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No Better Place Than Germany To Ask Muslims The Hardest Question Of All

It's not important whether Islam is "a part of Germany," as the country is debating. Fascism once was utterly German. The real question is, will Muslim leaders accept reason and freedom as the central values of society?

Muslim women in Germany
Muslim women in Germany
Jacques Schuster


BERLIN — The tears had barely dried after the French terror attacks when citizens there began looking towards their philosophers for consolation. Demand for Voltaire's Treatise on Tolerance grew rapidly just days after the deadly shootings by Islamic radicals. The 250-year-old book, denouncing religious fanaticism, is leading many French bestseller lists, from Amazon to FNAC to Gibert Joseph.

It seems as if France, in its hour of need, grief and confusion, wants to reassure itself. Added to this is the general feeling of being partially culpable. But very few would venture quite as far as Pascal Bruckner has. In an interview with the Swiss newspaper Neuen Zürcher Zeitung, the writer said that "by letting radical Islam exist in its current form, we become its accomplices."

In France, the will to overcome the indifference and relativism towards other cultures, which held sway until now, is growing, mostly by reflecting on the country's own values. One can only admire the French for looking towards the works of the Enlightenment and its most important minds for counsel.

What would the Germans read if they were in a similar situation? Which books and which philosophers would they consult? At the moment, Germans appear to prefer a heated discussion about whether Islam is actually part of Germany. That's curious enough in itself because it gives the discussion a national flavor. Moreover, it assumes that only the good, civil and tame are part of Germany. But is that really the case? Was it ever?

Are Christian churches part of modern-day Germany? Analyzing the Catholic Church's history, it becomes evident that it was opposed to every progress of the human mind, every improvement of criminal law, every measure to decrease war, every step to improve the treatment of Jews, every alleviation of slavery and every moral improvement on earth. Is that German? Is that un-German?

Even if many fellow countrymen want to suppress this thought: Not only are the Enlightenment, the "blue flower," Goethe, Heine and Thomas Mann part of Germany, but so are Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger and other adventurers of German intellectual life. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels wasn't wrong when he said that National Socialism was a German movement.

The smell of decay

Communism and fascism are part of Germany. Following this train of thought, even Islam has roots in Germany. American political scientists Walter Laqueur and Paul Berman once referenced the fascist role models of the Muslim Brotherhood and explained how the movement had interwoven these "ideals" with Islam and European totalitarian ideas. It is from this that a power reeking of decay arose.

As different as communism, fascism and Islamism may be, they all have in common the law of eliminating something harmful. If you transformed this into a positive law, its decree would read, "Thou shall kill!" Is this a German decree? This thought alone demonstrates that this is a futile debate if it is limited to what Germany once was, what it now is and what claims to be or not be a part of it.

It's not German nature that counts but its values, values chosen after 1949. Those who internalize these values don't even have to speak German, although it would be to their advantage. It is enough to secure social cohesion and the peace of a communal society to approve of these values happily, rather than living unwillingly in an open-minded (German) society. Which brings us straight to our German philosophers.

Just as the French are contemplating Voltaire, it would be beneficial for Germans to consider Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, although it can be difficult to read. In Kant's opinion, we should never obey the decrees of authority, even if that authority is God himself.

"It sounds disturbing, but it is under no circumstance reprehensible to say that every man fashions his own God after his own moral beliefs," he wrote. "That he even has to shape his own deity to believe in and worship it. It does not matter in which manner this being has been introduced to him as God … or may have even presented itself to him as such. … He has to, first and foremost, determine if his own conscience can consider it to be and worship it as a deity."

Kant's ethic is not limited to the sentence that a man's conscience is to be his only authority. It is attempting to determine what our conscience can demand of us. Kant's philosophy can be summarized comprehensively: Dare to be free and respect and protect the freedom of all others. Can the political and religious leaders of the Islamic organizations truly subscribe to this idea?

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Berlin's mosque — Photo: Axel Mauruszat

Kant was convinced that human reason was a universal tool of communication. He is one of the influential progressive thinkers of critical rationalism, whom philosopher Karl Popper described centuries later as the attitude of the West. "I could be wrong and you could be right. But if we both try we can get closer to the truth."

Are the Islamic organizations, their imams and mullahs willing and ready to accept this attitude of mind?

Heaven and hell

Kant also wrote that "nothing straight has ever been fashioned from the warped wood mankind is made of." Popper went even further to add, "and nothing straight should ever be fashioned from it." To Popper it was obvious that, after having traipsed through the history of closed societies from Sparta to the Third Reich, the "attempt to create heaven on earth only results in hell."

Whether it be the communist attempt to overcome class structures by eliminating certain classes, the National Socialist endeavor to create a racially pure society, or the effort to establish a worldwide Islamic State.

Kant and Popper didn't advocate religious intolerance or even the end of religious belief within society. But at least Popper demanded the same rights for the belief in reason, rationalism and humanistic conviction as for other creeds.

Is German Islam ready to recognize this as a basic human right? Can its political and religious leaders approve of Kant's imperative, "Dare to use your own mind"?

"We can return to animalistic attitudes, but if we want to remain human then there is only one way we can take, and that is the way towards an open-minded society," Popper wrote.

Germany has walked along this path after having lived through the most painful experiences and has become free and prosperous as never before.

Does Islam lean towards accepting this open-minded society, accepting reason as the measure of all things, accepting the competition of values as a principle of the West? The evidence for that is slim so far. Islam isn't part of an open-minded society. It is Islam's responsibility to become a part of it. We are waiting, but our patience is running dry.

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U.S., France, Israel: How Three Model Democracies Are Coming Unglued

France, Israel, United States: these three democracies all face their own distinct problems. But these problems are revealing disturbing cracks in society that pose a real danger to hard-earned progress that won't be easily regained.

Image of a crowd of protestors holding Israeli flags and a woman speaking into a megaphone

Israeli anti-government protesters take to the streets in Tel-Aviv, after Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Defence Minister Yoav Galant.

Dominique Moïsi

"I'd rather be a Russian than a Democrat," reads the t-shirt of a Republican Party supporter in the U.S.

"We need to bring the French economy to its knees," announces the leader of the French union Confédération Générale du Travail.

"Let's end the power of the Supreme Court filled with leftist and pro-Palestinian Ashkenazis," say Israeli government cabinet ministers pushing extreme judicial reforms

The United States, France, Israel: three countries, three continents, three situations that have nothing to do with each other. But each country appears to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown of what seemed like solid democracies.

How can we explain these political excesses, irrational proclamations, even suicidal tendencies?

The answer seems simple: in the United States, in France, in Israel — far from an exhaustive list — democracy is facing the challenge of society's ever-greater polarization. We can manage the competition of ideas and opposing interests. But how to respond to rage, even hatred, borne of a sense of injustice and humiliation?

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