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Throwing shade on the Aga Khan

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The Aga Khan addresses the 2014 London Conference

If the Pope invited the prime minister's family to visit for the holidays, and sent a private jet to pick them up, would the Opposition be hinting at a breach of ethics? What if the invitation came from the Dali Lama?

It was announced this week, in a letter sent by Conservative MP Peter Kent, that the Conservatives will seek a criminal investigation into Justin Trudeau's December 2017 trip to the Aga Khan's private Caribbean island. This followed a Federal Court ruling ordering the lobbying commissioner to re-examine whether the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims violated the code for lobbyists when he extended the invitation to the Trudeau family. The case was brought before the Federal Court by Democracy Watch.

The way Peter Kent, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, and Democracy Watch keep pursuing Justin Trudeau about his family's visit with the Aga Khan is enough to make a person wonder a) if they don't understand that the current Aga Khan IV is globally revered by people of all faiths, or b) if they are so eager to score a few political points that they are willing to risk being perceived as Islamophobic.

Mind you, for people of a certain age, the name "Aga Khan" is associated with the Prince Ali Salman Aga Khan, known as Aly Khan, a son of Sultan Mahommed Shah. Mid-century, he was famous for loving fast horses and fast cars. He also had a reputation for seducing married women, one of whom was movie star Rita Hayworth, then also being courted by the Shah of Iran and Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis. For mid-century memories, "Aga Khan" may be a name from the tabloids. 

However, Ali Khan's father, Sultan Mahommed Shah, Aga Khan III, (1877-1957) was a distinguished religious leader of the world's 10 to 15 million Ismaili Muslims, the liberal Islamic denomination whose members are usually in professions, commerce or business, to which Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi belongs. As with Christian groups like Quakers and Mennonites, world service is part of the Ismaili religion.

"The Ismaili Muslims are a global, multi-ethnic community whose members, comprising a wide diversity of cultures, languages and nationalities, live in Central Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and North America," explains the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) website.

Sir Sultan (the Aga Khans hold British citizenship) led his people in building strong communities wherever the South Asian diaspora scattered them. When he died in 1957, his will skipped over his wild son, Aly Khan, and unexpectedly named as his heir, his grandson, Prince Shah Karim Al Husseini, then only 20 years old. Since then, Prince Karim seems to have made every effort to live up to his destiny. Although he's been divorced three times, he's met each wife respectably. 

To his followers, Prince Karim is a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammed, and holds the 49th Imamat, the top Ismaili religious post. When he was named to the Imamat, the Prince announced solemnly, "My religious responsibilities begin as of today."

But there's a wrinkle: "In Islam's ethical tradition, religious leaders not only interpret the faith but also have a responsibility to help improve the quality of life in their community and in the societies amongst which they live," explains the AKDN website. 

Members of the Ismaili faith usually tithe, donating 10 percent or more of their income to the Imamat, funds intended to improve life in the poorest parts of the world, and to bring Ismailis out of dangerous regions, such as Tajikistan and Sudan. The Prince founded the AKDN in the 1980s to distribute those funds, by unifying an existing network. For 40 years, he has constantly directed and contributed its growth to what is now a $925 million a year humanitarian outreach program to the poorest parts of Africa and Asia.   

These days, the AKDN employs 80,000 people working in 30 countries mainly in Africa and Asia, focussing on education and healthcare, among 10 departments that include culture and microfinance. Although projects tend to take place in mainly Muslim areas, that's not a requirement.

The AKDN often works in collaboration with other aid agencies whose values are in alignment, especially Canadian agencies. Indeed, the AKDN has worked so often with Canadian aid agencies that in 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made Prince Karim an honorary Canadian citizen, one of only five ever appointed. The Prince's  voluminous list of other honours and awards includes 24 honorary doctorates from universities around the world, including Harvard, McGill, U of Toronto, and seven other Canadian universities.

In 2014, Harper invited Prince Karim to make a rare outsider's address to Parliament. The two then signed a Protocol of Understanding, spelling out a $100 million joint investment initiative called "The Partnership for Advancing Human Development in Africa and Asia," to improve the quality of life for more than a million people living in Asia and Africa.

Up until Andrew Scheer's complaint to the lobbying commissioner, then, Canada and the Aga Khan have been on very good terms. So the tone of Scheer's complaint was shocking to many. As Andrew Cohen noted in 2017, some comments in the House make the Aga Khan sound like "just another sly, low 'lobbyist,' a dime-store remittance man seeking 'privileged access' to a naif with the offer of a free holiday. It’s absurd!" he concluded.

Prince Karim is fabulously wealthy himself, of course, with a net worth estimated at between $800 million and $3 billion. He also inherited his grandfather's race horse stables, and has become a renowned race horse breeder. Rather than seeking more wealth or influence, he is known as a philanthropist, paying AKDN's expenses, for example, so that denomination members' donations can go entirely to benefit others. 

The issue, the Court said, is that the Aga Khan Foundation employs a registered lobbyist, and the Aga Khan is listed as a foundation board member. The judge emphasized this is a theoretical point, not a suggestion that Justin Trudeau might influence the foundation to add the Aga Khan to its board -- which was wise, because the idea anybody could influence what role the Prince plays on the AKDN Board is ridiculous, risible and could be perceived as offensive.

One Calgary member of an Ismaili congregation scorned the idea that the PM had any influence over Prince Karim's position on the AK Foundation. "The AgaKhan Development Network belongs to His Highness The AgaKhan and His entire Family" she wrote in a message. "He is the Founding Chair and has been for 40 years since He established it. He has given so much to the Global development including Canada, that it is a shame politicians only see what is in front of their noses and nothing beyond."

Canada has more than 100,000 vocal, articulate, politically active Ismaili Muslims -- many of whom view the Aga Khan as He with a capital H -- and more than a million Muslims altogether. Thousands more immigrants are grateful to the AKDN for help received at home or on the journey.

Andrew Scheer and Peter Kent don't seem to understand or care that the way they has been carelessly denigrating the Aga Khan is liable to alienate a sizeable constituency of voters. Mind you, a person doesn't have to be Muslim to be offended by gratuitous slurs against one of the world's greatest living humanitarians -- just someone who cares about integrity.

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column for four years. She was editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004–2013.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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