network, one of the most important private development assistance organizations. The imam appoints his successor from among his male descendents. The Aga Khan has two sons from his first marriage, Rahim, 34, and Hussein, 32; from his second marriage with the German princess Gabriele zu Leiningen, from whom he is separated, comes his son Ali Muhammad, 6. The choice remains secret until his death.

Pope controversy

[Spiegel] Your Highness, the pope has aroused the Islamic world with a quote from the 14th century. He quoted King Manuel II Palaeologos as saying that Mohammad had brought the world only "evil and inhumanity" like his command to "spread the faith by the sword". What was your reaction to the presentation?

[Aga Khan] I was worried about this report, which caused ill feeling throughout the Islamic world. There are apparently a growing number of misunderstandings among religions, relations are growing worse. I think we should all make the effort to not pour even more oil on the fire.

[Spiegel] Benedict XVI expressly distanced himself from the King's words. The pope's interpretation was that with his speech he wanted to promote a dialogue, and since then he has repeatedly expressed his respect for Islam as a world religion. Was it simply an unfortunately chosen quote? Or was he deliberately misunderstood in the Islamic world?

[Aga Khan] I cannot and will not judge that. It would be unreasonable of me to say that I know what he had in mind. But as far as I know there were extraordinary theological discussions and fruitful debates in the Middle Ages between the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world. A fascinating age. King Manuel's statement does not reflect that, it falls somewhere outside the framework.

[Spiegel] With his speech, the pope obviously wanted to address his favourite topic: the connection between faith and reason. And in his words that also means that religion and violence can have nothing to do with each other. Do you see commonalities here?

[Aga Khan] If the pope's speech is interpreted in this direction, then we are at the beginning of an exciting debate that could be extremely constructive for the relationship between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds. So I have two different reactions to the pope's speech: one is the fear of a further deterioration in our relations; but at the same time, I see an opportunity. A new chance to exchange views about something as serious and important as the relationship between faith and logic.

[Spiegel] If the pope were to invite you with other religious leaders to a conference on the topics of faith, reason and violence, would you come?

[Aga Khan] Yes, certainly. But I would note that a purely ecumenical, interfaith discussion runs up against borders as of a certain point. I would prefer to talk about a worldwide ethics that has its origin in all world religions.

Islam and reason

[Spiegel] Many people assert that Islam has a problem with reason. Is that correct?

[Aga Khan] Not at all, quite the contrary. Islam is one of the religions that traces its roots back to Abraham, the one who placed the greatest value on knowledge. A basic goal of Islam is to understand God's creation, and that is why our belief is very much shaped by logic. Islam means reason.

[Spiegel] Besides other politicians, Germany 's CDU [Christian Democratic Union] general secretary has also said that the problem of religiously motivated violence is "today almost exclusively a problem of Islam". Is there such a connection? Where do you feel the roots of today's terrorism lie?

[Aga Khan] They lie in unresolved political conflicts, in frustration, and most of all in ignorance. Nothing of that has its roots in a theological confrontation.

[Spiegel] What political conflicts do you have in mind?

[Aga Khan] For example, those in the Middle East and Kashmir . These conflicts have been simmering for decades, no one addresses them. No one seems to see the urgency of a conflict resolution, and so the situation grows worse. Like a cancer tumour that is allowed to spread uncontrolled and then has fearful consequences. A hotbed of terrorism can emerge from this failure to act.

[Spiegel] And the spread of the faith by the sword does not represent a danger?

[Aga Khan] All religions in their history have used war as a means to defend themselves or expand their influence. Questions of faith were always used as justification for military confrontations. But Islam does not demand it, it is a religion of peace.

[Spiegel] Terrible crimes were committed in the name of Christianity. But that is in the distant past. Jihadists, by contrast, commit their crimes, in which they cite God, here and today.

[Aga Khan] The bloody battles in the Christian world are far from over: think of Northern Ireland 's conflict between Catholics and Protestants. If we Muslims understood what is happening there as the characteristic trait of Christian belief, then you would rightly say: "They have no idea what they are talking about."

[Spiegel] How can a "war of cultures" between the West and the Islamic world still be avoided?

[Aga Khan] I am not speaking of a "clash of civilizations" but rather about a dangerous "clash of ignorance".

[Spiegel] And who is responsible for this ignorance?

[Aga Khan] Both sides, but primarily the West. An educated person of this century should know something about Islam, but Islamic civilization is found on no curriculum. What did people in the West know about the Shi'is before the revolution won in Iran ? What did they know about radical Sunni Wahhabism before the Taleban came to power? Instead of shouting at each other we should learn once again to learn from each other. As in earlier golden days.

[Spiegel] One notices that many Islamic countries are among the world's particularly underdeveloped and undemocratic states. Does Islam need an Age of Enlightenment? Is Islam perhaps not compatible with democracy?

[Aga Khan] We must be fair: some political leaders have inherited problems that have nothing whatsoever to do with faith. In addition, it is simply not correct that Islamic states are automatically backwards, so to speak. And as regards democracy: my democratic foundations do not go back to Greek or French thinkers, but to the age of the Prophet 1,400 years ago. To the principles of my religion. The Prophet - peace be with him - introduced a systematic political consultation process.

Islam and democracy

[Spiegel] Many of your fellow Ismailite believers live in states governed by authoritarian regimes: Pakistan , Syria , Iran . If pluralism, civil society and Islam get along so well together, and you have demonstrated that in the golden era of the Middle Ages, then do you have an explanation why it succeeds so rarely today?

[Aga Khan] The failure of democracies is not specific to the Islamic world. About two years ago the UN commissioned a study of Latin America and came to the conclusion that some 55 per cent of the populations there would prefer to live under a paternalistic dictatorship rather than an incompetent, corrupt democracy that does not improve their living conditions. I ask myself each day what we can do to maintain or promote democratic conditions in developing countries.

[Spiegel] And the answer is?

[Aga Khan] I admit: frustration. What do you gain if you hold a referendum in a population that is predominantly illiterate? What should the vote on a constitution mean if hardly any of those entitled to vote know the difference between a presidential government and a constitutional monarchy? Votes, laws: all that is important, but far from sufficient for a democratic development. I believe we must accept more than in the past that different countries have different historical features, social structures, and needs. We must be more flexible and accept...

[Spiegel] ...that the American model of democracy is not a miracle cure for the rest of the world? Is US President George W. Bush wrong with his forced export of democracy, can he still win in Iraq ?


[Aga Khan] I am very, very worried about Iraq . The invasion of Baghdad triggered shock waves like no other event of the recent past. It has turned everything upside down: the relations between Arab and non-Arab states; the relations between Sunnis and Shi'is.

[Spiegel] Do you mean that the invasion has radicalized people and created a new terror basis?

[Aga Khan] Indeed. Anyone who had any inkling of the situation in Iraq knew what would happen there, knew that the Shi'i majority would gain control.

[Spiegel] Do you feel the American professor and Islam expert Vali Nasr is on the right track with his belief that the Shi'is are becoming the driving force from Baghdad to Beirut, that the future of the Middle East is being shaped by wars between Muslim factions?

[Aga Khan] You do not have to be an expert in Islam to come see these conflicts. That was as clear as the next sunrise.

[Spiegel] Did ignorance and naivete push the Bush government into the war? Was it really about introducing democracy in the Middle East , or rather about oil fields and strategic military bases?

[Aga Khan] I wish I could answer that.

[Spiegel] Are you in contact with religious leaders in Iraq like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani? Do you also discuss the political situation with Iranian dignitaries?

[Aga Khan] I have regular contact with important people in both states.

[Spiegel] What would have to happen for you to go to the region as mediator?

[Aga Khan] At this time that is not on the agenda. Perhaps someday we will participate in the reconstruction.


[Spiegel] If you compare the invasion in Afghanistan with the one in Iraq , if you think about the cooperation of the Taleban with the Al-Qa'idah terrorists.. .

[Aga Khan] ...then I see a completely different picture. First of all, the Taleban regime was hated equally among all parts of the population. It contradicted all rules of civilization, and was forced upon the country from outside.

[Spiegel] Afghanistan today sees itself facing major problems. The security situation is growing worse almost daily, there is the threat of a return of the Taleban. What went wrong? And what can we do to create more stability again?

[Aga Khan] Indeed, the situation is growing steadily worse, especially in the south. Our development projects are concentrated in the capital and the north, where it is somewhat better. We can bring energy across the border from Tajikistan , we can establish civil relief services. We are trying to avoid the danger of some parts of Afghanistan developing faster than others, since if this different pace of progress also runs along ethnic lines then new conflicts quickly develop. The main problem in Afghanistan is that the overwhelming majority of the people there have seen no improvement in their living standard since the Taleban times. For a long time now the assistance has no longer been reaching the entire country.

[Spiegel] Is that the fault of President Hamid Karzai, with whom you are a close friend? Many see in him only the "Mayor of Kabul". He is considered a weak politician who does not have control over most of the country.

[Aga Khan] He has an insanely complex task to perform. We should do everything we can to help him. He is our best hope, and also a democratically elected leader.

[Spiegel] Should the West also cooperate without restriction with the parliament, in which warlords, drug barons and even former Taleban are represented?

[Aga Khan] The results of elections must also be accepted when you do not like the outcome. Otherwise, you damage the rules of the game of democracy.


[Spiegel] Does that mean the West should also cooperate with the radical Islamist Hamas in Palestine ?

[Aga Khan] I believe so. You must cooperate with every freely elected parliament willing to accept what I call a cosmopolitan ethic. Now it is true that Hamas has a controversial past history...

[Spiegel] ...a terrorist past history...

[Aga Khan] ...but that does not mean that a movement with such a past that ends up in parliament as a political party or even enters the government cannot change. Must I remind you of Jomo Kenyatta and his Mau-Maus in Kenya or the ANC in South Africa ? When the reasons for extremism are removed, extremists can change their priorities and find their way to responsible political action. The fact that such a fundamental change is possible represents to me one of the wonderful realizations about mankind.

[Spiegel] Even though such a change is not at all inevitable, as we see with Hamas. You know Syria 's President Bashar al-Asad very well, you have just visited him again in Damascus . In contrast to the US government, the Europeans, led by the German government, are trying to enter into dialogue with al-Asad and include him in the Middle East peace process. Do you see prospects for success?

[Aga Khan] I welcome this policy of the German government. The process of changing from a decades-long policy of state control takes time, as you have seen in East Germany . I believe there are many reasons for us to exert every effort for Syria to make this transition from the past to the future.

No conflict between religions

[Spiegel] The year 2007 will mark the 50th year since you took office as imam of the Ismailites. When you look back on the time after the Second World War, on the Cold War between East and West, on the ideological confrontation with Communism: would you have considered it possible that a conflict between the West and radical Islamists could move to the centre, that minds could be bloodily divided over religions?

[Aga Khan] Once again, I implore you to distance yourself from this idea: There is no conflict between the religions. Islam, Christianity and Judaism have too much in common for us to arrive at such fronts. The important thing is for us to concern ourselves with a global ethic that unites all of us. That is why those of us in the Aga Khan Development Network are working, for example in Portugal , with the Catholic Church on a programme for better integration of immigrants. I am very aware that many young Muslims have strong reservations about Western societies, they feel marginalized and excluded.

[Spiegel] In exactly the same way, many people in the West have reservations about young Muslims, who to some extent live in parallel societies and are not even prepared to learn the language of their host country. The German government has just brought Muslim dignitaries and groups to the same table at a first Islam conference. Is this a useful approach or only eyewash?

[Aga Khan] If we have a forum where people of different religions consult with each other, then we can eliminate misunderstandings, we can determine what truly moves us. For example, every Muslim would have been able to talk about how insulting the cartoons of the Prophet are.

[Spiegel] This affair was also misused by Islamists. They added the worst cartoons to those in the Danish newspaper in order to incite the masses.

[Aga Khan] I heard that the editors in Denmark knew very well what they were doing there.

[Spiegel] Not everything that is provocative must be prohibited. Freedom of the press is one of the highest goods of our society. When in doubt, the rule is that we are against prohibitions. All religions must be able to stand unfair, even mocking, atheistic attacks.

[Aga Khan] I think this brings us to a central point, and I do not have answers either. The industrialized West is highly secularized. In the Islamic world religion plays an entirely different role, and that also has to do with the nature of Islam: it penetrates all areas of daily life. In this context, those of us of goodwill must act very, very cautiously.

[Spiegel] You have repeatedly mentioned Kemal Ataturk positively in your speeches. Under him, Turkey developed into one of the few Islamic states in which the state and religion are largely separated from each other. Would you like to see the Islamic world move in this direction?

[Aga Khan] I have nothing against secularism. But I am against a one-sided secularization, one in which faith and morality disappear from society.

[Spiegel] Your Highness, we thank you for this interview.

Source: Der Spiegel website, Hamburg , in German 9 Oct 06


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