Why Canada Doesn’t Need an Islamic Art Museum

It is not only the unnecessary extravagance, indirect corporate financing, and disturbing ties of the Aga Khan Development Network that should make one pause when it comes to the new museum. The opening of Canada’s first Islamic Art Museum is also happening in the context of significant state repression of the Muslim community in Canada.

On May 28, the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper were in Toronto to celebrate the foundation of North America’s first Islamic Art museum. The grandiose project is part of a multi-million dollar development in the Don Mills and Eglinton area, set to include an Ismaili religious center, the self-titled Aga Khan Museum, and vast gardens linking the two. The Museum will display Islamic art and artifacts said to date back up to 1400 years, primarily drawn from the Aga Khan’s private collection and ranging from miniatures to manuscripts to textiles.

Yet for all its palatable rhetoric around promoting diversity and cultural harmony, the Aga Khan Museum demands some closer scrutiny.

To start with, the $300 million price tag on the privately funded project begs the immediate question: who is paying for this? A community notorious for its secrecy, Ismailis in Canada are among the richest citizens of the country, with famous names including former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer and current CEO of Rogers Nadir Mohamed. In fact, a 2006 BC Business profile of the Ismaili community described it as almost “too good to be true”, listing BC’s richest Ismaili families including luxury hotel owners, mineral resource developers, real-estate moguls and more, many worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Ismailis are required to give 5-12 percent of their annual income to the Aga Khan, who is then said to allocate the funds to various non-profit ventures. (Concrete facts are hard to come by with the intense privacy restrictions – Ismaili centers are among the only Muslim places of worship in the world that are not open to outsiders.)

Referred to as “His Highness” by global dignitaries, the Aga Khan IV is a billionaire tycoon who, alongside his status as a religious leader, is also the top breeder of thoroughbred horses in France and owns a bank in Pakistan, plantations in Kenya, and a chain of luxury hotels together with his private jet and massive walled estate in Chantilly, France – making his personal wealth estimated at over $15 billion. Publicly renowned as a philanthropist, he individually oversees the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), one of the largest private development networks in the world. The AKDN employs over 70,000 paid staff and runs hospitals, universities, and similar public projects alongside private economic ventures claiming to promote development by “strengthening the role of the private sector” across the global south.

While there is no shortage of reasons to critique the globalized development industry that has seen many profit immensely off of poverty, it is worth pointing out that since 2001, the AKDN has focused much of its efforts in Afghanistan, where it currently operates as a primary partner of CIDA and USAID. Although framed as “aid” organizations, both CIDA and USAID have in fact been central to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, enriching their own state corporations in the process (a full 44% of CIDA’s aid is tied to the purchase of Canadian goods and services), encouraging collaboration with the occupiers by conditionally distributing aid to those who assist the forces, and skewing public opinion in support for the war. Nor are CIDA and USAID the AKDN’s only international state partners – Israeli IsraAID has also proudly noted their close relationship in endeavors such as a 2005 joint health provider training in Kenya.

But it is not only the unnecessary extravagance, indirect corporate financing, and disturbing ties of the AKDN that should make one pause when it comes to the new museum. The opening of Canada’s first Islamic Art Museum is also happening in the context of significant state repression of the Muslim community in Canada and a global onslaught of Islamophobic wars, governments, and popular movements. Canada has been no stranger to this, evident in the legitimization of the invasion of Afghanistan by claiming the need to “save” oppressed Afghani women; the controversies around Shari’a Law in Ontario; Herouxville and the Reasonable Accommodation debates in Quebec; the five Muslim security certificate detainees, all but one now released (on strict conditions of house arrest) after years of later-deemed unconstitutional detention; the refusal to bring home Omar Khadr, Guantanamo Bay’s youngest prisoner and only Western citizen despite global calls to do so; the ongoing trials of the Toronto 18, charged with allegations of terrorism despite a paucity of publicized evidence and the revelation of an RCMP informant heavily compensated to incite the young men involved; and the government’s explicit instruction to Syria and Egypt to torture numerous Muslim Canadians, of which Maher Arar is the most famous. And these are just the better-known examples.

Yet, Stephen Harper would like us to know that he does not hate Muslims and is committed to peace and diversity – after all, both he and notorious Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney were present to launch the new museum and heap praise upon the Aga Khan and the initiative. Why the seeming disconnect?

Mahmood Mamdani’s 2004 book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim opens by presenting a thesis: in contemporary political discourse, there is a clear division between the “good” Muslims – the peace-loving, open-minded, well-educated, secular-leaning, patriotic citizens – and the “bad” – the dogmatic, conservative, sexist, homophobic, likely-violent haters of the West and democracy (who often also happen to be non-citizens, poor, and bearded or veiled). With the elaborate Aga Khan Museum set to be located in an area with one of the highest proportions of lower-income Muslims in Canada, serving more to gentrify the neighborhood than to support the resident community, it is thus unsurprising that Toronto Star reporter Christopher Hume says of the project, “Unlike most such religious/culture centers that have appeared recently in these parts, this one looks to the future, not the past.” His division of “past” and “future” is especially telling, as the bad Muslims are always stuck somewhere behind, backwards and obstinately refusing to get with the civilized times.

It is no great surprise then that the Canadian government is so ready to support the Aga Khan’s latest project. As noted above, the Canadian Ismaili community is often upheld as an example for immigrant integration and success: “In the last three decades they’ve built some of B.C.’s biggest companies, raised stacks of cash for good causes, and quietly joined the golf and country club set,” writes BC Business. In September 2009, the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby even partnered with VANOC to host an “Olympic Truce Dialogue” led by the Canadian Governor General. While the 75,000 strong Canadian Ismaili community is in actuality diverse in socioeconomic status and ethnicity, its public face is dominated by an elite all too willing to position themselves as model minorities. Such are the good Muslims – as Hume notes about those who pushed to host the project in Toronto, these are “immigrants” who do not only take from Canada, but can give a museum back (reminding readers that the brown-skinned still remain perpetual outsiders, despite even this level of dedication to the state).

But what exactly will this museum bring us? An appreciation of a once-glorious Islamic past, of a civilization now frozen in monuments? It might be worth reminding ourselves of the central role of Canadian museums in the ongoing colonization of indigenous communities, taking traditions that have been systematically attacked for generations to then be displayed in exhibitions and violently erased into history. “Look!”, these museums can claim. “There were once totem poles, and we settlers have preserved them so well!”

Just as Canadian history museums do not address the realities of colonization, an Islamic Art museum will not address Islamophobia. It will not bring Omar Khadr back from Guantanamo Bay, it will not shift the unwaveringly pro-Israel stance of the Conservative government, and it will not change the systemic, legislated racism that permeates Canada at all levels.

As for those of us whose Muslim communities are on the other side of this celebratory moment – those whose mosques are vandalized, whose religious scholars are regularly interrogated by state officials, whose youth groups are infiltrated by informants, whose charities are barred from operating – we don’t need a multi-million dollar museum. We need an end to Canadian support for war and occupation, an end to the policing of our communities, an end to surveillance and complicity in torture, an end to anti-Muslim legislation. And to Stephen Harper and the Aga Khan: we reject your glorification of a state that does not exist for our protection, and your pride in the close cooperation between your two institutions of power. The tradition of Islam is one of struggle, with submission only to God – and our struggles against what you represent are far too real to ever be placated by ancient artifacts.

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  • also known as .

    Without any concrete examples of how the museum is culturally imperialistic, this article reads like the author has never visited the place.

    At the same time, she has a chip on her shoulder about how Muslims are treated so she’s going to pass her opinion on it. She obviously has a thing against Ismailis

    I was also wondering about the author’s cited facts. She quoted the Toronto Star’s architectural columnist as saying, “Unlike most such religious/culture centers that have appeared recently in these parts, this one looks to the future, not the past”.

    I went to the Toronto Star article and searched for the words ‘future’, ‘unlike’ and ‘past’. Nothing came up. Intrigued, I read the article. I did not see the offending passage there either. It seems either the reference or the quotation is wrong.

    This Islamic Insights article raises some interesting questions, although it ultimately falls short of what it could and should be.

  • John Mubin

    “Unlike most such religious/culture centers that have appeared recently in these parts, this one looks to the future, not the past…” is indeed a phrase written by Christopher Hume in the Toronto star’s article, [u]Aga Khan’s cultural centre crown jewel for Don Mills[/u]. (1) The link however in the above article redirects to Hume’s latest article, [u]Hume: New Ismaili complex will enrich Toronto[/u]. (2) This is a small oversight (which can and should be corrected) but by no means derails from the articulate approach taken by Summaya Kassamali as she delves into this fascinating subject-matter.

    For long, Western nations have tried to promote certain “versions” of Islam that they consider in conformity with their values or rather in their best interests. Canada’s minority government (and if I may aptly put “increasingly unpopular”) is unabashedly Pro-Israel and will do anything to safeguard Israel’s interests. One may rightly ask: So what’s the link?

    In 2008, a multi-million dollar campaign was launched in Toronto, Canada to “rebrand Israel,” one of the major focus groups being focussed upon to build support for Israel was in the “East African Community” in Canada. (3) A significant proportion of this is made of up Ismaili’s (& subsequent generations) who were forced out of Uganda in East Africa by the brutal dictator Idi Amin. They were given refuge & support in Canada by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who happened to be a university classmate & close friends with the Aga Khan. (4)

    Launching an “Islamic Museum” project and bestowing upon the Aga Khan a Canadian honorary citizenship (only 4 others have received this) will not tackle Islamophobia in Canada. It only creates the perfect “mirage oasis” or scape goat to give more authority for the government to defend its repressive policies that have and are targeting Muslims both in Canada and abroad.

    Just a few days after “honouring” the Aga Khan, Stephen Harper, the Canadian PM along with Netanyahu, the Israeli PM stood side by side defending Israel’s actions on the Flotilla. It’s a strange coincidence, wouldn’t you agrees?

    1. http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/408998
    2. http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/816175–hume-new-ismaili-complex-will-enrich-toronto
    3. http://english.aljazeera.net/focus/2009/09/20099111419919571.html
    4. http://www.ismaili.net/timeline/2000/20001002.html

    Ps. To the author of the article: Kudos and Mash’Allah for this excellent journalistic piece

  • AJ

    It has become fashionable for leaders in the western world to laud and pitch “Muslim” success stories every now and again, as if Muslims were uniquely partaking in some ongoing experiment.

    The objective for showing off these “success” stories, however, is primarily in order to conceal the growing divide between the claimed allegiance to liberal intellectual foundations, and their concrete, easily discernable racist methods on the ground that vilify Muslim communities and nations, as was eloquently highlighted by the author.

    Across the western world, we see an influx in government sponsored “Muslim” think tanks and organisations that clearly promote a particular slant amenable to the interests of their sponsors. Whilst there’s I have no issue against an Islamic Art museum, the questions raised by the author deserve close consideration.

    Thanks for the article, and keep it up!

  • Vancouverite

    When you strip away the sophistry, Sumayya’s article is unfortunately another sectarian rant against the Ismaili community.

  • also known as .

    [i]Just a few days after “honouring” the Aga Khan, Stephen Harper, the Canadian PM along with Netanyahu, the Israeli PM stood side by side defending Israel’s actions on the Flotilla. It’s a strange coincidence, wouldn’t you agrees? [/i]

    John Mubin, are you suggesting that somehow the Aga Khan had something to do with the Israelis storming the flotilla? This is exactly the sort of unfounded assertion that Sumayya’s article was rife with. So no, I would NOT agree.

    Furthermore, if you go to Hume’s article (the one that was supposed to be cited), it is clear he is not talking about warping Islam or making Muslims follow Stephen Harper’s agenda. As the architectural critic for the Toronto Star, he was clearly talking about the building drawing on traditional architecture, but being very sophisticated! He is simply complimenting the design of the building. Of course, this doesn’t fit into your agenda so you simply quoted a part of the paragraph and insinuated that Hume is a bad guy.

    Here is the whole paragraph:

    [i]The three-part project consists of a museum and a community/religious centre surrounded by gardens. Though work won’t begin until later this year, drawings show a complex of rare beauty that, even more amazing, is rendered in the language of contemporary architecture. Unlike most such religious/culture centres that have appeared recently in these parts, this one looks to the future, not the past.[/i]

    And regarding the issue of Ismaili’s being forced out of Uganda, this is just silly. So many other people were also forced out, including 12er Khojas, and they made homes around the world. Of course everyone and their communities made the best of their connections so that they could go elsewhere, was what the Aga Khan did wrong? I as a practicing 12er Shia who abhores the Aga Khan’s extreme liberal tendencies cannot say so.

    Lastly, much is being made of the Aga Khan being honored with citizenship. Really, how is that a sign he is a bad person? Do you know who the other people are on the list? They include the Dalai Lama (head of the Buddhist community) and Nelson Mandela (leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa). It is perfectly understandable that the Aga Khan, as the leader of the world’s Ismaili community, would receive the honor he did. He has not simply set up a museum. He has set up many hospitals, universities, and other good projects around the world.

    From what I can tell, Muslims should be happy he wanted the museum in a location where they could benefit from the increased economic activity. I think we should wait and see what the museum is going to be like, as well as consider our own prejudices, before casting aspersions regarding this project.

  • also known as .

    PS: John Mubin, I just want to point out that in my third paragraph, I mean Sumayya made the assertion, not you.

  • also known as .

    One more point. John, the link you provided about Ismailis supporting Brand Israel did not say anything about Ismailis. You gave a reference as though it was proof for Ismaili support of Israel, which is dishonest, to say the least.

    Let us just imagine your assertion is correct that there are rich Ismailis being recruited to support Israel. Even then, what does it prove about the museum in Toronto? Every community has it’s bad apples. Don’t get me started about the 12er sell outs around the world.

    This is the same argument that the khawarij made against Imam Ali (as), that there was corruption in his followers, therefore he must be at fault. Of course there is no comparison between Imam Ali and a non-masoom, especially one who is not a 12er ‘alim, but the principle still stands. Malfeasance on the part of the flock should not automatically be thrust upon the leader. Otherwise, we will also have to say that the many wrong things our own 12er community is doing are automatically the fault of those who are blameless. Such an argument does not hold water in Islam.

    I am not saying that we should trust the Aga Khan, but the reasoning being used to denounce him and this museum are highly flawed.

  • Pritam

    Sumayya, Why do you have so much hatred towards the Ismailis? I am just wondering with this kind of hatred how can you ever live as a oggd neighbour to a Jewish or an Ismaili family? May God bless you and I pray that may you have a Peace in your heart towards all the mankind.

  • NK

    Very interesting article. While the museum will not fix all the issues going on in the world today, the question that I have to ask as a Muslim is this:

    Is the museum a step in the right direction towards peace between the Islamic world and the west?

    In my opinion, the answer is yes. The museum serves as a bridge in creating dialogue and raising a positive awareness of Islam in the west.

    While many of us Muslims have our own struggles and challenges, we should not point fingers at each other in times when we are all looking out for the greater good – Islam.

    It’s bad enough that the mainstream media has portrayed Muslims in a very negative light – why should we stoop to their level and reject contributions being made by our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters?

    May Allah continue to fulfill all your good wishes and intentions.