Opposition parties are accusing Prime Minister Stephen Harper of snubbing them for an event in Toronto Friday meant to mark the visit of Shia Ismaili Muslim spiritual leader the Aga Khan.
The controversy comes one day after the NDP and Liberals criticized Harper for refusing to include them in Canada’s official delegation to Ukraine this week.
“We’ve got to learn to work together,” said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
But the NDP and Liberals were not invited to an event with the Aga Khan at Toronto’s Massey Hall Friday. According to the Canadian Press, at least two Conservative cabinet ministers and one senator are on the guest list.
“The Aga Khan is a model for working together and reaching out to other people, so it’s a shame that for that event tomorrow in Toronto no one else seems to have been invited,” said Mulcair.
Liberal Foreign Affairs critic said the government’s decision to not invite opposition members is “highly-partisan.”
Harper’s Director of Communications Jason MacDonald said that both opposition leaders were invited to join the prime minister for a meeting with the Aga Khan before he addressed the Commons Thursday.
“The event in Toronto will be an opportunity for thousands of Ismailis and non-Ismailis to hear His Highness speak,” MacDonald said in an email to the Canadian Press. “Invitations were extended to thousands of people from the community, as well as senior executives from the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, Quebecor Media, Postmedia, and other media organizations _ to say nothing of CEOs and charitable sector leaders.”
Speaking to a packed House of Commons Thursday, the Aga Khan called on the world to pay more attention to civil society groups who are demanding more from their governments.
The spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims highlighted the fact that 37 countries have adopted new constitutions over the past decade and that 12 are at an “advanced phase” of modernizing their constitutions.
“This movement involves a quarter of the UN member states. Out of that 49, 25 per cent have a Muslim majority,” said His Highness Prince Karim, the fourth Aga Khan and 49th Imam of Nizari Ismailism. “This shows that there is no turning back from the demand by civil societies for new constitutional structures.”
He pointed to the recent constitutional changes in Tunisia as a success story for civil society, calling the new constitution “the outcome of a responsible pluralist debate.”
Three years after a massive internal uprising that is widely thought to have inspired the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s government signed a new constitution in January. The new constitution does a number of new things including guarantee equal rights for women and men, divide executive power between the prime minister and the president, and require the state to deal with corruption.
The Aga Khan said the world needs to pay more attention to the potential role of civil society groups, especially in places such as Subsaharan Africa, Egypt, Iran and Bangladesh.
“There are too many societies where too many people live in a culture of fear, condemned to a life of poverty. Addressing that fear and replacing it with hope will be a major step to the elimination of poverty. And often the call for hope to replace fear will come from the voices of civil society,” he said.
While there is no indication the Aga Khan picked his words with any intent of allusions, his choice of phrase bore striking resemblance to a well known sentence of late NDP leader Jack Layton. The Aga Khan’s repeated references to “fear” and “hope” echoed the most referenced quote from Layton’s final letter to Canadians.
“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world,” wrote Layton in August 2011 shortly before his death.
The Aga Khan said Canada can help civil society by continuing to support three key underpinnings: a commitment to pluralism, to meritocracy, and to a “cosmopolitan ethic.” In order to empower civil society, he said the rise of religious hostility and intolerance must also be addressed, citing threats in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Nigeria, Myanmar and the Philippines.
He also expressed concern about the growing tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Islamic world. He said the the failure of non-Muslim states to communicate with both Sunni and Shia is like ignoring the difference between Catholics and Protestants during the civil war in Northern Ireland.
“What would have been the consequences if the Protestant-Catholic struggle in Ireland had spread throughout the Christian world, as is happening today between Shia and Sunni Muslims in more than nine countries?” he said. “It is of the highest priorities that these dangerous trends be well understood and resisted.”
The Ismaili spiritual leader emphasized his fondness for Canada’s pluralist values during his more than 40-minute speech to Parliament. He praised the work of the Global Centre for Pluralism, an Ottawa-based education and research centre jointly funded by the government of Canada and himself. He also recognized the work of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom, which was established about a year ago, saying its contributions will be “warmly welcomed.”
According to the Aga Khan, Thursday marked the first time in 75 years that a spiritual leader addressed both the Senate and House of Commons as part of an official visit. The Aga Khan was introduced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who referred to him as a “great friend and partner of Canada.” He and Harper later signed a Protocol of Understanding, committing to regular, high-level consultations on a variety of global and regional issues.
Canada is home to about 100,000 Shia Ismaili Muslims. In his introduction of the Aga Khan, Harper said the Ismaili population in Canada, which originated as refugees from Uganda, has become one of Canada’s most successful immigration stories. Their leader, the Aga Khan, was granted honorary Canadian citizenship in 2010 and is a member of the Order of Canada.
With files from the Canadian Press
Re-published with permission.