Aga Khan, Muslim Leader in a Demanding Age

JONATHAN POWER

November 06, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

Paris. -- The secular world, absorbed in the political contest, too readily misinterprets or underrates the role played by spiritual leadership. Then, when religious belief surfaces, it finds itself sometimes bemused, often beset.

We saw this briefly during the Republican convention in the American election when, almost effortlessly, the religious right stole the party platform.

More ominously and with more lasting effect, the coming to power in Iran 13 years ago of the Ayatollah Khomeini took the Western world so totally by surprise it floundered for years. Today it seems equally off-balance when faced with the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism.

Confronted with secular Western misunderstanding, Islamic religious leadership has two choices: to reject the modern Western world as corrupt and evil, or to live with it, acquiring its knowledge and technical prowess, while protecting its own virtue and sense of identity.

The 55-year-old Karim Aga Khan is clearly wedded to the second school. Spiritual leader of the relatively small Ismaili sect -- only 12 million out of the Muslim's world 900 million -- he wields influence disproportionate to the size of his church. Part of the reason, undoubtedly, is his legendary inheritance, son of the man who married Rita Hayworth, grandson of the great Aga Khan, president of the League of Nations, who was weighed in gold and diamonds by his followers and given the proceeds. The present Aga Khan is fabulously wealthy, owning a chateau in France, airlines, hotels and 750 race horses.

But part of his reputation is his philanthropy, his remarkable effort to improve the well-being of his own Ismaili people who live mainly in India, Pakistan and East Africa, but also in distant communities in Afghanistan, China and former Soviet Central Asia. He is well on the way to achieving his goal -- by 1995, however poor and remote the community, it will have access to primary health care, while all Ismaili boys and girls will receive primary education and by the end of the century 80 percent or more will go to secondary school.

All this depends on the combination of the Aga Khan's drive, the profits from his own business interests, the tithing of the Ismailis themselves and an unusual amount of voluntary activism on the ground.

The work doesn't stop with his own community. In northern Pakistan, close to the Himalayas, his ''Development Network'' reaches nearly a million people in distant villages.

So successful is its attempt to improve production, villagers have now accumulated $5 million in savings, providing capital for roads and irrigation and largely paying for their own schools and medical centers.

The legendary and practical sides of the Aga Khan are only a part of the man. The other, of course, is his spiritual role. ''Nor more or less important than the development work,'' he is quick to add. ''We don't have the Augustinian tradition of Christianity. We can't split the spiritual from everyday life.''

As a blood descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, his position as hereditary imam makes him responsible for interpreting his faith to his followers and for defending it to outsiders.

The Western media, he asserts, do not do a satisfactory job. ''They look at the Islamic world only when there is a bush fire. To judge 900 million people by occasional explosions -- the Iranian revolution, Saddam Hussein and so on -- is not very wise.''

Consequently the Western world knows little about what really goes on in the Islamic world. ''Yet if one visits a Muslim village and asks, for example, an ordinary peasant about the divisions in Christianity he'll probably know all about it.''

There is a ''clumsiness'' in the Western world that ''hurts people of belief.'' For all that he feels changes are afoot. You notice it, he says, in universities, even in secondary schools where Western students are learning more about the four-fifths of the world that is not Western.

Western media now hire Third World personnel. Institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have a much more ''sophisticated manner'' than they did 25 years ago.

Despite the arrival of the Muslim bomb he doesn't see ahead a great clash between the Western and Islamic worlds, replicating the hatreds and conflicts of the Cold War. ''For all the ignorance, there is not a high level of antagonism on either side. There are responsible people in the Islamic world as in the West. There'll be difficulties, but it won't go further than that.''

The Aga Khan, surely, is a man, to use Margaret Thatcher's comment on the newly appointed Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom ''one can do business.'' And the business of the Aga Khan, at least a good part of it, is to reconcile the millennium of distrust and abuse between Islam and the West.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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