The global Muslim “Umma'' needs to develop a form of democracy that fits its social, ethnic, religious and economic structure, said Prince Karim Aga Khan, Imam of the Ismaili Muslim community.

“We have to look at the nature of democracy because I don't believe that one shape fits all. I believe the Umma, like many other parts of the world, needs to develop its own form of democracy to overcome the issues Muslims are facing,'' he said.

The Aga Khan noted that the Muslim Umma today is highly pluralistic and that it is going to function as a body of brotherly states.

“Acceptance of pluralism and investing in pluralism is to be one of the principles we have to look at to resolve issues facing the Muslims,'' he said.

In an exclusive interview with Weekend Review during his visit to Dubai, where he inaugurated the Ismaili Centre, the Aga Khan said the problems of extremism and terrorism have nothing to do with Islam.

“I personally don't ascribe these to Islam. I ascribe these to a portfolio of political issues — be it issues in the Middle East, Afghanistan or Kashmir,'' he said.

The soft-spoken Aga Khan, who has a charismatic personality, has nearly 15 million followers around the world. Today, Ismailis live in some 25 countries — mainly in west and central Asia, Africa, the Middle East and in North America and Western Europe. The United Arab Emirates hosts some 5,000 Ismailis.

During the interview, the Aga Khan talked about the spirit behind Ismaili Centres, his development work in the fields of education, healthcare, architecture, culture, microfinancing and his vision to alleviate poverty.

He thanked His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, for making the site available for construction of the Ismaili Centre in Dubai.


What are the issues facing the Muslim Umma?

First, the globalisation of the knowledge of the cultures of the Umma is critical. We have to make known the cultural inheritance of the Muslims to the non-Muslim as well as the Muslim parts of the world because we will never succeed in building the respect and recognition that the Umma deserves unless we present the Umma as a remarkable carrier of civilisation.

The misconceptions about Islam and Muslims in the West exist because we are, even today, absent from the global civilisation. We should encourage the Western education system to bring in knowledge of the civilisation of Islam into the secondary education system.

I am thrilled with the initiative that Dubai and other states in the Gulf are taking by creating museums. Retracing our historical legacies and bringing them back in the modern world is extremely important.

How do you see the problem of terrorism in the world? Do you think it is widening the gap between the West and the Muslim world or even the Muslims and the non-Muslims?

I personally don't ascribe these [extremism or terrorism] to Islam. I ascribe these to a portfolio of political issues. I consider these political issues the essence of the problem in the Middle East. It started in 1917 and, since then, the problem has been becoming worse.

The problem of Kashmir is again a political problem which started after withdrawal of the British from the subcontinent. Similarly, the problem in Iraq today is also political and has nothing to do with Islam.

But now we have an overlay. Since these political problems are located in the parts of the Muslim Umma, the totality of the Umma is being held responsible for this situation.

The media also tends to concentrate on the problem areas even as they ignore the Umma's successes. Painting a negative picture of the entire situation is wrong because it does not involve the face of Islam. It involves essentials of politics within the Islamic world.

Secondly, it [the problem of extremism and terrorism] does not cover the Islamic world alone. Countries in Eastern Europe, Ireland and Spain face similar issues. I think that we should not say that the Umma is unstable and the rest of the world is perfect.

What should be done to resolve this issue?

More efforts are needed to resolve political crises. I think there are governments and organisations that recognise that the longer these problems continue, the more difficult they will be to solve. Similarly, the Irish problem and the Spanish problem have also been there for decades.

There have been theories about what brought unrest in the world. Do you think the world is heading towards a “clash of capturing natural resources''?

I think you are right. People are looking for a better quality of life and they are in a hurry. There is, in many countries, a sense of time lost. And when there is a sense of time lost, there is also a sense of urgency.

In the developing world, the sense of urgency is getting stronger. I think it is leading a number of forces to look at resources they can mobilise to harness those resources to the development process.

I think we are seeing a concentration of wealth in a number of countries. There is a search for new resources to exploit for national or strategic purposes. The situation can be changed by making a move towards using nuclear power, as it has the potential to change the global economic scenario.

Congratulations on the golden jubilee of your Imamat. Are you launching any special projects to mark this special year?

I am hoping to develop two new projects by the end of this year. The first is the sociological analysis of the communities around the world and an attempt to redefine the nature of acute poverty. We think that certain segments of the population in many countries are ultra poor.

As we see economies evolve, we are worried these segments will continue to become more and more poor. We are trying to understand the causes of this phenomenon in order to reduce, if not eliminate, poverty.

We believe poverty is not only economic but social as well. Families have no access to the platform from which they can grow, no access to healthcare, education, micro-credit or even a normal support system. It is a problem and should be addressed.

As far as our second programme is concerned, we are going to concentrate on increased longevity. People are living longer and the aged are increasingly finding themselves isolated from their families and from society. We would like to develop a programme to create a capacity to care for these people.

Since extended families are becoming less common in the industrialised world, it is now important to look at this issue. Through this programme, we will try to help the aged live an honourable life.

Also, during this jubilee year, we will lay the foundation of a number of educational and health institutions.

The Aga Khan Development Network has numerous projects focusing on communities. How do you select the areas and why?

We select areas to launch projects on a case-by-case basis. The projects stem from the analysis of the absence of certain facilities. If we find there is no credit system in isolated areas, we go for microcredit programmes. If we find a government wants to privatise an industry which has gone wrong, we try to step in. So it is with our educational, healthcare and cultural development projects around the world.

What is your vision of development?

There is a realisation that development should be in human terms. And to be measured in human terms, you have to look at quality of life, which is directly linked to education, housing and healthcare.

Today, many of the world's economic and financial institutions have moved away from lending only for economy activities. They are lending for educational and health initiatives. This is changing the nature of the development support system.

The private sector in the fields of education, healthcare and microcredit can also be very important. It is in the interest of the developing countries to have a composite of facilities [which can be achieved] by involving both the private and public sectors.

What do you think you have achieved through your massive network of community development projects?

Success depends on the maturity of the projects. We have considerable maturity in our healthcare and educational projects and they have been serving the purpose. But we have less maturity in our cultural initiatives.

We are beginning to see the trend in cultural initiatives and I would love to say I have the confidence in the cultural initiatives but they are still young.

One of the important cultural projects — aimed at improving the quality of life —was the development of Al Azhar Park in Cairo. I am confident that we can replicate the cultural project in other parts of the world.

By launching such cultural projects, our focus is to improve quality of life and create opportunities for the ultra poor.

Why did you set up an Ismaili Centre in Dubai and what is your vision behind setting up such centres in other countries?

I think the creation of the Ismaili Centres is important because they represent the Ismaili community in the important countries in the world.

I hope that the centre will bring a sense of institutional purpose. We call them ambassadorial buildings because they are representatives of the Ismaili community and all its aspirations.

We first started building the centres in the West. Like the Ismaili Centres in London, Vancouver and Lisbon, the Ismaili Centre in Dubai will reflect a mood of humility, forward outlook, friendship and dialogue. More such centres are on the cards in Toronto and Dushanbe.

The buildings have a two-fold purpose. First, they serve as institutions for the Ismaili community and, secondly, they reach out to groups of people, creating spaces for quality exhibitions, culture and musical representation.

These centres allow us to build bridges for interaction among various communities, areas and cultures.

You have been involved in so many things. What do you do in your leisure?

(Laughs) Usually it is work, work and more work. Occasionally, if I am able to get out, I go to the sea, to the snow or I look at the thoroughbreds that we have, because it is essentially the hobby that fits into the time that I have.

Any message for the community?

The spirit of Islam is to share knowledge and I always tell the community not to think in material terms. Think in terms of knowledge and think what you can offer our institutions in various parts of the world.

Raise our performance in healthcare, education, financial services and in civil society.

Many minorities from the Middle East countries are living in the West. Just think how wonderful it would be if young women and men return to their respective countries to strengthen institutions and do voluntary work for their countries.

Addressing social challenges

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is a group of private, non-denominational development agencies whose mandates range from the fields of healthcare and education to architecture, rural development and the promotion of private-sector enterprise.

Its agencies and institutions, working together, seek to empower communities and individuals, often in disadvantaged circumstances, to improve living conditions and opportunities, and promote creative solutions to problems that impede social development, primarily in Asia and East Africa.

They collaborate in working towards a common goal — building institutions and programmes that can continuously respond to the challenges of social, economic and cultural change.

Active in more than 20 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America, the network's underlying impulse is the ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society. Its agencies and institutions work for the common good of all citizens, regardless of origin, gender or religion.

The network's agencies are active in the Gulf and Middle East regions in the areas of urban development, conservation, restoration, education, healthcare, microfinance, higher education, culture and rural development.

The AKDN is an independent self-governing system of agencies, institutions, and programmes under the leadership of the Ismaili Imamat. Their main sources of support are the Ismaili community with its tradition of philanthropy, voluntary service and self-reliance.

Prince Karim Aga Khan

Prince Karim Aga Khan became Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims on July 11, 1957, succeeding his grandfather Sir Sultan Mohammad Shah Aga Khan.

He is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.

Son of Prince Aly Khan and Princess Tajuddawalah Aly Khan, the Aga Khan was born on December 13, 1936, in Geneva. He spent his early childhood in Nairobi, Kenya, and then attended Le Rosey School in Switzerland for nine years.

He graduated from Harvard University in 1959 with a BA Honours Degree in Islamic History. He emphasised the view of Islam as a thinking, spiritual faith: one that teaches compassion and tolerance, and upholds the dignity of man.

In the course of history, the Ismailis have, under the guidance of their Imams, made major contributions to the growth of Islamic civilisation.

The Aga Khan has one daughter and three sons. They are Princess Zahrah, Prince Rahim, Prince Hussain and Prince Aly Mohammad.

The Ismaili community is at present celebrating the golden jubilee of the Aga Khan's Imamat, which began on July 11, 2007, and will continue until July 11 this year.

The Aga Khan has plans to pay official visits to some 35 countries during this year and use this occasion to recognise the friendship and support of leaders of the state and government and other partners in the work of the Ismaili Imamat, and to set the direction for the future, including laying the foundations of major initiatives and programmes.