Interview with Islamic scholar Stefan Weidner

Thinking outside the Western box

In interview with Rachid Boutayeb, Stefan Weidner complains that even the most critical thinkers of Western tradition have practically never looked beyond their Western horizons. Islam, Indian religions and philosophies of non-European cultures are virtually absent from this thinking

Mr Weidner, you open your book Jenseits des Westens. Fuer ein neues kosmopolitisches Denken (English: Beyond the West. For a new cosmopolitan way of thinking), with a meditation on the Enlightenment and a defence of the idea that the Enlightenment was not "either only good or only bad". Does this also mean that the oft-repeated allegation that the problems of the Islamic world are all down to the fact that it did not go through an Age of Enlightenment is biased and uncritical since it fails to take into account the downsides of the Enlightenment?

Stefan Weidner: That's an interesting question, and one that is, unfortunately, very rarely asked. Even though the West itself has long been engaged in a critical discussion of the Enlightenment (particularly since the Second World War and Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment), there are those who – without any critical appraisal whatsoever – would prescribe Enlightenment to the Islamic World as a panacea.

This is, of course, naive, especially as the Islamic world has already felt the full impact of the negative effects of the Enlightenment: totalitarianism, blind faith in technology and progress, destruction of the environment, destruction of tradition.

Because the negative effects of the Enlightenment were imported during the colonial era, it is very hard for the positive side of the Enlightenment to gain acceptance. It is generally only accepted by a small number of affluent and often westernised elites – those who have been able to benefit from the technical and economic progress of the modern age. Viewed in this way, the positive, intellectual Enlightenment could only be seen as mental subjugation to rule by an elite that took its bearings from the West. For me, it is therefore only logical that it is rejected.

You consider Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington representatives of the very Western ideology that you criticise in your book. You also describe liberal democracy as an ideology because such popular thinkers as Fukuyama make reference to it and because they, like Fukuyama, consider it to be the future of world history. But is the problem in the Islamic world not more the lack of a liberal democracy?

Weidner: I believe that the concepts of Fukuyama and Huntington constitute a narrowing and a deterioration of liberal democracy. The last word on liberal democracy has yet to be spoken. It may still go through a renaissance, but that doesn't seem very likely at the moment.

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama (photo: Imago/Jakob Hoff)
A narrowing and a deterioration of liberal democracy: "one thing, however, that has certainly been discredited is the neo-liberal democracy for which Fukuyama wanted to lay the philosophical foundations. Of course there is a lack of liberal democracy in the Islamic world. But is there not a lack of liberal democracy all over the world? And is it not slowly disappearing in the West too? Do we really want a misanthropic, neo-liberal, pseudo-democracy that only benefits the elite?" asks Weidner

One thing, however, that has certainly been discredited is the neo-liberal democracy for which Fukuyama wanted to lay the philosophical foundations. Of course there is a lack of liberal democracy in the Islamic world. But is there not a lack of liberal democracy all over the world? And is it not slowly disappearing in the West too? Do we really want a misanthropic, neo-liberal, pseudo-democracy that only benefits the elite?

A liberal democracy that is worthy of the name is more than just a form of government. A liberal democracy works for the people – for all the people. It is based on reciprocity. In other words, it must help the people who carry this democracy to emerge in the first place and then to develop.

If people are neglected, held in contempt or even made fools of – as they are almost all over the world – a liberal democracy can never come into being. In my eyes, however, this is not a problem exclusive to the Islamic world, but a problem of our globalised, neo-liberal economic system.

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Comments for this article: Thinking outside the Western box

It seems that the problem is with "neoliberalism". Does that mean everything was fine before it? Why don't we put "neoliberalism" in context: capitalism and imperialism. Thus we understand more where Western "superiority" comes from - not only in thoughts, but also in violence, in the languge of "human rights", in "Americanising the globe", etc.
Note that Foucault spoke about Iran and Tunisia, not only the West, but he did so from what Ian Almond calls the "neo-orientalist" perspective.

Nadeem18.04.2019 | 14:37 Uhr