Remarks by Marc Plattner at 8th annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World

Marc Plattner, NED Vice President, Research & Studies
October 26, 2011
Embassy of Canada, Washington D.C.

It is both an honor and a pleasure for me to introduce Abdou Filali-Ansary, who tonight will present the eighth annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World. For all those who care about the fate of democracy in the world, 2011 will always be remembered as the year of the Arab revolutions. It is true that we cannot yet know what their ultimate outcome will be, even in those countries where they already have succeeded in ousting dictators. But at a minimum they have demonstrated that the Arab countries can no longer be regarded as the only part of the world impervious to the appeal of democracy. Thus it is entirely fitting that this year’s Lipset Lecture should address some of the issues raised by the momentous events of 2011 in the Middle East.

I cannot think of anyone better qualified to analyze their deeper import than Abdou Filali-Ansary. A Moroccan who has spent the last decade living in London, Abdou is a professor at the Aga Khan University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, an institute that he founded and then directed from 2002 to 2009. He has also been the founder of two other important educational and cultural institutions: the King Abdul-Aziz Foundation for Islamic Studies and Human Sciences in Casablanca, which he directed in the 1980s and 1990s, and the French and Arabic bilingual journal Prologues: revue maghrebine du livre, an elegant and serious publication somewhat similar to the New York Review of Books, which he edited until 2005.

Abdou is a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Democracy, and he has been a regular contributor to its pages. Unlike most of his colleagues on the Board, he was not trained as a social scientist. He obtained his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Dijon, writing a dissertation on the thought of Spinoza and Bergson, and for a time he taught modern philosophy at Mohammed V University in Rabat. His expertise also extends to history and theology, and his broad learning in modern thought is accompanied by a deep knowledge of Islamic texts and of Muslim history.
Though he closely follows contemporary political events and is strongly committed to universal principles of human rights and democracy, he is not really a political activist (though he did spend a term on the Steering Committee of the World Movement for Democracy). One might say that he takes the long view. He has devoted his impressive energy and insight not to ephemeral political developments, but to deeper currents in the realms of education, culture, and ideas and to the underlying questions that shape them. For many decades now, he has been exploring the relationship between religion and politics and the impact of modernity on Muslim societies.

Contemporary debates about Islam, its compatibility with democracy, and whether and how it can undergo a reformation tend to be as confused as they are heated. Abdou brings to them an unmatched mixture of clarity, thoughtfulness, and dispassion. He is animated by a genuine desire to understand, not by political partisanship or dogmatic attachments. The very first time I met him, more than 15 years ago, I was a commentator on a paper that he presented here in Washington. Though I disagreed with much of what he said, I was struck by his seriousness and open-mindedness, and our substantive disagreements did not prevent us from becoming good friends.

Outside the Arabic-speaking world, Abdou is probably better known for his publications in French than in English. The former include (I am translating the titles into English) Is Islam Hostile to Secularism? and Reforming Islam: an Introduction to Contemporary Debates. He has also published a French translation of Islam and the Foundations of Political Power, the seminal book originally published in Arabic in 1925 by the Egyptian thinker Ali Abdel-Raziq. Last year an English translation of Abdel-Raziq’s book, with Abdou as its editor, was published by the Edinburgh University Press.

At a UNESCO-sponsored symposium in Italy a few years ago, Abdou said of Ali Abdel-Raziq that he “was and remains my teacher.” Abdou made this remark in the context of asking “where we should draw the line between the sphere of universal principles and the structures and expressions that these assume throughout the course of history.” This is an absolutely fundamental question for Abdou Filali-Ansary, and he takes from Abdel-Razik’s inquiry into the bases of political power in Muslim societies the broader lesson that many precepts “we today associate with Islam or with Christianity are often nothing more than inherited customs and habits passed on from certain believers in certain places and moments of history.” In short, they are not “unbreakable rules that bind or in some way constrict our freedom of thought and action.”

These philosophic reflections may seem remote from the drama of people taking to the streets to protest the abuses of their dictatorial governments, but my guess is that they will not be far from the surface of Abdou’s analysis of the meaning and potential consequences of the Arab revolutions. I look forward with great curiosity to hearing what he will say, and I am confident that it will be both interesting and original.

It is now my pleasure to call to the podium Abdou Filali-Ansary.