Multiculturalism will reap economic benefits for Canada and help make it one of the world’s most successful nations, the Aga Khan told a citizenship forum in Toronto on Friday.
The spiritual leader of the world’s Shia Ismaili Muslims said stable, prosperous societies can not be achieved solely by spreading democracy.
“Let me warn against a naive hope that simply advancing the concept of democracy will achieve our goals,” he said. “The high count of failed democracies, including some 40 per cent of the member states of the United Nations, should disabuse us of this notion.”
He said the key to success is to embrace diversity, and countries that fail to do so are more likely to suffer from civil conflict and economic decline.
He gave the example of Nigeria, which has descended into violence as its numerous ethnic factions battle for control of the country’s vast oil reserves.
He also pointed to the recent inter-ethnic violence that left thousands dead in Kyrgyzstan.
Pluralism does not come naturally and must be taught, said the Aga Khan, pointing to what he called Canada’s efforts to prevent both the assimilation and homogenization of its citizens.
“What the Canadian experience suggests to me is that identity itself can be pluralistic–one can embrace an ethnic or religious heritage, while also sharing a sense of regional pride.”
Other countries must learn to allow religious and ethnic expression while developing institutions that give all a significant say, he said.
The Aga Khan said he was impressed to learn that some 44 per cent of Canadians are not descendents of the French and English colonists who founded the country.
“I am told, in fact, that a typical Canadian citizenship ceremony might now include people from two dozen different countries,” he said. “It is an asset of enormous global value.”
He said there is an anti-immigrant backlash in some parts of the developed world caused by the global recession, lack of immigration planning, and transporting old conflicts to new homelands.
The religious leader gave the keynote address, amid tight security, to a symposium of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, which was founded by former governor general Adrienne Clarkson. “Citizens’ Week” kicks off in Canada on Monday.