Interview with Seyla Benhabib

The Guest is Always a Fellow Citizen

The philosopher Şeyla Benhabib has identified a deficit in Germany's democracy. She calls for the right to vote in local elections for non-nationals – and the same legal status for Islam as for other religions. An interview by Deniz Utlu

Seyla Benhabib (photo: © Bettina Strauss/ Suhrkamp Verlag)
Seyla Benhabib: "The public debate in Germany often refers to the country's 'Judeo-Christian heritage'. But that Jewish heritage is not as present as is generally suggested"

​​Professor Benhabib, you spent the late 1970s and early 1980s at the University of Frankfurt am Main, followed by a number of years in the USA. Now you're a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. How has Germany changed in the interval?

Seyla Benhabib: The political culture in Germany has changed a great deal. Since 1989 the country has grown more introspective, the political disputes are not as tough as they once were, and the public discourse is now dominated by the religion debate. But the main thing is a lack of critique on the principles of society. This is obviously related to the end of Marxist ideology as an alternative.

Where should a critique of this kind start?

Benhabib: With the inadequate democratisation and the inadequate change in mentality in German society. There is a semblance as if everyone were comfortable with the concept of a multicultural liberal democracy. But I don't believe that. For instance, the public debate often refers to the country's "Judeo-Christian heritage". But that Jewish heritage is not as present as is generally suggested.

Aside from that, Germany still has the problem that Islam or people of the Muslim faith are considered “different". The multiculturalism discourse tends to be of a rather instrumental nature here: it is generally accepted that certain population groups such as scientists and engineers from India should be promoted for the sake of global capitalist development. That's an instrumental attitude, not a fundamental one.

Election campaign posters (photo: AP)
"Democracy means we have to continually attempt to bridge the gap between those ruling the country and those in whose name they are doing so." - In Germany non-nationals do not have the right to vote on the municipal level

​​ When the terminology started changing from "guest workers" to "foreign fellow citizens" in the 1980s, that was a step towards legal pluralism. But in 1990 the federal constitutional court ruled that non-nationals were not allowed to vote in local elections.

There were two opposing developments in the 1990s. First of all came the new naturalisation legislation, which we all welcomed. Then when people started applying for German citizenship there was a great deal of trouble; there was a large-scale campaign against dual nationality. The law, as welcome as it is, was not enough to transform the immigration society into a pluralist democracy. Citizenship is not just a passive status, it's an active standpoint – and that only worked here to a limited extent.

Does that apply to the whole of Germany?

Benhabib: Germany is a federalist state. We shouldn't forget that there are major differences between the individual states; the issue of headscarves in public institutions is dealt with differently, for instance. Nevertheless, the debate about nationality and Muslims in Germany has not been quite open as a whole. There are strong prejudices against religious Muslim women in particular. The majority sees women who cover their heads as retrogressive, oppressed individuals who deserve sympathy.

In some European countries, in France at the time of the riots in the 'banlieues' for instance, there have been tendencies to see "being Muslim" and "being European" as a contradiction in terms. But is the "integration problem" we hear so much about not a question of social rather than cultural integration?

photo: AP
Angela Merkel at the Youth Integration Summit in Berlin: "Every society has to have institutions enabling 'strangers', the 'others' to become members"

​​Benhabib: We're talking here not too long after Obama's speech in Cairo. He expressly emphasised there that it has never been a contradiction, neither now nor ever before, to be a Muslim and at the same time a US citizen. Just as it's not a contradiction to be a US citizen and at the same time a Buddhist or a Confucian. That's not the case in Europe. The homogenising ideology of the nation state has had a strong impact on the European countries.

On top of that, the collective memory is influenced by the old competition between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Aside from this, there is no doubt whatsoever that the entire discussion about one uniform "Islam" is obscuring integration problems and socio-economic problems of a lack of social mobility among young Muslims. What we have here is a class problem that hardly anyone ever talks about.

Why is an honest and fundamental discourse on multiculturalism so difficult in Germany?

Benhabib: The problem has several dimensions. On the one hand, the Muslim associations and organisations are not taking part in the discussion with enough depth and informative intent. On the other hand we have the state, which has the potential to distort the debate. In the case of Germany, for example, because of the institution of church tax.

photo: AP
Meeting at the Islam Conference: "If the German state wants to guarantee equal rights and neutrality for all religions, it can't possibly refrain from acknowledging organised Islam as a religious community"

​​ If the German state wants to guarantee equal rights and neutrality for all religions, it can't possibly refrain from acknowledging organised Islam as a religious community. The recurring argument is that there are so many groupings, so many organisations that contradict each other. This situation is of little help, and does little to forward understanding.

From the equal rights point of view, Islam has to be acknowledged as a religious community. There's room for discussion on which form this should take and what consequences it should have, but the first priority is to abolish this plain and public form of unequal treatment. It is blocking the debate.

To what extent does Germany pursue the idea of cosmopolitanism so important in your work? In your book "The Rights of Others" you refer to Kant's rights of world citizens.

Benhabib: The core of today's cosmopolitanism debate concerns democratic participation. Kant's distinction between the rights of guests and the rights of visitors is no longer viable. The guest is always a potential fellow citizen.

Every society has to have institutions enabling "strangers", the "others" to become members. It's not a question of a world without borders, nor of abolishing all regulation. But these regulations have to be formulated as far as possible to conform with human rights and support democracy.

For example?

photo: AP
Distortion of democracy: "The German language tests designed for the naturalisation process are so difficult that even a large proportion of the native population couldn't pass them"

​​ Benhabib: For example, the exploitation of the principle of language skills. The German language tests designed for the naturalisation process are so difficult that even a large proportion of the native population couldn't pass them. This is just one instance of distortion of democracy.

What else is happening to the "rights of others" in Germany?

Benhabib: In the age of globalisation, we're seeing various forms of political naturalisation and membership emerge. National citizenship may be the pinnacle of a hierarchy, but other forms exist as well; there are people who spend their whole lives as foreign nationals in this country with a right of residence. Within the EU, the status of third-state nationals was initially regulated differently from country to country, before it was "harmonised" in the late 1990s. Human rights apply to all, not just to nationals.

There has also been a standardisation of social and civil rights, such as that of freedom of mobility within the EU. But there is one area where nothing has been harmonised: the right to vote in local elections. There are countries in the EU, such as the Netherlands, Ireland and Sweden, which grant non-nationals the right to vote on the municipal level. France and Germany do not.

Why is the right to vote in local elections so important?

Benhabib: Take a look at Germany: if Turkey fails to join the EU, over a million people in Berlin alone will never have a democratic voice; in the whole of Germany, that figure is up to two and a half million. That is untenable in terms of democracy theory. Democracy means we have to continually attempt to bridge the gap between those ruling the country and those in whose name they are doing so.

Which would have repercussions for the integration process.

Benhabib: Political integration is a process of informing and educating people. Once non-German nationals have the right to participate in local elections we'll have greater access to certain debates that may well have taken place behind closed doors in the communities, and which we know nothing about. These debates take a different course in the public sphere.

That's a key point, in fact: certain aspects and ideologies might well lose their attraction. Ideas have to be able to present themselves to a liberal democratic public sphere. That's what divides what is tenable from what is not tenable. It's these issues we have to discuss – and not always only look at the theological questions.

What about German nationals who are still seen and discussed as "the others"?

Benhabib: We're talking about difficult processes in society, which have to be undergone in institutions and in the cultural sector. I'm an old-fashioned social democrat on this issue: I'm a firm believer in the integrative power of education. 30 years on, I'm seeing young people who have achieved a certain status, people with hyphenated names or hyphenated identities. That's a good thing, but it's not going far enough or fast enough.

The German educational system is incredibly hierarchical. Children are separated at an early age and categorised by performance. That doesn't allow the degree of opportunity for social mobility that would actually be necessary for an immigration society. At the same time, it's difficult to separate citizenship, in the sense of active participation in democracy, from nationality in Germany. We need a democratisation process here too; for this hyphenated identity of citizenship to be acknowledged in a modern society.

Yes to acknowledgment, no to attributions?

Benhabib: I've always been terribly amused and sometimes almost insulted that instead of being presented as a philosopher or a Yale professor, I'm always introduced in Germany as a Turkish Jew. The first time in my academic career that my ethnic origin and identity – which I make no secret of – were mentioned was in Germany.

If my ethnic origin were important for my philosophy it would make sense to mention it. But as it is, it's just odd. Journalists and other people in the German public sphere ought to take more care of how they use these terms and why they keep labelling people like this. I'm always amazed by it.

Interview: Deniz Utlu

© der Freitag / Qantara.de 2009

Şeyla Benhabib, born in Istanbul in 1950, is a professor of philosophy and political theory at Yale University. She is the author of several books, most notably about the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas. In the 2008-2009 academic year, she is a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin).

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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