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March 2002



His Highness Aga Khan 

on Canada, US ...

(Post-September 11)



His Highness Aga Khan, wealthy and erudite leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims

with The Right Honourable Jean Chrétien Prime Minister of Canada in Ottawa



Canadians are "a model for the world."

"Canada is today the most successful pluralist society on the face of our globe, without any doubt in my mind. . . . That is something unique to Canada. It is an amazing global human asset."

Canadians "have created a pluralist society where minorities, generally speaking, are welcome... They feel comfortable. They assimilate the Canadian psyche. They are allowed to move forward within civil society in an equitable manner. Their children are educated. And I'm not the one who is making the judgment. Look at the international evaluation of Canada as a country and the way it functions."

"Canada has succeeded in an area where the developing world has one of its greatest needs: How do you build pluralist civil society in the developing world? Look at Africa. Look at Asia. What is one of the characteristics? The inability of different groups of people to live together in peace in a constructive environment to build civil society."

on US

A day after Bush's historic State of the Union address that targeted three alleged terrorist states -- North Korea, Iran and Iraq -- two of which are Muslim: "I find it very difficult to pass a moral judgment on all Iranians or all Iraqis. I will not do that... Can you imagine how sensitive that is for every Iranian living in the world to say, 'The President of the most powerful country in the world today stigmatized me as an evil person?' "


On the Bush administration (may be) further dividing the world -- stripping it of any pluralistic hopes -- by declaring one side to be good and the other evil. The State of the Union address only added to his concern. "I have to tell you very frankly I will not stigmatize a whole population as being evil, whether they are Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu. I can't do that. If he [Bush] wants to say the people in government are responsible for things he doesn't like, that's his prerogative. I'm not sure the divide is quite that clear frankly."


Rather than good versus evil, (he sees) the gulf as one of law. "I think it is the issue of law and the way law is applied in these countries, which is the central issue. And there, there are all sorts of different tones. You can't say all the countries of the developing world, or the Muslim world, are either law-abiding countries or lawless countries. I interpret it in those terms, rather than 'you're with us, or you're not with us.' "


On the West's ignorance about Islam:


"It's important to make the difference between the faith of Islam and the people of Islam. They are not the same thing. . . I think it's important for you to accept the premise that there is enormous plurality in the Muslim world. African Islam, Asian Islam, Central Asian Islam, Arab Islam. Even within the Arab world, there is enormous difference".


"I think they do as much as they can, taking into account the absence of the understanding of Islam in the Western general knowledge. What does it know about the Islamic world? Is anything taught in secondary education? Does anybody know the names of the great philosophers, the scientists, the great theologians? Do they even know the names of the great civilizations? It is very, very difficult for Muslim leaders to articulate a vision against such a vacuum in knowledge."


On Muslim countries embracing Western notions of social liberty:


"I find it very difficult to validate the concept, for example, that Islam says a woman cannot be educated. Or that Islam says a woman cannot work. I think what Islam says is that men and women have to live in a dignified manner in civil society.


"I think Islam says there is a tendency for the male half of society to dominate, and at times become overbearing. You in the Western world have laws. You recognize that risk in society, and you recognize it by laws in work, by laws in equity of employment, and things of that sort. . . I think in the Islamic world there will be an acceptance that women must function and are entitled to function in civil society in a proper, overt manner."


Post-September 11, on a simplistic, and incorrect, view of a homogenous Islamic world -- and a poor grasp of the differences between faith and politics in that world:

"First of all, a lot of people [after Sept. 11] didn't ask, 'Is this Islam the faith or is it political forces within the Islamic world?' Second question: 'Is it political forces within the totality of Islam, or only a part of Islam?' Third question: 'What are the motivations of those forces?' It took some time before the Western media started putting together the picture in the complex nature that it is."


On the United States has been too quick to dismiss the so-called context around them:


"I think what we are seeing from part of the Islamic world is a sense of profound injustice which has been part of our history for many, many decades." And he said part of the Islamic world is reacting to that. "Why are we being treated unjustly? And worse, why is this injustice specific to one part of the world? You look at other areas of the world [than the Middle East], the Western world has been generally equitable. Certainly the Palestinian situation is one that is perceived by the Arab world, and by many people in the Islamic world, as a profound injustice."


"Take the case of Mindanao [in the southern Philippines] . . . a community of people who felt they were isolated, abandoned, left aside from the development process. It's not only the Islamic world. I'd like to avoid the feeling that this is specific to the Islamic world. It's much more specific to ethnic differences, demographic differences, economic inequity, political situations which remain unresolved."


"It is amazing how much can be done if you go in with economic support, social services, dialogue, bringing the community together, focusing on hope in the future rather than looking backwards in despair. That looking backwards in despair is probably one of the most divisive forces that you will ever find in Third World countries."


On International Monetary Fund being considered as the cause of troubles:


"When they find that their economies are constrained because somebody says, 'Well, you're going to go into a period of recession because your governments have been spending too much,' that creates frustration."


On Afghanistan:


"Problem No. 1 is security. Problem No. 2 is keeping the people fed. Problem No. 3 is rebuilding what can be rebuilt, in quick enough time so that the slide into collapse, which we've been observing for so long, starts getting reversed."


(These are excerpts from an interview first published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada.)