Toronto Star
Apr. 28, 2005. 01:00 AM

Selling a Canadian idea to the world


In the chaotic days leading up to the seven-minute nationally televised address that saved his government, at least for now, Paul Martin last week committed $30 million to studying and exporting contemporary Canada's core value, pluralism.

The news got lost in the political mayhem. But the man whose brainchild the Global Centre for Pluralism is, and who has already given it $40 million, was delighted.

The Aga Khan explained in a phone interview from his headquarters in Gouvieux, north of Paris, why he considers Canada a model nation worthy of emulation by the world.

He is the spiritual and temporal leader of Ismaili Muslims, one of the smaller branches of the Shiite sect of Islam.

A minority within a minority, the 15 million Ismailis are spread over about two dozen nations in Central and South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Persian Gulf and, lately, Britain (20,000), the United States (50,000) and Canada (75,000).

The 68-year-old imam, a multimillionaire himself, presides over a plethora of the Geneva-based foundations that direct health, educational, cultural and development projects worth about $250 million a year.

The Aga Khan Development Network is the world's largest non-governmental development agency. Aga Khan Foundation Canada partners with the Canadian International Development Agency in delivering foreign aid projects in Asia and Africa.

His other initiatives include the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture based at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which restores historic Islamic spaces.

On the for-profit side with annual revenues of $1.3 billion there is the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development.

A venture capital fund, it operates in countries short on foreign investment. For example, it has invested in a five-star hotel in Kabul and a mobile phone company for all of Afghanistan.

Much of this work, employing 50,000 people worldwide, is designed to advance grassroots democracy and economic development in the poorest countries.

The Aga Khan often cites failed or failing democracies in nearly 40 per cent of the United Nations member-nations, representing up to 900 million people as a threat to the world.

He talks of three essential preconditions for their progress: the nurturing of civil society, meritocracy and pluralism.

This is where Canada comes in.

A friend of the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Aga Khan has long admired Canadian multiculturalism.

Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, is on record as opposing multiculturalism, seeing it as "fleeing from what is one's own."

The two spiritual leaders couldn't be more apart, though I failed to get the Aga Khan to comment on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's past statement.

The Aga Khan sees multiculturalism as a great force of good; in fact, the missing element in societies plagued by ethnic or religious warfare.

"We have seen, in the last quarter of a century, many pluralistic nations pay a horrible price because they were unable to manage conflicts between different communities," he told me.

Canada, on the other hand, "has a long and highly successful track record of pluralism.

"It is a sophisticated democracy where people of different backgrounds feel they have an equitable voice in the country and have achieved positions of real leadership."

He visualizes that his non-profit, non-denominational pluralism centre would distill the Canadian wisdom how pluralism evolved, how it works and what lessons it has taught us into "significant pedagogical material" for schools, intellectual content for universities and case studies for foreign NGOs, governments and nations to follow.

Canada has become a partner because the mission is consistent with our foreign policy objectives: promotion of democracy, good governance, and the rule of law, human rights and respect for diversity.

I tell the Aga Khan that Canadians, being modest, don't quite see the significance of the peaceful heterogeneity they have forged.

"I agree completely," he said. "It's an extraordinary global asset that Canadians have not necessarily seen. They are a humble people.

"They don't want to teach other people lessons that the other people don't want to learn.

"But we have an opportunity here" to spread the Canadian formula around the world.

The pluralism centre is one of Aga Khan's four initiatives in Canada:

A diplomatic legation in Ottawa on Sussex Dr., next to the Pearson Building, and two projects on adjacent properties in Toronto, on Wynford Dr., worth $200 million.

An Islamic museum, which he had initially planned for London, England, and being designed by Japanese modernist Fumihiko Maki.An Ismaili Jamat Khana (house of congregation), designed by the famous Indian architect Charles Correa. Both, situated within a park, are expected to be ready and open to the public by 2008. More of the interview on Sunday.

Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus.