Two words sum up what has ignited the popular revolts of the Middle East and North Africa: higher expectations. Increasingly, the people of the region expect better not just of their governments, but also of themselves.
This week, their message became personal for me: Thousands of miles from the uprisings, I had an experience that affirmed why expectations are worth raising everywhere, including in the Arab world.
First, some background. Last year, the Young Presidents' Organization - a network of globally engaged entrepreneurs (with vibrant chapters in Canada) - invited me to speak about Islam. The country in which we would be gathering? Jordan.
Well before the trip, I had secured my entry visa without incident. But as the date approached, word came down that the Arab organizers had pulled my invitation. Frankly, their decision did not surprise me. The only surprise was how long they took to make it. After all, for years, I had been hearing from young Jordanians about how stiflingly conservative their seemingly moderate country is.
The most recent e-mail came from Tareq, who wrote that "they won't allow" my book in Jordan. "Thinking is forbidden. But I read an article criticizing you in the local newspaper and I did my search on the Web. I never thought someone else could see in a similar way as I do. … Learning to offer a better life for the next generation so they can live successful, healthy and happy is the best way to worship God."
At the time he e-mailed me, Tareq did not know if his higher expectations of Jordan could be realized. After this week, I can tell him there is hope.
I finally got my chance to speak to the Young Presidents' Organization about Islam - in Denver, the site of its 2011 leadership conference. Various members from the Middle East attended. One of them - Amir, as I will call him - represented Jordan.
Amir tracked me down before I gave my address. He wanted me to have the real story behind why I had been barred from his country. His starting point: "There was no censorship."
With a gentle demeanour, Amir said: "I agree with most of what you say, but you are perceived as a heretic." Still, he clarified, that is not the actual problem. The problem is that "Islamists are the majority in Jordan and they have to be stopped from grabbing political power." In various ways, he indicated that, if I had been permitted to enter Jordan, Islamists would have accused the king of heresy, too.
After listening to Amir for several minutes, I suggested he was clinging to a stale paradigm that lets Islamists get away with extortion. "Why should people's God-given liberty be the price of keeping Islamists at bay?" I asked him. "Don't you see that, by trading free thought for supposed peace, you are effectively caving to blackmail?"
Amir insisted that I did not understand the big picture. "Maybe not," I conceded, "but I understand censorship."
Hours later, in the closing address of the conference, I mentioned the Jordan fiasco as an emblem of the very rot that young Arabs are now protesting against. These protests, I emphasized, might sound negative, but they symbolize a profoundly positive sentiment. By expecting higher of Arab societies, the protesters show faith in the creative capacity of their people.
After fielding several questions, I watched Amir step to the microphone. I anticipated defensiveness. What he delivered gave me goose bumps.
In front of a thousand people, Amir apologized for my exclusion from Jordan. He then issued an "uncancellable" invitation to do in his country what I should have been able to months ago. His fellow delegates leaped to their feet in applause. I summoned Amir to the stage. We embraced each other tightly, then lifted our clasped hands in a show of reconciliation. That is how the conference ended.
Time will tell if Amir can convince the right Jordanians to let me in. But I am convinced that by nudging him to think harder about censorship, rather than accepting his rationalizations in the name of mere dialogue, our face-to-face conversation reminded him that he can rise above mediocrity to display moral courage.
Higher expectations always carry the risk of disappointing. Yet, risk is the stuff of innovation - and not just in business, it turns out.