Address to both Houses of the Parliament of Canada in the House of Commons Chamber

Mawlana Hazar Imam delivers a historic address to a joint session of the Parliament of Canada on 27 February 2014, at the invitation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Gary Otte

Mr Prime Minister,
Speaker Kinsella,
Speaker Scheer,
Honourable Members of the Senate and House of Commons,
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
Honourable Members of the Diplomatic Community
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

The Prime Minister’s generous introduction has been very kind. I am grateful for this invitation, for our association, and for so thoughtfully enabling leading representatives of our community and institutions, around the world, to join us on this occasion. I am thankful they will have this opportunity to see for themselves why Canada is a leader in the community of nations.

I must also thank you, Prime Minister, for inviting me to become an honorary citizen. May I congratulate you on the gold medals of your remarkable hockey teams in Sochi. As an ex-player myself I was hoping you would require your honorary citizens to join your team. I am convinced that the Dalai Lama and I would have been a formidable defence.

Merci encore Monsieur le Premier Ministre pour votre invitation. Je ressens cet instant comme un honneur sans précédent. C'est à la fois un sentiment intime, et une perception objective, puisque l'on m'a rapporté que c'est la première fois depuis 75 ans qu'un chef spirituel s'adresse au Sénat et à la Chambre des Communes réunis, dans le cadre d'une visite officielle. C'est donc avec humilité et conscient d'une éminente responsabilité que je m'adresse à vous, représentants élus du Parlement fédéral canadien, en présence des plus hautes autorités du gouvernement fédéral.

J'ai le grand privilège de représenter ici l'Imamat ismaïli, cette institution qui, au-delà des frontières et depuis plus de 1,400 ans, se définit et est reconnue par un nombre croissant d'Etats comme la succession des Imams chiites imamis ismaïlis.

Quarante-neuvième Imam de cette longue histoire, je porte depuis plus de cinquante ans, deux responsabilités inséparables : veiller au devenir spirituel des ismaïlis ainsi que, concomitamment, à l'amélioration de leur qualité de vie et de celle des populations au sein desquelles ils vivent.

Même s'il fut une époque où les Imams ismaïlis étaient aussi Califes, c'est-à-dire chefs d'Etats — par exemple en Egypte à l'époque fatimide — ma fonction est aujourd'hui apolitique; tout ismaïli étant avant tout un citoyen ou une citoyenne de son pays de naissance ou d'adoption. Le champ d'action de l'Imamat ismaïli est pourtant considérablement plus important qu'à cette époque lointaine, puisqu'il déploie aujourd'hui ses activités dans de nombreuses régions du monde C'est dans ce cadre que j'évoquerai successivement devant vous quelques réflexions qui me paraissent dignes de vous être présentées.

I propose today to give you some background about myself and my role, and then to reflect about what we call the Ummah — the entirety of Muslim communities around the world.

I will comment, as a faith leader, on the crisis of governance in so much of the world today, before concluding with some thoughts about the values that can assist countries of crisis to develop into countries of opportunity, and how Canada can help shape that process.

First then, a few personal words. I was born into a Muslim family, linked by heredity to the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him and his family). My education blended Islamic and Western traditions, and I was studying at Harvard some 50 years ago (yes 50 years ago — actually 56 years ago!) when I became the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.

The Ismaili Imamat is a supra-national entity, representing the succession of Imams since the time of the Prophet. But let me clarify something more about the history of that role, in both the Sunni and Shia interpretations of the Muslim faith. The Sunni position is that the Prophet nominated no successor, and that spiritual-moral authority belongs to those who are learned in matters of religious law. As a result, there are many Sunni imams in a given time and place. But others believed that the Prophet had designated his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his successor. From that early division, a host of further distinctions grew up — but the question of rightful leadership remains central. In time, the Shia were also sub-divided over this question, so that today the Ismailis are the only Shia community who, throughout history, have been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from the Prophet.

The role of the Ismaili Imam is a spiritual one; his authority is that of religious interpretation. It is not a political role. I do not govern any land. At the same time, Islam believes fundamentally that the spiritual and material worlds are inextricably connected. Faith does not remove Muslims — or their Imams — from daily, practical matters in family life, in business, in community affairs.

Faith, rather, is a force that should deepen our concern for our worldly habitat, for embracing its challenges, and for improving the quality of human life.

This Muslim belief in the fusion of Faith and World is why much of my attention has been committed to the work of the Aga Khan Development Network.

In 1957, when I succeeded my grandfather as Imam, the Ismaili community lived for the most part in the colonies or ex-colonies of France, Belgium and the British Empire, or behind the Iron Curtain. They are still a highly diverse community, in terms of ethnicity, language, culture, and geography. They continue to live mostly in the developing world, though increasing numbers now live in Europe and North America.

Before 1957, individual Ismaili communities had their own social and economic institutions where that was allowed. There was no intent for them to grow to national prominence, and even less a vision to coordinate their activities across frontiers.

Today, however, that situation has changed, and the Aga Khan Development Network has a strong presence in several dozen countries, where appropriate regional coordination is also useful.

The AKDN — as we call it — is composed of a variety of private, non-governmental, non-denominational agencies implementing many of the Imamat’s responsibilities. We are active in the fields of economic development, job creation, education, and health care, as well as important cultural initiatives.

Most of our AKDN activities have been born from the grass roots of developing countries, reflecting their aspirations and their fragilities. Through the years, of course, this landscape has changed fundamentally, with the creation of new states like Bangladesh, the horrors of ethnic cleansing in Uganda, the collapse of the Soviet empire and the emergence of new countries with large Ismaili populations such as Tajikistan.

More recently, of course, we have faced the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria. But through all of these experiences, the

Ismaili peoples have demonstrated an impressive capacity to persevere and to progress.

Our work has always been people-driven. It grows out of the age-old Islamic ethic, committed to goals with universal relevance: the elimination of poverty, access to education, and social peace in a pluralist environment. The AKDN’s fundamental objective is to improve the quality of human life. 

Amongst the great common denominators of the human race is a shared aspiration, a common hope, for a better quality of life. I was struck a few years ago to read about a UNDP survey of 18 South American states where the majority of the people were less interested in their forms of government, than in the quality of their lives. Even autocratic governments that improved their quality of life would be more acceptable for most of those polled than ineffective democratic governments.

I cite that study, of course, with due respect to governmental institutions that have had a more successful history — including certain very distinguished parliaments!

But the sad fact behind so much instability in our world today is that governments are seen to be inadequate to these challenges. A much happier fact is that, in the global effort to change this picture, Canada is an exemplary leader.

Let me now describe a few examples of a quarter century of close collaboration between AKDN and Canada.

One of our earliest collaborations was to establish the first private nursing school in Pakistan, in cooperation with McMaster and the CIDA of that time. It was the first component of the Aga Khan University — the first private university in that country. The nursing school’s impact has been enormous; many of those who now head other nursing programmes and hospitals in the whole of the region — not just Pakistan — are graduates of our school. Canada was also one of the first donors to the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in Northern Pakistan, tripling incomes in this remote, marginalised area. The approaches developed there have shaped our further collaborations in Tajikistan, in Afghanistan, in Kenya, and in Mozambique. Canada has also helped establish the Aga Khan University’s Institute for Educational Development in Karachi and in East Africa, along with other educational initiatives in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, including pioneering work in the field of Early Childhood Development.

I could speak about our close ties with Canadian universities also, such as McMaster, McGill, the University of Toronto, and the University of Alberta, enhancing our own institutions of tertiary education — the Aga Khan University and the University of Central Asia.

The latter institution has resulted from the Imamat’s unique, tripartite treaty with the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It serves some 22 million people who live in Central Asia, in hillside and high mountain environments, areas of acute seismic and economic vulnerability.

I could list many more examples in cultural development and in scientific research. And we are especially proud of the Global Centre for Pluralism here in Ottawa, a joint project of the Imamat and the Canadian government.

In just three years, Canada will mark its 150th anniversary, and the whole world will be ready to celebrate with you. Sharing Canada's robust pluralistic history, is a core mission of our Global Centre, and 2017 will be a major opportunity for doing so, operating from its headquarters in the former War Museum on Sussex Drive. Perhaps 2017 and the celebrations can be a catalyst with our neighbours to improve the entire riverfront area around that building.

Our partnership in Canada has been immensely strengthened, of course, by the presence for more than four decades of a significant Ismaili community. Like most historic global communities the Ismaili peoples have a variegated history, but surely our experience in Canada has been a particularly positive chapter.

I happily recall the establishment of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat here in 2008 and the Prime Minister’s description that day of our collaborative efforts to make Canada “the headquarters of the global effort to foster peace, prosperity, and equality through pluralism.”

We are deeply pleased that we can sign today a new Protocol with your Government — further strengthening our ongoing platform for cooperation.

As we look to the next 25 years of the AKDN, we believe that our permanent presence in the developing world will make us a dependable partner, especially in meeting the difficult challenges of predictability.

Against this background, let me move on to the broad international sphere, including the role of relations between the countries and cultures of Islam — what we call the Ummah — and non-Islamic societies. It is central to the shape of global affairs in our time. 

I would begin by emphasising a central point about the Ummah often unseen elsewhere: the fundamental fact of its immense diversity. Muslim demography has expanded dramatically in recent years, and Muslims today have highly differing views on many questions.

Essential among them is that they do not share some common, overarching impression of the West. It has become commonplace for some to talk about an inevitable clash of the industrial West and Islamic civilizations. But Muslims don’t see things in this way. Those whose words and deeds feed into that point of view are a small and extreme minority. For most of us, it is simply not true. We find singularly little in our theological interpretations that would clash with the other Abrahamic faiths — with Christianity and Judaism. Indeed, there is much that is in profound harmony.

When the clashes of modern times have come, they have most often grown out of particular political circumstances, the twists and turns of power relationships and economic ambitions, rather than deep theological divides. Yet sadly, what is highly abnormal in the Islamic world gets mistaken for what is normal. Of course, media perceptions of our world in recent years have often been conveyed through a lens of war. But that is all the more reason to shape global conversation in a more informed direction. I am personally aware of the efforts the Prime Minister has made to achieve this. Thank you, Prime Minister.

The complexity of the Ummah has a long history. Some of the most glorious chapters in Islamic history were purposefully built on the principle of inclusiveness — it was a matter of state policy to pursue excellence through pluralism. This was true from the time of the Abbasids in Baghdad and the Fatimids in Cairo over 1,000 years ago. It was true in Afghanistan and Timbuktu in Mali, and later with the Safavids in Iran, the Mughals in India, the Uzbeks in Bukhara, and Ottomans in Turkey. From the 8th to the 16th century, al-Andalus thrived on the Iberian Peninsula — under Muslim aegis — but also deeply welcoming to Christian and Jewish peoples.

Today, these Islamic traditions have been obscured in many places, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The work of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, including the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and our Historic Cities Programme, is to revive the memory of this inclusive inheritance. Another immediate initiative is the Aga Khan Museum which will open this year in Toronto, an important testimonial in a Canadian setting to the immense diversity of Islamic cultures.

Perhaps the most important area of incomprehension, outside the Ummah, is the conflict between Sunni and Shia interpretations of Islam and the consequences for the Sunni and Shia peoples.

This powerful tension is sometimes even more profound than conflicts between Muslims and other faiths. It has increased massively in scope and intensity recently, and has been further exacerbated by external interventions. In Pakistan and Malaysia, in Iraq and Syria, in Lebanon and Bahrain, in Yemen and Somalia and Afghanistan it is becoming a disaster. It is important, therefore, for non-Muslims who are dealing with the Ummah to communicate with both Sunni and Shia voices. To be oblivious to this reality would be like ignoring over many centuries that there were differences between Catholics and Protestants, or trying to resolve the civil war in Northern Ireland without engaging both Christian communities. What would have been the consequences if the Protestant-Catholic struggle in Ireland had spread throughout the Christian world, as is happening today between Shia and Sunni Muslims in more than nine countries? It is of the highest priority that these dangerous trends be well understood and resisted, and that the fundamental legitimacy of pluralistic outlooks be honoured in all aspects of our lives together — including matters of faith.

Permettez-moi à ce point de mon discours de m'adresser à vous à nouveau en français.

Je viens d'évoquer les incompréhensions entre le monde industrialisé et le monde musulman et les oppositions qui flétrissent indument les relations entre les grandes traditions de l'Islam.

Pourtant, le cœur, la raison et, pour ceux qui en sont animés, la foi, nous disent qu'une plus grande harmonie est possible. De fait, des évolutions récentes nous donnent une ouverture.

Parmi ces évolutions, je voudrais dire combien la démarche constitutionnaliste est importante pour corriger l'inadéquation de nombreuses constitutions existantes, avec l'évolution des sociétés, notamment lorsqu'elles sont en développement. C'est un sujet essentiel que les devoirs de ma charge m'interdisent d'ignorer.

Vous serez peut-être surpris d'apprendre que trente-sept pays du monde ont adopté une nouvelle constitution dans les dernières dix années, et douze sont en phase avancée de modernisation de la leur, soit au total quarante-neuf pays. Dit autrement, ce mouvement concerne un quart des états membres des Nations-Unies. Sur ce total de quarante-neuf pays, 25 pour cent sont des pays à majorité musulmane.

Ceci montre qu'aujourd'hui, la revendication par les sociétés civiles de structures constitutionnelles nouvelles, est devenue incontournable.

Je voudrais ici m'arrêter un instant pour souligner une difficulté particulière du monde musulman. Là, les partis religieux sont structurellement porteurs du principe de l'inséparabilité de la religion et de la vie de la Cité.

La conséquence en est que lorsqu'ils négocient les termes d'une constitution avec des interlocuteurs qui revendiquent la séparation entre Etat et religion, le consensus sur la loi suprême est d'évidence difficile à atteindre.

Cependant, un pays vient de nous faire la démonstration que cela est possible : la République tunisienne.

Ce n'est pas le lieu de commenter par le menu sa nouvelle constitution. Disons toutefois qu'elle est la résultante d'un débat pluraliste assumé, et qu'elle semble contenir les règles nécessaires pour assurer le respect mutuel entre composantes de la société civile.

Ceci se traduit en particulier par une appropriation de la notion de coalition, que ce soit au niveau électoral ou gouvernemental. Il s'agit là d'une grande avancée pour l'expression de ce pluralisme accepté que le Canada et l'Imamat ismaïli appellent de leurs vœux.

Remarquons enfin une conséquence que cette évolution laisse espérer : le forum des débats et conflits inhérents à toute société pluraliste n'est plus la rue ou la place, mais la Cour constitutionnelle d'un état de droit.

Outre le génie propre des constitutionnalistes tunisiens, les travaux préparatoires ont été l'occasion de consultations de droit constitutionnel comparé. Je voudrais saluer en particulier le rôle des juristes portugais, citoyens d'un pays pour lequel j’ai beaucoup de considération et qui, comme le Canada, a développé une civilisation du respect mutuel entre communautés, et d'ouverture aux religions. Je fais référence ici à la loi à dimension concordataire qui régit les relations entre la République portugaise et l'Imamat ismaïli depuis 2010. Devant votre très honorable assemblée, je suis heureux d'ajouter que cette loi, votée à l'unanimité, prend acte de la qualité d'entité supranationale de l'Imamat ismaïli.

Pour conclure sur la constitution tunisienne, Monsieur François Hollande, Président de la République française, a dit à Tunis : "Ce qui fait l'originalité de votre révolution, et même de votre Constitution, c'est le rôle de la société civile." Clearly, the voices playing a major role in Tunisia were the voices of “Civil Society.”

By Civil Society I mean an array of institutions which operate on a private, voluntary basis, but are motivated by high public purposes. They include institutions devoted to education, culture, science and research; to commercial, labor, ethnic and religious concerns; as well as professional societies in law, accounting, banking, engineering and medicine. Civil Society encompasses groups that work on health and safety and environmental matters, organisations that are engaged in humanitarian service, or in the arts or the media.

There is sometimes a tendency in the search for progress to focus solely on politics and government, or on the private, profit-making sector. And surely they both have roles to play.

But my view is that the world needs to pay more attention — much, much more attention — to the potential role of Civil Society.

We see it expanding in many places, from Sub-Saharan Africa to Tunisia and Egypt, from Iran to Bangladesh. At a time of extreme danger in Kenya a few years ago — the beginnings of a civil war — the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, led the way to a peaceful solution which rested heavily on the strength of Kenya’s Civil Society.

Increasingly, I believe, the voices of Civil Society are voices for change, where change has been overdue. They have been voices of hope for people living in fear.

They are voices that can help transform countries of crisis into countries of opportunity. There are too many societies where too many people live in a culture of fear, condemned to a life of poverty. Addressing that fear, and replacing it with hope, will be a major step to the elimination of poverty. And often the call for hope to replace fear will come from the voices of Civil Society.

An active Civil Society can open the door for an enormous variety of energies and talents from a broad spectrum of organisations and individuals. It means opening the way for diversity. It means welcoming plurality. I believe that Canada is uniquely able to articulate and exemplify three critical underpinnings of a quality Civil Society — a commitment to pluralism, to meritocracy, and to a cosmopolitan ethic.

A cosmopolitan ethic is one that welcomes the complexity of human society. It balances rights and duties, freedom and responsibility. It is an ethic for all peoples, the familiar and the Other, whether they live across the street or across the planet.

The Aga Khan Development Network has worked over five decades to assist in the enhancement of Civil Society. And as we look to its future, we are honoured that Canada views us as a valued partner. Thank you Prime Minister. One key to Canada’s success in building a meritocratic Civil Society is your recognition that democratic societies require more than democratic governments.

I have been impressed by recent studies showing the activity of voluntary institutions and not-for-profit organisations in Canada to be among the highest in the world. This Canadian spirit resonates with a cherished principle in Shia Ismaili culture — the importance of contributing one’s individual energies on a voluntary basis to improving the lives of others.

This is not a matter of philanthropy, but rather of self-fulfillment — “enlightened self-fulfillment.”

During my Golden Jubilee — and this is important — six years ago Ismailis from around the world volunteered their gifts, not only of wealth, but most notably of time and knowledge, in support of our work. We established a Time and Knowledge framework, a structured process for engaging an immense pool of expertise involving tens of thousands of volunteers. Many of them traveled to developing countries as part of this outpouring of service — one third of those were Canadians. Their impact has been enormous in helping us to achieve best practice standards in our institutions and programmes, making us we hope an even better partner for Canada!

Such efforts thrive when multiple inputs can be matched to multiple needs, which is why Canada’s immense economic diversity is such a valuable global resource.

One of the foundational qualities of Canada’s Civil Society is its educational emphasis. Studies show that Canadian students — whether native or foreign born — perform in the very top tier of students internationally, and indeed, that more than 45 per cent of the foreign born population in Canada has a tertiary degree.

This record of educational opportunity resonates strongly with the Shia Ismaili belief in the transformative power of the human intellect, a conviction that underscores AKDN’s massive commitment to education wherever we are present — not only education for our faith, but also of education for our world. To do this we are engaged in all levels of education.

The Aga Khan University in Karachi and East Africa are expanding to create a new Liberal Arts faculty, and to establish eight new post-graduate schools in collaboration with several Canadian universities.

We also share with Canada a deep appreciation for the potential of early childhood education. It is the period of the greatest development of the brain. This education is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve the quality of life for rural as well as urban populations. Congratulations, Prime Minister, for your initiative on this.

In this regard, let me take a moment to salute the late Dr Fraser Mustard, whose work in Early Childhood Development will impact millions of people around the world. The AKDN has been fortunate to have been inspired and counselled by this great Canadian scientist and humanist.

Quality education is fundamental to the development of a meritocratic Civil Society, and thus to the development of pluralistic attitudes.

The history of Canada has a great deal to teach us in this regard, including the long, incremental processes through which quality civil societies and committed cultures of pluralism are built. One of the watchwords of our new Global Centre for Pluralism is that “Pluralism is a Process and not a Product.” 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.

What more will a quality Civil Society now require of us? Sadly, the world is becoming more pluralist in fact, but not necessarily in spirit. “Cosmopolitan” social patterns have not yet been matched by “a cosmopolitan ethic.” In fact, one harsh reality is that religious hostility and intolerance seems to be on the rise in many places — from the Central African Republic, to South Sudan, to Nigeria, to Myanmar, the Philippines and other countries — both between major religious groups and within them.

Again, Canada has responded in notable ways, including the establishment — just one year ago — of the Office of Religious Freedom. Its challenges, like those facing the Centre for Global Pluralism, are enormous and its contributions will be warmly welcomed. And surely it will also serve as a worthy model for other countries.

In sum, I believe that Civil Society is one of the most powerful forces in our time, one that will become an increasingly universal influence, engulfing more countries, influencing, reshaping and sometimes even replacing ineffective regimes. And I also believe that Civil Society around the world should be vigorously encouraged and wisely nurtured by those who have made it work most successfully — Canada first amongst all.

I am most grateful to the Prime Minister and to you who have given me this opportunity to share — from a faith perspective — some of the issues that preoccupy me when looking ahead. I hope I have explained why I am convinced about the global validity of our partnership for human development.

Let me end with a personal thought. As you build your lives, for yourselves and others, you will come to rest upon certain principles. Central to my life has been a verse in the Holy Quran which addresses itself to the whole of humanity. It says: “Oh Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women…”

I know of no more beautiful expression about the unity of our human race — born indeed from a single soul.

Thank you.