Why Do Serena Hotels and the Aga Khan Museum Serve Alcohol?
The Serena Hotels are investments partly owned by AKFED (Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development), which is an agency of the AKDN. The AKDN (Aga Khan Development Network) institutions are non-denominational. As the Aga Khan Museum website says:
"AKDN agencies are non-denominational and conduct programs without regard to the faith, origin or gender of beneficiaries."
Although their overall mandate draws from the ethics of Islam, AKDN and AKM (Aga Khan Museum) are not "Islamic" institutions and their spaces are not "Islamic spaces" or "religious spaces". Secondly, the Serena Hotels have a very specific mandate, as per their website:
"AKFED’s Tourism Promotion Services, operating under the brand name Serena Hotels, seeks to develop tourism potential in selected areas in the developing world, particularly in under-served regions where tourism facilitiies can contribute to economic growth and the overall investment climate...Serena Hotels contribute to local economies in a number of ways -- through the training of skilled manpower, the reinvigoration of artisans and craft industries and through sensitive conservation or development of the surrounding area. This includes placing priority on the hiring and training of local residents for employment at all levels of the organisation. Serena Hotels directly employs 6,221 people...In 2002, the Government of Afghanistan asked the Aga Khan Development Network to help restore Kabul’s hotel capacity which had been destroyed by the civil war. Today Kabul Serena Hotel directly employs 300 staff and develops and supports local suppliers of goods and services." (AKDN Website - Tourism Promotional Services)
The mandate of the Serena Hotels and TPS greatly ehances the quality of life of the countries they operate in. They hire thousands of people, providing employment to local populations. The Aga Khan Fund for Development is a for-profit agency that is supposed to generate returns so the Network can fund some of its development activity. As stated above, The AKDN agencies are statutorily secular and they are nondenominational in who they serve; they do not only serve Muslim clientele but clientele belonging to all faiths and traditions who hold values different from Muslim values. The Serena Hotels therefore provide the normal and expected range of services including food and drink that are customarily required for serving international guests.
Here is what Mawlana Hazir Imam said regarding the topic at the opening of the Serena Hotel in Quetta, Pakistan:
"...tourism is growing rapidly throughout the developing world and specifically to the west of Pakistan, in Turkey, and to the East, in South-East Asia. What this also means, unfortunately, is that most of this growth is either stopping on the west of Pakistan or over-flying this country to travel to South-East Asia. "If this is true, why is it happening? Is it because alcohol is not sold freely and is available to foreigners only, or because only traditional dancing is permitted or are there other much more significant reasons? Surely if Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries with large majorities of Muslim populations have been able to find an acceptable balance between their legitimate concerns for the respect of their faith, culture and traditions, while at the same time meeting the demands of international tourism, Pakistan is capable of doing likewise."
- His Highness the Aga Khan, Address at Serena Hotel Opening Ceremony (Quetta, Pakistan)16 March 1989
As for the Aga Khan Museum, the CEO was asked about its serving of alcohol in its restaurant Diwan, and his response was:
"The Aga Khan Museum is an international cultural institution that is open to visitors of all backgrounds. The serving of alcohol at Diwan is consistent with the Museum's aim to provide the amenities expected of world-class cultural institutions."
While some of the AKDN institutions may serve alcohol as a normal and necessary part of their existence and mandate - as they are public secular spaces, the Ismaili Imam has prohibited the consumption of alcohol to his jamat. This is not hypocrisy; rather, it is a very carefully thought out engagement by the Ismaili Imamat with a secular world where the values of secular spaces serving the public cannot, by definition, be normative to one religious tradition or another. Instead, the Imam operates publicly by cosmopolitan ethics - which are the shared ethics across cultures and faiths. This general attitude - of pluralistic and secular spaces is what allows faith communities and faith members to practice their own values at the community and individual level.
The Imamat's general policy is to ENGAGE with the world; to live IN it, but the Imam also guides his followers not to be seduced by the world and fall into the activities that are against the faith's value systems. The Imams did not have to take this approach - other approaches out there are a sort of segregation mentality where faith communities cordon off their spaces from the rest of society and only practice their values in such spaces and isolate them from the "corrupt" world. While we do have that - with our Jamatkhanas and Centers - the Imamat also wants to engage the public world and so it does that through a different "discourse" or language - the language of secular non-denominational institutions and spaces. Hence, we cannot expect the Imam to place value limits in those spaces. Instead, as per his own vision, the secular spaces of the institutions will implement cosmopolitan ethics and not necessarily a wholly Muslim ethic.
"The second condition is that to engage with the contemporary world means to take it seriously, which means to understand it, not dismiss it. The theological rhetoric which says that the Modern world is the antithesis of what the Islamic tradition teaches us - in other words, the rhetoric which sets Islam and the modern world as separate, opposing blocs - is a maladaptive rhetoric. Engagement does not mean surrender; for criticism too is a form of engagement."
- Aziz Esmail, Keynote Address at ‘Intellectual Traditions in Islam’ Seminar, University of Cambridge, August 14, 1994