Canada praised for its religious diversity
The Aga Khan makes parliamentary address
OTTAWA — The spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims praised Canada on Thursday as an international role model of civil society, diversity and religious freedom with a vital role to play in overcoming international crises.
In a rare address to Parliament, the Aga Khan said religious hostility and intolerance are on the rise internationally, which means countries that embrace diversity have an increasingly important role.
“Sadly, the world is becoming more pluralist in fact but not necessarily in spirit,” he said, adding that Canada’s contributions to development aid and its commitment to cultural dialogue and religious freedom provide an example to the world. “I know that many Canadians would describe their own pluralism as a work in progress, but it is also an asset of enormous global quality.”
The Aga Khan signed a protocol of understanding Thursday with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, committing the two to holding annual high-level consultations on global issues. Harper said the document will “solidify the important partnership” that has existed between the Canadian government and the Aga Khan since the 1970s when many Ismaili Muslims fled to Canada to escape political turmoil in Uganda.
The Aga Khan is the first nonhead of state to address Parliament since then-United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan in 2004 and, before him, Nelson Mandela, who spoke in Parliament in 1990, four years before he was elected president of South Africa.
The Aga Khan was asked to address Parliament because of the “exquisite symmetry” between his values as a religious leader and the Canadian people, said Harper, who introduced the speaker by quoting him:
“‘We cannot make the world safe for democracy without first making it safe for diversity.’ This is a most Canadian way of seeing things.”
The message of the Aga Khan, who is a member of the Order of Canada and an honorary Canadian citizen, appears to have resonated deeply with Harper, who lauded his “lifelong advocacy for humanitarianism, pluralism and tolerance.”
“When you are in Canada, you are home,” the prime minister said.
In the Aga Khan’s 45-minute address to a House packed with parliamentarians and guests, he stressed the importance of civil society — the non-governmental organizations and institutions that work in fields as diverse as education, culture, science, engineering and environmental matters — and said Canada is “uniquely able to articulate and exemplify” a quality civil society.
He said Canada’s recognition of its diversity should be extended to the international community, particularly when it comes to acknowledging variations within the Muslim world.
“Muslim demography has expanded dramatically in recent years and Muslims today have highly differing views on many questions,” he said. “Central among them is that they do not share some common, overarching impression of the West.”
The Aga Khan, himself worth hundreds of millions of dollars, heads the Aga Khan Development Network, which has contributed tens of millions of dollars toward aid projects throughout Africa and Asia, with a particular emphasis on fostering civil society.
Canada has contributed $112 million, or about $22 million a year, to the AKDN’s aid efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tanzania and Mali since 2008.