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Keynote Address by Mr. Akaash Maharaj at the23rd Eid-ul-Fitr Celebrations at Parliament Hill on June 19, 2018
Kul am wa antum bi khair. Eid Mubarak.
Wise Imams, learned holders of Semikhah, reverend members of the Clergy; your Excellencies and members of the diplomatic corps; honourable Senators and Members of Parliament; members of the APMC Board; friends all:
I am more honoured than I could possibly express to receive the Association of Progressive Muslims of Canada’s Eid ul-Fitr Award. Candidly, though, I confess that that was not my initial reaction.
When I received the letter from Mobeen Khaja informing me of the Association’s decision, I immediately thought that this must have been an error. Perhaps he had intended to send me an invitation to tonight’s dinner, but had inadvertently reused the text of his letter to the evening’s honouree. I thought, “How embarrassing for Mobeen. I will have to be gentle and light-hearted in informing him of his mistake.”
My astonishment at receiving this honour is in large part because of my deep regard for the APMC, its members, and its calling.
In the twenty years since the Association was founded, the world has changed immeasurably around it, both for better and for worse. Yet the Association’s mission has only grown in importance as the mandate of our age: to foster mutual understanding between faiths, at a time when others would trade upon ignorance and fear; to build bridges, at a time when others would erect walls; and to advance our common dignity, at a time when others would deny our common humanity.
As someone whose personal and family religious traditions come from outside Islam, I am especially alert to the fact that the APMC has served the causes of equality, peace, and justice, not by simply claiming those rights for itself, but by insisting upon them for others, and by defending them for all of us. And I am no less in awe of the people who have stood in this place before me. Previous recipients of Association’s award have included Prime Ministers and Supreme Court Justices, and Canadians who have remade our country’s society and economy.
As much as I might reach towards them, I am profoundly conscious that I am not those people. I understand that I am here in their shadow, because as head of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC), I have the great privilege to serve and represent better men and women than myself. What GOPAC’s name lacks in brevity, it makes up for in being self-explanatory. It is a worldwide alliance of parliamentarians working together to combat corruption, strengthen good government, and uphold the rule of law. It was founded by Canadian parliamentarians in 2002, and today, it has sixty-two national chapters, and individual members in nearly every democratic parliament of the world. As an international institution, we work in partnership with the United Nations, the Council of Europe, INTERPOL, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, amongst others.
Our members come from different countries, speak different languages, profess different faiths, pursue different political philosophies, and have been on opposite sides of history and warfare. Yet we are united by a common creed: that corruption is now the single greatest threat to the welfare of societies, to security of states, and to the rights of all mankind. As but one example, political corruption kills at least 140,000 children every year, by robbing them of public funds meant for food, water, and medical care.
Corruption takes many forms: the theft of public resources; the sale of political influence; the betrayal of the public trust. In all cases, however, corruption thrives when political power is able to operate in the shadows, and it withers before the glare of public scrutiny. The solution to corruption is therefore extraordinarily simple to describe, though fiendishly difficult to achieve: a vigilant, relentless, and fearless community of parliamentarians, standing between our leaders and the levers of power.
Parliamentarians are the watchdogs of democracy, and it is tragic that so many citizens of so many nations see our watchdogs as having muted their bark, muzzled their bite, and been neutered by the very powers they were meant to hold at bay. It is a perception that is sometimes justified, but it is a perception that is more often desperately unfair.
There are parliamentarians around the world who risk their lives every day to speak for those who would otherwise have no voice. There are parliamentarians who tilt at the powerful for no better reason than to shield others. There are still parliamentarians who understand that election to office is not a license to rule, but a contract to serve.
Ma famille est venue au Canada pendant les années de 1970s. C’est peut-être surprenant, mais un de leurs héros dans leur nouveau pays était le parlementaire provinciale René Lévesque. Je veux être absolument sans ambiguïté : ma famille n’avait aucune sympathie avec le séparatisme. Mais ils avaient un grand respect pour la passion, la détermination, et le sens du destin de Lévesque, et ses efforts d’augmenter la dignité du fait francophone en Amérique de Nord et à la seine de l’identité Canadienne.
One of the conclusions I took away from their influence was the vital role legislators play in building a national consensus, and in giving voice to the plurality of views in our diverse country, which allows us to understand and respect one another, even when we do are not of one mind with one another. But for this to function, it requires political parties who acknowledge that where it is merited, dissent is not merely the right, but the responsibility of every member of parliament. It also requires party leaders with the humility to accept that no one person holds a monopoly on virtue or patriotism.
In my assembling my thoughts for tonight, I could not avoid confronting the fact that humility is a rare commodity in politics. But as I understand it, Ramadan is about cultivating humility and empathy through self-abnegation, about encouraging the faithful to turn away from the loud calls of the world, and towards the quiet voice of conscience. While this is an easy path to describe, I know that it is a difficult journey to undertake.
In my work with GOPAC’s legislators, I have often had to confront the reality that even people whose consciences are clear and whose motives are just, can struggle to find the straight gate and the narrow way. Because in an imperfect and broken world, sometimes there are no good choices, only choices that help the most and hurt the fewest.
One of the incidents that will always remain with me involved my GOPAC colleague, Prof Mohamed Bugaighis. He was head of one of our partner institutions, the Libyan International Organization Against Corruption. After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Professor Bugaighis left his home in Pennsylvania to return to Libya, to help rebuild the country of his birth. He worked tirelessly to dismantle what remained of the Gaddafi’s tyranny, and to stop new kleptocrats and warlords from rushing in to occupy the power vacuum.
It was unutterably dangerous work. In 2014, the enemies of justice blew up his house, in a failed attempt to kill him. He remained undeterred, and so did they. On Saturday 29th of October 2016, as he was sitting in the Sanbal Café in Benghazi, the kleptocrats struck him down. They had to blow up much of a city block and several uninvolved bystanders to kill the man, though his legacy lives on.
In the end, death comes for us all. Our only choices are whether we live with purpose and die with courage. My colleague Mohamed did both. But that does not quell the voices of doubt that can trouble me in the dark watches of the night. Because the reason he was in that café, on that dark autumn night, was that I had asked him to go there. We had been working together in a shared effort to bring Gaddafi’s accomplices to justice, and to recover some of the billions of dollars they had stolen, so the money could be used to provide basic care for the population left destitute and vulnerable amidst the ashes of their fallen regime.
Mohamed was going to collect records detailing European and Caribbean bank accounts where some of those illicit funds were being secreted. He had been to that café many times before, but we both knew that he was a marked man, and so each visit was a risk. I struggle with the ethics and morals of our decision, because it ended so tragically, yet with the information we had before us at that moment, I can not see how either of us could have, in good conscience, made any other choice.
I almost never speak of my spiritual beliefs in public, but clearly, it would be churlish for me to maintain that practice at an Eid celebration. I believe that in the next world, each of us will have to answer for his failings and flaws, for what we have done and for what we have left undone. Accordingly, I believe I will have to face Mohammed in the afterlife, and hear him ask me, “Why did you take decisions that put me in that café?” My only reply will be, “I made my decisions for the same reasons you made yours, in the hopes of bringing a measure of justice to an unjust world, to provide some succour to people whom the world has spurned, to create a world where your daughter will not have to choose between preserving her conscience and preserving her life. “And I did it because, if our roles had been reversed, I would have insisted that you make the same decisions for me, that I made for you.”
I wrestle in my soul with the question of whether my reply will be enough. But I am in no doubt that it is the only reply I will be able to make. In a profession that involves trying to stare down the world’s most brutal kleptocrats and dictators, it can be easy to succumb to despair and cynicism. They have all the guns, they have all the money, they have all the power. And anyone who would stand against the evil that they do, must be prepared to stand alone.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless. But that is exactly how they want us to feel. Because if they can convince us that nothing can be done, then they are safe in the assurance that we will do nothing. Yet, if my time at GOPAC has taught me anything, it is that they are the weak ones, not us. Despots who oppress and kill their citizens, do so because they fear the power of the citizenry.
GOPAC has members in all the parliaments of the countries that experienced Arab Spring revolutions. Certainly, as every revolutionary in history has discovered, it is easier to pull down an unjust state than to build a just state. Just as certainly, in each of those countries, the tyrants had seemed unassailable and invincible. But when the end came, it came literally overnight. Autocracies that had endured for generations, were swept away in hours, by force of ordinary people who found the will and the courage to stand together and to stand up.
I have come to see that every kleptocrat in the world goes to bed at night, asking himself or herself, “I wonder if tomorrow will be the day? The day when the people decide they have had enough; the day when they see they have nothing left to lose; the day when they realize that I have been turning them against one another to turn them away from me. I wonder if tomorrow will be the day when it all ends for me, and it all begins for them?”
We the many can wield a force that the corrupt few will never know: an ability to make common cause out of our common humanity and our common dignity; an understanding that we are all the same imperfect children of the same perfect providence, trying to find our way back to the same state of grace; and a determination to join hands across the divisions that beset the human condition, to create a better world in the image of the better angels of our natures.
Together, we are stronger than powers and principalities; we are mightier than fire and the sword. There are those who will never tire of telling us that the world we are trying to build is just a dream. But it is a dream worth fighting for, and it is a fight that together, we are strong enough to win.