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. (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.

INCOMPLETE: We regret that from this interview, only limited portions made public by the reporter are available below. We would be very grateful if any of our readers who may have the complete transcript would kindly share it with us. Please click here for information on making submissions to NanoWisdoms; we thank you for your assistance.

Interviewer: Haroon Siddiqui by phone to Aiglemont

Part 1: 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….

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. (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 visualises 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. 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).

Part 2: “Ignorance poses a danger to West,” says Aga Khan

You can be an educated person in the Judeo-Christian world and know nothing — I mean, nothing — about the Islamic world.

… We then move on to the related topic of relations between the West and the Islamic world. It’s an issue on which he has been blunt, a departure from his diplomatic self, which he is by nature and of necessity, the latter dictated by the temporal needs of his people who live as a minority in two dozen nations. Part of his thinking is best seen in two speeches, one to a conference of diplomats in Berlin last fall and another this month to the Nobel Institute in Oslo:

I read that Islam is in conflict with democracy. Yet I must tell you that as a Muslim, I am a democrat not because of Greek or French thought, but primarily because of principles that go back 1,400 years (–) wide public consultation in choosing leaders” and “merit and competence in social governance.

On the so-called clash of civilisations:

What we have is not a clash of civilisations but a clash of ignorance. This ignorance is both historic and of our time. (It is) illustrated by events in Iraq. No less deplorable is that the 9/11 attack was a direct consequence of the international community ignoring the human tragedy that was Afghanistan at that time. Both the Afghan and Iraqi situations were driven by a lack of understanding.

Asked to enlarge on those themes, he told me:

One of the difficulties is that the Western world does not understand the pluralism of the Islamic world, which is heavily, massively pluralistic, even more so than the West. But the West does not understand it because it has not included the Islamic world in the teaching of what we call “general knowledge.” This is a very important issue in democracies because democracies presume that the electorate is capable of commenting on major issues of national or international importance, and of choosing good government, (which, in turn, would formulate informed foreign policy). (So) unless there is a better understanding of the Islamic world, democracies are not going to be able to express themselves on Islamic issues.

The gulf is not going to be bridged by what he calls “the narrow focus of the interfaith dialectic,” but by broad education, starting at school, and dialogue between citizens, civil society groups and governments. This is essential, he has said, because “you cannot build a dialogue based upon ignorance.”

Asked about a statement he made that peace and security cannot be about security alone, he said:

Instability and civil conflict are very often situations which have been preparing to explode for a long time. Many have been predictable, for there have been no steps to preempt these explosive forces from blowing up, so they do end up by blowing up. There are a number of causes: extreme poverty, despair and ethnic conflict … This is true of Africa, of Europe, etc.

What about the anti-Americanism sweeping the world?

It is, of course a problem. And the first to know that are the Americans themselves. Fact is, there are a number of situations between the West and the Islamic world which have been problems for decades, others which are new. It’s going to be very important that there be a common attempt to address these situations. The longer they have lasted — be it the Middle East or Kashmir, or whatever — the more explosive they have become.

(But overall) I don’t see it as a conflict between the Judeo-Christian world and the Islamic world. They are essentially either historic conflicts or political conflicts of our time. They are not conflicts between the faiths themselves.

SOURCES

  • Part 1, Toronto Star, 28 April 2005, pp A23 (Text (secondary source): ismaili.net)
  • Part 2, Toronto Star, 1 May 2005, pp A17 (Text (secondary source): ismaili.net)

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