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.

In your criticism of Fukuyama's theology of history, you turn, among others, to Karl Popper. Indeed you write "If we read Fukuyama with Popper, we come to the disturbing albeit not astonishing conclusion that we must see in Fukuyama (...) an enemy of open society." What exactly do you mean by this?

Weidner: Popper sees the origins of the non-open, illiberal society already in Plato. But, of all people, Fukuyama chooses to refer to Plato and his theory of society and his vision of humankind, in particular with reference to Plato's concept of thumos, ambition, rage, or courage. In the Islamic tradition these crop up again in the exact same form as quwwah ghadabiyya, which can be traced directly back to Plato. It is very difficult to found an open society on the basis of this vision of humankind, because humankind seems trapped in its urges (quwwat), seems predetermined. In short, Fukuyama and Popper – although both ambassadors of liberalism – are in reality incompatible.

The image of a closed West or Europe is nothing new and not only to be found in Fukuyama and Huntington. You analysed other examples in your book that, although not politically motivated, were very Eurocentric in their understanding of the West and its culture, namely Edmund Husserl, Max Weber and also Heidegger (to name just a few of the big guns). Where, in your opinion, does this feeling, this attitude of self-sufficiency come from? Does it come, perhaps, from the unconditional glorification of the idea of Enlightenment?

Weidner: One could describe Western thought as self-sufficient, but I would prefer to describe it as arrogant and conceited, as a school of thought that is not only convinced of its own superiority (Muslims and Buddhists are, after all, also convinced of the superiority of their thinking) but that, unlike other traditional world views, suffers from the compulsion of repeatedly having to confirm its own superiority.

Cover of Stefan Weidnerʹs "Jenseits des Westens: Fuer ein neues kosmopolitisches Denken" (published in German by Hanser)
Stefan Weidner's "Jenseits des Westens" is a deeply original and at the same time highly demanding book. When it comes to the definition of the West, more than 230 authors have their say – Weidner interviews thinkers such as Kojeve, Spengler, Huntington and Fukuyama in detail

In order to succeed in this endeavour, Western thought has no choice but to re-invent itself over and over again. This means that it is willing, if needs be, to throw its own principles overboard. That is what the Enlightenment did, and later Nietzsche and Heidegger. That is why there are no taboos in Western thought, no red lines, nothing sacred. All that matters is to be cleverer, better, smarter, more advanced, more ruthless than the others, whatever the cost.

With this mentality, you naturally win every dispute. But the others are not stupid. These days, everyone knows how the West works and they are copying it. Some are even beating it at its own game even, becoming more ruthless and more successful than the West. Take China, for example.

The big problem with this world view, which logically gives birth to neo-liberalism, however, is that it gives people nothing to hold on to; it repeatedly pulls the rug from under their feet or tears down the roof over their heads. This is why a neo-conservative revolution has risen up against this world view all over the globe. People want security, identity, home ... everything that Western thinking has abolished in order to maintain its superiority.

For me, the biggest surprise in your book was your criticism of Goethe and his idea of "world literature". Were you not a little rash or biased in your judgement?

Weidner: No, I don't think so! Goethe has really been idealised and not in a good way. No doubt he was a great poet and a major author, but he was also a child of his era. By idealising him and putting him on a pedestal, making him a man with an attitude that may not be criticised, we are acting as if his world view (which is part of his theory of world literature) was natural, self-evident, "normal" and indubitably correct. But that is not the case. It is more the case that we have absorbed and assimilated Goethe's view of the world (which in many ways is identical to that of the Enlightenment) so totally that we no longer see how distorted or downright wrong it really is.

Goethe is just as much an example of hegemonic, Western thought as Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and many others. As long as we don't take a critical look at Goethe, we are never going to stop being convinced of our superiority over others and will continue to employ terminology that is utterly questionable, such as "nation", "development", "nature", etc.

One final question: can one think about a "beyond the West" without including the West in this project? In other words: without the critical spirit of the West?

Weidner: Of course not. For me, "Beyond the West" doesn't mean "in addition to the West" or "without the West", but "after the West", "above and beyond the West". This means that my critical thinking contains the critical potential of the West; but I am trying to move beyond it and to ask what else there is. It would be absurd to believe that Western thought has completely exhausted, has completely finished with the potential of criticism or the opportunities of thought.

One example: even the most critical and self-critical thinkers in the Western tradition, including those that belong to post-modernism or post-structuralism, have almost never looked beyond the West. Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze ... every one of them spent all their time discussing the Greeks, the Enlightenment, or at best also the Jewish tradition, which as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition is naturally also part of the West. Islam, Indian religions, China, not to mention Africa or the Indians are virtually absent from this thinking.

Even in the work of Spivak, we find more Hegel, Marx and Foucault than non-European or Indian thought. And that is a damning indictment of critical thinking. We have to move beyond that. I have tried to highlight an initial way out of this situation, by also pointing to the many alternatives, mostly thinkers who have been overlooked and forgotten in the West but who were seriously interested in non-European thought. So the West is indeed included in the critical movement that I am striving towards. But it is only a small part of it.

Interview conducted by Rachid Boutayeb

© 2019

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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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