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Fes Forum, Day One: Contemporary Challenges for Diverse and Plural Societies

By: Katherine Marshall

June 8, 2013

Katherine Marshall reports on an opening plenary honoring the memory of the poet Aimé Césaire on the first day of the 2013 Fes Forum in Morocco. 

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Speakers: Faouzi Skali; Mohamed Kabbaj; Mohamed Amine Sbihi, minister of culture, Morocco; Abdou Hafidi, introducing Christiane Taubira, minister of justice, France; Gunther Germain, presenting the poetry of Aimé Césaire; Assia Alaoui Bensalah; Roland Cayrol; Mustapha Chérif; Zaïr Kedadouche; Bariza Khiari; Edgar Morin

Une soif insatiable,” an insatiable thirst. This phrase from a poem by Aimé Césaire opened the 2013 Fes Forum. It evoked the desires and hopes that mark and define the Fes Festival and Forum: to connect across worlds and to explore the mystical boundaries of reason and faith, of emotion and experience. The voice of the poet echoed again at different moments throughout the morning, reminding us of the power of artistic genius to take us beyond ourselves, too often trapped in our cultural and religious silos and day-to-day worlds, so that we are allowed and encouraged to explore new horizons.

The opening morning on June 8 was remarkable for its wide array of people and ideas.

It began with formal welcomes that touched on the history and hopes for this unique forum. Our hosts linked the forum’s theme of diversity not only to the joys and beauty of diverse experiences and people, but to its vital role in society and for the planet. The idealized memory of the Andalusian centuries is at the core of this festival because diverse cultures not only met there and lived in tolerant peace, but interacted and created ideas and art that have endured across the ages. An important legacy is the tradition of Fes, which in its very foundation was to be a place dedicated to peace and spirituality, the two linked through culture. The theme of Al-Andalus, Faouzi Skali highlighted, was the common thread, the fil conducteur, of the opening spectacle Friday night. The performance evoked an appeal to a collective imagination, a call to recreate and regain the spiritual inspiration behind those centuries. The memory is linked to the lasting beauty of human creations like the Batha Museum gardens (which are Andalusian in character), appreciation of the natural world (the magnificent Barbary oak that crowns our work and houses the birds which offer a constant musical theme), and a wealth of music, poetry, and intellectual endeavor. This history is a reminder of the mystery of creation. The theme, as well as the forum itself, are thus intellectual but also deeply spiritual: religion, Faouzi emphasized, is about love, of God and of man, spiritual, passionate, mystical, secret, and generous. It must never be an instrument of oppression or repression. Turning this ideal into practical reality is the Forum’s goal.

French Minister Christiane Taubira then led the forum through a masterful historical journey evoked by the memory of Aimé Césaire on this 100th anniversary of his birth. She introduced us to his worlds, to the special ambiance of the Caribbean islands where races mingled and both creativity and prejudice put down long roots, especially during the colonial empires of a century ago. Césaire had many incarnations, as politician, poet, educator, activist, and intellectual, and all of them came into play. Taubira then traveled through the long twentieth century of wars, global shifts, personalities, hopes and disappointments, rebellion and love. She reminded us of this diversity of history with poetry and politics, even singing a song, bringing us into Césaire’s story of how the aspirations of peoples, through the movement of Négritude, came to life not as something negative or isolated but as something positive. Two special themes ran through her story as the spinal chord of his life and legacy: the power that pride in identity can bring, and the absolutely vital role of education as the path for emancipation.

Turning then to the panel and forum, Edgar Morin set the theme for the day with his sharp statement that unity and diversity are in fact inseparable, yet present a paradox with which we must struggle constantly. Humankind is inextricably linked by genetics, physiognomy, biology, and life cycles, yet each individual, even an identical twin, is distinct and unique. The same applies for cultures and societies. Efforts to ignore the “other” and to close off differences and different peoples, lead to disaster. Morin stressed that this fundamental paradox is at the heart of democracy’s role in assuring both the will of the majority and the absolute protection of the voice and interests of minorities. The paradox is not abstract, as Assia Alaoui Bensalah reminded us: the more people know each other and are enmeshed in a global culture, the more fiercely they desire difference and recognition of their individuality and seek its affirmation. These tensions color the politics of this region today, and global politics far beyond. They also affect the life of each individual.

This conflicting pull presents both challenges and dangers. Raymond Cayrol sobered the forum with reminders that diversity and acceptance of others cannot be taken for granted. Even among educated and enlightened peoples, intolerance is strong. Polling data show a constant and unnerving strand of deep-seated discrimination by race, religion, and class in Europe, for example. He termed it an incredible prejudice, and it presents us with a constant battle.

This tension, the fundamental paradox, is invoked in the debates about the clash of civilizations, more properly described as a clash of ignorances. We were led through a syllabary of images and ideas, all pointing to the wisdom of balance, the importance of openness to ideas, and the gift of diversity. We were advised that the story of the Tower of Babel, often seen in a negative light, as a disaster of jumbled languages and cultures, should instead be seen as a parable of the virtues and joys of a diversity as they are transmitted beyond the tower.

The discussion yesterday was in many ways a rich conversation along a Moroccan French axis, a family discussion among people who see different parts of the whole within a common historical framework and with many ideals and experiences in common. It evoked ancient and contemporary debates about integration and common values, human rights, and the continuing struggles for equality and balance, among nationalities, genders, and religions. It touched on the respective roles and responsibilities of the individual (to understand himself first) and of the state.

The discussion also began to explore how these broader struggles over common values versus diversity are mirrored in struggles within the rich diversity of Muslim societies. We were reminded that this is no light subject and it colors contemporary politics in the region. It is a topic that demands careful and deep common reflection. But several speakers framed a clear message: the Festival of Fes, and the city of Fes and its people, are the face of a true Islam, a faith that is grounded not in a rigid order but in a profound and often mystical faith, an Islam that is marked by its qualities of openness, questioning, love of ideas, complexity, and a constant search for love and meaning.

So, to attempt the impossible task of summarizing the day yesterday, it turned on the fundamental question of why we should care so deeply about cultural and religious diversity. The answer to the question, “why care?” lies in the looming fear that global forces, however rich their benefits and opportunities, bring real and imminent threats. Three dangers were linked through the discussions. As instant communications link cultures with the speed of a sound bite there are powerful pressures to homogenize, to move towards a banal and uniform culture. This is unfortunate and a danger in itself. But, secondly, such moves towards single cultural styles and icons evoke strong reactions, both to accept and celebrate this universal norm, and to reject it entirely, retreating within fortresses of culture and religion. Thus major tensions within and among societies are born. And finally, the imbalance of power among nations, global inequalities, and the hegemony of a dominant power and culture threaten to stifle and obscure the richness of diverse cultures and histories. The paradox of unity intertwined with diversity is the forum’s challenge as we move to the second day, whose challenge is the powerful engine of business, markets, and economics.

Other Daily Reports from Fes
day two | Are Solidarity and Harmony Possible Through the World of Finance?
day three | Bhutan's Gross National Happiness as a Development Paradigm?
day four | The Memory of Andalusia: Development through Culture

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