First, who is the Aga Khan?

Aga Khan (chief commander) is the title of the imam, or spiritual leader, of the sect of Moslems known as Nizari Ismailis. The title was granted in 1818 by the Shah of Persia.

The Ismailis are Shias, one of the two great sects of Islam. Unlike the Sunnis, the major group, the Shias believe that the imam must be a descendant of the prophet Mohammed through Hasan and Husain, the sons of his daughter Fatima. The Ismailis, who trace their origin to the 8th century, were formed around the followers of Ismail, a descendant of Husain. One branch, the Nizari Ismailis, established itself in Persia in a number of strong fortresses in the 11th century.

A minority within a minority, the 15 million Ismailis are spread over about two dozen nations in Central and South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Persian Gulf and, lately, Britain (20,000), the United States (50,000) and Canada (75,000).

[more after the flip]
Second, what has he been up to in the world?

The 68-year-old imam, a multimillionaire himself, presides over a plethora of the Geneva-based foundations that direct health, educational, cultural and development projects worth about $250 million a year.

The Aga Khan Development Network is the world’s largest non-governmental development agency. Aga Khan Foundation Canada partners with the Canadian International Development Agency in delivering foreign aid projects in Asia and Africa.

His other initiatives include the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture based at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which restores historic Islamic spaces.

On the for-profit side — with annual revenues of $1.3 billion — there is the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development.

A venture capital fund, it operates in countries short on foreign investment. For example, it has invested in a five-star hotel in Kabul and a mobile phone company for all of Afghanistan.

Much of this work, employing 50,000 people worldwide, is designed to advance grassroots democracy and economic development in the poorest countries.

Pretty impressive credentials and humanitarian endeavors designed to promote multiculturalism and independence for the worlds peoples… not just Muslims of his faith. Hmm… what a strange concept indeed in this day and age!

What are his beliefs and why do they matter?

The Aga Khan often cites failed or failing democracies — in nearly 40 per cent of the United Nations member-nations, representing up to 900 million people — as a threat to the world.

He talks of three essential preconditions for their progress: the nurturing of civil society, meritocracy and pluralism.


The Aga Khan sees multiculturalism as a great force of good; in fact, the missing element in societies plagued by ethnic or religious warfare.

“We have seen, in the last quarter of a century, many pluralistic nations pay a horrible price because they were unable to manage conflicts between different communities,”

I agree wholeheartedly of course.

So where does Canada come in?

Canada, on the other hand, “has a long and highly successful track record of pluralism.

“It is a sophisticated democracy where people of different backgrounds feel they have an equitable voice in the country and have achieved positions of real leadership.”

He visualizes that his non-profit, non-denominational pluralism centre would distill the Canadian wisdom — how pluralism evolved, how it works and what lessons it has taught us — into “significant pedagogical material” for schools, intellectual content for universities and case studies for foreign NGOs, governments and nations to follow.

Canada has become a partner because the mission is consistent with our foreign policy objectives: promotion of democracy, good governance, and the rule of law, human rights and respect for diversity.

I tell the Aga Khan that Canadians, being modest, don’t quite see the significance of the peaceful heterogeneity they have forged.

“I agree completely,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary global asset that Canadians have not necessarily seen. They are a humble people.

“They don’t want to teach other people lessons that the other people don’t want to learn.

“But we have an opportunity here” to spread the Canadian formula around the world.

The pluralism centre is one of Aga Khan’s four initiatives in Canada:

  • A diplomatic legation in Ottawa on Sussex Dr., next to the Pearson Building, and two projects on adjacent properties in Toronto, on Wynford Dr., worth $200 million.
  • An Islamic museum, which he had initially planned for London, England, and being designed by Japanese modernist Fumihiko Maki.An Ismaili Jamat Khana (house of congregation), designed by the famous Indian architect Charles Correa. Both, situated within a park, are expected to be ready and open to the public by 2008.

Well, as a humble and modest Canadian I have to say IT’s ABOUT FRIGGIN’ TIME WE GOT OUR DUE!! I was shocked when I moved to the US at age 18 and saw “ePluribus Unum” in action in America’s ghettos and patchwork communities. I grew up with Ukrainians, Jamaicans, French, Jews, Portugese, Chinese, Sri Lankans, etc. etc. etc. and never once thought I was better or more “Canadian” than them because I was white. We were all people sharing and living our lives in relative peace. And that’s the way we like it. Canada is not perfect, but we work on expanding our understanding and compassion on a daily basis. Change doesn’t happen overnight.

I am impressed and grateful that an important Muslim spiritual leader sees it to. It gives me great hope in humanity that he is out there using his wealth and influence for the betterment of the world.

I will end the post with some wise words on the state of the world & democracy…

“I read that Islam is in conflict with democracy. Yet I must tell you that as a Muslim, I am a democrat not because of Greek or French thought, but primarily because of principles that go back 1,400 years” (to the Prophet Muhammad) — “wide public consultation in choosing leaders” and “merit and competence in social governance.”

“What we have is not a clash of civilizations but a clash of ignorance. This ignorance is both historic and of our time.”

It is “illustrated by events in Iraq. No less deplorable is that the 9/11 attack was a direct consequence of the international community ignoring the human tragedy that was Afghanistan at that time. Both the Afghan and Iraqi situations were driven by a lack of understanding.”


“One of the difficulties is that the Western world does not understand the pluralism of the Islamic world, which is heavily, massively pluralistic, even more so than the West. But the West does not understand it because it has not included the Islamic world in the teaching of what we call `general knowledge.’

“This is a very important issue in democracies because democracies presume that the electorate is capable of commenting on major issues of national or international importance, and of choosing good government,” which, in turn, would formulate informed foreign policy.

So, “unless there is a better understanding of the Islamic world, democracies are not going to be able to express themselves on Islamic issues.”

The gulf is not going to be bridged by what he calls “the narrow focus of the interfaith dialectic,” but by broad education, starting at school, and dialogue between citizens, civil society groups and governments.

This is essential, he has said, because “you cannot build a dialogue based upon ignorance.”

Now this is a guy we should be dialoguing with.

[all emphasis mine]

Cross posted at Daily Kos

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