Germany's interior minister Wolfgang Schäuble has written a short book describing how faith, correctly understood, protects us from totalitarianism and abuse of power. He also addresses how best to integrate Islam in Germany. A review by Lewis Gropp
Wolfgang Schäuble has an image as a tough law and order politician. For many of his critics, particularly those left of centre, he has a reputation for fostering an authoritarian surveillance state through his strict security measures. Yet anyone who reads Wolfgang Schäuble's new book will soon see that this is only half the truth – or even less than that.
The book, Braucht unsere Gesellschaft Religion? (Does Our Society Need Religion?), is part of a series of speeches on religious policy published by Berlin University Press since 2008. Other titles include Udo Di Fabio's Gewissen, Glaube, Religion (Conscience, Belief, Religion), criticising Europe's rigid rejection of faith, and José Casanova's Europas Angst vor der Religion (Europe's Fear of Religion) on a similar subject. The series editor Rolf Schieder has also published his own volume with the title Sind Religionen gefährlich (Are Religions Dangerous?), aiming to rehabilitate faith and religion.
Regressive "back to the roots" approach
And now Wolfgang Schäuble, a doctor of law, has set out to define the value of faith for politics. This is an interesting and brave attempt, for more than one reason. Firstly because religion has been absolutely sidelined for years within his party, the CDU – despite its name of Christian Democratic Union. And secondly because many renowned academics before him have made downright fools of themselves with their answers on the same topic.
Either their ideas remain so vague and imprecise that they lose all meaning, or they adopt a defiantly regressive "back to the roots" approach, condemning all traces of enlightenment and rationalism. Germany's interior minister, however, blithely clears these two hurdles with seemingly effortless intellectual command of his subject matter.
Referring back to the likes of Niccolò Machiavelli, Pope Alexander VI and Friedrich the Great, Schäuble precisely stakes out the boundaries of his subject matter, never claiming any more than he can prove convincingly. A trained dialectic thinker, he also takes possible counter-arguments into account – making his own argumentation all the more sound and convincing.
Knowledge of an entity beyond our control
Schäuble starts out by posing a key question: how can we unite people through religion and yet at the same time avoid new rifts opening up on the basis of differing religious faiths?
Schäuble writes that the relationship to God central to all monotheist religions could play a major role in this respect. In essence, it is a question of people knowing that their own lives and actions are responsible to an authority not appointed by them themselves.
Religions, he writes, bestow people with the certainty "that there is something greater than themselves. That there is something which is not made by them but must be respected by them. (…) This alone has far-reaching consequences for political and social behaviour. Knowledge of an entity beyond our control is a precaution against totalitarianism and abuse of power."
One could of course point out that belief in God can be wrongly understood and does not automatically bestow people with humility; it has also been known to transform them into hot-headed fanatics. Yet one must first realise what a tightrope act it is to define the role of religion in an enlightened and pluralist society.
Schäuble masters this tightrope act, putting his definition into precisely chosen words. The resulting ideas may not look like much; but they are more than most authors have come up with on the subject.
Wolfgang Schäuble's book also looks at Islam in Germany. But neither does he conjure up the phantom of a "parallel society" so popular with many of his conservative colleagues, nor does he resort to hysterical alarmism. Quite the opposite, in fact: he points out that it took several centuries to regulate Christianity's relationship to the state. With this in mind, he comments, we must not expect the problems between the state and Islam in Europe to be solved overnight or without conflict. Schäuble contends that a great deal has already been achieved in a very short time.
And there is no alternative to integrating Islam in Germany, he adds. It is not only undesirable for Islam to exist merely alongside European society, Schäuble writes; it is de facto no longer possible.
Unease among Germany's majorities
"Which is why we must ensure that above all Muslims who have come to us as immigrants or live here in the second, third or perhaps even fourth generation feel safe and at home here. Muslims will never want to integrate into a Europe where they do not feel at home or even feel excluded."
Yet Schäuble shares none of the uncertainty that makes the debate on Islam so difficult, the unease among Germany's majorities in particular. He makes it perfectly clear that certain basic values are not up for negotiation from his point of view.
"Integration is not a one-way street, it is a bilateral process," writes Schäuble. "It requires that immigrants want to make this country their home. Anyone who does not want that, for example does not want their children – and particularly their daughters – to grow up in an open western society because they disapprove of various aspects, is making the wrong decision to settle permanently in Central Europe. One has to accept the conditions of one's new home (…) as we are not prepared to put the rules of tolerance, diversity and pluralism up for discussion."
Integration – the golden mean
This is what makes the book such a valuable piece of writing: it shows that Germany and Europe are not faced with the alternative of either being overrun by an alien, "foreign" culture, or subjugating all those who come here to a chauvinist national culture dictated by the majority.
Quite the opposite: Schäuble shows that the ideal solution does not look to the extremes but rather finds the golden mean. "Integrating people, helping them to feel part of society, is (…) something that has helped our continent to grow together," he writes, reminding us that precisely this growth – despite all its vagaries and difficulties – has brought us one of the longest periods of peace in European history.
It may be a slim volume, but Wolfgang Schäuble's book contains a wealth of ideas. In a time of uncertainty and unease, he points out the stuff of true European values, how strong these values are and what future they have.
© Qantara.de 2009
Wolfgang Schäuble: Braucht unsere Gesellschaft Religion? – Vom Wert des Glaubens "Does Our Society Need Religion? On the Value of Faith"), Berlin University Press, Berlin 2009, 76 S., € 17,90 (D), € 18,40 (A)
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire