In October 2011, Professor Abdou Filali-Ansary, founding director and faculty member of AKU-ISMC, was invited to deliver the eighth annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture in Washington, D.C. and in Toronto.
Previous keynote speakers have included well-known public intellectuals, scholars and politicians including: Ivan Krastev, Nathan Glazer, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Pierre Hassner, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Francis Fukuyama and Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
In Washington, at the Canadian Embassy, Professor Filali-Ansary spoke to a crowded auditorium of scholars and public intellectuals interested in politics and recent events of the Arab Spring, while in Canada, he addressed an audience primarily of academics at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies.
His lecture, entitled “The Arab Revolutions: Democracy and Historical Consciousness”, was offered in the spirit of a “lipsetian” exercise, applying, in particular, Lipset’s notion of “political legitimacy” to recent events.
Professor Filali- Ansary stressed the role of memories in the way people behave towards each other in society, and the shape these memories give to political life. He emphasised that these memories are not stable but rather vary substantially in time and place. Thus, in the Arab world we find a great stress on the remote past and on religious traditions.
At the same time, however, there has been a great interest in the Arab Renaissance, which brought together Christians, Muslims and Jews who all spoke the same language and felt a common sense of belonging to one culture. This movement of ideas which had a great influence over decades was secular by definition and converged with the ideals of the European Enlightenment.
Professor Filali-Ansary argued that the “great good news from the Arab Spring” lies in its demonstration that there is a state of disenchantment with utopias and a readiness for a more modern, democratic political interaction. This alternative to the kind of regimes that have imposed themselves on Arab societies has taken hold in the collective imaginary and has been very visible to anyone listening carefully to what people on the ground have been saying and what they are calling for.
But debates continue and challenges remain, not least attachments to older narratives and older slogans that refer to some other forms of utopian politics, such as the full implementation of a literalist and narrow interpretation of shari’a. Professor Filali-Ansary argued that this attachment is a result of gross misinterpretations of the heritage, misinterpretations which are still supported by forms of scholarship which have not yet accepted any kind of self-criticism. Thus clarification and scholarly enquiry are needed more than ever in order to really achieve a good understanding of the past and find appropriate ways to learn lessons from it.
The Lipset Lectures, organised by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Munk Centre for International Studies of the University of Toronto, serve as a forum to discuss democracy and democratic ideas. These were themes at the heart of Lipset’s work and at the heart of his comparative analysis of Canada and the US, the two north American democracies.
Dr Peter O'Neill, Research and Grants Officer