On Wednesday, the Aga Khan became just the sixth person to address Canada’s Parliament since the Conservative government came to office in 2006. Such rare moments come at the invitation of the Prime Minister and are as important in medium as they are in message.
Addresses to joint sessions of the Commons and Senate have been used by Stephen Harper’s government as an opportunity to showcase other pragmatic conservative leaders, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron and former Australian PM John Howard. They’ve also been granted to leaders of fragile democracies around the world to highlight Canada’s steadfast support for freedom, human rights and the rule of law, as with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko.
So what should we make of Mr. Harper’s decision to turn over Canada’s podium of record to a leader who has won no elections, governs no land and commands no army? The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims and founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, wields a very different type of power and influence.
Like most development agencies, the AKDN has a benevolent outlook, providing essential services to the most vulnerable populations in Africa and Asia. Canada’s government has long partnered with the AKDN in Afghanistan, Pakistan and East Africa, most recently on the Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.
For the Aga Khan and Mr. Harper’s Conservatives, international development is more than a simple expression of compassion – it is also an effective tool to combat the growing tentacles of extremism.
Terrorist groups such as Hamas, al-Shabab and al-Qaeda all share the same recruitment tactics, mixing lifesaving food and medicine with an “education” laced with dogmatic ideology and hatred. This has been successful in some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and, more recently, Mali. But in remote mountain communities in Central Asia and parts of Africa that face cyclical drought, hundreds of kilometres from Western embassies, the ADKN is breaking up the monopoly on young people’s minds and bodies. With assistance from Canada and other donors, they are delivering life-saving assistance plus legitimate educational and vocational opportunities, provided regardless of religious or tribal allegiances.
The Aga Khan’s sense of purpose, translated into concrete action, was largely driven by necessity from the shared experience of his followers. Ismaili Muslims were long persecuted in Asia, the Middle East and Africa for their interpretation of Islam. They migrated in search of peace and stability with a message from their spiritual leader that their faith and their civic duties need not conflict. Ismailis have since prospered individually and as a community.
Here at home, some of Mr. Harper’s opponents have interpreted the government’s steadfast support of the state of Israel as a signal of a veiled anti-Islamic sentiment. The Prime Minister’s invitation to the Aga Khan (whose followers consider him a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed) to address the House of Commons was a clear rebuke to these opponents and a signal of openness to Canada’s Muslim community.
Both Mr. Harper and the Aga Khan delivered remarks highlighting their shared commitment to assisting the world’s most vulnerable people, and in doing so, creating a more peaceful, secure and prosperous world. They conveyed their common belief that pluralism, the active engagement of religious and cultural groups, is necessary for modern democracies to flourish.
These were not unexpected messages, as they have been a common thread in their ongoing public dialogue. The truly lasting message was that matters of the world’s poor and religious diversity, often political pariahs, were elevated to the highest of mediums.
Neil Desai is a fellow with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, and a former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.