Aga Khan Speaks Out on Understanding of Muslims

The Aga Khan is a Muslim leader of global stature who rarely appears on the airwaves. He usually prefers to keep his distance from the media — not least because the press has generally proved more interested in his race horses and immense wealth than his humanitarian work.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And we hear this morning from a Muslim leader of global stature who rarely appears on the airwaves. The Aga Khan usually prefers to keep his distance from the media, not least because the press has generally proved more interested in his racehorses and immense wealth than his humanitarian work.

But on a trip to India he met a handful of journalists in New Delhi. NPR's Philip Reeves was there.

PHILIP REEVES: The debate about how the Islamic world is perceived, especially by the West, is gathering urgency. It's fueled by fear and suspicion generated by the so-called war on terror and by worsening conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

The Aga Kahn is a reserved, quiet-spoken man, and a skilled diplomat. There are, however, some issues about which he feels strongly and which he's willing publicly to discuss. This is one of them.

Prince KARIM AGA KHAN IV (Imam of the Nizari Ismaili): I am talking, please, about basic education. What is the definition of an educated person today? Does that definition include some basic knowledge about the Islamic world or not? If it doesn't, perhaps that needs to be corrected.

REEVES: The Aga Khan is spiritual leader of the Ismailis, the world's second largest Shiite Muslim community. There are some 15 million Ismailis scattered across more than two dozen countries. He also heads a vast social, economic and cultural development network primarily operating in Asia and Africa.

There are Aga Khan schools, Aga Khan hospitals and clinics, businesses, heritage sites and much more. In the southern Indian city of Hyderabad he's just laid the foundation stone of an Aga Khan Academy.

His is a voice that carries authority both in the Islamic world and among Western leaders. People listen when he says he believes the world's experiencing what he calls a conflict of ignorance.

Prince AGA KHAN IV: It's not a conflict of civilizations; it's an enormous gap of understanding. And because that understanding is not there, the ability to predict, anticipate, reflect - it becomes that much more difficult.

REEVES: The Aga Khan, who turns 70 this year, was educated in the West, including Harvard. He's a British citizen but lives in France. He says for years the best of the West educational institutions have failed to provide students with the basics.

Prince AGA KHAN IV: The knowledge of the different civilizations of the Islamic world, the knowledge of the pluralism of that world, the knowledge of the plurality of interpretations of Islam, of the languages of Islam, of the demographies(ph) of Islam is very, very shallow indeed. And I think that is a significant contributor to misunderstanding.

REEVES: But he says this is not just a Western phenomenon.

Prince AGA KHAN IV: Even in the Muslim world, if you look at the Muslim world today and you read much of the media - and I'm not attacking the media, I'm just making a statement as I would read it - you get the feeling that this is 1,400,000,000 people all identical.

REEVES: So what's the answer? The Aga Khan believes a large part of it is to recognize and promote pluralism.

Prince AGA KHAN IV: And unless this whole notion of pluralism becomes accepted because it's a reality of humanity, I think we're going to continue to face situations where tribes are going to be killing each other, faiths are going to be killing each other, language communities are going to be killing each other and so on and so forth. And the thing that worries me most in this whole context is that a lot of that is predictable.

REEVES: If the world understands pluralism, says the Aga Khan, it'll get better at dealing with some of its conflicts. And there's something else. Some interpret today's wars - those in the Middle East and Afghanistan, for instance - as religious conflicts. Not so, says the Aga Khan. He believes the root cause is not theological but political, and he has this appeal to today's leaders.

Prince AGA KHAN IV: Put those political issues on the front burner, step on the accelerator just as hard as you know how to step on that accelerator and deal with these issues. Don't let them pullulate decade after decade after decade. And that is one of the things which I am deeply worried about, frankly. Because a lot of these issues have been out there for much longer than any of us would have wanted, and we're beginning to see the consequences of that.

REEVES: The world's leaders do listen to the Aga Khan. He knows many of them. The question is, will they act?

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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