“It is my hope that the Ismaili Center in Houston, like the Centre in Toronto, will be a beacon of hope, tolerance, and pluralism for generations to come.” Sylvester Turner, Mayor of the City of Houston, while visiting Toronto, Ontario, February 22, 2023.
Houston is the country’s most diverse city, according to a recent report, and it is also one of the fastest growing. Over two-thirds of Houston is composed of people of color, who accounted for 95% of Texas's population growth over the last decade. It has also been a majority-minority city since the early 1990s.
Changes of this magnitude are a challenge for civic leaders, but Houston’s Mayor Sylvester Turner has been a catalyst in embracing the growing diversity of the city, recognizing that this has been instrumental in both its economic vitality and in the cultural connections made possible.
There is much anticipation in Houston and in the US Jamat as the new Ismaili Center is being constructed. During his visit to Houston in 2022, Prince Amyn remarked that the Ismaili Center will be “…dedicated to advancing pluralism, public understanding, and civic outreach.”
In response, the Mayor said that the Ismaili Center, Houston, “…will be a place where Houston’s communities come together to strengthen and forge new bonds and work together based on our common values towards a future that shines even brighter than the present.”
In 2017, Mayor Turner had visited the very first Ismaili Centre, built in London, England. Now, to view the latest such building, the events hosted there, and how it engages with the local community, he toured the Ismaili Centre, Toronto. Accompanying him were Houston Council Member Abbie Kamin, Andy Icken, the Mayor’s Chief Development Officer, and Chris Olson, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Trade and International Affairs.
Council for Canada President Ameerally Kassim-Lakha, President Al-Karim Alidina and Vice President Celina Shariff of the Council for USA, President Murad Ajani of the Council for Southwestern US represented the cross-border Jamats.
During the tour of the Ismaili Centre, Toronto, President Alidina commented on the Mayor’s leadership in addressing “…the promise and challenges of a diverse and pluralistic society.” He noted that “Houston is home to the largest population of the Ismaili community in the US, and the establishment of the Ismaili Center, Houston, is a significant milestone for our community as a permanent marker of the community’s presence.”
President Alidina went on to explain: “Like the Centre in Toronto, we hope that the Center in Houston will affirm our profound dedication to being steadfast collaborators in constructing a diverse society and fostering ways to bring together different peoples and cultures.”
During his keynote remarks at a dinner hosted in his honor, Mayor Turner spoke of the “Importance of [balancing] matter and spirit” and that “… there is no question that that value system is alive and well [in the Ismaili community]. It’s not what we do for ourselves that elevates us but what we do for others.”
Commenting on the notion of one humanity, Pres. Kassim-Lakha stated that humanity is “one spirit with infinite expressions,” and the guiding principles that underpin the work of the Ismaili Centres in Canada is to “create opportunities that recognize the diversity of thought, cultures, people and respect the differences that exist in society-at-large.”
Mayor Turner considers Houston's diversity to be a valuable asset for the city. However, he acknowledges that it requires deliberate effort to transform this diversity into a source of strength. During his speech, he posed a rhetorical question, asking, “You can be diverse and still be segregated, separate and apart [so] the question is, can you be diverse and inclusive at the same time?”
In order to better understand the emphasis placed on the concept of pluralism by Mawlana Hazar Imam and how the Global Centre for Pluralism works in many parts of the world to promote this idea, the Mayor engaged in a thoughtful conversation with the Centre’s Secretary-General Meredith Preston McGhie. who had said in a speech made in 2020, “Pluralism is the positive choices that are made to value and build on the diversity in society.” Thus, pluralism is necessary for stable, peaceful, and respectful co-existence in a diverse city, something Mayor Turner fully supports. Khalil Shariff, CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada and USA, also attended the meeting.
Mayor Turner has long understood the importance of art, having supported the 2017 Complete Communities initiative with grants to bring art and artists to underserved areas in Houston and help shape the city’s identity. So, his visit to the Aga Khan Museum was of great interest. It allowed him to see and appreciate the vast collection of artifacts in the collection from diverse Muslim cultures, to understand how the Museum collaborates with artists and the local community, and to learn about its educational programs. The latest art exhibit from the Museum, “Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From,” focuses on the immigrant experience and is currently on tour at the Orlando Museum of Art.
During his visit, the Mayor also commended the Ismaili Council for Canada and the Ismaili community for their vision in implementing the Generations project, and enhancing and respecting the dignity of people as they age.
Following the museum tour and lunch reception, the Mayor and his staff took time to visit the gardens and enjoy the crisp spring air.