TORONTO – What may often sound to Canadians like a discordant cacophony of voices from our diverse cultures and interest groups is apparently music to the ears of the Aga Khan.
In an exclusive interview on Sunday with Canwest News Service, the hereditary leader of the world’s 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims held up Canada – a country he has visited often and has maintained a close relationship with throughout his 50-year reign – as a model with much to teach the world.
Not that the Aga Khan, long a champion of the urgent need for pluralism in every society, thinks the rest of the world can be, should be or wants to be just like us. The lesson is not to export a cookie-cutter replica of our society, but rather it’s in our method – the way Canadians have learned to craft workable accommodations for the huge diversity of our citizens.
Her Excellency the Right Honourable Micha?lle Jean, Governor General of Canada, officially welcomes His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims and Founder and Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, November 19, 2008.
The absence of pluralism is, in his view, a root cause of much of the world’s discord. About 40 per cent of the countries in the UN are what he calls “failed democracies” – countries where ethnic or tribal concerns routinely trump the greater good.
The idea of including those who are outside a core group doesn’t come naturally to the human species, he said. It is learned.
Canada, he said, “can do an enormous amount” to impart the lesson of its success.
“You have, as far as I can tell, made a wise divide between the economics of the country and the politics of the country,” he said.
“There is a respect for the notion that economic management today is a science. It’s not a political football.”
In addition, “You have created a democratic context in which various groups feel comfortable. You have created a genuine pluralist society, and you have looked for leadership in all your groups. That leadership, which is very diverse, gives all these groups a sense of comfort.”
Conversely, “If you look at African states or Asian states you can see that there are communities that have been totally marginalized, whether they have competent individuals or not.”
There is, perhaps, no better modern-day example to illustrate both sides of that coin than the story of his Ismaili followers replanting their roots in Canada.
In 1957, when he inherited the title of 49th Ismaili imam from his grandfather, Canada had but one Ismaili citizen – Safar Ali Ismaily, who had immigrated here just five years before. This number scarcely grew, with only a tiny trickle of newcomers until 1972 when a flood of about 6,000 refugees arrived from East Africa after their expulsion from newly independent Uganda and the seizure of their assets in Tanzania and Kenya.
But as much as their departures were driven by strife, their arrival has proved to be an uncommon success. Canadian Ismailis have grown to an economically successful community of nearly 100,000, which has maintained an abiding attachment to its members faith and institutions while also engaging vigorously in broader society.
Their initial success was facilitated by the intervention of the Aga Khan himself with his friend, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who helped pave the way for the diaspora.
It was also helped, he said, by the fact that they spoke English and most were well educated – advantages not enjoyed by many other immigrant groups who have fled to Canada from other parts of the world.
As a Muslim leader, the Aga Khan took care to explain, his role differs from religious leaders in the Judeo-Christian tradition in that his duty includes addressing quality-of-life issues for his followers, not just spiritual matters.
In his role as a temporal leader, he moves as an equal among world leaders, but he has no country.
His followers are spread among 25 countries, many of them fragile or in turmoil. As a minority in the Shia tradition, which is itself a minority in the Muslim faith, Ismailis have often been persecuted and many remain vulnerable in some of the countries where they live.
The success enjoyed by Canadian Ismailis – landing in an open, pluralistic country where they are free to practice their faith and to prosper – isn’t in the cards for most who remain in these difficult circumstances.
“If you look at the Ismaili community, or any other community that’s as diverse, it’s unrealistic to expect that hundreds of thousands of people will ever be able to move from a country like Pakistan, or India, or Afghanistan to the West. That’s not realistic.
“Therefore, we are actually committed to try to improve what happens there.”
That commitment is manifest through the Aga Khan Development Network. This is a complex web of affiliated non-profit agencies and profit-seeking (but, he stressed, not profit-driven) companies that seek to establish stability and progress in places where there is little or none. Although these agencies focus on countries where Ismailis live, they work with people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds.
The network is funded in part by the Aga Khan’s personal wealth, both inherited and built through his business acumen, as well as the tithes of its followers. But it also has non-Ismaili supporters, and it collaborates extensively with other agencies. They include CIDA, the aid arm of the Canadian government, which he singled out as a particularly significant and long-standing partner.
The Aga Khan was in Toronto as part of an eight-day visit to Canada in celebration of his 50th jubilee. The visit includes high-level meetings with a variety of Canadian leaders as well as celebrations with his followers. He started the visit in Ottawa, he will visit Calgary on Monday, and he will end the tour in Vancouver on Tuesday.