IAF Gummersbach Alumni
How liberals can respond to current tensions?

Defending Open Societites

The art of debate: Syed Ali Wasif Naqvi shares thoughts on the concept of tolerance during a group discussion, October 2023, IAF Gummersbach

© Syed Wasif Naqvi/ FNF Pakistan

During the seminar held at the International Academy for Leadership in Gummersbach, we covered a wide range of topics on ‘Defending the Open Society’ within the intense twelve days.

The seminar covered a wide range of contemporary issues related to political theory and everything required to defend a very ambiguous concept of open societies. Activities over the due course have been many faceted. First, we investigated the very concept of the Open Society from a philosophical perspective with participants from more than twenty countries. As far as open societies go, there may be no clear definition. Everything can be traced back to Karl Popper, who wrote the book ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’, but even Popper's concept of the open society is vague.

We attempted to put some flesh to the bones and understand that the open society concept refers to a political project. Nowadays, it is a project that is not just associated with George Soros and the Open Society Foundation but also with liberalism. We developed a more robust concept of what the ‘open society’ should stand for and what ‘liberalism’ should stand for.

Tolerance is difficult in contemporary cases since we do not know how far it should extend. In an open society, should we tolerate everything or are there limits to toleration?

Syed Wasif Naqvi

The next phase was to analyze all these political and societal aspects, and we looked at the politics of an open society, for example, how should the political arena be structured. It is important to recognize who should pose threats to an open society, such as the populist movement, which is the contemporary enemy of an open society, so while Karl Popper is discussing Plato, Hegel, and Marx, we were discussing Viktor Orban or Modi or Donald Trump.

While studying the open society, we examined the values of pluralism and tolerance at its core. Tolerance is difficult in contemporary cases since we do not know how far it should extend. In an open society, should we tolerate everything or are there limits to toleration? 'We can't tolerate intolerance,' as Karl Popper famously said, but what exactly does he mean by that? The topic of toleration was discussed through the lens of liberals in several cases, for example, the famous case of a gay couple being denied their wedding cake by Christian Baker.

During the course of our discussion, we moved on to a concern that is less relevant to politics or culture, but to markets and economics of the open society. A discussion about the new book 'How to Defend Capitalism a Dirty World' in Contemporary Discourse with best-selling author Johan Norberg was conducted. During our meeting with Stephen Davies, Head of Education, Institute for Economic Affairs, we discussed what brought us to this point, that we live in the best of all possible times. How did we get to what he calls the wealth explosion? The roots and origins of the Industrial Revolution, as well as the institutions that allowed societies to flourish and prosper, were discussed in this course. Katharina Nocun, author of "Dangerous Beliefs": The Radical World of Esotericism, also spoke to us.


A session with Katharina Nocun, author of "Dangerous Beliefs: The Radical World of Esotericism" / Gefährlicher Glaube: Die radikale Gedankenwelt der Esoterik, Oct 2023 IAF Gummersbach

© Syed Wasif Naqvi/ FNF Pakistan

We extended Karl Popper's critique of critical rationalism and the scientific method to a broader context by examining contemporary challenges to the scientific way of thinking, including esotericism in many countries, be it astrology or alternative medicine such as homeopathy.

The seminar covered how one can be sure to have knowledge in society and that freedom of expression is a core pillar to extract all the societal knowledge without forgetting that for example media plays a crucial role.  It also covered how to be sure that one is knowledgeable about society. Believing that the media must be set up within an open society, all shapes of specialist information will go out of window. Educational institutions are still coming under fire, particularly after COVID-19 widespread and our science was detailed in open debate. This was a kind of portion of the investigation of society from an awfully policy-oriented viewpoint building squares of all perspectives of societal examination.

The course also included an excursion trip to Dresden and Weimar. A meeting with Torsten Herbst, a member of the German parliament shared “The Worrisome Rise of the AfD: Populism in Germany”, an experience to understand that open society is not only under threat but really diminished. Herbst shared the history of the contemporary enemies of the open society, and the rise of the alternative for Germany and pointed us to the alternative for Deutschland, the populists in Eastern Germany where they are currently polling at 35%.


A visit to Frauenkirche Dresden , October 2023

© Syed Wasif Naqvi / FNF Pakistan

Germany has a history of the enemies of the open society not only intellectually being there but being there physically in power. The excursion also gave us a chance to visit Frauenkirche Dresden (Church of Our Lady). The Rebuilding of the Frauenkirche: A Symbol of Civic Action".

Visiting Stasi archives and the past of the GDR, we witnessed the enemies of the open society from the left, at the concentration camp in Buchenwald. It gave us a glimpse of the horrible past of Germany. Later we met with a senior Journalist, Mr. Michael Deutschmann, correspondent for Saxon who talked about state politics, Populism, and Media Influence in the East. He presented "The Looming Influence from Outside: Public Discourse in East Germany".

To gain a better understanding of 'Topography of Terror: a guided tour through Buchenwald', a guided tour of the Stasi Archive and Museum was arranged as part of the excursion.


A compulsary Group Photo : Defending Open Societies, Oct 2023, IAF Gummersbach

© Syed Wasif Naqvi / FNF Pakistan

Our discussions involved current tensions where liberals don't have clear answers, but one can see that things are bubbling up and that need to be responded to. For example, the Role of China and geopolitical ambitions with the emergence and rise of China.

Colleagues were aware of social justice woke-ness and the cultural war, and there was a discussion on the climate change movement. Whether climate change is a topic, or the climate change movement has similar goals and how they should operate within an open society. There are worrying tendencies, especially in the climate change movement to eradicate certain pluralist ideas from public discourse. Every time, liberals came up with contextual knowledge, applying the core principles.

Through debates and case studies, current challenges like populism, de-globalization, and economic interventionism were assessed and thoroughly discussed.  The seminar was an opportunity to develop ideas to counter the actors to diminish individual liberties and to reverse engineer societies as a whole. The forum discussed macro and micro-level issues, including the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, the continued rise of populists, the global recession, climate change movement. The rollback of liberal democracy in countries like India, Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines, and Pakistan and the controlling economic monopoly by China, were explored through philosophical, empirical, and political lenses.

The seminar provided us with the opportunity to familiarise ourselves with the core concept of Open society and its major characteristics through active exchange of ideas between participants. It was the opportunity to take into consideration the links between institutions of open society including market economy, liberal democracy, Norms of free speech, science, and robust concept of toleration. Every interaction and discussion played an active role in developing liberal thoughts in society, politics, and the intellectual realm.

It was a learning opportunity to devise techniques and behaviours for countering threats in a robust manner through the strengthening of institutions, ideas and strategies that I am taking back to my work and my country.