Interview Jutta Limbach
Intercultural Dialogue since 9/11

Jutta Limbach, President of the Goethe Institute, has just visited Egypt for the first time. With Germany forming the main focus of the International Book Fair in Cairo, she took part in numerous events on the topic of communication between cultures.

An interview about the changes in Germany's foreign cultural policy since 9/11.

Jutta Limbach; photo: dpa
Cultural exchange only works as a real two-way process, Limbach says

​​How would you formulate the goal of intercultural dialogue?

Jutta Limbach: I could describe the goal in very ambitious terms: to serve world peace and mutual understanding. Of course, this is always a process, and we can measure its progress by observing how things actually turn out in the future: will the world's peoples actually succeed in living together peacefully, or will they simply reach for their weapons whenever conflict arises?

How has Germany's foreign cultural policy changed since 9/11?

Limbach: I do think we have learned to be more attentive when the two sides appear to be drifting apart. We are more sensitive to issues of religion and worldview. And when it comes to the Western countries, we ask ourselves what secularisation actually involves – whether the state's neutrality in matters of religion is not in fact a necessary precondition for peaceful co-existence in multicultural societies and neighbourhoods.

How is this reflected in the Goethe Institute's programme abroad?

Limbach: Well, for example, the head of the Institute in Cairo began the process of dialogue by staging an event about the difficulties facing Germany's multicultural society. He invited Commissioners for Minority Affairs from the region of North Rhine-Westphalia, along with other specialists, who pointed out that we too have our difficulties with people who dress differently or have a different religious faith.

They also explained that this often leads to problems in the schools, and that disputes can end up in court, even in the Federal Constitutional Court. How should animals be slaughtered? Should a Muslim girl who firmly believes that her clothing should cover her body also be forced to take part in co-educational sports lessons? These are among the issues that interest us intensely. And there are repeated discussions about the limits of religious freedom and the need for tolerance.

So the Goethe Institute also conducts "inner-German" debates in the presence of foreign audiences?

Limbach: The problems are analogous throughout the world – which, as the cliché has it, is now a village. Nations with a Muslim majority have problems that can be seen as analogous to ours. Immediately after 9/11, the Egyptians could hardly have organised an event entitled "Islamic Dialogue" or "Religion: Orient and Occident", because this would have been misunderstood as an attempt to proselytise. When we point out that the problems we have in the broader world are the same ones we have to solve on a smaller scale at home – well, that's a more favourable starting-point.

An event I took part in very recently was a meeting with the Egyptian human-rights commissioner and the Minister for Religious Affairs. We talked about tolerance and shared values, while also trying to work out where we differed. In Egypt, the term "tolerance" is derived from religion; in Germany and other Western nations, it is rooted in the constitution, and its limits are set accordingly.

For us in Germany, it's clear that there are limits to tolerance, when it affects human dignity, the right to develop one's personality freely, or indeed the right to physical integrity. It's clear that genital mutilation and the repression of women are not reconcilable with our constitution or the basic values embodied in it.

On the other hand, the people I've spoken to here in Egypt – who are very open to things that are happening in the West – have also made it clear to me that religious and communal elements play a big role in their thinking. In our part of the world, legal liberties are largely the province of individuals who are prepared to stand up for their rights. If you feel that the police or some other authority is interfering with those rights, then you go to court and you carry on pleading your case – perhaps even going all the way to the Federal Constitutional Court and thereby altering the legal framework for the entire population.

Here in Egypt, however, and in the Arab world as a whole, the community plays a much bigger role, and it also exercises a greater degree of social control. The family and the larger community essentially define what is tolerable and what is too "foreign" to be accepted. These are two differing approaches; and it won't surprise you to hear that I favour the Western approach, which is based on secularisation and the neutrality of the state.

Since the Second World War, Germany's approach to foreign cultural affairs has gone through a number of phases. What changes have you experienced since 2001?

Limbach: Undoubtedly, September 11th did constitute a major turning-point. Suddenly, the government – and others – saw foreign cultural policy mainly as a means of preventing terrorism. People were saying, "If we don't want this 'clash of cultures' to lead to a military conflict, then we really have to find a way to engage in dialogue that transcends religious barriers." Today, the term "intercultural dialogue" reminds us that we have to sense differences and oppositions, and that we have to discuss what we do have in common.

Do we engage in dialogue because we are afraid of the Other?

Limbach: We don't see ourselves as the government's cultural warriors or firefighters. We feel that this discussion process simply has to take place, independently of any current threats of violence. Even in times like these, the Goethe Institute takes the liberty of recognising that cultural variety enriches our lives; that it promotes intelligence; that it liberates creativity. And we continue to take inspiration from the words of Goethe: "Compare yourself, and recognise what you are."

This, too, is why I engage in discussion: because, when I talk to Muslims about religion, attitudes to the world, and the relationship between Church and State, I don't just confirm for myself the correctness of my own outlook. I also approach these discussions with the willingness to find out whether there might not be certain advantages in the way the "other side" thinks. And these advantages might well serve the cause of cohesion, on a national or international scale.

But this dialogue is pretty one-sided. The Arab countries pursue almost no projects of cultural exchange in Germany.

Limbach: I had a talk with the editors of some Egyptian literary journals. They asked me, "And what are you doing to promote the translation of Arabic books into German?" And I made it clear to them that this was an endeavour they would have to support actively themselves; not just materially, but spiritually too. A book may be formally or stylistically outstanding, or it may be judged worth reading because of the social problems it deals with. But whatever the criteria, Arabs can judge better than we can which works of contemporary Arabic literature should be read in Germany today.

At the Goethe Institute, we are very open about challenging people. I mean, it's not as these were poor Third World countries, even if scientific and technological development is, here and there, not always what it could be. Essentially, these are regions with incredibly rich resources, including natural resources. And so one simply has to create an awareness that they themselves must also bear some responsibility for preserving and promoting their own culture – and for introducing it to people in other parts of the world.

Here, as in other cultural institutes and organisations, we begin with the assumption that cultural exchange only works as a real two-way process. I have to be curious about the culture of the partner country, but it also has to work the other way. I have to be prepared to enter into a process of intellectual exchange, and to absorb new experiences; but the same applies to the other side. It is, after all, also a process of cultural self-assertion, for both sides.

Interview: Mona Naggar

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

© 2006

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