The Aga Khan, spiritual leader to the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims and an honorary Canadian, visited Canada this week to speak to a rare joint session of Parliament, and inspect the new Ismaili centre in Toronto, due to open this summer. He also sat down with The Globe and Mail’s Editor-in-Chief John Stackhouse for an hour on Friday.
Here is an excerpt of the conversation:
You’ve been promoting the creation of parks around the world, from Cairo to Kabul to Delhi, and now Toronto. Why do parks matter to you?
When a public space is in a historic area or even in an ordinary area, the population from all backgrounds comes together. People from all ages, from different backgrounds, come together. It’s a space of immense social gathering. That’s part of civil society. It’s getting people to talk to other people informally in these environments.
You are celebrated as a champion of pluralism, and you refer to Canada as a global model of pluralism. What can immigrant communities draw from the Ismaili experience coming to Canada in the 1970s when your community was forced out of East Africa?
It wasn’t just the political system. It was the banking system. I reached an agreement with Prime Minister [Pierre] Trudeau and President [Jomo] Kenyatta. Another big factor was the role of Canada’s banks, Royal Bank, CIBC and Bank of Nova Scotia, which agreed to lend money to families and entrepreneurs with a financial guarantee from the imamat (his office). What is important is the notion that commercial banks will deal with whole communities as long as they’re not at risk. It’s a wonderful thing that they accepted the imamat’s guarantee.
What else can be learned by other immigrant communities?
Let’s be frank. The community had one thing. It was absolutely fluent in the English language. The fact that they were fluent in English meant they could adjust into Canadian society, to Canadian national life. This was true of the younger generation. The elder generation is less fluent. The second thing that played a big part is that the community has a structure, it has a constitution, it has consular bodies, it has people who have functions. It was not a disorganized community. It was a community that was facing disorganizational pressures. but itself, it had its own capacities. There was a structure that responded to needs. That structure had been set in place before the Uganda crisis.
You’ve said pluralism is a process, not a product. In terms of Canada’s process, what concerns are raised by Quebec’s Charter of Values?
Frankly, I haven’t read it, but if you’re asking me about the generic issue, I’d say there are two issues – one is the purpose of carrying religious identification. Is it a purpose that has an objective to proselytize, or is it personal conviction – and a sense of identification with one’s faith – that cannot be interpreted as proselytization? In the case of the Sikhs, for instance, they have a religious duty – and it has been accepted by many governments. Why is that an exception? Because it is seen as a requirement of their faith.
Is it different for facial coverings, because many see those as a barrier to communication?
That is more complicated because the history is probably more tribal. So depending on which part of the world the community comes from, they will wear different headdresses. There’s no common rule. It’s something that has to be looked at very carefully, to find a common denominator that is acceptable.
Like Canada, you’ve devoted much of your energy to Afghanistan, and invested there in things like hotels. Do you hope for stability any time soon?
I think it’s going to be a little bit of a kaleidoscope, a mixed picture where various provinces will move ahead and others will find themselves with less forward movement. The conditionality of all that is the protection of civil society. I’m not convinced that is in place.
What does Afghanistan need most?
A fully trained police, police from the provinces, trained and perhaps led by training officers for a period, not necessarily Afghan training officers, for a transitional period.