Why Canada Doesn’t Need an Islamic Art Museum

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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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