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Market Focus : Aga Khan Aims to Reform Pamir : The Ismaili Muslim leader plans to privatize land and update farming.

June 20, 1995|IAN MacWILLIAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KHOROG, Tajikistan — In a remote mountain land in the heart of Asia, all but lost to the outside world, a crowd of tens of thousands kneel reverently as a lone figure robed in brown passes among them.

He is the Aga Khan, one of the world's richest men and spiritual leader of the 12 million to 15 million Ismaili Muslims, paying his first visit to his followers in the isolated Pamir mountains of Central Asia.

Tajikistan has been tormented by a civil war that broke out in 1992 afte the collapse of Soviet power. For the 215,000 people--mostly Ismailis--of this region known simply as the Pamir, the Aga Khan remains a saint and a prince combined. He is also a one-man development enterprise.

During the Soviet period, the Pamir was dependent on food and fuel sent by Moscow, and the collapse of the Soviet economy brought the region to the brink of starvation.

The Aga Khan runs a network of small-scale, locally based development agencies and is now setting up similar programs in the Pamir. The plan is to make the region self-sufficient in food production by privatizing land and introducing new agricultural methods to this ancient culture.

During the last century, the Pamir mountains were the setting for what historians dub the "Great Game," a land of spies and adventurers in high Asia where Russia, China and British India met and where their expanding interests bumped elbows. Now this is a poor, forgotten land.

Its people, the Ismaili Muslims, are a minority branch of the Shiite Muslims that broke away from the Shia mainstream 1,200 years ago, in the early period of Islam. Most Ismailis live in the Indian subcontinent and East Africa, though many have also settled in the United States, Canada, Britain and elsewhere in the West.

His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV is the 49th imam of the Ismailis.

In Europe, the image of the 58-year-old leader is a gossip columnist's fantasy of legendary wealth, fine racehorses and beautiful women, an image burnished by memories of his late father, Prince Aly Khan, a playboy and onetime husband of American actress Rita Hayworth. Few people in the West, however, know of the Aga Khan's work with development agencies in Asia and Africa that are widely admired for their small-scale, self-help approach.

When the Aga Khan flew in last month for a four-day visit to the Pamir, landing in Khorog, the sleepy capital of Gorno-Badakhshan in eastern Tajikistan, the town of 30,000 emptied as residents set off to walk to the spot where the imam would meet his people. Most spent the night in the open, huddled under blankets.

He arrived punctually the next morning, dressed in a gleaming white suit, and was whisked to the site in a silver Mercedes specially imported for the occasion. Donning his robe and a tall astrakhan hat, the imam walked through the expectant crowd on a pathway of elegant carpets.

Addressing the throng, he urged them as Muslims to solve their political disputes peacefully. Tajikistan remains divided between the groups that fought each other in the post-Soviet civil war. Most Pamiris continue to oppose the Russian-backed government in the capital, Dushanbe, and clashes between opposition fighters and Russian-led border forces still occur in Gorno-Badakhshan.

The political tensions were emphasized by two Russian helicopter gunships that buzzed overhead during the Aga Khan's appearance. "Weapons should never be used again in our society," said the Ismaili leader. "They should be replaced by constitutional rights."

The present Aga Khan's grandfather moved from Bombay, India, to Europe, where he served as president of the League of Nations, hobnobbed with royalty and gained a reputation as a breeder of racehorses. Prince Karim, who succeeded his grandfather in 1957, runs his business and philanthropic empire from his home in Paris.

Raised in Kenya and Switzerland, he studied Islamic history at Harvard, but his passport is British, as are those of his mother and his recently divorced wife. He speaks English, French, Italian, Hindi-Urdu and some Arabic. He usually travels by private jet, and his entourage bristles with satellite fax machines and walkie-talkies.

The prince takes all this in his stride. In an interview, he said he feels no cultural clash in crossing from Paris to the Pamir.

"Not in the least," he says quietly. "I have read Nasir Khusrau," the Ismailis' medieval poet-philosopher, who lived in Badakhshan. "I was educated in the West, but I was educated as a Muslim."

He talks passionately about his work for the Pamiris. In remoter areas, he says, he found "people without enough food to eat, people without sufficient clothes for the winter--and winters here are dramatically cold."

This poverty, he emphasizes, is due to the collapse of the economic system. Asked the key to improving life in the Pamir, he replies, "First, peace. Second, peace. Third, peace. And after that, food self-sufficiency."

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