Nov 1,2010

As societies come to think in pluralistic ways, I believe they can learn another lesson from the Canadian experience, the importance of resisting both assimilation and homogenization — the subordination and dilution of minority cultures on the one hand, or an attempt to create some new, transcendent blend of identities on the other.

What the Canadian experience suggests to me is that identity itself can be pluralistic. Honouring one’s own identity need not mean rejecting others. One can embrace an ethnic or religious heritage, while also sharing a sense of national or regional pride. To cite a timely example, I believe one can live creatively and purposefully as both a devoted Muslim and a committed European.

I believe that the challenge of pluralism is never completely met. Pluralism is a process and not a product. It is a mentality, a way of looking at a diverse and changing world.

A pluralistic environment is a kaleidoscope that history shakes every day.

Responding to pluralism is an exercise in constant re-adaptation. Identities are not fixed in stone. What we imagine our communities to be must also evolve with the tides of history.

As we think about pluralism, we should be open to the fact that there may be a variety of “best practices,” a “diversity of diversities,” and a “pluralism of pluralisms.”

In sum, what we must seek and share is what I have called “a cosmopolitan ethic,” a readiness to accept the complexity of human society. It is an ethic which balances rights and duties. It is an ethic for all peoples.

It will not surprise you to have me say that such an ethic can grow with enormous power out of the spiritual dimensions of our lives. In acknowledging the immensity of The Divine, we will also come to acknowledge our human limitations, the incomplete nature of human understanding.

In that light, the amazing diversity of creation itself can be seen as a great gift to us — not a cause for anxiety but a source of delight. Even the diversity of our religious interpretations can be greeted as something to share with one another — rather than something to fear.

In this spirit of humility and hospitality, the stranger will be welcomed and respected, rather than subdued — or ignored.

In the holy Koran we read these words: “O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul … [and] joined your hearts in love, so that by His grace ye became brethren.”

As we strive for this ideal, we will recognize that “the other” is both “present” and “different.” And we will be able to appreciate this presence — and this difference — as gifts that can enrich our lives.

Let me conclude by emphasizing once again the urgency of this challenge. We are at a particularly complex moment in human history. The challenges of diversity are frightening for many people, in societies all around the world. But diversity also has the capacity to inspire.

The mission of the Global Centre for Pluralism is to look closely at these challenges — and to think hard about them. This will be demanding work. But as we go forward, we hope we can discern more predictably and pre-empt more effectively those conditions which lead to conflict among peoples. And we also hope that we can advance those institutions and those mindsets which foster constructive engagement.

The world we seek is not a world where difference is erased, but where difference can be a powerful force for good, helping us to fashion a new sense of cooperation and coherence in our world, and to build together a better life for all.

The Aga Khan, the 49th Hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, delivered the prestigious 10th Annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture in Toronto, at the invitation of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. This is an excerpt from that speech.

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Oct 22,2010

In a world where technology and human migration push people of differing backgrounds increasingly “in each other’s face,” spiritual leader the Aga Khan hailed Canada as a country that has got pluralism right.

The religious leader — imam — of the world’s 14 million Shia Ismaili Muslims praised this country for allowing citizens to keep their identity as they become Canadian.

“What the Canadian experience suggests to me is that honouring one’s own identity need not mean rejecting others,” he said Friday in the keynote address to the Institute for Canadian Citizenship’s prestigious annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium.

He spoke to more than 1,000 of Toronto’s intellectual class at the glittering new Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music, a setting he did not fail to note as he described the theme of pluralism.

“We might talk not just about the ideal of harmony — the sounding of a single chord — but also about counterpoint,” he said. “In counterpoint, each voice follows a separate musical line, but always as part of a single work of art, with a sense both of independence and belonging.”

It’s no surprise the globetrotting philanthropist chose to locate his new think tank on pluralism in Canada, a nation he noted was built on two European cultures but has exploded in diversity.

“I am impressed by the fact that some 44 per cent of Canadians today are of neither French nor British descent,” he said. “I am told, in fact, that a typical Canadian citizenship ceremony might now include people from two dozen different countries.”

With quips about the Maple Leafs’ recent winning streak and Canada’s fall colours, the Harvard graduate said he felt like a local — especially considering the Canadian government has made him an honorary citizen.

But while he praised Canada and other multicultural nations such as Portugal for celebrating diversity, he also warned that the flip side of pluralism — tribalism and hyper nationalism — threatens to divide people unless we are vigilant by promoting mutual understanding.

He warned the West not to underestimate the diversity of the Muslim world, or the lesser-known rural communities of developing nations.

Pluralism is a concept dear to the heart of the 49th hereditary leader of the Ismaili faith. The concept of people of different backgrounds living in harmony is the focus of a think tank he is creating in Ottawa in a building once home to the Canadian War Museum.

In Toronto, he also announced earlier this year he will build a new Ismaili Centre and Aga Khan Museum and Gardens at Eglinton Ave. and Wynford Dr.

Both centres – in Toronto and Ottawa – reflect the ties the Aga Khan said he has felt with Canada for nearly 40 years, since this country welcomed thousands of Asian refugees from Uganda, including many Ismailis.

By Louise Brown, Staff Reporter