“When you are in Canada, you are home!” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said while welcoming the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, who was due to address the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa.
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.
The bond between Canada and the Aga Khan began when Canada’s Ismailli community fled Uganda 40 years ago to begin life in Canada as penniless refugees. “Yet, from that moment on, Canada’s Ismailis have become one of Canada’s most successful immigration stories,” Harper said in his opening address before the audience made of parliamentarians, senators, judges and members of the diplomatic corps amid thunderous applause.
The Prime Minister also applauded the work undertaken by the Aga Khan Development Network and the Aga Khan Foundation, adding, “I value your counsel and your friendship.”
“His Highness has been tireless in humanitarian and development initiatives in Africa, in Asia, and particularly in Afghanistan, where the Network continues to be a brave partner in Canada’s efforts to secure and improve the lives of Afghan citizens.
“Over the years, then, we have built together a solid record of genuine assistance to some of the world’s neediest people,” he said, adding, “Canadians are strongest when we have the support of those who share our values.”
The Aga Khan and the Canadian government have partnered in several developmental projects and they have jointly established Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa to promote good governance. Three more projects of international standard have been established in Canada — Delegation of Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa (already functioning) while the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre in Toronto are scheduled to open later this year — making Canada the headquarters of the community. 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.
In his speech, the Aga Khan urged Canadians to continue embracing diversity. He said the world has to pay more attention – much, much more attention – to the potential role of civil society. ” Increasingly, I believe, the voices of civil society are voices for change, where change has been overdue. They have been voices of hope for people living in fear. They are voices that can help transform countries of crisis into countries of opportunity.
” An active civil society can open the door for an enormous variety of energies and talents from a broad spectrum of organizations and individuals. It means opening the way for diversity. It means welcoming plurality.
The Aga Khan said Canada was uniquely able to articulate and exemplify three critical underpinnings of a quality Civil Society – a commitment to pluralism, to meritocracy and to a cosmopolitan ethic.
Speaking fluently in English and French, the Aga Khan urged everyone to have greater understanding of Muslims. “It has become a common place for some to talk about an inevitable clash of the industrial West and Islamic civilizations.
He told his attentive audience the clashes of modern times have most “often grown out of particular political circumstances of war” rather “than deep theological divides.” “Yet sadly, what is highly abnormal in the Islamic world gets mistaken for what is normal,” adding that “media perceptions of our world in recent years have often been conveyed through a lens of war.”
The Aga Khan said some of the most glorious chapters in Islamic history were purposely built on the principle of inclusiveness – it was a matter of state policy to pursue excellence through pluralism. The Islamic traditions have been obscured in many places, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, including the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the Historic Cities Programme, have been initiated to revive memory of the inclusive inheritance, he said. The Aga Khan Museum will be “an important testimonial in a Canadian setting to the immense diversity of Islamic cultures.”
The Aga Khan also lamented the conflict between Shia and Sunni, which, he said, have been further accelerated by external interventions. “In Pakistan and Malaysia, in Iraq and Syria, in Lebanon and Bahrain, in Yemen and Somalia and Afghanistan, it is becoming a disaster.” He suggested that it was important for non-Muslims to communicate both Sunni and Shia voices. To be oblivious to such a reality would be like ignoring over many centuries that there were differences between Catholics and Protestants, or trying to resolve the civil war in Northern Ireland without engaging both Christian communities.
He said during his Golden Jubilee, six years ago, Ismailis around the world volunteered their time and knowledge and the community structured a process of engaging an immense pool of expertise involving tens of thousands of volunteers. Many of them traveled to developing countries and a third of them were Canadians. “Their impact has been enormous in helping us to achieve best practice standards in our institutions and programmes, making us we hope even better partner for Canada.”
The Aga Khan succeeded his grandfather in 1957 while still a Harvard University undergraduate. Earlier, the Aga Khan signed a protocol with Canada,”further strengthening our on going platform of cooperation.”
On a personal note, it was specially a proud and emotional day for me as a an Ismaili Muslim Canadian to be present in Canadian Parliament and next day in Massey Hall, Toronto, to listen to the Aga Khan speak of Canada in such high regard.