The Canadian Parliament is expected to hear a speech from His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th hereditary Imam of the world’s 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, on February 27, 2014. He is also expected to meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the visit.
Usually, it is heads of state and government who are invited to address the Canadian Parliament but among the handful of people who have had the privilege to do so are three former secretaries general of the U.N., including Kofi Annan.
The Aga Khan’s association with Canada dates back to the time when Pierre Trudeau was the prime minister. The two were personal friends and Trudeau was instrumental in opening doors to Uganda Asians, many of them Aga Khan’s Ismailii followers who were expelled by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (dubbed Hitler of Africa) at a moment’s notice. More than 60,000 Asians, many of them third generation born in Africa, were given 90 days to leave the country, resulting in the largest Asian exodus in African history. Panic-stricken Asians from neighboring Kenya and Tanzania also followed suit, causing an international crisis. This largest displacement of a racial group culminated in their settlement in the United Kingdom, Canada, US and several European countries.
The Aga Khan is scheduled to visit Canada again sometime this year to open the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Canada’s Ismaili community has grown to more than 100,000 today from the time Canada began to welcome Ismailis to her shores some four decades ago.
Canada has had good relations with the Aga Khan and his institutions, including the Aga Khan Foundation Canada and the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). AKDN runs a wide range of international development initiatives, including in Afghanistan, in the areas of health, education, rural and economic development and the creation of new opportunities for women.
The Aga Khan has established several projects of international stature in Canada, making it the world headquarters of the Ismaili community. This relationship with Canada was further cemented with joint partnership and the establishment of the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa in 2006.
In a Globe & Mail interview, the Aga Khan described Canada as “a model for the world” and “the most successful pluralist society on the face of our globe. That is something unique to Canada. It is an amazing global asset.”
He said Canada had created a pluralist societies where minorities were welcome. “They feel comfortable. They assimilate in the Canadian psyche. They are allowed to move forward within civil society in an equitable manner. Their children are educated. And I am not the one who is making the judgment. Look at the international evaluation of Canada as a country and the way it functions.”
In a later interview with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, he said the failure to see value in pluralism is a terrible liability but Canada has invested in making this potential liability become an asset. “It’s a global asset, and few countries, if any, have been as successful as Canada has.”
The Global Centre for Pluralism on whose board of directors are such prominent people as the former Canadian Governor General Adrianne Clarkson and the former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan.
Another prestigious Ismaili institution is the Ottawa-based Delegation of Ismaili Imamat, which serves as a representative of the Aga Khan’s institutions in Canada, including the philanthropic and development agency, AKDN.
When it opens its doors, the Aga Khan Museum, the first of its kind in the English-speaking world, will attract scholars and visitors from Canada and the U.S. and portray the arts, culture and contributions of Muslim societies. The museum will house rare artifacts and collections of Muslim culture, promoting Islamic art through exhibitions and displays.
The Aga Khan’s stature internationally can be compared to a king without a kingdom. His influence, authority and power surpasses leader of any standing. He meets more foreign heads of state, presidents and prime ministers than even the president of United States.
Apart from being a humanitarian and interested in international development, the Aga Khan is also a great lover of architecture. He has established the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the world’s largest architecture award totaling $500,000 US. As a promoter of education, he has established University of Central Asia serving Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan and a medical school in Karachi, Pakistan. The Aga Khan University in Arusha, Tanzania, is under construction.
The Aga Khan joins six other distinguished personalities to receive honorary Canadian citizenship. The honour has been bestowed on Nelson Mandela, Raoul Wallenberg, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Aga Khan and Malala Yousafzai.
Described as “Prince of the Islamic World,” the Aga Khan has made the Ismailis a successful model community, which has been the envy of the world.
Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based journalist, travel writer and author. He has published A Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims (Detselig).