I wish to thank the faculty and students here at the Belmont Hill School for this wonderful opportunity, in particular the Director of Global Education, Adam Harder. I must confess that when I first received this invitation, I was both happy and anxious.
I was happy, because our discussion today allows me to speak as a member of a shared educational community, as part of its social fabric. Yet I was also anxious, because today I am not speaking from my usual place of scholarly expertise. Instead, I have been asked to provoke and inspire you all – a task that is clearly harder than any intellectual project!
So it is with this is mind that I will start by turning back the hands of time, to a place far away. Then and there, I remember the thumping sounds of combat boots marching upon the tarmac, and the squeaking noise of metal barriers closing at the military checkpoint.
The year was 1971, and I was a seven-year old boy in Morocco watching from afar an army coup unfold against my uncle, King Hassan II. The military coup sought to depose the monarchy that was 400 years old, and destroy an institution that was 1,200 years old. It failed, but not before rebelling troops turned the royal palace into a bloodbath. I saw an army officer tell his two soldiers to shoot my mother. After his departure, they refused, as she was pregnant with my unborn sister.
Still, my father was shot, and many members of the palace were killed. On that day, the Moroccan monarchy, led by the royal family into which I was born, nearly ended. And afterwards, neither the monarchy nor politics in my country were ever the same again. In looking back, this frightful day was many things. But above all, it marked a transition. It heralded a brutal era of violent repression fueled by nationalism, whose scars remain with us today. Personally, however, it marked my own transition from the innocence of childhood into the life of adulthood.
It is this topic, of transitions and change, that I wish to focus upon today. Some of you here will graduate very soon. Others will do so in a few years. Yet at some point, virtually all of you will leave this school. I realize that graduation may seem like a puzzling transition or change to emphasize. After all, 90 percent of American adults have earned a high school diploma or its equivalent. Yet, I would submit that this misses the point.
Any period of transition and change, however historic or mundane, marks a threshold of disorientation. It means rapidly shifting from one place to the next, with little guidance or guarantee about how everything will turn out. During moments of transitional change, which are often forced upon us, the most critical lesson I would like to impart is the following: anchor your ambitions with a moral compass. By this, I mean a foundation of principles that indicate when your actions are right; when they are wrong; when you need to stop acting and instead reflect; and when you need to stop reflecting, and instead act.
Let us be honest. None of us is Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama. None of us pretends to be the example of rectitude, let alone perfection. We are deeply flawed human beings. We have faults and foibles, and we all have regrets. Having an ethical foundation does not mean being perfect. It means being consistent in your belief that whatever you choose, your action will resonate with your deeper values. In sum, trust your conscience as your follow your dreams. These are intertwined, and always will be. They feed each other. You cannot pursue a dream without a conscience, and you cannot have a conscience without a dream.
I realize this may seem cryptic or abstract. However, permit me to give personal insights about what it might mean to have a moral compass guiding your actions during moments of tumultuous transitions and unpredictable change. These three points are based upon my own experience. They are the universality of ethics, the power of dissent, and the keystone of education.
First, ethics is a universal concern. By ethics, we mean the underlying rules, beliefs, and loyalties that internally tell us when we are acting with virtue and when we are erring. Ethical codes are as different as fingerprints. But much like fingerprints, everyone must have some ethical system in the first place. This is why ethics is universal. I would like to offer, for instance, my perspective of ethics from my particular ambit in life, as a Muslim ensconced in the Islamic faith and socialized in the tradition of the Prophet. The bedrock of Islam may seem familiar to many of you who are non-Muslims.
For instance, the Islamic faith has helped me and others understand how to undertake an extraordinary range of good behaviors. Among them is fighting oppression wherever we may see it, in which some peoples are unjustly harmed, marginalized, or targeted by the triumphalism of others. Another lesson is showing compassion and welfare to the poor and the vulnerable. Their lives are equal to us all, and yet they are often forgotten by most of society. Yet another insight is the importance of evolution and growth, at least from my experience as an individual Muslim. I began my life believing in what was good, defined as what sorts of achievements and honors would make me look worthy.
However, throughout my education, as I explored Western philosophical traditions and traveled the world, my horizons evolved. My beliefs grew to encompass not merely what seemed good, but also convictions about what was right. In my upbringing, I was part of a community of believers. We valued our cohesion and faith as part of our collective rights. Yet my experiences compelled me to consider the individual self as equally deserving of all the rights and liberties inherent to people. This was not an easy transition, as it required a long reconciliation between my foundation of faith and this stream of new ideas. In fact, this remains an unending quest.
It was this ethical foundation that convinced me two decades ago to serve as a peacekeeper with the United Nations in Kosovo, which was then exiting a horrendous war. It also deeply imbued a belief that all human beings deserve the same degree of protection over their most fundamental rights, including the right to vote in a democracy. Now, your own ambitions and goals will lead you in very different directions. What my own background tells me is that however you build and calibrate your moral compass, it will likely reflect some of that universality that runs throughout all cultural traditions.
Furthermore, you must be able to link your pursuits backwards into your ethics. They must be interwoven, such that one produces the other. I promise you that if you can make that linkage at every stage of achievement, you will derive much more fulfillment and tranquility from it. You must be able to repeat what Frederick Douglass once stated: “The soul that is within me, no person can degrade.”
This is an especially vital intuition given the times in which we live. Our political era is one of rising fear, uncertainty, and unpredictability. We cannot foresee the future. But individually, we can always know our values. And that is the ultimate certainty.
The Power of Dissent
Now, I would like to speak for a moment about what it means to be a dissident, especially during these moments of transition. Sometimes, your ethical convictions are so strong, and your commitment to them so unwavering, that you will become a dissident without ever intending to do so. In my case, the journey to a life of dissidence was akin to the slow-moving forces of geology. My enduring beliefs in human rights, and the importance of democracy, formed layers of personal commitments that deposited upon one another with every major encounter with injustice and every important educational recognition.
Eventually, these commitments were so strong and mountainous that they forced me to take a stand in my home country of Morocco. This produced tension. On the one hand, the ruling monarchy clung to absolutist power. In the eyes of many, its royal authority is anointed by God. It survived coups and crushed uprisings out of providence. For defenders of this ancient yet manmade system of government, democratic notions like elections are useful only to perpetuate this reality.
On the other hand, there are many voices like my own who believe in constitutional monarchy, where the sovereign is a symbol of the continuity of the state and the unity of the people – but not the chief executive, as is the case with countries like England and Japan. Inversely, defenders of absolutism always invoke the argument that their systems of government are the products of unique histories, and therefore are both exceptional and culturally authentic.
Absolutism can come in different forms. Ultimately, its arbiter is biological lottery. It can be exercised by the strong and the domineering, or it can be wielded by the fickle and the capricious. In the same way, it can be held by the indifferent and the aloof. Not one is superior to the other, for absolute power perpetuates not just through the whims of one ruler, but rather through the political organs that sustain the overall system. Those organs often reside well outside the boundaries of formal government. Above all, we believe that when a society desires reform, the response from above should be one of toleration and accommodation rather than resistance and obstruction.
Even though these tensions have forced me to separate myself from the monarchy and everything into which I was born, they also uncovered an interminable truth. Morocco today, like many other countries, now faces its own transition into the unknown. It is a human instinct that extreme uncertainty triggers fear, and with that fear comes a desire to cling to the familiar. This is, much like ethics, a universal feature. I, too, have felt that fear, and with it the reactive desire to simply fall back upon the familiar.
Yet when one stands within that storm of fear and learns how to resist that basic instinct – that makes you a dissident. It means ignoring the prevailing attitudes or dominant images of the day, and instead advocating for your own positions. As Albert Einstein surmised, “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
What makes dissent even more subversive is when it is reasonable. It is easy for authorities to dismiss you when you advocate extreme goals. Yet when you advocate for change that is realistic and achievable, you become an even greater threat. I realize this sounds lofty. But there is profound relevance here to each of you, as a young person. We live, here, in a free society which must be more than elections every few years or civil rights. It means becoming an engaged citizen who, no matter your age, fights to make your school, community, and country better places.
Whereas my struggle was about introducing democracy into a system of absolutist government, your struggle will be about defending democracy during a time of stress and uncertainty. Western democracies, right now, are buckling under severe pressure. In the West, worsening economic inequality has exposed the stubborn reach of poverty and deprivation. Culturally, basic norms of behavior such as toleration and respect are vanishing from our relationships. All of this culminates in politics, where elected officials are increasingly testing the limits of their power and privilege. Those politicians often accuse anyone who disagrees with them of being disloyal, or even the enemy.
In America, we have many words for this kind of political decay, such as populism, nativism, and polarization. Whatever we call them, however, these centrifugal forces are threatening to tear apart the fabric of American democracy. Your struggle here will be to restore civility and toleration to our political order, and to preserve the rights and dignity of everyone – including those who disagree with you.
In this context, I encourage you to question authority. You should do so not indiscriminately against those who wish the best for you, such as your teachers and parents. Rather, do so in a critical way and recall the power of your own voice. Above all, remember that the first duty of a dissident is self-preservation. Do not confuse sacrifice with self-destruction. In pursuing this path, you will be unpopular at some point. During especially heated periods, you will face pressures to conform with the majority in a climate of fear.
Indeed, dissidents can face total ostracism. Your best response is to remain human and to not allow your heart to become callous. You may lose many friends, but you will discover that most were never friends, only acquaintances. You will also discover that the dependable people who remain will be the best of friends for life.
I remember when my dissent began to exceed the tolerance of my uncle, King Hassan, who raised me after my father’s passing. As punishment, I was all but banned from entering the palace. On one occasion, I decided to appear at a royal soirée uninvited and unannounced. For me, the king was not simply my uncle but a man larger than life. More generally, no matter his excesses or the indelible stains in his reign, the king was widely lionized by Moroccans due to his wit and craftmanship. At the end of his life, the he laid the groundwork for a potential democratic breakthrough, for the country. Wishing to chastise me in front of hundreds of guests, the king cynically called out to me and asked, “And who might you be?”
At that moment, wearing my tuxedo, I responded the only way that seemed appropriate: “My name is Bond. James Bond. At His Majesty’s Secret Service.” Needless to say, the king allowed me to stay, but not before saying, “I am the only one with a license to kill!” This is a fond memory, but not all experiences are so welcome. My journey as a dissident was anything but smooth. At first, I felt guilt, for I was violating the spirit of cohesion and unity. Quickly, however, I realized that strength could be found instead through diversity and questioning. Indeed, over time, I embraced my ostracism.
Being a dissident may savage your spirit. A broken spirit is harder to heal than broken bones. However, do not let others break your spirit. In the early 1990s, a notorious dungeon in the deserts of Morocco closed, as its political prisoners were released after decades of brutal incarceration. Some of those released were in ghastly condition. Their fingernails were claws and their faces had turned bestial. Others had shrunk in size, having been forced to sit crouched for years. Yet out of that dungeon also emerged extraordinary stories of survival and heroism. Many of the political prisoners never surrendered their deepest convictions and beliefs despite the barbaric conditions to which they were subjected. Their bones were shattered but their spirit was unbroken.
Inversely, there were many political oppositionists in Morocco who were lucky to never experience prison. Their bones were whole. And yet their spirit slowly withered away due to their gradual suffocation and isolation by political authorities. They were not so much attacked as they were marginalized. They were not so much punished, but castigated; and not so much repressed, but reprimanded by those in power. Because they were never forced to confront their moral convictions in a defining moment of truth, in which they would need to muster all of their strength, they slowly slipped into an abyss of irrelevance.
On a different level, my dissidence has caused me to live through countless challenges. The state orchestrated numerous campaigns, both overt and covert, to pressure, intimidate, and constrain me in every regard. Apart from political attacks, I have been the target of economic strangulation, public scapegoating, and social ostracism. I have been deported from countries on basis of my political views, and I accept that my actions are under continuous surveillance. My e-mails and phone calls were subjected to hacking and public leaks well before the Mueller Report showed America that nobody’s communication was truly safe. Other actions taken against me are best left unspoken in public. These difficulties pale in front of what many have endured.
When looking back, however, the hardest aspect was leaving my country. How would I raise my two children so far away from home? It was a profound fear; as James Bond might say, it scared the living daylights out of me. And how would I relate to the country of my birth again? As Bond might say again, I had only a quantum of solace. But today, in hindsight, I realize that self-imposed exile was a blessing in disguise. I have adopted this country as my own. Thanks to this country, I have been able to grow in ways I could have never imagined possible beforehand.
These experiences have taught me that even when circumstances are trying, we must always separate our personal emotional attachments from our moral principles and objective goals to which we are striving to achieve. Yet, never let yourselves be intimidated. Neither should you succumb to resentment. Remember that your dissent comes from the power to resist the fear of the unknown. Indeed, true courage stems from the ability to overcome that fear.
The Keystone of Education
This brings me to a final point about how education and knowledge must constitute a keystone in your life as you build a moral compass and learn the power of dissent. You will all advance from this school, at some point, to further your education. For many, this means a university. Maybe that school is nearby; maybe it is a world away. For others, this means a path outside of college still filled with lessons and vision.
There are two different dimensions of education here. First, within the classroom, remember the admonition from the classical poet Rumi: “Let yourself be drawn by the stronger pull of that which you truly love.” In other words, allow yourselves the freedom to experiment, explore, and explicate without abnegation. There are no penalties for learning a subject or topic that may not be required later in life. In doing so, you might just discover your true passion.
The second dimension of education lays beyond the classroom. It involves more than lecture halls and libraries, or the tutelage of your mentor or supervisor. It will require more than intellectual focus and absorbing information for exams. Education means grasping the impact of your actions upon the world. It means understanding how your actions can not only undermine and hurt others, but also inspire and enrich them. Learning the critical difference is your educational imperative.
At the same time, this self-reflection requires you to understand something else related to your ethical foundations and personal voice. You not only earn the right to criticize everything, but you also gain the privilege of standing for something.
But there is a catch. Once you leave this school, nobody can control or dictate what you stand for. You have to choose. This is the most terrifying part of your future education, the austere but liberating idea that from now on, you are solely responsible for what you learn, how you learn, and why you struggle.
Those choices, in turn, will have a lasting impact. Marcus Aurelius famously said, “The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” Thus, you get to be your own artist. Throughout this process, you must remain humble. Humility is a source of strength. Having more friends is not necessarily better than having a few dependable ones, while sometimes the greatest pleasures in life will come from the smallest sources.
Above all, remember that there will be periods of self-doubt. Perhaps one is now, as some of you prepare to graduate and dive headfirst into this transitional moment. As you do so, pursue your moral compass, recall the power of dissent, and stay committed to education as a keystone to life. These are your choices, but these will also be your destinies – yours and yours alone.