In Fes, Seeking Sacred Wisdom, Grappling with Governance and Democracy

The musical feast at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, in hundreds of events over 10 days, is about the beauty and spirituality of sacred music, but it also drums in a constant a message of the joys of diversity.

Some musical and poetic offerings are deeply spiritual, even ethereal in a classical sense. Elena Ledda's quintet from Sardinia performs lyrical ancient sacred chants, echoing a pastoral, mountainous society. The Gundecha brothers from India chant the dhrupad, said to be India's most ancient living classic music tradition. Sufi groups sing of divine love, drawing us in with powerful rhythmic chants. Maria Bethania (from Brazil) blends popular music with activist messages with spiritual overtones. In sharp contrast, the popular Julia Butros from Lebanon sang (to constant applause) with her arms stretched out of militancy and love. And the messages of the concert where Fervat David Hamech (a French Jewish group that revives Andalusian music) performed with the Orchestra of Fes (all Muslim) were unmistakable: deeply shared culture and a capacity to work together.

But most fascinating (to me) are the messages of slammer/rapper Abd Al Malik. Malik's religious motivation was on display as the large screens showed his group in prayer in the green room before he entered. Both his commentary and music tell his story: Born in Paris suburbs to Congolese parents, he lived in Brazzaville for a time but returned to France. He led a life of crime with a spell of Islamic extremism, but was a brilliant student who excelled in philosophy. Along the path he encountered a Sufi master and is part of the Kadiriya brotherhood. One song, "Soldat de Plomb" (tin soldier) narrates his brutal life. Gibraltar is about migration. He has an unrivalled capacity to reach the young with life messages. His powerful music built in his Wednesday concert until he had even the staid notables in the front rows clapping and dancing.

The final two days of the Fes Forum grappled with two large issues of the times: corruption and democracy. But quite unlike a conference in, say, Washington, D.C., both days opened with reflections on cultural approaches to wisdom. First, artist Setsuko Klossawaska de Rola delved into Japanese traditions of wisdom, highlighting the constant focus on liberation from the ego and respect and attention to others. The tea ceremony, for example, in its symbolic gestures, involves an exercise in thinking of others, and showing respect. Even fishermen follow the tradition of releasing their catch once a year, and a traditional ceremony honors broken objects. Women carry the brunt and the joys of this wisdom, whose essence is a constant focus is on generosity and on seeing and protecting others before the self. Nigerien scholar Salamatou Sow described the core values of the nomadic Peul people. A pastoral people must respect knowledge so leadership is conferred on the most skilled. They must develop the capacity to live with others. And their oral traditions reinforce respect for age: anyone who has lived longer has an experience that you cannot have.

The theme of corruption is hot: the Arab Spring banners railed time and time again against the evils of corruption. Yet the topic until recently was almost taboo in the region. So a lively public discussion was earnestly welcomed. Moroccan leaders took pride in new and innovative approaches to the deep-rooted cultural dimensions. Transparency Morocco, for example, links schools, artists and policy-makers, using proverbs and calls to creativity to reinforce messages designed to inculcate new and positive values, especially in the younger generation.

Michel Thao Chan (from the U.N.) unraveled some of the threads of spiritual challenges and wisdom that the knotty problems of governance involve. Working to develop a Ph.D. program in international governance within the U.N., he was asked what could and must be taught. Virtue is his reply. And virtue depends on different forms of knowledge. Book learning and comparative knowledge are vital but so are two rarer kinds: empathetic knowledge (often earned through suffering) and generative knowledge, that sparks creativity. Together, these dimensions of knowledge offer at least the possibility of good governance. What is really at issue, and the essence of wisdom as it applies to the challenges of governance, is consciousness.

Why does this topic belong on the agenda of a Festival of Sacred Music? Where is the spiritual, and where is religion? The link is the quest for wisdom and nuance: both are needed above all because such complex challenges to values are at issue and because governance is about translating ideals, vision and promises into real action. Religion and spirituality are vital parts of the essential alliances that must link power and fire from above (leadership) with local and civil society action from below. An important message is that fatalism must be contested with a conviction that change is not only essential but possible. That calls on gifts of wisdom to suffuse and inspire a determination that links the mind and the spirit. Consciousness of these multiple dimensions can perhaps allow us to hear, as a child at the beach listening to the mysterious sounds in a seashell, the echo of the infinite and thus help to bring to the fore the wisdom of putting others first, and those elements that make for virtue.

Turning next morning to democracy, the Forum veered between ideals and theory and gritty realities. Democracy may be our ideal, capturing the essence of ancient and modern, spiritual and secular commitments to human dignity and community. But, many asked, is it fatally flawed? How has the turbulence of recent months changed ideas of what democracy means and what it should be? What about youth, Facebook, hard politics?

Filmaker Jean-Claude Carriere reflected on the ideals and positive.The essence of wisdom (and its translation into democracy) is to appreciate multiple forms of knowledge, ancient and modern, classical and raw street sense. The capacity to look in the mirror and see one's self as the other is the essence. This is the message of the tale of the Conference of the Birds, when the surviving band of seekers find truth and wisdom in themselves. It is also the essence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's wisdom in "The Social Contract."

But the raw experience of Cote d'Ivoire added a sobering note. Can you have democracy without democrats? Are there thresholds of poverty below which democracy is impossible? How important is literacy? Why has a spoils system perturbed so much of Africa? How could the elections in Cote d'Ivoire, designed by great brains, prepared over many years, inspired by high ideals and at huge cost, have gone so very wrong? How could Cote d'Ivoire, so long seen as an African model, have descended into the brutal struggles of recent years? For all the talk of democracy, the defeated president was ready to die before he gave up power. Democracy will take different forms and it must emerge from a society. Constant vigilance is essential, and there are important, often neglected links between the values that come with spiritual consciousness and the practical realities of contending with daily realities and politics of democracy.

Ibrahim Sy Savane (a former Cote d'Ivoire minister, of communications) told two unforgettable stories, as parables, one horrifying and the other with some hope, or at least a note of humor. During Cote d'Ivoire's troubles, a mother was brutally murdered. When soldiers arrived on the scene, finding her two twin baby girls breastfeeding their dead mother, they fainted at the brutality, the diabolical possession that was at work. In contrast, a looter was astonished that the refrigerator he was so happy to have obtained gave off only heat: he had in error taken a microwave. Maybe that's the tale or lesson from artificially grafted democracies?