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Conversation at The Aspen Institute
Politics and Economy:
Islam and The West
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The Aspen Institute

The Aspen Institute has long brought together people from different backgrounds and urged them to speak frankly and freely about controversial subjects. Right now the Institute is exploring the great political and cultural collisions of the 21st century. Bill Moyers moderated a discussion on America and the Islamic world. The seven-hour seminar was filmed for NOW has edited these conversations and presents them in ISLAM VS. ISLAM and JUSTICE AND JIHAD.

Lyn Corbett Fitzgerald, Senior VP of Communications for the Aspen Institute answered our questions about the history and programs of this unique organization.

HistoryMissionHigh PointsProgramsGreat Collisions SeriesResponse to September 11Future Plans

Q and A

Q: Tell us about the founding of the Institute. What was the impetus in the postwar world that spurred Walter Paepcke to found a place for civil dialogue?

Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke, chairman of the Container Corporation of America, dreamed of transforming the abandoned mining town of Aspen, Colorado, into a center for dialogue, a place for "lifting us out of our usual selves." Paepcke founded what is now the Aspen Institute in 1950. Inspired by philosopher Mortimer Adler's Great Books seminar at the University of Chicago, Paepcke created the Aspen Institute Executive Seminar to help leaders better understand the moral challenges facing the organizations and communities they serve. Paepcke wished to create a forum where leaders could recapture the "eternal verities" — the abiding values that give our culture intellectual and spiritual substance in the face of a world growing more enamored with the materialism that science and technology afford. His idea was "a place where the human spirit can flourish." The work of the Aspen Institute broadened in 1969 when the policy programs began, bringing a humanistic perspective to bear on issues of public policy.

Q: What is the philosophy that guides the Institute's programs?

The mission of the Aspen Institute is to foster enlightened, responsible leadership. Our focus is on leaders because the human condition depends so profoundly on how well they perform their roles and obligations. In Walter Paepcke's words, by participating in an Institute program, a leader would "gain access to his or her own humanity by becoming more self-aware, more self-correcting, and more self-fulfilling."

Responsible for the welfare of organizations, communities, and society at large, leaders are charged with making decisions that affect many lives. In what has become an increasingly complex and interdependent world, the Institute helps leaders deepen their knowledge, broaden their perspective, and enhance their capacity to think more creatively.

Elmer Johnson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, has said that "leaders by definition are restless. They are constantly envisioning a better organization, a better society, a better world." The Aspen Institute is dedicated to developing visionary, principle-centered leaders who have that kind of hunger and imagination.

We do this by providing a safe haven for leaders that encourages candid and civil discourse, building mutual trust and understanding. We offer an impartial forum, bringing a diversity of perspectives — ideological, cultural and economic — to enable in-depth dialogue that challenges status quo thinking. We focus on values that underlie the issues morally responsible leaders face to help identify common ground. Finally, we promote thought leading to action because leaders emerge from their Aspen Institute experience inspired to make wiser, more informed decisions that result in a more just, peaceful, and flourishing society.

Q: What are some of the high points of the Institute's history?

  • An international conference on "Technology: Social Goals and Cultural Options" was convened at the Aspen Institute in 1970, and was critical in shaping the agenda for the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.

  • The Institute's Congressional Program brought a core group of Members of Congress together in 1988 to form the Southern Africa Policy Forum. These five major conferences, attended by both Nelson Mandela and then-President F.W. de Klerk, are often cited for their having helped the process of democracy in South Africa and putting an end to the policy of apartheid.

  • Eight of the eleven original members of the South African Constitutional Court were trained at the Aspen Institute Justice & Society Program during the years of apartheid.

  • The Congressional Program established the annual American-Vietnamese Dialogue to facilitate discussion between the US and Vietnam at the highest levels of government and the private sector, paving the way for normalization of relations between the former adversaries.

  • President George Bush and Margaret Thatcher, then-Prime Minister of Great Britain, met at the Aspen Institute during the 40th anniversary of the Institute in August 1990 where they forged an alliance against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

  • President Bill Clinton, Palestinian Chairman Yasir Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and King Hussein of Jordan produced the Wye Accord for Peace in the Middle East at the Aspen Wye River campus on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

    Q: What are the different programs of the Institute?

    Aspen Institute seminars are designed to inspire those who build, lead, and transform organizations. We start where traditional leadership programs leave off, bringing together diverse groups of experienced leaders to learn from each other and from the greatest thinkers and leaders of all time. In an environment conducive to reflection and dialogue, participants wrestle with fundamental questions about the nature of values-based leadership. Skilled moderators lead small groups in roundtable discussions. Through the seminar experience, participants come to a new awareness of the organizations they head, and the values they find important. They bring this newfound energy and commitment back to their organizations.

    The Institute's flagship seminar is the Executive Seminar, a week-long program that enables participants to define and understand the basic values that are at the heart of the most complex decisions leaders face. Other Aspen Institute seminar offerings include:

    Leading Change, which explores the management approaches of successful leaders and how change can be created within an organization;

    Leadership and Character, which focuses on the element of character as an essential component of leadership, examining the reasons why integrity is a linchpin for effective leadership.

    Challenges of Global Capitalism, which investigates the growing political and cultural opportunities and challenges posed by globalization as well as the public role of the private sector in the global arena.

    Justice and Society, which provides the opportunity for leaders to return to first principles in an examination of what is meant by a just society.

    Policy Programs.
    The Aspen Institute policy programs seek to advance public and private sector policy on significant societal issues. Each program frames a critical topic and convenes leaders and experts from relevant fields to reach together for constructive solutions. While unique in substance and approach, Aspen Institute policy programs share a common mission and methodology. They serve as an impartial forum, bringing a diversity of perspectives together in informed dialogue, research and action towards a solution to critical issues such as education, poverty, environmental preservation, and global interdependence.

    By fostering innovative thinking and initiatives, the Aspen Institute policy programs help leaders address complex policy issues in new ways.

    Another program of the Institute, called Great Collisions, was established in 2001. The Islam and the West seminar, which served as the basis for the two special editions of NOW with Bill Moyers, is one in a series of Great Collisions programs. The first Great Collisions program, held in July of last year in Chicago, was a dialogue devoted to the Bush administration's domestic policy priority of faith-based initiatives.

    Q: What makes the Great Collisions series different from other Aspen programs?

    Great Collisions is a high-profile program series of the Aspen Institute that brings the power of dialogue to bear on critical issues that currently divide leaders and the public alike. Often adversarial camps are dominated by powerful special interests that focus on single issues, resulting in a proliferation of misinformation and false assumptions. Great Collisions combats this tendency by seeking common ground on the most contentious issues of our day.

    The Institute has for more than 50 years convened leaders from diverse perspectives to engage in informed dialogue and civil discourse about the most critical and oftentimes divisive issues confronting our nation and the world. Outstanding leaders are encouraged to listen to views that are different from their own, to identify shared goals and concerns among their fellow participants, and to reach together for solutions that may emerge out of this process of mutual listening and understanding. Fostering informed and civil dialogue empowers leaders to leverage their respective spheres of influence and, in so doing, improves the likelihood of wise policy making and leadership.

    Great Collisions convenes top leaders, experts, policymakers, and journalists holding widely diverse viewpoints on a given issue to be guided in thoughtful discussion by a distinguished moderator. The participants are among the foremost experts and thought leaders on each selected topic area. They engage in rigorous and civil discourse concerning the arguments for and against their respective positions. Each is challenged to look for common ground.

    In a departure from the Institute's traditional off-the-record programs, these sessions are broadcast for a broader audience of existing and emerging leaders in America. In so doing, the dialogue deepens and broadens informed debate and raises the standard by which issues are both considered and addressed.

    The purpose of the Great Collisions program series is to:

  • dramatize to citizens and political and institutional leaders around the world that effective leadership and policy direction respecting critical, albeit divisive, issues call for dialogue and compromise, not posturing and confrontation;
  • help build the American public's confidence in their democratic institutions and to encourage appreciation for leaders who have the capacity for civil discourse and who seek to build bridges between themselves and leaders having differing views;
  • develop new approaches to public policy;
  • enhance the quality of interpretive journalism;
  • and advance the mission of the Aspen Institute to improve the human condition. Topics to be addressed in Great Collisions are timely, high on the public agenda, and characterized by a balanced and fair representation of diverse opinion. Great Collisions seeks to construct a framework for advancing a better understanding and interpretation of complex and sometimes perplexing issues. Wisdom is the ultimate goal of this program series, dialogue its fundamental tool.

    Q: How has the Institute's mission changed as a result of the September 11 attacks?

    As a result of 9/11, the Institute's mission of leveraging the power of leaders to improve the human condition has, in fact, been empowered as in no previous time in its 50-year history. Holding an intensive weekend-long seminar on Islam and the West was borne out of Institute President Elmer Johnson's vision for fostering a far better understanding between Islamic and Western societies than currently exists. Having Bill Moyers serve as moderator and using this important dialogue for broadcast to a national audience will have a positive impact on a profoundly critical global issue.

    Virtually all of the programs of the Institute responded to the challenge of September 11. Notable among them are the efforts of the Justice and Society Program in creating a new program on post-conflict human rights in Afghanistan. The Congressional Program immediately responded by launching more than 30 breakfast briefings and a special conference for members of Congress to educate them on the Islamic world in order to help them act effectively as policymakers.

    Perhaps one of the most poignant messages for us from 9/11 was the realization that we must seriously examine the role of the US in the world, and work much harder to understand the Islamic world. Several of our programs, the Global Interdependence Initiative and the Aspen Strategy Group among them, are making great contributions toward this end.

    Q: What are the Institute's priorities for the future?

    The Aspen Institute has never been in a stronger position to make a difference in the world. We'd like the Institute's next decade to bring all of our resources to bear — our deep policy expertise, our connections to the major leaders of our time — on the most pressing issues of the day. Some of these issues are: US and global poverty, preserving our environment, promoting a vibrant and effective non-profit sector and civil society, and working with leaders from all sectors to help them clarify and strengthen their personal convictions in responding to the challenges they face in their workplaces, in their communities, and in the world.

    For more information visit the Aspen Institute Web site.

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