In Tajikistan, the Aga Khan’s philanthropy and investment has raised hospitals, hotels, colleges, crops – and in some quarters, suspicion. Fifth in a series.
by Sarvinoz Akram 22 September 2010
This is the fifth story in a series of articles on philanthropy in TOL’s coverage area.
DUSHANBE | On a sunny day in late October 2006, Shah Karim al-Hussayni, better known as the Aga Khan IV, stepped on to the newly built Ishkashim Bridge over the Panj River and made a speech that was heard simultaneously in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the countries on either side.
Bridges are powerful symbols, the imam of the world’s Ismaili Muslims said as he opened the span, the fourth built across the Panj by his Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). “When harmony breaks down and conflicts ensue, destroying bridges is usually among the most urgent targets. But when peace and healing come, then it is the construction and rehabilitation of bridges that marks our progress.”
The Tajik songwriter Lidush Habib has likened the Aga Khan himself to a bridge, connecting the shores of Islam and the West, Asia and Africa, rich and poor. Known in the West not just as a spiritual leader but as a philanthropist, horse breeder, and one-time stepson of 1940s Hollywood star Rita Hayworth, the Aga Khan is revered by many Tajiks for his massive aid to the country during the period of civil conflict, economic collapse, and widespread starvation in the 1990s.
In Badakhshan province, to which the Aga Khan sent hundreds of tons of food, clothes, and medicine to poor locals and refugees during the civil war, grandmothers tell children bedtime stories about angels sent by the imam to carry suffering people from the bloody battlefields into the Pamir Mountains. In Dushanbe and Khorugh, drivers display his picture on their cars. When he comes to Tajikistan, people gather in the streets by the thousands and try to kiss his hand.
“Tajiks are really grateful to the Aga Khan,” said Marat Mamadshoev, editor-in-chief of the Tajik news agency Asia-Plus. “He saved thousands of lives during the Tajik civil war in 1992-1997, when many, if not all, Tajik Pamiris fled the scenes of the war and found shelter in the mountainous Badakhshan province.”
Over the years the network has sought to address those concerns. In 1998, after several years in which the Aga Khan’s work in Tajikistan consisted primarily of humanitarian aid to Pamiris, opposition and Islamic leaders met with him in Geneva and asked him to broaden his focus beyond Badakhshan. The meeting produced results: the Aga Khan widened the map of his activities to include the Rasht Valley and Khatlon province, two regions also devastated by the civil war. The Aga Khan Microfinance Bank, which opened in 2003 and has given $20 million in loans to thousands of small businesses, has branches in the north of Tajikistan as well as the south, where most of the country’s Ismailis live.