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Aga Khan's devotion to humanity revealed during Calgary visit - 2008-11-25

Tuesday, 2008, November 25
Calgary Herald
Bob Remington

Unlike his father, a notorious playboy who had an eye for racehorses and Hollywood starlets, his highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV--the highness part was bestowed on him by Queen Elizabeth--has dedicated his life to humanitarian causes, including the empowerment of women in Muslim society.
Not without keeping some of the family tradition, mind you. His first wife was a British fashion model, and he still breeds racehorses on his estate near Paris. But the billionaire Aga Khan, who visited Calgary Monday, is much more than racehorses. He is without question a visionary whose devotion to pluralism and poverty reduction is so profound that his influential Aga Khan Development Network, one of world's largest philanthropic organizations, has diplomatic status in nearly a dozen nations.

The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of the world's 15 million Ismaili Muslims, all of whom must have been in Calgary Monday, judging by the traffic jams to get into any event he attended on his first visit here in 16 years. His most intimate function was lunch with 150 Calgary business and community leaders, many of whom were donors to a $5-million fundraising effort to kick-start a teacher training institute set up by the Aga Khan University in East Africa.

'Thank you not only on behalf of the Aga Khan University, but thank you on behalf of millions and millions of people in Asia and Africa who need to believe in hope. That only happens when society moves forward in an organized and stable way,' the Aga Khan told the group in the gentle, almost shy voice one might expect of someone with a commitment to humanity.

It was a proud moment for local businessmen Jim Gray, Sherali Saju and lawyer Brian Felesky, who spearheaded the fundraising effort. It isn't easy convincing people in Calgary to send $5 million to Africa, a continent with a history of endemic corruption, even when the recipient is the respected Aga Khan network.

It must have been particularly rewarding for Saju, who along with thousands of other Ismailis was driven out of Uganda by the brutal Idi Amin and who, in the determined entrepreneurial tradition that typifies the Ismaili community, made a life in Calgary as a successful businessman.

He now devotes much of his life in the best spirit of Islam to helping those who are less fortunate, regardless of race or creed, inspired by the leadership of the Aga Khan.

From the lunch, the Aga Khan made his way to a private gathering of 15,000 Ismailis on the Stampede grounds, which included nearly every member of Calgary's 10,000 strong Ismaili community, another 4,000 from Edmonton and about 1,000 more from outside Alberta.

It took nearly 5,000 volunteers to co-ordinate the Aga Khan's less than 24-hour local visit.

'This is a once-in-a-lifetime event for many members of our community,' said Nashir Samanani, president of the Ismaili Council for the Prairies.

The Aga Khan's visit is part of a cross-country tour to mark the 50th anniversary of his imamat.

Although only 20 at the time, Prince Karim was made imam of the Shia Ismailis by his grandfather, Aga Khan III, who bypassed Prince Karim's father, Prince Ali Khan, and his uncle, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who were in the direct line of succession.

Ali Khan, who married actress Rita Hayworth after his divorce from Prince Karim's mother, went on to become Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations. His first speech to the UN General Assembly in 1958, was observed by Washington Post as 'a momentous occasion, since the ambassador's previous public utterances had been largely limited to shouts of, 'Wine for everyone!' and 'Where are the girls?' ' although he is widely regarded to have become an eloquent and dedicated spokesman for Pakistani issues throughout his term.

At his lunch, Prince Karim Aga Khan spoke briefly of the need to build stable institutions in the developing world. The Aga Khan University (AKU), established in Karachi, Pakistan a mere 25 years ago, is one such institution.

Spread over three continents with affiliation agreements that include one with the University of Calgary, it has had a profound impact on Pakistani society, focusing primarily on health and education, with half of its medical students female.

'If you look at what has happened in the past decades in the developing world, there are a number of lessons you can draw. And I think one of them is the volatility of development. To stabilize development in most of these fragile parts of the world, one of the fundamental principles is to develop strong institutions,' the Aga Khan said.

'AKU has achieved that in Africa and Asia, and we have achieved it with Canadian support and Canadian willingness to look at the developing world as it is, not as certain people would like it to be. I think our institutions have to function in societies that are changing, and your help is helping us to do that.'

Gray saw that for himself in the remote Hunza region of northern Pakistan, where he met five young women from illiterate farming families who had graduated from an Aga Khan school and were applying to some of the top universities in the world to become teachers and nurses.

If there were more billionaire racehorse breeders like the Aga Khan, the world might be a less dangerous place.

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