Bassam Tibi on Identity Politics

There’s an interview in Der Spiegel with the anti-Islamist political scientist, Bassam Tibi. It is worth reading in full, but these are the parts which lept out at me:

SPIEGEL: Many Germans believe that communities should live together peacefully without any parallel societies. Is it therefore right to compromise in order to avoid antagonizing Muslims unnecessarily?

Tibi: Quite the opposite. The Islamic officials who live here are very intelligent and view this as weakness. Muslims stand by their religion entirely. It is a sort of religious absolutism. While Europeans have stopped defending the values of their civilization. They confuse tolerance with relativism.

SPIEGEL: When something insults Muslims, we often tend to just back off — doesn’t this help defuse the conflict?

Tibi: No. That is simply giving up. And the weaker the partner is viewed by the Muslims, then the greater the anger which they express. And this anger is often carefully staged.

SPIEGEL: For many years you have been a proponent of an enlightened form of Euro-Islam — a topic which has been much discussed. But you are pretty much a lone voice.

Tibi: I support reforming Islam and I am not alone in this. Next month I’m meeting 20 other Islamic reformers in Copenhagen. We are trying to reinvigorate the tradition of enlightening Islam. But our mistake is that we are not united.

SPIEGEL: And apart from these scientists and thinkers?

Tibi: It would be much more important to have enlightened Imams. But when the Alfred Herrhausen society wanted to invite a German-speaking Imam with European ideas to a discussion, no one could be found. In the end they took the Grand Mufti of Marseille. And why are there such people in France and not here? Because the French state and French society has worked on developing them.

[T]he French state helped set up a council of Muslims which was completely in line with European values. If the French state had not been involved, the council would have probably been in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a challenge facing civil society, but the state also has to help. By staying neutral, as is the case here in Germany, you are handing victory over to the Islamists.

SPIEGEL: But how do you expect to draw the third generation away from the influence of the mosques?

Tibi: I don’t have any clear idea either about how this should be done. The situation is this: young Muslims want to be “members of the club,” part of German society. But they are rejected. And parallel societies provide warmth. It is a vicious circle.

SPIEGEL: But what is astounding is that you see yourself also as an example of failed integration. You have been working for 30 years at a German university, you have written 26 books in German and have been awarded the Federal Cross of Merit. Why, out of anyone, are you not integrated?

Tibi: It’s more to do with a feeling of belonging. In Germany it is not a contradiction to say, Mr. Tibi is Syrian and has a German passport. In France however it is. And in America it would be a reason to take someone to court, as you are excluding them from American society. Even after 40 years here, I’m still not German. I also believe that I have not progressed higher as a professor here because I am a foreigner. When I retire I will be leaving Germany and going to Cornell university.

SPIEGEL: That sounds quite sad. What should Germany do?

Tibi: We need to see a change in culture among Germans too. We must change this idea that only those who are born here and have ethnically German parents, are seen as German. Almost 20 percent of the people living in Germany today have a foreign background. The problem is that Germany can’t really offer foreigners an identity because the Germans hardly have a national identity themselves. That is certainly a result of Auschwitz. America’s strength is that it is capable of accepting people into its communities.

Discussion points:

1. I tend to agree that cowering – or even prospectively giving in – to the sort of orchestrated Islamist threats emboldens religious politicians, who take it as a sign of their strength, and of our weakness.

However, we’re in a bind.

Part of the difficulty is that conflict over issues which touch on religious and cultural identity, tends also to strengthen the hand of Islamist groupings, which draw much of their strength from the notion of a global war against Muslims.

The median way is to have a sensible, frank, discussion, in measured terms, about national and sub-cultural identity, religion and politics, the private and the public, and so on. The other part of the difficulty, though, is that these sorts of reasoned debates tend also to be used as a platform, and a profile raising exercise, by Islamist groups: which often use it as an opportunity to paint themselves, misleadingly, as moderate and mainstream.

2. Tibi’s suggestion that the State “nationalises” religion – as they have in France – isn’t a million miles away from what has been tried in the United Kingdom: albeit in a slightly more low-key manner. It hasn’t been an unqualified success in France. Or, for that matter, in the United Kingdom.

The idea of intervening directly in religion is something which I instinctively oppose, as incompatible with the notion of a neutral state. It smacks of “pillarisation”. It also entrenches religious identity, and “community leaders” – who tend to be cultural conservatives – within the constitutional framework of the state. It privileges religious identity over other forms of identity: encouraging what Sen describes as “plural monoculturalism”.

However I can see the attraction, from a pragmatic perspective, of such a policy.

3. Tibi’s thoughts on the distinct attitudes of Germans, French, and Americans to national identity are interesting.

His closing observations could be applied to the United Kingdom:

“The problem is that Germany can’t really offer foreigners an identity because the Germans hardly have a national identity themselves. That is certainly a result of Auschwitz.

We might substitute “post colonial guilt” or something like that for “Auschwitz” in the case of the United Kingdom.

The point is an important one. I do think that shows remarkable lack of self confidence in our own cultural identity, as British progressives.

I understand completely why Islamists regard liberal cringing as a symptom of weakness. It is.

Why would anybody want to integrate into that?

(Hat tip: ‘antidhimmi’ in the comments)