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Is Enlightened Society Possible?

High on the Moroccan Plateau is a remarkable university established by the country's king. Its royal mandate is to promote "the values of human solidarity and tolerance" in this predominantly Muslim nation.

High on the Moroccan Plateau is a remarkable university established by the country's king. Its royal mandate is to promote "the values of human solidarity and tolerance" in this predominantly Muslim nation.

"No matter what we think of enlightened society, it is something we need to strive towards," says the university's widely travelled and sophisticated president, Dr. Driss Ouaouicha. "We all need provocative questions that push our minds to the limit, and beyond the limit." He has attracted an international, co-educational, multi-ethnic student body to Al Akhawayn University where, for the last eight years, he has spearheaded the institution's rapid development.

In addition to a business school, and Executive Education Centre - designed to produce the country's next generation of corporate leaders - the university hosts a post-graduate program in comparative religious studies for the rising generation of Imams. In addition to deepening their knowledge of Islam, they study all the major world religions, having been selected for this cosmopolitan training by the country's innovative Ministry for Islamic Affairs and Endowments.

Enlightened Society

This month I was invited to address the university's student body and faculty. It was an opportunity to open up, and film, a reflection on the question: "Is Enlightened Society possible?" I was keen to hear from the students themselves. I asked them three questions:

1. What do we think an Enlightened Society would be like?

2. What changes would be needed in our current way of life in order to bring about Enlightened Society?

3. How do we think we could make these changes?

"Maybe an enlightened society would be a society based on trust, justice and equality," said one of the students. These three qualities of society came up again and again in the conversation. "Justice would be everywhere," said another. It would be a "society where people do not fear each other."

Freedom, tolerance and diversity were clearly on these young minds. It would be "a society where people accept each other's differences," one student told me. "I think an enlightened society is one where people are free to ask questions, and to see their answers in any way that, for them, is right," said another. Looking at how change would come about, one of the participants said that in an enlightened society "change is not imposed from the top. It comes from the bottom up, for the benefit of all."

The importance of fundamental economic and social rights was a recurrent motif. "I'm thinking about extreme poverty where people can't have access to simple and basic things like food, a place to live, to education and medical care. If we can eliminate this extreme face of poverty, maybe we could achieve an enlightened society," said one echoing the views of others.

As our conversation went on, the complexity of what's involved in dealing with conflict and violence came up. One student was very clear that the goal is a society "which doesn't contain violence." Yet others spoke of the different aspects of human personality. "It would be an imperfectly perfect society in which people are aware of their dark side such as their greed," said another.

"The sum of enlightened individuals does not necessarily make an enlightened society," one student pointed out towards the end of our conversation. "Human beings are complex. Maybe the way you perceive enlightened society will contradict what I perceive. That will create more conflict. Greed, pride and hypocrisy are in all of us. Perhaps the best way to create an enlightened society would be to let it all out in a healthy way that doesn't harm others."

A golden thread

Listening to the aspirations and insights of all these students was simultaneously poignant and inspiring. The question of enlightened society has been asked by people in virtually all human traditions. It is like a golden thread woven through the tapestry of human civilization. I traced this through history in an illustrated presentation I made at the start of our conversation.

But the moment we start contemplating these wonderful, imaginative and hopeful visions of the future, of an ideal society, we feel something coming up in us. It's a dark feeling. A suspicious, cynical feeling. Because many so-called utopias have failed.

When we see how great ideals, great principles, great social visions can end up producing the exact opposite of what they set out to achieve, we begin to ask even deeper questions. Questions about human nature itself. Who are we, and what is the true nature of our species?

I feel we could have a wonderful global conversation about this. We could start, simply, with these same three questions that we explored at Al Akhawayn University. There might be a lot of very different answers. But asking these questions and getting everyone's answers on the table, would be a first step. Just doing that might, in itself, be an enlightened thing to do.

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