A rare interview with the Aga Khan on poverty, climate change, and demystifying Islam

The media-shy spiritual leader, now in his 60th year as Aga Khan.
The media-shy spiritual leader, now in his 60th year as Aga Khan.
Image: AP Photo/Manish Swarup
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His Highness Prince Karim, the Aga Khan, is many things.

“Virtually a one-man state,” as Vanity Fair once put it, he’s the spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims and a unique embodiment of the potential for East blending with West. He inherited from his Indian-born grandfather a dynasty that spans the Muslim world, but he is a British citizen, born in Switzerland, raised in Kenya, educated at Harvard, and lives in a French chateau.

A reported descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, he has dedicated his life to fighting poverty and heads one of the world’s most active development foundations, reaching millions of people in 35 countries across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East each year via the Aga Khan Development Network.

At the same time, he is the billionaire owner of a private Caribbean island, a mega-yacht, and a stable of thoroughbred racehorses whose success is the envy of many of the monarchs, aristocrats, and heads of state that he counts among his high-society friends. Dubbed a “playboy” by the British papers, he recently divorced his second wife after a 10-year legal battle.

One thing the Aga Khan is not, however, is a willing interviewee. The media-shy Prince Karim—known as “K” to friends and “His Highness” to everyone else—avoids the press whenever he can. But when one reaches the 60th year of heading an Imamate, as Prince Karim does today, then needs must.

And so, your correspondent recently found himself on a call with His Highness and four other reporters from outlets around the world. As a de facto head of a state with no territory, whose people are spread across dozens of countries, the Aga Khan avoids directly tackling sensitive political subjects and generally steers clear of speaking about world leaders by name. He ended the call by noting that “my comments can’t be as complete as I might want them to be.”

It was with an impressively eloquent vagueness—and the odd moment of rambling—that the 80-year-old leader touched on topics like the fairness of the Western financial system, the links between climate change and poverty, and the need for pluralism in this ethnically charged world. Quartz then spoke with Mahmoud Eboo, his representative to Canada and chair of the Ismaili Leaders’ International Forum, to untangle and expand on Prince Karim’s stances.

Pluralism as the path to peace and development

The Aga Khan has chosen the promotion of pluralism—which he defines as “equity towards all peoples and backgrounds”—as one of the central themes of his Diamond Jubilee year. He argues that the countries his foundation works with are historically pluralist and suffer now from ethnic and religious divides stoked by colonialism. “I’m old enough to recollect colonial situations where colonial powers on purpose separated the ethnic groups in a given country in order to maintain rule,” he says. “That inherited situation needs to be dealt with.”

Eboo goes further: “If you look at countries in the UN, half are failed democracies. The reason for their failure is that each lacks the notion of pluralistic, secular societies,” he says. In the Muslim world, “pluralism has been embedded from day one… the idea of diversity and the fact that God has created humankind with difference is implicit,” he adds.

He says the Aga Khan’s network has successfully brought pluralism to a Syrian city plagued by civil war. (Eboo asked us not to publish the town’s name for the sake of its inhabitants’ safety.) The Aga Khan, Eboo says, told the town’s large Ismaili population to accept any displaced person, irrespective of ethnicity or creed, house them in their own homes rather than camps, and integrate them into society. Among the achievements, Eboo says, is bringing access to early childhood development to 35% of the city’s children, as opposed to 1% in the rest of the country. (Quartz couldn’t independently confirm this given the scarcity of reportage from the country; Syria expert Joshua Landis confirmed that the Aga Khan has, in general, been a “force for good” in Syria.)

“We’ve created an island of stability that is plural and all of these people realize that their survival, their future, is interdependent,” Eboo says.

The poor need the global financial system to change its ways

Western banks don’t do enough to alleviate poverty, the Aga Khan says. “Financial institutions ought to be a great deal more open to social support—without threatening their own survival, obviously,” he says.

In previous interviews, he described these priorities as an important difference in outlook between the Islamic world and the West. Eboo explains that, in Islam, “there is a social responsibility of how you use material resources—that’s a balance that [the Aga Khan] feels is missing sometimes in a Western worldview.”

It starts with promoting access to the currently “unbankable” poor, Eboo says. He wasn’t aware of the Prince Karim lobbying Western banks on the matter, but says the Aga Khan works with two non-Western banks (Habib Bank in Pakistan, which he majority owns, and the Diamond Trust Bank in East Africa) to provide credit to the poor.

Banks need to make this change, the Aga Khan says, because microfinance (the practice of giving small loans to unbanked entrepreneurs in developing countries) is currently failing. “Is microcredit doing the job that people hoped? My view is no,” Prince Karim says. “Microcredit hits certain demographic groups, but it doesn’t affect the whole economy of a given country.”

This failure, in part, is due to the expense of the infrastructure used to transfer money, Eboo says. “[Lenders are] ending up charging interest rates that are unaffordable,” he says. “Even microfinance products or loans are drifting away from their original intent to what we’d now consider to be the commercial aspect [of banking].”

To tackle poverty, deal with climate change

“Climate change is a major threat to much of the developing world, and it needs to be looked at with great care,” the Aga Khan says, listing it as the first thing to tackle when dealing with poverty in the developing world. Instead of the enormous task of targeting the causes of climate change, his network largely focuses on fighting the ways it hurts the poor. That means identifying communities at risk of being hit by floods, drought, earthquakes, or mudslides, and making sure they’re moved or protected.

Prince Karim argues that the global community has been ignoring these threats, despite the knowledge that they will impoverish or kill many people. “I have been more than worried—I say sincerely—more than worried about situations where everybody, the local population, have known for decades that they are living at high risk and nothing was done about it,” he says. “It was never even discussed as part of the development process.”

How to reconcile the West with Islam

When asked about the demonization of Islam in the West, the Aga Khan speaks with (comparatively) stern words. “The nature of Islam is a faith of peace; it’s not a faith of conflict or social disorder,” he says. “[But it] has been used in a political process, or a part of a political process, for political goals.”

Beyond promoting pluralism, as discussed above, another key to addressing the tensions between Islam and the West is education.

The long-term strategy is to push for schoolchildren to be taught a proper understanding of Islam, something Prince Karim believes is “totally absent” from Western schools, Eboo says. This has started with the Aga Khan’s Institute of Ismaili Studies in London producing a school curriculum about Islam, but Eboo admits it’s a long process.

More immediately, the religion’s rich cultural heritage is highlighted in programs like the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture, a music initiative, and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. The aim is to push non-Muslims to say, “I didn’t know that they were pioneers of algebra, or that Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine was the standard text for 500 years and that he was a Muslim,” Eboo says. “The only way to counter… the monolithic view of Islam today—of it being an ill-educated and violent faith—is through bringing out these aspects of knowledge.”

Correction (July 11): This article was updated to reflect that the Aga Khan has been married twice, not three times.