Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan
Address by His Highness The Aga Khan
Foundation Ceremony of The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat
Ottawa, Canada, June 6, 2005
Your Excellency the Governor General
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am deeply touched by Your Excellency’s kind words and generous welcome. I also thank the Government of Canada for the kindness and courtesies that have been extended to me during this and many other visits, and Your Worship for the hospitality of this beautiful city. I am particularly happy to welcome, and thank our distinguished guests for being with us on an occasion that is of special significance to the Ismaili community and Imamat. For it marks a cherished moment, a milestone, in the forward flow of a valued relationship.
Nearly three and a half decades ago, Canada opened her shores to dispossessed thousands – Ismailis and others – who had been expelled from their homeland, Uganda, which was then in the grip of a brutal tyranny. Many, from such distressed lands as Afghanistan and Tajikistan, have also found, here, a welcome home.
With industry, intelligence, education and self-help, but above all, with all the reassurances that a just, pluralist society bestows, they were able rapidly to rebuild their lives and institutions, and are discharging their responsibilities as citizens of this great land and to the less privileged elsewhere. Today’s occasion is, therefore, an appropriate opportunity to renew, on behalf of the Ismaili community and myself as their Imam, our lasting gratitude to the Government and people of Canada. The event which brings us together – the initiation of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat – is a celebration of the Ismaili community’s permanent presence in, and commitment to Canada. Reflecting the pluralism of the Muslim world generally, the Ismailis are a richly diverse community within the Shia branch of Islam, who belong to distinct ethno-geographic and linguistic traditions, namely, Arab, Iranian, Central Asian, Chinese and South Asian. They live across Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, while in recent decades they have also established a substantial presence in North America and Europe. The Ismailis are, thus, a transnational community who are, first and foremost, active and loyal citizens of the countries where they live, though in outlook they transcend the divisions of North and South, East and West. Whatever the context of their lives, they all share, like other Muslims, the commitment to an ethic whose values converge on the inherent dignity of the human person as the noblest of creation. Historically, Ismailis are united by a common allegiance to the living hereditary Imam of the time in the progeny of Islam’s last and final Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) through his daughter Fatima and her husband, Hazrat Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and the first Shia Imam. In the Muslim ethical tradition, which links spirit and matter, the Imam not only leads in the interpretation of the faith, but also in the effort to improve the quality of life of his community, and of the wider societies within which it lives; for a guiding principle of the Imamat’s institutions is to replace walls which divide with bridges that unite.
It is an honour and privilege to have Your Excellency with us at this initiation of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat. I also thank the National Capital Commission under the leadership of Chairman Marcel Beaudry, His Worship Mayor Robert Chiarelli, and Councillor Georges Bedard of the City of Ottawa, in whose ward the Delegation is located, and the capital’s civic leadership generally for their vital support and consistent encouragement in the search for this site and its development.
The Delegation will serve a representational role for the Imamat and its non-denominational, philanthropic and development agencies which constitute the Aga Khan Development Network – the AKDN. An open, secular facility, the Delegation will be a sanctuary for peaceful, quiet diplomacy, informed by the Imamat’s outlook of global convergence and the development of civil society. It will be an enabling venue for fruitful public engagements, information services and educational programmes, all backed up by high quality research, to sustain a vibrant intellectual centre, and a key policy-informing institution.
The architectural planning has been entrusted to the capable hands of Fumihiko Maki, an architect of world standing. Maki and Associates have my enthusiastic admiration for addressing, with tact and empathy, challenges of design which are difficult and subtle. They call for translating concepts that have a context in our faith and our history, yet stride boldly and confidently ahead, into modernity; for expressing both the exoteric and the esoteric, and our awe and humility towards the mysteries of Nature, Time and beyond. The outcome is an inter-play of multiple facets, like rock crystal. In it are platforms of pure but translucent horizontality. Light’s full spectrum comes alive and disappears as the eye moves. In Islam the divine is reflected in Nature’s creation.
The building will rest on a solid linear granite podium. Above it will be a glass dome through which light will illuminate, from multiple directions, two symbolic spaces: an interior atrium and an exterior courtyard landscaped in four quarters, recalling the traditional Persian – Islamic garden, the Chahr-bagh. Nature, through the greenery of trees and flowers, will be on the site, but also in the building, just as we are sometimes able to see leaves and petals captured in rock crystal, but still visible through its unique translucency. The building will be a metaphor for humanism and enlightenment and for the humility that comes from the constant search for answers that leads inevitably to more questions. The Delegation, with its openness and transparency, will be a symbolic seat for the Imamat’s permanent presence in Canada, and a platform for constructive exchanges that mutually broaden moral and intellectual horizons. It will be a window for the AKDN to reinforce existing, and cultivate new, partnerships with national and international agencies present in Ottawa, that share the ethic of contributing to an improved quality of life in the developing world. This concern to improve the human condition underlines the long standing relationship of the Ismaili Imamat and the AKDN with Canada’s Government and civil society institutions in many parts of Africa and Asia. Our presence in these areas, home to some of the most disadvantaged and diverse populations in the world, has exposed us jointly to a realistic appreciation of the problems of persistent under development, namely that human progress can only be sustained when people are able to participate in their own governance. Parliamentary elections are only one aspect of participation. Equally or perhaps more important is the access to a healthy, multi-faceted civil society pervading all areas of human interaction, rural and urban, able to seek out, and harness, the best from all segments of the population.
Successful experience with democracy, civil society and pluralism are the national genius of Canada of which much of the developing world is in dire need. As an example – and there are many – of how these Canadian assets can help transform living conditions, I often cite our experience in Northern Pakistan, a case study situation of poor development prospects in a harsh, sparsely endowed physical environment, further beset by ethnic and religious hostilities. The AKDN has been present there for over twenty years, with CIDA as a lead partner. Our joint micro experiment with grassroots democracy, civil society and pluralism has been the spring board for a dramatic trebling of per capita incomes, with corresponding improvements in social services and cultural awareness in what was once one of the poorest areas on earth. Tensions occasionally resurface, incited by mischief; but by and large, where once there was conflict born of despair and past memories, there is now a spirit of consensus built around hope in the future. This is, therefore, a good opportunity to acknowledge gratefully Canada’s intellectual, institutional and financial contribution to a partnership with the AKDN in the creation of the new Global Centre for Pluralism here in Ottawa. A tribute to, and drawing on, Canada’s experience of pluralist democracy, this research and education Centre will work closely with governments, academia and civil society in culturally diverse countries. The aim will be to foster policy and legislation, that enables pluralism to take root in all spheres of modern life: law, justice, the arts, media, financial services, health and education.
It is heartening that, in a report of March this year, the Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs and International Trade recognized the critical importance of developing partnerships with the countries of the Muslim world. It stressed the need to work, not only with their governments, but also with civil society and minorities, in realizing Canada’s key international policy objectives of sharing her experience of good governance and economic development. Acknowledging the contribution of Muslim civilisation to the West’s own development, and Islam’s affinity to the values of pluralism and liberal democratic principles, the Committee and the Government have signalled the intention to take steps to improve mutual understanding between Canada and the Muslim world.
The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in the federal capital, the new Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre to be built in Toronto, are symbols of this seriousness and respect that Canada, leading the West generally, accords to the world of Islam, of which the Ismaili Community, though a diverse minority itself, is fully representative. May this mutual understanding, so important to the future stability and progress of our world, flourish many fold. It is my sincere hope that, by its presence and the functions it fulfils, the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat will be an illuminating landmark on “the Mile of History”. An epitome of friendship to one and all, it will radiate Islam’s precepts of one humanity, the dignity of man, and the nobility of joint striving in deeds of goodness.