He is a jet-setting billionaire, owner of one of the world’s renowned horse-racing stud farms, and an admired philanthropist who briefly called Rita Hayworth his stepmother.

He is also a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and the spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims around the globe.

The Aga Khan, a beloved figure who is both the spiritual guide and secular role model for Canada’s 100,000 Ismailis, is in Toronto on Friday to lay the foundation for an Islamic museum and cultural centre. The construction on Canadian soil of the largest Islamic museum in the English-speaking world marks a significant milestone for a community that arrived here, nearly destitute, 38 years ago. In the last four decades, Ismailis have emerged as a remarkable success story. Their smooth integration is seen as one of the reasons the Aga Khan, a keen admirer of this country, promotes Canadian-style pluralism as a model for the world.

It was not long before Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda in 1972 that the Aga Khan first called prime minister Pierre Trudeau to plan a possible escape route for his people. The two leaders were friendly with one another, and the Aga Khan recognized that the situation for Ismailis in East Africa was growing more precarious by the day. When the axe fell and Mr. Amin began appropriating Ismaili businesses and property, Mr. Trudeau didn’t hesitate to offer safe haven, according to his biographer, John English.

About 5,000 Ismailis came to Canada in that initial phase, and a further 5,000 Ismaili Asians from other East African countries arrived not long after. The community has since grown across Canada as members of the Ismaili diaspora from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere have relocated here. In a short time, Ismailis have become leading figures in politics, business and the professions, with prominent people including Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed and Senator Mobina Jaffer.

Ali Shallwani, who owns a teaching-supply store in Oakville, Ont., came to Canada from Pakistan in 1976. He said one of the most influential moments of his life was when, in the early 1990s, he heard the Aga Khan say to Canadian Ismailis, “Make Canada your home.” Mr. Shallwani had just been granted a U.S. work permit, but returned to Canada within a year.

“His saying played a significant role in my decision to return,” Mr. Shallwani said. “I think [the Aga Khan] finds Canadian society to be more tolerant, which I agree with.”

That command, to make Canada home, is a phrase many other Ismailis describe as resonant, according to Shamir Allibhai, producer of a documentary about the spiritual leader. The Aga Khan encouraged Ismailis to engage with their new society, to emphasize education, integrate into the community and volunteer for the common good. They attribute much of their success in Canada to his leadership, he said.

“His emphasis on Canada is not found anywhere else in the Ismaili world,” Mr. Allibhai said. “The Aga Khan sees Canadian civil society as one that can be exported to other countries.”

The Ismailis belong to a relatively small Shia Muslim sect, one that for the last 150 years has had fairly close ties with the West. The Aga Khan’s grandfather passed the Imamat directly to the current Aga Khan in 1957, when he was just a 20-year-old undergraduate at Harvard University. His father, who had married film star and sex symbol Rita Hayworth a few years before, was bypassed because it was felt that a young leader was needed for the atomic age.

Thrust into the spotlight, the Aga Khan emerged as both a moderate, thoughtful leader and a charismatic figure of some international celebrity. He skied for Iran in the Olympics and, though he devotes most of his attention to his foundation and development projects, he also owns one of horse racing’s most successful breeders. His greatest horse, Shergar, valued at close to $20-million, was kidnapped from a farm in Ireland in 1983 and never seen again.

Shafique Virani, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toronto, describes the Aga Khan as “one of the very forward-looking leaders of the Muslim world.”

“He’s very much involved with the concept of pluralism,” Prof. Virani said. He added that the leader’s fascination with Canada stems from the impression that the country, thanks in part to its policy of official multiculturalism, has created a society where people of different backgrounds can get along, and where that ideal is taught, absorbed and passed on.

The tensions of the post-9/11 world, with its often oversimplified and false impressions of Islam, have been an ongoing concern for the Aga Khan. He has also been heavily involved in development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where much of the violent fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks is still unfolding.

“Our world is really torn apart right now, and there’s this concept of the clash of civilizations,” Prof. Virani said. “He’s put forward a thesis that says it’s not really a clash of civilizations that we have, but a clash of ignorance.”

Source: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/
muslim-leader-seeks-to-make-canada-a-model-for-the-world/article1583737/

Joe Friesen Demographics Reporter

From Friday’s Globe and Mail
Published on Thursday, May. 27, 2010 11:14PM EDT
Last updated on Friday, May. 28, 2010 8:34AM EDT

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  Posted in         General, Islamic Articles, Ismaili News