The history of the Ismailis in Canada is a timely reminder of the need to reject crude, one-dimensional depictions of Islam.
Canada’s Ismaili Muslim community was thrust into the spotlight recently following Justin Trudeau’s New Year’s getaway to a private island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan. However, commentators from both sides of the political spectrum have refrained from casting aspersions on the Aga Khan himself, spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims and one of the world’s most respected figures.
One testament to this near-universal admiration came in 2010, when the Aga Khan became just the fifth person to be named an honorary citizen of Canada — a truly remarkable accolade. No less remarkable is the history of Canada’s Ismaili community, which, since arriving in Canada in the early 1970s, has woven itself into our societal fabric to a degree that’s perhaps unmatched among non-Western migrant communities.
The jamaat (Ismaili community) is well represented in business, political and cultural circles. Prominent Ismaili Canadians include Rahim Jaffer, Canada’s first Muslim member of Parliament, the former Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed, the Mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, Malala Fund CEO Farah Mohamed, and the Giller-Prize-winning novelist M.G. Vassanji.
At a time when an increasing number of politicians throughout the West are showing skepticism toward Muslim immigration — particularly raising questions about the ability of Muslims to successfully integrate into Western societies — the history of the Ismailis in Canada serves as a timely reminder of the need to reject crude, one-dimensional depictions of Islam. It’s a story worth revisiting.
The first wave of Canadian Ismailis — which included my parents and grandparents — arrived in the fall of 1972 after the notorious dictator Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of some 80,000 residents of Asian origin from Uganda. The Aga Khan was ultimately able to secure refuge for roughly 6,000 Ugandan Ismailis in Canada, thanks to his personal friendship with the prime minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau (the two had attended Harvard together in the 1950s), and, as rumour has it, a touch of good fortune.
According to one account, the Aga Khan happened to schedule a dinner meeting with Canadian immigration officials that coincided with the 1972 Summit Series of hockey, which pitted Team Canada against Team USSR. One Canadian official had reportedly instructed a waiter beforehand to keep him updated on the game’s score throughout the meeting. When, near the end of the evening, the Aga Khan asked how many Ugandan Ismailis Canada would be able to take in, the official caught a glimpse of the same waiter, who held up three fingers on each hand (to indicate that the score was tied at 3–3). Misinterpreting this gesture, the official responded that Canada could accept 6,000 exiles, which was double the number that had been authorized.
This very Canadian origin story turned out to be a good omen for the Ugandan Ismailis and their trajectory as future citizens. Approximately 3,300 Ismailis initially accepted federal financial assistance to facilitate their resettlement; by the end of their first year in Canada, fewer than 150 were still receiving government help. According to a follow-up survey conducted at around this time, 89 percent of the Ugandan exiles who wished to enter the Canadian labour force had already done so, and more than 90 percent indicated that they planned to stay in Canada permanently.
The Ugandan Asians, of course, had certain advantages that set them apart from other refugee groups. Over half of the community possessed at least a high school education. Most already spoke English. As Canada had no official refugee admission policy at the time, most of the Ugandan émigrés would have also qualified for residency through the regular skill-based immigration points system.
Arriving in Canada with an abundance of education and job-ready skills certainly helped smooth the Ismaili Ugandans’ transition from refugees to citizens. Another factor that helps explain their exceptional success is the compatibility of Canada’s approach to cultural pluralism with the inclusive, contemplative interpretation of Islam espoused by the Aga Khan.
The Ismailis, who emerged in the eighth century out of a schism in Shia Islam, have long taken the view that the Qu’ran (Islam’s central religious text) is to be read as a set of allegories and reinterpreted over time. It requires and ensures constant reformation. This has put the community at odds with more dogmatic Muslim sects, leading to a long history of oppression and marginalization. Such animosity forced the Ismailis to take on a nomadic existence, scattering from their ancestral home in Syria to pockets of Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia.
As a perpetual minority community, Ismailis have come to view cultural pluralism as not only an ideal but also a means of survival. This philosophy has been central to the Aga Khan’s global outreach strategy of establishing collaborative practices and building institutions that foster strong cultural linkages between Ismailis and their host communities.
Today Canada is home to approximately 80,000 Ismailis, with the most recent waves arriving from Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia. At this point, it’s fair to say that Canada — as much as any other country — is now our “homeland.” Ismailis have thrived here as much as they have anywhere else in the world, if not more so.
Canada’s open and welcoming approach and its pluralistic society, combined with the Ismaili community’s commitment to modernity and integration, have created one of the world’s best examples of a thriving, successful and peaceful Muslim community in the West.
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