If the Pope invited the prime minister's family to visit for the holidays, and sent a private jet to pick them up, would the Opposition be hinting at a breach of ethics? What if the invitation came from the Dali Lama?
It was announced this week, in a letter sent by Conservative MP Peter Kent, that the Conservatives will seek a criminal investigation into Justin Trudeau's December 2017 trip to the Aga Khan's private Caribbean island. This followed a Federal Court ruling ordering the lobbying commissioner to re-examine whether the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims violated the code for lobbyists when he extended the invitation to the Trudeau family. The case was brought before the Federal Court by Democracy Watch.
The way Peter Kent, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, and Democracy Watch keep pursuing Justin Trudeau about his family's visit with the Aga Khan is enough to make a person wonder a) if they don't understand that the current Aga Khan IV is globally revered by people of all faiths, or b) if they are so eager to score a few political points that they are willing to risk being perceived as Islamophobic.
Mind you, for people of a certain age, the name "Aga Khan" is associated with the Prince Ali Salman Aga Khan, known as Aly Khan, a son of Sultan Mahommed Shah. Mid-century, he was famous for loving fast horses and fast cars. He also had a reputation for seducing married women, one of whom was movie star Rita Hayworth, then also being courted by the Shah of Iran and Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis. For mid-century memories, "Aga Khan" may be a name from the tabloids.
However, Ali Khan's father, Sultan Mahommed Shah, Aga Khan III, (1877-1957) was a distinguished religious leader of the world's 10 to 15 million Ismaili Muslims, the liberal Islamic denomination whose members are usually in professions, commerce or business, to which Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi belongs. As with Christian groups like Quakers and Mennonites, world service is part of the Ismaili religion.
"The Ismaili Muslims are a global, multi-ethnic community whose members, comprising a wide diversity of cultures, languages and nationalities, live in Central Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and North America," explains the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) website.
Sir Sultan (the Aga Khans hold British citizenship) led his people in building strong communities wherever the South Asian diaspora scattered them. When he died in 1957, his will skipped over his wild son, Aly Khan, and unexpectedly named as his heir, his grandson, Prince Shah Karim Al Husseini, then only 20 years old. Since then, Prince Karim seems to have made every effort to live up to his destiny. Although he's been divorced three times, he's met each wife respectably.
To his followers, Prince Karim is a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammed, and holds the 49th Imamat, the top Ismaili religious post. When he was named to the Imamat, the Prince announced solemnly, "My religious responsibilities begin as of today."
But there's a wrinkle: "In Islam's ethical tradition, religious leaders not only interpret the faith but also have a responsibility to help improve the quality of life in their community and in the societies amongst which they live," explains the AKDN website.
Members of the Ismaili faith usually tithe, donating 10 percent or more of their income to the Imamat, funds intended to improve life in the poorest parts of the world, and to bring Ismailis out of dangerous regions, such as Tajikistan and Sudan. The Prince founded the AKDN in the 1980s to distribute those funds, by unifying an existing network. For 40 years, he has constantly directed and contributed its growth to what is now a $925 million a year humanitarian outreach program to the poorest parts of Africa and Asia.
These days, the AKDN employs 80,000 people working in 30 countries mainly in Africa and Asia, focussing on education and healthcare, among 10 departments that include culture and microfinance. Although projects tend to take place in mainly Muslim areas, that's not a requirement.
The AKDN often works in collaboration with other aid agencies whose values are in alignment, especially Canadian agencies. Indeed, the AKDN has worked so often with Canadian aid agencies that in 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made Prince Karim an honorary Canadian citizen, one of only five ever appointed. The Prince's voluminous list of other honours and awards includes 24 honorary doctorates from universities around the world, including Harvard, McGill, U of Toronto, and seven other Canadian universities.
In 2014, Harper invited Prince Karim to make a rare outsider's address to Parliament. The two then signed a Protocol of Understanding, spelling out a $100 million joint investment initiative called "The Partnership for Advancing Human Development in Africa and Asia," to improve the quality of life for more than a million people living in Asia and Africa.
Up until Andrew Scheer's complaint to the lobbying commissioner, then, Canada and the Aga Khan have been on very good terms. So the tone of Scheer's complaint was shocking to many. As Andrew Cohen noted in 2017, some comments in the House make the Aga Khan sound like "just another sly, low 'lobbyist,' a dime-store remittance man seeking 'privileged access' to a naif with the offer of a free holiday. It’s absurd!" he concluded.
Prince Karim is fabulously wealthy himself, of course, with a net worth estimated at between $800 million and $3 billion. He also inherited his grandfather's race horse stables, and has become a renowned race horse breeder. Rather than seeking more wealth or influence, he is known as a philanthropist, paying AKDN's expenses, for example, so that denomination members' donations can go entirely to benefit others.
The issue, the Court said, is that the Aga Khan Foundation employs a registered lobbyist, and the Aga Khan is listed as a foundation board member. The judge emphasized this is a theoretical point, not a suggestion that Justin Trudeau might influence the foundation to add the Aga Khan to its board -- which was wise, because the idea anybody could influence what role the Prince plays on the AKDN Board is ridiculous, risible and could be perceived as offensive.
One Calgary member of an Ismaili congregation scorned the idea that the PM had any influence over Prince Karim's position on the AK Foundation. "The AgaKhan Development Network belongs to His Highness The AgaKhan and His entire Family" she wrote in a message. "He is the Founding Chair and has been for 40 years since He established it. He has given so much to the Global development including Canada, that it is a shame politicians only see what is in front of their noses and nothing beyond."
Canada has more than 100,000 vocal, articulate, politically active Ismaili Muslims -- many of whom view the Aga Khan as He with a capital H -- and more than a million Muslims altogether. Thousands more immigrants are grateful to the AKDN for help received at home or on the journey.
Andrew Scheer and Peter Kent don't seem to understand or care that the way they has been carelessly denigrating the Aga Khan is liable to alienate a sizeable constituency of voters. Mind you, a person doesn't have to be Muslim to be offended by gratuitous slurs against one of the world's greatest living humanitarians -- just someone who cares about integrity.
Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column for four years. She was editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004–2013.
I write this letter from my hotel room in Hyderabad with very deep love in my heart and hope in my soul that, one day, I may have the honour and privilege of standing in your holy presence. This letter is an expression of my gratitude to you for what you and your institutions have done for India and I wish to share this gratitude with my fellow citizens.
Born in 1987, I was raised in a Punjabi Hindu household and in a social circle where the general opinion of Muslims was not flattering. My understanding of Muslims was poor and I had never even heard of the Ismailis until a few years ago. All throughout my childhood, I did not know that the owner of the very store where my family purchased its groceries was an Ismaili Muslim, Tejani Uncle. Sadly, he passed away last year but I remember him fondly as a gentle soul, one who was no doubt inspired by your teachings and example. I have grown up listening to the Bollywood music of Salim and Sulaiman, but only recently learned that they are your followers and have produced music to honour your Jubilees and to display their love and affection for you. Like these two artists, Ismailis are strong contributors to Indian society, yet so few know about the Ismaili faith as a shining example of Islam. Like so many, I have grown up in complete ignorance about your good office, the Ismaili Imamat, and the work of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), despite your impactful activities in so many sectors across India: from operating schools and hospitals, to providing irrigation and other support to countless farmers, to building parks, protecting our national treasures and restoring historic monuments. You have been extremely generous with your resources and our entire country owes you a debt of gratitude.
Although cultural and religious diversity has been an irreversible historical reality of Indian civilization, I can say confidently that very few Indians actually know or understand what pluralism means and how important it is. Yet it was on Indian soil, back in April 2003, when you told us that: “Tolerance, openness and understanding towards other peoples' cultures, social structures, values and faiths are now essential to the very survival of an interdependent world… Pluralism is no longer simply an asset or a prerequisite for progress and development, it is vital to our existence.” In a world where the image of Muslims is being tarnished by extremists, you and your work and your enlightened guidance to humanity in the form of your speeches and publications serve as beacons of light and hope that Muslims and non-Muslims can live in peace, harmony and mutual respect. Although I grew up in Mumbai, I had never heard of the Prince Aly Khan Hospital, named after your late father. And I had no idea that your hospitals and clinics, under the umbrella of Aga Khan Health Services, have been providing affordable and, in many cases, subsidized health care to thousands of Indians for decades. And although my childhood home was a mere 15 minutes from the Yuwan Housing Society in Bandra, I had no idea that you and your late grandfather have been actively building and supporting housing societies in India for nearly a century. Today, affordable housing is a huge problem in Mumbai, as in other parts of India. This was perhaps something that you foresaw. Only now, with three decades of hindsight, can we see the astonishing wisdom behind your decision to seed-fund the plethora of Ismaili housing societies across Mumbai and other parts of India, some of which have appreciated in value more than 100-fold since inception. Many of these were spawned with proceeds from your Silver Jubilee and today they are more precious than diamonds in the era of your Diamond Jubilee. City dwellers in India, including myself, often forget that the overwhelming majority of Indians live in the rural areas. And us city dwellers take our fruits and vegetables for granted, usually never knowing where the produce comes from. Yet the plethora of suicides by farmers is a high profile issue today and a concern to many Indians. Fortunately, many farmers in India have been spared an undignified life due to your foresight and the work of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP). The beneficiary profile and impact of the AKRSP in India is truly astonishing. Active in more than 2200 villages across three states, your work has benefited over 250,000 families and 11,200 village organizations. Transcending the bounds of a patriarchal society, the AKRSP has mobilized more women than men
Today, I live in Pune. It is a city where you and your family have deep historical ties. And though I have been visiting Pune several times a year since my early childhood, only last year did I visit the Aga Khan Palace. Previously, I had no idea that Gandhi’s beloved wife, Kasturba, was buried there. And I had no idea that it was your late grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahamed Shah, who impressed upon the British to allow Gandhi-ji to reside there when he was placed under house arrest. Today, the Aga Khan Palace is a tourist attraction but sadly its role in Indian history is little known. In this short letter, it would not be possible to cover all that you have done for India but there is one story that I found particularly heartwarming. When Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) was undergoing a political crisis and the lives of thousands of Indians living in that country was at stake, I understand that you walked into the Air India head office in Nairobi and chartered planes to evacuate all Indians from Zaire and give them safe passage to Mumbai – and all of this at your personal expense! In a world where politicians shout their achievements and deeds from rooftops, your example of quiet diplomacy and extending a helping hand to the marginalized and unsafe is truly remarkable, indeed awe inspiring
In closing, I wish to personally thank you, in however small measure, for all that you have done for mother India and her people. I understand that you love biryani and samosas, and perhaps one day you will permit me the honour of meeting you and cooking for you. In the meantime, however, I will send nandi (food offering) to your Jamatkhana in Pune, as I have done in the past when I lived in Bangalore.
The rise of Islamophobia and the increase in hate crimes targeted at Muslims point to the lasting effect of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. Twenty-three years after the publication of his book, the image of a “violent and irrational” Muslim continues to plague current policies and society at large.
Canada prides itself as being a multicultural nation that embraces diversity, yet anti-Muslim sentiments still remain a growing concern. Muslim Canadians continue to be the target of right-wing political ideas that ignite anxieties around Muslim expressions of identity. An Ipsos poll published in May suggests that discrimination against Muslims has become more acceptable in Canada.
The media’s superficial portrayal of Islam perpetuates a dreary picture of Muslims. Events such as the Quebec City Mosque shooting in 2017 that claimed the lives of six Muslims and the passing of Quebec’s Bill 21 in June 2019, which bans the wearing of religious symbols, have contributed to the growing anti-Muslim rhetoric across Canada. In all these acts, there is a common threat: a rejection of difference propelled by fear, founded in misconceptions and misinformation.
In the face of rising sociopolitical polarizations and inequity among minority races and classes, conversations surrounding diversity, inclusion and equity have become more pertinent than ever. There is a necessity for politicians, policymakers, community leaders (secular and religious) and citizens to conscientiously reflect and come together. Finding more sustainable and equitable strategies to combat dichotomies that divide and disenfranchise must become a priority in the current climate.
Aga Khan IV
One person who has committed his life’s work to cultural engagement and dispelling stereotypes about Muslims is His Highness Aga Khan IV, the 49th hereditary spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community. Inspired by Islam, Aga Khan IV is a world leader who addresses a myriad of contemporary issues facing humanity while championing the cause of pluralism. Through his efforts, Aga Khan IV offers a powerful antidote to the perpetuating orientalist perceptions that reduce Islam to intolerance and violence.
Many in the developing world are familiar with him through his development initiatives and services offered through the Aga Khan Development Network. As the founder of this network and as a Muslim religious leader, Aga Khan IV puts faith into action through a commitment to engagement and service to humankind.
In fact, Aga Khan IV’s engagement with human development and socioeconomic uplift supersedes any political affiliation. So much so that Andrew Scheer, the current leader of the Canadian Conservative Party, described Aga Khan IV as “a clear beacon and an example to follow … changing the world and making it a better place for those who are most in need of our assistance” during an address to the joint houses of Parliament in 2014. An interesting characterization by the Conservative leader who, along with his party members, have engaged in tarnishing Aga Khan IV’s stellar reputation for political gain.
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Aga Khan IV has spoken widely about the value of embracing a cosmopolitan ethic — an orientation of sorts that enables dialogue and partnerships among different peoples in order to advance the quality of life of every person. This outlook has been passed down from the Greeks to Muslims and, more recently, appropriated by leaders and academics.
According to Aga Khan IV, such a worldview rests on a deep spiritual foundation. Faith and the world are intricately linked, allowing for an approach that integrates religio-cultural values with socioeconomic commitments. This formulation also facilitates the engagement of the Ismaili Muslim community in the contemporary world. This cosmopolitan ethic envisions a type of human connectedness that aims to weave together the universal and the particular, as well as the spiritual and the material. Aga Khan IV has previously explained: “A cosmopolitan ethic accepts our ultimate moral responsibility to the whole of humanity, rather than absolutizing a presumably exceptional part … [it] will honor both our common humanity and our distinctive identities — each reinforcing the other as part of the same high moral calling.”
For Aga Khan IV, this cosmopolitan ethic is rooted in the rich ethico-religious tradition of Islam inspired by the Quran, which encourages the believer to embrace a common origin of humanity while acknowledging and respecting its diversity — a gift of the divine. The Quran says, “We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes so that you may know one another” (49:13). In other words, knowing the other is a fulfillment of the divine will, of being Muslim and, indeed, of being human.
Aga Khan IV has chosen the medium of architecture to express the cosmopolitan spirit and brings different perspectives into dialogue. Speaking on September 13 at the Aga Khan Award for Architecture ceremony in Kazan, Russia, he once again emphasized the effective role architecture can have in paving this effort. He noted, “I believe deeply in the potential of the architectural world to help inspire and enrich a creative dialogue in all four of the areas I have mentioned: a dialogue between creative architectural partners, a dialogue between past and future, a dialogue between natural reality and human creativity, and a dialogue among diverse cultures.”
The layers of engagement and interchange of diverse commitments embedded in these areas of dialogue reflect those values sacred to a cosmopolitan ethic. There are two remarkable buildings in Canada commissioned by Aga Khan IV that play an important role in demystifying the faith of Islam and changing perceptions about Muslims: the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre Toronto. These institutional landmarks that sit on a 6.8-hectare site along the arterial Don Valley express Aga Khan IV’s commitment to a cosmopolitan ethic.
Although the Aga Khan Museum is a public institution accomplishing this task through its educational and cultural mission, I want to highlight the equally impressive Ismaili Centre that has added stimulating avenues toward shaping this cosmopolitan outlook.
Cosmopolitan Ethics and the Built Environment
The Ismaili Centre Toronto is the second ambassadorial building of its kind in Canada and the sixth among a family of Ismaili centers across the globe. These buildings have become a symbol of the Ismaili community’s approach to the Muslim faith and modern life on the world stage. The building’s facade is very much in keeping with the cosmopolitan ethic of expressing a long tradition of Islamic values while reflecting the fabric of the community in which it resides.
Serving as a site of congregation for the community, the Ismaili Centre also fulfills a more ambitious role of advancing opportunities for dialogue and engagement with the broader community. Over the past five years, it has played host to a number of workshops, seminars, round-table dialogues, Nawruz celebrations and the inaugural iftar dinner during Ramadan. In addition, it partakes in the annual “Doors Open Toronto,” welcoming Torontonians and offering an insider’s perspective on Muslim representation — helping to change the narrative, one human at a time.
The center’s impressive social hall is no stranger to entertaining sounds and enriching dialogue. It provides a safe venue for raising complex questions and encouraging mutual exchange and understanding. Collaboration is a key ingredient to the success of the Ismaili Centre’s programming.
In May, for example, the Women’s Portfolio for the Ismaili Council of Ontario, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (Toronto chapter), and the Muslim Awards for Excellence came together to host a panel discussion. Four remarkable women, including MP Iqra Khalid, spoke about the valuable contribution of women to Canadian society.
This is just one of the many thoughtful and engaging activities that take place within the center. Another intellectually-engaging series taking place at the Ismaili Centre Toronto is a Conversation Series that broaches a number of curated topics, ranging from bioethics to art. In this way, the Ismaili Centre and its initiatives live up to the ambitious role of representing the values of a Muslim community, productively engaging with civic life and building bridges between diverse communities. This is indeed a testament to Aga Khan IV’s cosmopolitan ethos.
The Ismaili Centre, situated in the vibrant and diverse city of Toronto, sends a bold message to Canada and the world at a time of heightened Islamophobia.
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