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Toronto Ismaili centre to showcase Islamic culture - 2010-05-28

Friday, 2010, May 28

Wynford Park

The Vancouver Sun
Don Cayo dcayo@vancouversun.com

It's hard to imagine a more truly international community than the world's 15 million Ismaili Muslims.

They're a people without a territory and they've made their homes in more than 25 countries on five continents. The Aga Khan, their hereditary imam (or spiritual leader), lives in France.

But it's no coincidence that it's Canada that was chosen for the Ismailis' $300-million investment in a new site where adherents can practise their religion and where the world at large can contemplate and celebrate Islamic culture.

The Aga Khan himself is to turn the sod today to start construction on a seven-hectare site in Toronto that will be home to not only a spiritual centre and park, but also a museum -- the first in North America devoted entirely to Islamic art. It will showcase the products of more than 1,000 years of artistry and craftsmanship, with priceless artifacts created in places from China to the Iberian Peninsula.

The project includes two 10,000-square-metre buildings -- an Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhan, a little smaller than the Ismailis' elegant structure for worship and community events in Burnaby, and a similar-sized museum. Between them will be a series of landscaped gardens and more than two kilometres of walking paths.

The construction won't be complete until 2013, but when it is, I'm betting it will be spectacular. I say this not only because I've seen the drawings of what's planned, but also because I've seen other structures built by the Aga Khan. In Mombasa, Kenya -- a poor place where most schools are ramshackle at best and dysfunctional at worst -- the beautiful, airy Aga Khan Academy stands out as the finest high school I've seen. (It has academic standards to match; it offers the International Baccalaureate program, taught by a highly qualified international faculty to students chosen strictly on the basis of merit.)

The new Ismaili Imamat -- effectively, an embassy -- in Ottawa is a worthy landmark on Sussex Drive. And there are scores of other architectural marvels I haven't seen including an inner-city park in Cairo, a new university being built in three countries of Central Asia, other Ismaili centres and other academies in far-flung cities, and much more.

That Canada should now be chosen as the home for the new museum and park is no surprise when you know a little history. Canadian ties with this community may be fairly recent, but they're very close. And our country has become a special place to the Aga Khan and his followers. This closeness has its roots back in 1972 when Idi Amin expelled tens of thousands of Asians, including many thousands of Ugandan-born Ismailis. At the urging of the Aga Khan, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau agreed to accept 5,000 of them as refugees.

In the almost four decades since, these new Canadians have grown both in number and in wealth. Today, there are more than three times the original number in Vancouver alone, and they include a few dozen millionaires.

So it's understandable that the country that gave so many of their numbers peace and prosperity would come to be esteemed. But I think there's more to it than just that.

There are also some significant common values.

Canada is -- despite having our bigots and curmudgeons -- a place that not only tolerates diversity, but also celebrates it. And this value not only makes us a comforting home for refugees, but it also sits extremely well with the values taught by the Aga Khan. In an often-divided world, he stands tall for plurality and acceptance. Other values -- the commitment to peace and poverty alleviation and the respect for learning are all good examples -- also correspond to most Canadians' beliefs.

So the Ismaili refugees didn't just adapt to or adopt the values of their new neighbours. They brought their own to complement and reinforce the best of what was already here.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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