Interview with Udo Steinbach

"There Has to Be a Debate on Secularisation"

According to Middle East expert Udo Steinbach, Islamic societies are locked in a clash between modernisers and backwards-looking ideologues. Western policy should animate Islamic elites to develop a concept of secularity suitable for the modern Islamic context. Mohammed Khallouk talked to Udo Steinbach

Udo Steinbach (photo: dpa)
Middle East expert Udo Steinbach: "The Islamic world needs a debate on secularism."

​​Ever since 9/11, "Islamic fundamentalism" and radical Islamism have loomed large in the global media. Is this a case of conjuring up an artificial danger or does it reflect a genuine threat to our civilisation?

Udo Steinbach: I'd like to start by stating that there is a threat. So we're not talking about an artificial danger, but about an actual threat, as we saw here in Europe in Spain in 2004, in England in 2005, and also here in Germany – although it's not yet acute here. The same goes for the Islamic world, whether we look at Morocco or Algeria, Palestine, Iraq to Indonesia. There are almost daily attacks there too, motivated or justified on the basis of Islam.

How would you characterise this conflict?

Steinbach: It's an ideological conflict, a specifically political, violent conflict between parties with differing concepts of society. On one side we have evolved and implemented the western democratic model, in the broadest sense, here in Europe. There are diverse approaches to implementing this model in the Islamic world as well – not imitating the system but installing democratic processes.

The violent radicals are against this form of a western-influenced modern society, saying we have to go back to an "Islamic order". Islamic law has to be 100% reinstated; the only real legitimate society is an "Islamic" one.

Some critics say the policies of the western states, particularly the USA, do little to combat this Islamism and its position against a free constitutional order. Others even think the policy strengthens resentments against the West in the Islamic world. Where do you stand on this point?

Steinbach: Again, I think we have to make distinctions here. We shouldn't place the blame

Attack in Casablanca (photo: AP)
Increasing Islamist violence - not only in Europe, but also in the
Muslim world: terrorist attack in Casablanca, Morocco, May 2003

​​ for these enemies of freedom solely at the door of western policy. The mistakes made by the West are not the only cause; in fact, radical Islamism is primarily directed against the insufficiencies of the systems in the Arab region and the entire Islamic world. On the other hand, western policy has repeatedly been wind in the sails of those fighting against the West.

More specifically?

Steinbach: We see it every day: I believe we can actually almost statistically measure how the American invasion of Iraq in 2002 has lead to an escalation – an escalation of violence that we've never seen the like of – in the entire region from Morocco to Indonesia. And western policy on Palestine is another daily source of justifications, so to speak, for radical forces.

At the moment, we're experiencing increasingly aggressive rhetoric against Iran because of its nuclear programme. And I think what we're doing wrong, what western policy is doing wrong, is that we're not looking for a political balance with the forces in the entire Islamic world that are themselves affected by the aggression of these Islamist forces in the same way as the West.

The only way we're combating the radicals is via security policy and the military. What we're not attempting enough is a) finding a political solution to the conflicts, and b) making allies of those forces in the Islamic world – and that's the majority – that are affected by this clash of civilisations in the same way as we are.

What political standpoint should the public sphere in the Islamic states take on religion, both to maintain the identity of civil society and to adopt the values of the European Enlightenment in everyday life?

Steinbach: First of all, we have to note that religion plays a hugely important role in the entire Islamic world. Any attempt to push Islam out of the public sphere is condemned to failure.

Having said that, I do believe that even the Islamic world needs a debate – albeit under Islamic terms – on what specific role religion can play in public life, in society, in politics; in other words, there has to be a debate on secularisation.

Mosque and map of Africa, the Middle East and Asia (photo: dpa/DW)
Steinbach calls for a modernisation of Islam and a stronger secularisation debate in the Muslim world

​​ Among most Muslim intellectuals, theologians and legal scholars, the word "secularisation" is still a taboo. Secularisation is identified with "La Dinya" – not having a religion. And that is a false approach. It's not a question of pushing religion fully out of the public sphere – as has been attempted in Europe with a great deal of success – but of finding a link between religion and society that doesn't suppress the pluralism that has certainly developed in Islamic countries. Secularisation has to be discussed openly, and there are still many enlightened Muslim thinkers who are against this open debate.

The second thing is that of course there has to be a debate on modernising Islam – a radical debate. This debate is taking place at different levels of intensity. There are countries where the discussion on adapting Islam to modern social structures has come a very long way: I'm thinking of Turkey, for example, where considerable progress has been made over the past few decades. Bizarrely, this is also true of Iran, where philosophers and legal scholars are discussing how to link religion and pluralism. The situation is very varied in the Arab region.

So we have to ask the question: how can we renew religion to make it compatible with the real pluralism that exists in the Islamic societies? And this discussion is not only not taking place; in fact the powers-that-be, the leaders of the states themselves, have no interest in such a discussion because they would then run the risk of losing their power.

What can the West do to help sway this inner-Islamic conflict in favour of the pro-renewal forces?

Steinbach: The West should not restrict itself to combating violent Islamists by military means; it should animate the Islamic elites to find an acceptable secularism in the Islamic context. At the same time, we have to reach a modern interpretation of Islam, which provides an appropriate parameter for pluralism and modernisation of society.

Interview: Mohammed Khallouk

© 2008

Udo Steinbach is one of the world's leading experts on the Near and Middle East. Following posts at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and Deutsche Welle, he was the Director of the German Orient Institute in Hamburg from 1976-2006. He currently teaches at the Centre for Near and Middle East Studies at the Philipps University Marburg.

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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