Plural honours from the Aga Khan

Plural honours from the Aga Khan


This afternoon, in the Centre Block of Parliament, Stephen Harper and the Aga Khan will announce the foundation of a new Global Centre for Pluralism, an institute dedicated to disseminating the values of multiculturalism around the world.

These days, however, the imam of the world’s Ismaili Muslims could be forgiven for wondering whether he had picked the wrong country.

With most developing countries multicultural by definition — thanks to arbitrarily drawn postcolonial borders — and with immigration rapidly turning even the most homogeneous nation-states into melting pots, no 21st-century issue will challenge governments more than fashioning societies in which people of disparate backgrounds and faiths can live together comfortably.

The Aga Khan proposed situating a new centre on pluralism in Ottawa as a tribute to Canada’s signal success in establishing a tolerant multicultural society. The centre would study the multicultural experience in Canada and try to export its lessons overseas.

His foundation was willing to contribute $40-million to the centre’s creation and wanted $30-million from the federal government. Paul Martin agreed in principle, but nothing was nailed down, and the arrival of the Conservative government raised questions about Ottawa’s commitment.

But it appears that commitment is still firm. Mr. Harper will have the Aga Khan to dinner at 24 Sussex Dr., after having signed with him the undertaking to launch the new foundation. All the details weren’t available yesterday, but part of the agreement apparently involves giving the foundation use of the old Canadian war museum on Sussex Drive. It has been empty since the new museum opened last year.

We’ll all need to know more about the mandate of this new institution and how, concretely, it plans to go about its work, before we can judge the wisdom of the taxpayer’s investment. But in principle, the Canadian experiment in multiculturalism is worth both celebrating and exporting. And it reminds us of why we must guard against those who would propose differential standards of citizenship.

A number of commentators, playing off a similar debate under way in Europe, have decided that some Canadians aren’t acting Canadian enough. They are particularly suspicious of Muslim women who cover their face, and Muslim men who encourage it. Such acts of male dominance and female submission have no place in Canadian society, they argue, and reflect the refusal of Muslim immigrants to integrate.

It’s all poppycock, of course. No one has problems with nuns in habits, or widows dressed in eternal black. Blue hair and piercings — or, going further back, long hair and jeans — used to signify a conscious rejection of established values, but we survived without outlawing punk or banning the Beatles.

Saying that covering your face puts you beyond the pale is simply an arbitrary restriction that one person decides to impose on another. What if I only cover my mouth? Is that acceptable? Does it bother you when I wear ear muffs? Until women wearing the niqab begin robbing banks, there simply isn’t a problem here.

Those who, from a fear of Islamic terrorism, propose that we judge a person’s loyalty by her manner of dress, fear also that Canadian society is vulnerable, when in fact it is amazingly robust. This country, with all of its diversity and tolerance and pluralism, is founded on solid principles of equality and respect that are enumerated in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in the laws of the land. We assume that everyone accepts that Charter and those laws until they do something to convince us otherwise.

Until then, a veil is only a veil; bare breasts are only bare breasts. If either makes you uncomfortable, tough. That’s what a multicultural society is all about. That’s why the Aga Khan wants to put his foundation here. Even if some among us act as though we’d rather he put it somewhere else.

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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