How can one bring about peace among the various religions? An interview with the German interior minister and protestant Wolfgang Schäuble on the integration of Muslims into the value system of the German constitution. Interview: Patrick Bahners
Minister, have you seen "Fitna", the film made by the Dutch member of parliament Dirk Wilders?
Wolfgang Schäuble: No. According to what I've read about it, it's a shoddy piece of work.
This film is being distributed on the internet. It doesn't need to be shown in cinemas. In the past, in describing the debate over the Mohammed cartoons, you've referred to how the pictures have developed a dynamic of their own: in the kind of news journalism which is influenced by CNN and which has now been brought to the Arab world by Al Jazeera, it's the medium itself which has its own tendency towards radicalisation, towards an automatic mobilisation. Bearing in mind what you know about Wilders's film, would you assume that there's the same kind of visual language being used on the other side – the side which is critical of Islam – with the same kind of worrying dynamic?
Schäuble: What this gentleman in the Netherlands is doing seems to me quite unpleasant. His sorry work is no better than the stuff produced by those behind the Islamist networks which are fighting the West. Already years ago I viewed some anti-Semitic internet productions which were distributed over terror networks. In Germany our history with anti-Semitic obscenities goes back a long way, and this is at the same level and just as irresponsible. The way this man from the Netherlands indulges in provocations in order to stand out from the crowd – that goes against my understanding of democratic values, but it's part of our democratic system that one can do anything which can't be forbidden.
I've had long discussions over the issue with my Dutch opposite number, over his difficulty that he would like to ban it but he can't. One has to put up with it, everyone must know that one has to put up with it, but that doesn't make it any more acceptable. And that remains my view.
Wilders makes statements about Islam by putting pictures together into a montage. He quotes verses from the Koran, and in the next picture, terrible acts are committed. We are familiar with such visual propaganda from every conflict over religion which has been fought in the modern period. Now, in the context of reducing the risk to the public, you keep a close eye on the internet and on the conditions in which public information is created nowadays: the global distribution of information takes place almost instantly and can scarcely be controlled any more. But at the same time, as the initiator of the German Islam Conference you are building on dialogue, and that means: on time, patience and subtlety. The Conference is meeting against the background of a public opinion which is always busy and always agitated, and which is scarcely to be located in any one place. What is your awareness of this background?
Schäuble: That's one of the conditions of life in the twenty-first century. Muslims who live in the modern world have to be able to cope with the modern world, for goodness sake. They make use of it, after all. Many of those who want to fight against the modern Western world, make use of it. Islam has a still longer way to go towards the modern world than Christianity, which has already put its history in Europe behind it to a certain extent. One can after all learn from experience. Part of the modern world is the potential for radicalisation through the permanent availability of information.
In the light of the breathtaking speed with which the internet has become part of our lives, one can imagine how it will develop in the next few years. It's not just the issue of religion, this is in general one of the big challenges of our time. One has to try not to let oneself be drawn to the extremes – not by the process of action and reaction, or of provocation and response. You have to build on all sides and you have to try to work on people so that they don't produce such dangerous stuff.
You've had almost two years of experience with the Islam Conference, whose purpose you defined very clearly at the start. There was, of course, public reaction to each of the three plenary meetings, from which you will have judged how far you are on the path you set yourself. But public opinion about "Islam" has developed a dynamic of its own and the images of Islam are firmly lodged in the mind. So aren't you worried that your approach of holding consultations and formulating results jointly and step by step may not be able to keep up with the speed with which public opinion comes to its conclusions?
Schäuble: We know from neurological research that stronger stimuli displace weaker stimuli. Of course there's the danger that one-sided opinions, such as those of [the writer] Ralph Giordano, will have more of an impression on people's view of Islam than publications which try to mediate. One could also draw a picture of Christians and the Christian churches in the way that Wilders does. There are fundamentalists among the Christians too.
We have to do everything we can to create a realistic picture. And the best way is for us to get to know each other. Where people live together, the radicals who want to drive them apart will not have success. We know that anti-foreigner slogans are most successful where people don't have any experience of living with people with a foreign background.
An old friend, the former Senator Louis Jung from Lower Alsace [in Eastern France] had an experience more than twenty years ago which really made an impression on him. In an election in his little village of Harskirchen, where he had been mayor for generations, over twenty percent voted for [the French far-right politician] Le Pen. And he was deeply upset. He said, "You know, I know these people – the village has eight hundred inhabitants, and I asked them: why did you vote for Le Pen? And their answer was: because of the foreigners. We don't have any foreigners in our village." That's how it is. And so we come full circle.
Integration, living together, is the precondition for tolerance and peacefulness. That's why we have to say to [the Turkish prime minister] Mr Erdogan with all due respect: Turkish citizens or citizens of Turkish origin are welcome, but, if they live here, we want them to live with us and not just next to us. Sometimes I tell this story about me.
I come from a small town, Homberg in the Black Forest. One day, my parent saw how Turkish people were moving in to the apartments owned by one of the bigger employers in the town. Initially, my mother, who comes from that area, was defensive towards them, but once they'd been there a few days, she told me on the phone: You wouldn't believe what nice people they are!
Proximity, communication – they work against prejudice. The same applies to the Muslim representatives among themselves. Discussion, argument is the first step towards social open-mindedness. In that respect I'm very satisfied with the Islam Conference. We argue in a very civilised fashion.
Giordano lives in Cologne, where there are many Turks. He justifies his radically sceptical position on integration, which you disagree with, with statements about Muslim theology. He says faithful Muslims have permission to dissemble towards unbelievers, the so-called Taqiyya. For that reason alone it is not possible to make binding commitments with Muslims, or even to argue with them sensibly, over politically sensitive issues. What experience have you and your officials had in the discussions in the Islam Conference? Were there moments where you had to doubt the credibility of the representatives of the Muslim organisation or of their willingness to engage in genuine discussion?
Schäuble: No. Muslim are not better than other people. But the question as to whether one can believe them or not, and whether they dissemble – that question seems oddly familiar. Look back a couple of centuries in German history – or perhaps not even so far: just back to the early years after the war, at the time when my own party [the Christian Democratic Union] was being established.
My father was catholic, but he was married to a protestant, with all the consequences which that brought with it. And in the early years after the war – not in the seventeenth or eighteenth century; the documents are there to be read in the history of the South Baden CDU – the catholic diocesan administration protested against the idea that such a man should be a candidate for mayor for the CDU. It's not so long ago.
We have many people in this country who are real experts and scholars of Islam, and, with all due respect, Mr Giordano is not one of them. Those experts say that it's a legend that the Muslims dissemble. And it does not in any way match our experience in the Islam Conference. And by the way, the Christians also don't always tell the truth. In the Gospel of St Matthew we hear: "And the cock crowed three times" [proving a prophecy of Jesus that his disciple Peter would betray him three times]. Which is why the protestants have a cockerel on their church towers: to remind one of the changeability of man. That's the way it is – we are human, and that's why we need salvation.
The reference to Taqiyya reminds one of the legends about the Jesuits. Not so long ago the Jesuits were driven from Germany because they were believed to be systematically untrustworthy. The same thing has been said of the Jews.
Schäuble: And precisely because we have such experiences and are particularly involved in this history as Germans, we ought really to be a bit cleverer by now. With reference to Islam, we shouldn't listen to such institutionalised stupidity, to use a relatively friendly term. There are always different kinds of people. Not everything is wonderful among Tibetans, but I still believe it's wrong of the Chinese government to try to compare the Dalai Lama with Bin Laden. That's nonsense.
Christianity has a long path behind it as it has tried to find an amicable relationship to modernity, and in that process, Christian Democracy has played a pioneering role. For the catholics, it gave them the chance to try out modern organisational forms and a general emancipation from the instructions of the institutional church. For the protestants it helped them loose themselves from the concept of the national state church. With all due caution against making such comparisons: do you have the impression that Erdogan and his party [the AKP] embody a tendency in this sociological sense towards a Muslim democracy, towards a similar kind of dialectical self-modernisation?
Schäuble: Well, at least the hope that this is so, or that this might be the case, has not yet been disproved. Many have accused the AKP of being a wolf in sheep's clothing, but Erdogan and his party have not given the slightest reason for such a suspicion. By the way, the idea that in Germany someone could come up with the idea of applying to ban the party of the Chancellor, and that the constitutional court would accept the case, shows how strange for us the Turkish situation is. One has to understand the history of Turkey since the Second World War in order to appreciate the extent of the reforms which have taken place in Turkey.
Erdogan and the AKP claim that they want something very similar to the CDU and the CSU [the CDU's Bavarian sister party], and that's why they want to be part of the European People's Party [the European Christian Democrat umbrella party]. This is a discussion which is not easy for Christian Democrat parties, because it's linked to the issue of the accession of Turkey to the European Union.
Islam is not a church, one shouldn't exaggerate the parallels. But in principle it seems to be the case that, working from a religious basis, the AKP wants to open itself up to the plurality of a democratic order. And that is what we must insist on. That's the issue wherever in Europe we discuss the relationship between religion and state. The discussion is based on entirely different premises in France from in Germany. Interestingly it's [the French president] Sarkozy who has said, based on his experience as interior minister, that the French republic ought to reconsider its old, perhaps out-dated approach to laicism. I want to discuss this matter further with him when I meet him tomorrow (21st May).
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Schäuble: The dispute over the preamble of the European Constitution can't be the last word on the European debate about state and religion. It will become clear that Germany, as the only large European country which is roughly split in half between the confessions [protestants and catholics], has its particular experience to contribute.
It's the same as with our federal system: as long as we are not arrogant or behave in a patronising way, but with an appropriate level of modesty, then we can let others benefit from our experience. In the same way, we can learn a great deal from the experience of the Habsburgs in Central Europe – and perhaps we should have learnt it sooner in order to avoid the Yugoslav conflict. One can always draw positive conclusions from history.
The relations between the state and religious communities will in my view have an outstanding significance in the twenty-first century. This modern world with its incredibly rapid changes, with its seductive potential, and (when we think of the financial crisis) its potential to mislead – this world won't manage without religion. That's what I believe – that's the way people are.
For centuries, a major issue in German history was the peace between religions, making coexistence possible for confessions which denied each other the right to exist. And looking at it from today's point of view, it could seem that the law, the legal framework of the German Empire, was for a long time more rational than religion was. In this period, the confessions refused to abandon their claim to determine the order of the world according to their belief, but they accepted the secular framework of coexistence. Could one go as far as to say that it's a lesson of German history that one should try to be a bit more relaxed, that one should give a bit more time to the foreign, anti-modern religion of Islam, to allow it to integrate here, to develop its modes of discussion, to gather experience, so that, in time, it can move beyond a simple acceptance of the external framework of living together?
Schäuble: We must give the Muslims time. But what we can't postpone is the legal and value system of our constitution. We have been arguing about that in the Islam Conference: whether there's a value system which goes beyond the constitution. That value system encompasses more than the articles of the constitution, but the value system is also open to the possibility of being developed by the religions and by the people. If the Muslims accept the basic principles of the constitution, then they can work with us on the development of the value system. And for that they need time.
The state's monopoly on the use of force, which seems to be in the process of disintegration in the globalised world, was the answer to the inability of Christians of different confessions to live together in peace. Religious freedom does not remove from anyone the requisite to respect the universality of human rights. Thus democracy requires a constitution on the national or European level.
One could wish to discover in this constitution a task for the state, to the extent that the state might encourage a reform of Islam, in the sense that human rights were to become Muslim principles of faith. If one did see that obligation, that would be – according to the expert in ecclesiastical law Martin Heckel from Tübingen in a recent article on religious education – tantamount to saying that the state must once more adopt the ius reformandi [the right of a ruler to change religion and take his subjects with him] from the sixteenth century.
Schäuble: I continue to consider all the article of our constitution which deal with religion to be excellent. We didn't even write them ourselves, they come from the Weimar Constitution [of 1919], but they were so good that they were simply taken over. Now the Muslims invoke the constitution. They've said they want the same rights. We say: if you want to have the same rights, you have to accept the conditions that go with them. If you are prepared to do that, then indeed you have the right to religious education in state schools, in the sense of a confessional education, and not just learning about religion.
According to article 7 of the constitution, Muslim confessional education cannot be offered by the state without a partner. In that sense we have an indirect effect on Islam. But only indirect, not in the sense of being paternalistic. Wherever the constitution is accepted, those elements in Islam will be strengthened which champion tolerance and living together peacefully, and not those which champion the fundamentalist abuse of religion, and which want to make religious conviction into the order of the state.
A classic instrument of legal tolerance is the possibility of making exceptions. When a believer invokes his conscience because he cannot reconcile his legal duties with his religious duties, the state has allowed exceptions – in practice mostly in favour of minorities, of sects. Believing Muslims have invoked this principle in court in order to allow exclusion from coeducational swimming lessons. In the case of Islam, which is nowadays a mass religion in Germany, has the exception as a legal instrument lost its usefulness?
Schäuble: There are also limits to exceptions: take for example the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses. One is not allowed to refuse medical treatment to a child for religious reasons. In other cases our state is more generous, and that's alright. A system can be generous, as long as it's not over an issue which is non-negotiable. The dignity of the person cannot be given up. The equality of man and woman is also something which is not for negotiation.
Of course I don't have to put my children through coeducation – I can send my daughter to a confessional girls' school. But they aren't run by the state. They are private schools. Nothing stops Muslims from setting up schools, and if they fulfil the other conditions required to have a school recognised, they can set up girls' schools as well.
Why should there be a problem of equality if it's not a matter of excluding girls from swimming lessons, but only a matter of providing them with separate classes?
Schäuble: The Muslims have to organise that themselves. As long as they go to state schools, sport is part of the curriculum. At the age of puberty sport is usually separate – that's how it was with my four children. But we want girls and boys who grow up here to learn that men and women live together. It wasn't easy for us either. For my generation, the change in the relationship between the sexes is one of the big changes of the post-war period. And that has had many effects, also in the Christian churches. The protestant churches have got used to women pastors, even women bishops, they've even learnt that women bishops can be divorced. That's the modern world, and in spite of that, the Christian message hasn't lost its validity.
When you look at yourself at my age, and compare yourself to your parents or your children, you can see the developments that have taken place. When I read Thomas Nipperdey's "Deutsche Geschichte" ("German History"), the social conditions at the end of the nineteenth century reminded me in many respects of my childhood in the early fifties.
And, by the way, that for me explains almost with historical determinism why the 68ers [the generation of the student revolts in Western Europe in 1968] had to emerge as they did. Two world wars delayed the continuous process of adaptation to the modernising world in Europe; then it broke its banks, and now we can continue. And the Muslims will not be spared that process.
Since we are convinced that the last half century in Europe has been pretty good compared to what went before, we invite the Muslims – since they happen to be here – to take part in this process and to trust that this will give positive impulses to Islam. Interest in our Islam Conference is high in other parts of the world – not just in the Vatican, but also in mainly Muslim countries. We don't believe that we are re-inventing the world. But everyone has to plant his own apple tree.
The interviewer was Patrick Bahners.
© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung / Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton
This interview was previously published on 20 May by the German daily, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.