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The Aga Khan : Faith and Action - Letter by Adrienne Clarkson - 2008-11-20

Thursday, 2008, November 20
The Globe and Mail
Clarkson, Adrienne

Special to Globe and Mail Update
My interest in His Highness the Aga Khan, and in his vision, dates back to 1957. Then, as a young university student, I read about Prince Karim, who had suddenly inherited his grandfather's mantle as the imam (spiritual leader) of the Ismailis. His grandfather had been a remarkable figure of worldwide renown. The young prince was still a student at Harvard, and I remember thinking, 'How does he feel about inheriting this enormous responsibility as the leader of the Ismailis at the age of 20?'

In the early 1970s, I was well aware of the Ismailis who were fleeing East Africa and of our reception of thousands of them here in Canada. I was always grateful that our country, under the leadership of Pierre Trudeau, welcomed these people, who had found themselves in an extremely difficult and dangerous situation in the countries that they had called home.

When I became governor-general of Canada in 1999, I met a number of Ismailis in prominent positions in Ottawa and Toronto, and later in many other cities across Canada. But it was not until 2002 that I met His Highness, during one of his visits to Ottawa. Immediately, I was deeply impressed by this soft-spoken man who had given nearly five decades of his life to bettering society in very practical and meaningful ways. His contributions to education, health and cultural revitalization through architecture and town planning in the developing world were without equal. I was very happy to meet him several more times throughout my years in Ottawa and to participate in the Foundation Ceremony of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in June, 2005.

I remember the day of the ceremony well. Tents had been erected over the area where the guests were seated, and flowers had been planted to create a garden atmosphere and a sense of beauty and lightness. In my exchanges with His Highness that day, I felt very much that our country could not have a more useful or meaningful relationship. The Aga Khan understands profoundly what Canada is all about and what a diverse society can accomplish if it is built on awareness of difference and relaxed understanding.

The Aga Khan is not just a spiritual leader. As imam, he is responsible both for leading the interpretation of the faith and for helping to improve quality of life for all in the wider communities where Ismailis live. This dual obligation is often, I think, quite difficult to appreciate from the Christian viewpoint of the role that church leaders are expected to perform. In Islam, the worlds of faith and action, of ethical premise and society, are treated together. The Aga Khan sees his responsibilities as encompassing a strong commitment to the well-being and dignity of all human beings, regardless of faith, origin or gender.

The intersection of faith and society has led to initiatives that, over the past 50 years, have made a profound difference in the developing world. The Aga Khan Development Network has improved the lives of some of the world's poorest, most deprived and most diverse populations.

The Aga Khan realizes that no effective development can happen without the precondition of a healthy civil society. Only a strong civil society can help sustain real change for both rural populations, which are geographically isolated, and the urban poor, who are similarly marginalized from the social, economic and political life of their wider society.

The second precondition for successful development is something for which the Aga Khan and his development network are now increasingly well known: a commitment to pluralism. The efforts of the Imamat have had a pervasive effect, over the past decade particularly, in making the world understand how society must support people of different backgrounds and interests to organize themselves in diverse institutions for a variety of purposes - all in the context of a creative free expression. Pluralism is as important as human rights in ensuring peace, democracy and a better quality of life.

In his speeches, the Aga Khan points out how the rejection of pluralism has helped to incite hatred and conflict among many cultures, nations and religions. This has occurred in places as varied as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

These sad examples show us that pluralism is critical to peaceful, harmonious understanding. The Aga Khan understands, too, that pluralism does not happen by accident but is the product of enlightened education, moral and material investment by governments and the recognition by all of our common humanity.

As His Highness recognizes, Canada is very open to these ideas. Eighty per cent of Canadians believe it a good thing that we are a diverse population. In this, we may be unique in the world. It is a happy situation for us to have communities of people who are educated, are confident in their identity in Canada and feel assured of the depth of both their own traditions and those of the people who share their institutions and governmental structures.

In his public utterances, the Aga Khan shows great subtlety of mind. He has been the inspiring founder of universities and colleges, because education is one of the democratic pillars he recognizes. He exhorts people everywhere to train leaders and to shape institutions using the highest standards of excellence. His sensitivity to formal learning alerts us that education is not the promulgation of dogmatic commitment or ideological choices. Instead, as he emphasizes, scientific problem-solving must exist side by side with a continued openness to new questions.

Memorably, His Highness asserts that the deplorably fashionable phrase 'clash of civilizations' is really a 'clash of ignorance.' This ignorance is both historical and current, and he is unequivocal in his belief that it could have been avoided through more dialogue and understanding between the Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds.

I find His Highness's belief in what democracy can do to be most inspiring of all. He understands the need for us to be flexible in supporting the diverse institutions that make up democratic life. He is clear eyed and decisive about the breakdown in democratic institutions such as parliaments, which often lack an efficient structure and human capacities to grapple with complexity. Above all, he understands that democracy can only come about through education and awareness. Finally, His Highness identifies the need to strengthen public integrity as the sound foundation on which democracy can rest. It is not simply governments that make democracy work; the most successful democracies are those in which the non-governmental institutions of a diverse civil society play a vital role.

Again and again, the Aga Khan returns to the need for respect and co-operation between Islamic and Western peoples. The Koran tells us that mankind is a 'single soul created by a single Creator' - something that differentiates humans from other forms of life. His Highness also speaks meaningfully about the need to maintain a profound humility before the Divine. With this kind of humility, we can turn away from dogma and approach each other as human beings, meeting on a field of respect without anger, without discrimination and without preconceptions.

Humility that will lead us away from self-righteousness and ready-made ideology and open us to genuine religious feeling, in its most positive form.

Adrienne Clarkson is a former governor-general of Canada. This is adapted from the introduction to Where Hope Takes Root, by His Highness the Aga Khan, and reprinted by the permission of Douglas & McIntyre.

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