German Federal Interior Minister Otto Schily:

"Islamic Culture Needs Universal Democratic Values"

Interior Minister Otto Schily warns against instrumentalizing the dialogue with Islam and reducing it to a question of culture. He fears this could drive such dialogue into a blind alley where it becomes just a set of "parallel monologues."

German Federal

Otto Schily, Germany's Minister of the Interior; Photo: AP
Otto Schily, Photo: AP

​​“Why do they hate us so much?” asked many Americans after September 11, 2001. We cannot afford a resigned answer like Caligula’s: Oderint dum metuant – let them hate, as long as they fear.

In view of the history of the Near and Middle East, it has to be asked whether we have been paying too much attention to stability and too little to democratic change. Many people will object here that in Islamic societies, setting democratic rules has done little to promote genuine democratic structures – instead often serving to strengthen Islamist parties and their undemocratic vision of state and society. That’s the paradox of democracy: in the worst-case scenario, it may abolish itself through the majority vote of an undemocratically-minded population.

The difficult path to democracy

However, at least as far as Iraq is concerned, all these objections have now been overtaken by events. At present the country is facing a new chapter in its history. The war is over, but how will the peace be won? Will the new order deliver democracy, human rights, the rule of law – in a region and cultural sphere which has previously brought forth so little in the way of democratic and constitutional systems?

Introducing a new democratic order in Iraq is no small challenge. Naturally Germany will offer support to the best of its abilities. We should be prepared for times of democratic transformation to be fraught with uncertainty. Our experiences in Afghanistan, for instance, have not always been positive. Implementing democracy, the rule of law, and human rights is a complex and difficult task. The fact that changes like this take time is just one of the problems. Sometimes the developments we are looking for are accompanied by dangerous alternatives. In the course of our work to rebuild the country we may become entangled in a thicket of apparently insoluble contradictions. German police officers are training Afghan police officers – but can I justify that when the Afghan police could soon be enforcing the decisions of Sharia courts? Should we send German judges and prosecutors to Afghanistan to help build an independent judiciary – even if it turns out that an Afghan legal system accords a woman’s testimony only half the value of a man’s? These are practical problems, but they also call for answers on the theoretical level.

Universality of democracy and human rights

It seems to me that the current discussion of the preconditions for democracy, rule of law, and human rights in the Islamic world is throwing up some tendencies that are highly problematic in political and intellectual terms. There is heated debate on whether modernization, democracy, and human rights are even reconcilable with certain cultures. Taken to its logical conclusion, this line of argument – let’s call it a “culture-fixated” one – would mean agreeing that an Islamic society is, by its very nature, simply not capable of producing democratic constitutions and legal systems in the long term. This kind of political and intellectual renunciation of universality for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights is a dangerous move. We might say it absolves a whole cultural sphere from the obligation to struggle for democratic and constitutional values. Those who present this argument are actually weakening the forces of democracy and secularism. They are giving ammunition to the Islamist perspective that claims: “We are simply different and we refuse to be measured by western standards.”

The assertion that religion and politics are one is an almost incontrovertible axiom of current public debate on the Islamic world. The argument runs that a secularized, state regime like the Christian world’s is not possible within Islam, and neither is it desirable from an Islamic perspective. A dichotomy is set up between the European model of a democratically constituted, secular state under the rule of law, and the ideal type of the Islamic system, resting primarily on religious foundations.

This picture of the world stands in stark contrast to the diversity that actually characterizes the relationship of politics and religion in both Europe and the Islamic world. Nevertheless, it is widely believed that in order to understand “Islamic” politics, we must know more about Islam. In this context it has proved very popular to draw conclusions about the Islamic world from carefully selected Koranic verses – passages on attitudes to violence or on relations with non-Islamic cultures, for example.

But the game of outbidding each other with well-chosen Koranic verses yields few useful insights for an active politician. Do we have to know the Koran to better understand the Islamic world? Do non-westerners find out more about our cultural area by studying the Bible? In my opinion they do not. This occupation should be left to professional theologians. Whatever we learn this way is based on a false premise – false because it is a deductive method that turns logic on its head. Differences in ‘nature’ or character are first assumed, then made to serve as the starting-point for investigation.

Dialogue, not parallel monologues

Can the much-invoked “cultural dialogue with Islam” really show us the way forward? I keep asking myself who I am actually communicating with in this “dialogue with Islam”. Dialogue always risks being politically instrumentalized. If we let intercultural dialogue provide the momentum for policy, then we are, so to speak, “culturalizing” politics. By this I mean that political issues are no longer treated as political; instead, they are transferred to the sphere of culture. And once in the sphere of culture, they cease to be accessible to proper clarification and resolution.

On the Islamic side, the culturalization of the political feeds into the Islamization of politics. Religion, being “above politics,” enjoys an aura of unassailability that is then extended to religiously molded culture. Political action can thus take shelter in the unassailability of religion. The principle of equality ensures that cultures seen in this way – just like religions – are treated as sacrosanct entities. Yet politics must never be sacrosanct. That goes completely against democratic thinking, and cannot be our goal. When we define politics, culture, and religion as covering exactly the same ground, we airbrush out the multiple, diverse interests and perspectives of individuals and societies.

The result is a blind alley for dialogue and, with it, for politics. At best, dialogue becomes just a set of parallel monologues. This is why it’s so important to address issues of culture inductively rather than deductively. By that I mean looking at cultural aspects when and only when they play a role in objective conflicts. By concentrating on questions of substance – and not on questions of culture – we can avoid the temptation to begin from apparently essential cultural differences that in fact are often artificial and imagined. In practice, that temptation can lead, for example, to Muslims being attributed more Islamic identity than they themselves would like to claim. After all, many people in the Islamic cultural sphere consider themselves not primarily Muslim but Turkish, Arab, Iranian or Kurdish.

Political problems must be dealt with in the domain of politics. Therefore, what I want is a dialogue on human rights and a dialogue on the rule of law. I want a dialogue with the Islamic world about the legitimacy of political rule. For the repressive and authoritarian character of many Muslim states is not simply a legacy of Islamic history and culture, but above all the expression of a lack of political legitimacy.

In my opinion, it is always dangerous to renounce the claim of democracy and human rights to be universal values. No person whose human rights have been violated will argue that they are a western concept with no universal validity. Rather, it’s an argument brought forward by the very people who violate human rights.

Acceptance of cultural specificity

The current debate on human rights is hampered by working from two different premises. Many Muslims consider human rights to be granted by God. This reasoning differs from the modern, originally western one: that human rights spring from natural law, that they are innate and inalienable. It’s a difference that raises several questions. What, for example, is the human rights position of people who neglect their duties toward God – atheists, freethinkers, unconventional artists, unorthodox scholars, skeptics, agnostics? This is something we will need to argue about.

Nobody would deny that our idea of human rights is the fruit of historical development, a mirror of our secularized image of the world and of human life. However, to accept that is not to abandon the universality of human rights. We should separate the legitimation of human rights from the conditions of their emergence. And that means that universality does not imply uniformity but precisely the opposite: the right to specificity. Let us, then, grant other cultures the right that Europe and North America have long granted themselves – the right to unite the universal concept of human rights with their own, specific legal cultures. That should help us to further dialogue.

If we are to call for democracy, freedom, and human rights in other cultures, then we must ensure that we ourselves are managing to reconcile our claims with reality. I’d like to finish by looking at our own situation. True, we held different positions on the need for a war in Iraq. The postwar phase will test our ability to overcome those differences. Now more than ever, we have to have clarity and mutual reassurance about our own fundamental values, the values we must stand by and defend. On this matter, the two sides of the Atlantic may be facing somewhat different challenges.

With an eye to some of the debates in Europe, I would like to sound a warning that we may be lapsing into a kind of twilight of the values, that we have become too skeptical to fight for and defend universal values. The situation is familiar right across a world faced with the challenge of extremism of all kinds: the liberal public sphere is so shy to proclaim its own values that ultimately it is taken over by its adversaries. This process is often accompanied by an apologetic style of argumentation. In Germany and elsewhere there is a discourse that, ironically, appears to declare its solidarity with the Muslims by practically declaring them incapable of democracy.

The United States seems, at first sight, to have maintained the claim to the universality of our values with more vigor. However, it may be important for the U.S. to ask how closely its claims match its reality (I am thinking of Guantanamo Bay). Political rule and hegemony are based on force. But if that force is legitimate, a state will not need to keep exercising it constantly. If it is not legitimate, a single warning pour encourager les autres will not be the end of the story. A spiral of threats and fear will be set in motion.

“Let them hate, as long as they fear” cannot be the answer. That’s why the success of a democratic order for Iraq is so vital – for us and for them.

© Press Office of the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, July 2003

Translation into English: Kate Sturge

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