A breakdown of the public’s reaction to the Aga Khan’s Parliament address

The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world’s 15-million Shia Ismaili Muslims, receives a standing ovation from the House of Commons, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday February 27, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand


The Aga Khan’s official visit to Canada to address the Parliament got mired in controversy as at the second big event Friday – a mass address in Toronto’s Massey Hall – the opposition parties were not invited.

Vali Jamal, from Kampala, Uganda, analyzes the public’s reaction to the Highness’s parliamentary address by filtering through comments on news sites:

I happened to be on the CBC site as the speech began to be reported. Within an hour, 30 comments were made.

Today, 18 hours later, 741 comments have been registered and CBC remains open to hear more.

Some people took advantage of the open comments thread to play party politics, but in the end, given that the host party and its leader are so anti-everything the Aga Khan stands for, it was inevitable that people would ask the question why Harper invited him in the first place and why the Aga Khan accepted.

The invitation was explained as a photo op for Harper to be with a world leader. Some people thought he was courting votes from Ismailis and other Muslims. Why the Aga Khan accepted the invitation perhaps was  a major honour or an opportunity to deliver on his favourite topic of pluralism and world peace, which he did so eloquently.

But the speech played badly with the people – surprisingly, after more than 40 years of presence in Canada, neither the Aga Khan nor the Ismailis are known to the man on the street. Many commentators referred to him as “this guy.”

That he is wealthy everyone knew from Google. The 12-15 per cent tithe was mentioned. Muslim-haters joined hands with mainstream Muslims to point out the Aga Khan Ismailis are just 1 per cent of the Muslim world so how can the Imam speak for all Muslims. Some even said the Ismaili religion is so far away from basic Muslim tenets that it was like a Mormon leader speaking on behalf of Catholics.

As for the contents of the speech only a few people were aware of the Aga Khan’s friendship with Trudeau but not of his role in the rescue mission for Uganda Asians in 1972. And so of course they were clueless on the “virtual spiral” that event set off that culminated in yesterday’s world event: the adoption of the Multicultural Law by Canada (1987); the siting of Global Centre for Pluralism (2006) in Canada by the Aga Khan; and the conferral of Canadian honorary doctorates and citizenship on the Aga Khan.

Some mentioned the Aga Khan was an honorary pall-bearer at Trudeau’s funeral. People made mention of how this would cause Harper some dismay and perhaps for this reason the Aga Khan himself made no reference to how his strong ties with Canada started in 1972 as a friend of Trudeau.

The only reference to Uganda was when he spoke of “ethnic cleansing” and we who are in the know would take that to mean Idi Amin and the Big X (expulsion). Those who don’t know may think it was a reference to Uganda’s Acholi people being herded into IDP camps.

To the ordinary Canadian what happened yesterday was that a “stranger” was asked to address their parliament. For us Ismailis we are seeing their reaction for the first time.

It’s not the same as what we read from Adrienne Clarke, Kofi Annan and Wolfensen, and in all the citations for the honorary degrees.

We, as Ismailis, just know who our Imam is. As Liberal Senator Mobina Jaffer said on being asked how she felt being excluded from today’s Massey Hall lecture: “I am just so happy he has come home.”

Picture 1 of 8

Prime Minister Stephen Harper welcomes the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, February 27, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Dr. Vali Jamal is an ex-UN-International Labour Organization economist (1976-2001), with a BA from Cambridge (Trinity College) and a PhD from Stanford. He is an Ismaili. He has lived in Uganda since 2005. The above account is based on his book, Uganda Asians: Then and Now, Here and There. It has been almost seven years in the writing and is expected to 

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