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Harper makes Aga Khan honorary Canadian - 2010-05-28

Friday, 2010, May 28
National Post
2010-05-28- Toronto - Aga Khan at Foundation Ceremony 12.jpg
Adam McDowell and Drew Halfnight

Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Friday conferred an honorary Canadian citizenship on the Aga Khan, making the billionaire descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and spiritual leader to 15 million Ismaili Muslim followers worldwide only the fifth person to be so honoured.

And though that "citizenship" is merely a symbolic gesture, if the Aga Khan (who lives in France) were to prove a model Canadian citizen, he would not be the first among his people to do so.

"He's going to be a tremendous addition to our country -- your country," said Shenaz Ladak of Brampton, Ont., who, with a few dozen other Ismaili Muslim Canadians, stood on a sweltering street in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills yesterday to catch a glimpse of her spiritual leader. Followers know him as Mawlana Hazar Imam.

The Prime Minister and the Aga Khan met yesterday for a foundation ceremony for a cultural centre, museum and park to built on the site by 2013. The Aga Khan expressed his hope that the cultural edifice, particularly the collection of artifacts from Islamic history, would serve as a beacon for his sect's moderate take on Islam and its "search for knowledge and beauty."

Mr. Harper praised the Aga Khan's pluralistic view of the world before making him an honorary citizen. The rare gesture (see sidebar) follows the assent of both houses of Parliament.

"As you yourself said, Your Highness, we cannot make the world safe for democracy without first making the world safe for diversity," Mr. Harper said. "If I may say, sir, you sound like a Canadian.... And in fact, you are."

Like many of his people, the Aga Khan is a cosmopolitan figure. He was born in Geneva, Switzerland, spent his early childhood in Nairobi, Kenya, his teens back in Switzerland; he did his undergraduate degree at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Ismaili Muslims who gathered to steal a peek at their spiritual guide yesterday had moved to Canada from Uganda, Tanzania, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Ms. Ledak moved to Canada 35 years ago from Tanzania. She said the education she received at Ismaili schools in her homeland, including English language instruction, prepared her well for Canadian life. "You are born taken care of."

Several other onlookers yesterday confirmed the Ismaili reputation for privacy by declining to give their names to the press. Privately, they praised the Aga Khan for supporting his people with educational and other assistance through the Aga Khan Development Network and related organizations. An Ismaili man who moved to Canada from Tanzania (and did not wish to be named) said, "they guide you to the right path."

At the Toronto dig site this week, more than 100 volunteers from around North America could be seen prepping the site for the ground-breaking.

"There's a strong volunteer ethic in the community," said Farid Damji, a member of the Ismaili Council for Canada who came from Vancouver to pitch in. "It's an ethic and a value that is instilled from a very young age, in terms of volunteering."

For his part, the Aga Khan has given Canada credit for the successful integration of Ismailis in the country.

The Aga Khan has exhorted Ismailis in this country with the simple but powerful phrase, "Make Canada your home." Many Ismailis have said this command played a role in their decision to stay in Canada.

"Canada has been the country which has been most generous, most thoughtful, most helpful in bringing people [in from] these difficult backgrounds, offering them a new opportunity," he said in Vancouver in 2008.

Ismaili Muslim Canadians include Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed and Senator Mobina Jaffer.

National Post

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