In 1848 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sat in their London exile and published their Communist Manifesto, which was a curious mix of a theory of history and a call for revolutionary action. It began with the assertion that communism was “the specter that is haunting Europe.” At the time the assertion was wishful thinking. Some decades later communism did haunt Europe, no longer a specter but a murderous nightmare. Today, despite Vladimir Putin’s valiant efforts to revive the Soviet empire (now blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church), it is not Communism that haunts Europe. It is Islam. Not, I hasten to add, the great faith proclaimed by Muhammad in 7th-century Arabia, but its barbaric re-interpretation by radical jihadism. With the reality of massive Muslim migration to Western democracies, especially into Europe, the problem for the latter is not just one for policy in the Middle East but also at home, going far beyond the question of how to deal with jihadi terrorism. In country after country, including the United States, populist movements and parties have gained political influence. In Germany, the movement with the acronym PEGIDA (which stands for European Patriots Against the Islamization of the West) has loudly proposed that “Islam does not belong in Germany!” There has been vocal opposition, often led by the Catholic and Protestant churches, to the wave of anti-Muslim animosity. It is not productive to label all questions about the new mass migration as “Islamophobia” and to simply assert that “Islam does belong in Germany”—or in France, or Britain, or in America. The question that must be addressed is how Islam is to belong.
This question of course has important legal and political implications: What are the prerequisites for Muslims to become citizens, and what are their rights and obligations once they do? But “belonging” is not only a matter law. More basically, it means feeling at home. In 2010 Thilo Sarrazin, a German economist, published a book with the title Deutschland schafft sich ab (“Germany does away with itself!”). It was an alarmist warning against Muslim immigration inundating German society, with little foundation in facts. It became a bestseller overnight and a kind of scripture for the anti-Muslim movement.
The Austrian Jewish writer Friedrich Torberg published a novel, Suesskind von Trimberg (1972), about a medieval Jewish troubadour who wrote poetry in the German language. (Little is known about this individual, but he really existed.) In this book the narrator observes: “One is at home where one was as a child.” The memories of childhood evoke deeply emotional feelings, its smells and sounds, especially the language, the “mother tongue” with which a child is first addressed. I disagree with Sarrazin’s views on immigration, but I was moved by his reply to an interviewer’s question as to what he really wanted: “I want my grandchildren to go for a walk anywhere in Germany and feel at home.”
Different countries have specific rituals for accepting foreigners into citizenship—that is, individuals who experienced childhood somewhere else. The United States has a naturalization process at the conclusion of which the new citizens swear allegiance to “the flag of the United States and the republic for which it stands.” Since the French Revolution that country has gone through different forms of government—royal (three times), imperial (twice), and republican (five times). All along there have been conflicts between the Right (conservatives) and the Left (progressives) about what is at the core of French society. Yet the primal experiences of being a child in France could remain throughout all these changes—if you will, the smell of fresh baguettes. By contrast it is very hard to imagine American society having gone through intermittent phases of monarchy, empire, and republic—the society has been intimately linked to one form of government since 1776. Yet the experiences of an American upbringing stamp the identity of individuals—going to a baseball game with one’s father, the high school prom, getting the first driver’s license. For foreigners, becoming Swiss citizens means a naturalization process in three steps—first in the local community (the approval of one’s neighbors), then (with more formal criteria) by the cantonal and federal authorities. Some years ago I met a German couple with a record of unsteady employment and a rather bohemian lifestyle. They had lived in Switzerland for many years and now wanted to become citizens. They ran into serious difficulties at the first step: They were accused of having an “un-Swiss attitude toward money.” It is very difficult to become naturalized in Japan. I understand that applicants get inspectors visiting their homes, to determine whether they have a Japanese lifestyle—which includes inspection of the refrigerator to determine what food is being consumed (sushi: yes, pizza: no?). Imagine the difficulties of being a Muslim in Japan (the nearest halal butcher in Jakarta?). The philosopher Juergen Habermas has long been an icon of the German Left. He shares the widely held view that the Nazi past makes any expression of German nationalism suspect. He has proposed that Germans should give up any notion of ethnic nationalism, instead adopt what he called “constitution patriotism”—replacing pride of the nation with pride in the Grundgesetz, the democratic constitution of the Federal Republic. The problem with this is that it omits precisely the primal experiences of being a German child – the lullabies heard in the cradle, perhaps the specific dialect one heard as a child (say, in Bavaria, in Berlin…), later in secondary school being swept away by the power of poetry recited in High German by a gifted teacher. Naturalization of course must involve allegiance to the country’s political order. But an individual coming from a different childhood can also be “naturalized” to empathize with such primal experiences.
An obvious question here is to what extent these primal experiences of belonging can be instituted by law or any other state policy. The educational system is the most plausible area for policy. Then there are various public ceremonies affirming both the shared values of the society and the plurality of its different religious and moral communities—such as the rituals of July 4, Bastille Day, or the Day of German Unity. Beyond relevant state actions, it is clear that the aforementioned primal experiences will mostly be conveyed informally, especially in childhood, as long as broad processes of socialization increasingly affect the maturing individual. Language is of crucial importance in every aspect of socialization, in the family, the school, the overall community, and last not least the media. On a recent walk in a German city I came across three teenage girls of Middle Eastern appearance. One of them wore a rather colorful hijab. They noisily giggled and conversed in German (with a slight trace of regional dialect). During recent debates in Germany over educational policy the term Leitkultur /”leading culture” was used by conservatives to refer to the importance of teaching German language, history, and values to immigrant children. Similar arguments have been made in American debates over bilingual education. I think that ideas such as Leitkultur have been unjustly attacked as “racist” or “ethnocentric,” while the idea of “multiculturalism” has been just as unjustly defamed as (in the words of a conservative critic) “deep respect for every culture except one’s own.” On the one hand one could formulate a basic human right to having a childhood—which inevitably means the world of one’s parents. On the other hand, Emile Durkheim (the father of modern French sociology) correctly proposed that no society can survive without what he called a “collective conscience”—by which he meant a shared moral consensus, without which the society would fall apart from within and could not resist aggression from outside. Durkheim was certainly not a racist, and he was personally engaged in the effort to teach a republican morality as the Catholic catechism was banned from public schools in 1905, in the wake of the separation of church and state. Durkheim came from a long line of Jewish rabbis, but I think he would have agreed with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who came from a family of Hungarian immigrants) that “anyone who becomes a citizen of France acquires the Gauls as his ancestors” (perhaps as, in defiance of health warnings issued in Brussels, he smokes Gauloises cigarettes?). Similarly, everyone who becomes an American citizen swears allegiance to a constitution concocted by a bunch of English-speaking white Protestant males in the late 1770s.
Rabbi Hillel the Elder (about 110 BCE to 10 CE), one of the founders of rabbinical Judaism, famously said that he could explain the meaning of Torah while standing on one leg (he proposed the first known formulation of the so-called Golden Rule, then added the line “The rest is commentary”). At issue here is the basic creed of modern liberal democracy. Can one explain this while standing on one leg? I think so. Let me suggest quotations from three canonical documents:
From the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776): “All men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
From the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789): “1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. 2. …These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance against oppression.”
From the Constitution (Grundgesetz) of the Federal Republic of Germany (1949): “The dignity of man is inviolate.”
Do these lapidary sentences answer all questions? Of course not. “The rest is commentary!”
Is Islam compatible with these principles of liberal democracy? I’m convinced that it is. But the principles cannot be accepted in their original Western form. They must be translated, incorporated into an Islamic worldview. Only Muslims can do this. But a sympathetic outsider can share some reflections: There are indeed some passages in the Quran, and even more some ideas that developed later in the history of Islam, which are in tension with the values of liberal democracy. The same tension, to be sure, exists between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and modern liberalism. As far as I’m informed about Islamic history, the aspects which are troubling to modern liberals come from the Quranic passages that originated after Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina—when he ceased to be a prophet in constant danger to his life, and had become a head of state and even a military commander. Traditional Islamic scholars have indeed been long aware of the difference between these two historical contexts. It is my impression that this difference has not yet been sufficiently reflected upon. By the way, there is a curious analogy between Islam before and after the hijra to Medina—and Christianity before and after the Emperor Constantine made that faith into the religion of the Roman state.
Enough of this. Let me suggest a practical method of thinking about Islam “belonging,” or not, in a liberal democracy. It would be a kind of triage: Order the relevant problems under three categories (and for this purpose one need not differentiate between what is deemed to be genuine Islam and what a distortion of it—that is for Al Azhar University in Cairo to ponder, not the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in Paris or the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard). Categories: 1) Practices that are not only compatible with liberal principles but mandated by them. 2) Practices that are clearly incompatible. 3) Practices in a grey area, open to negotiation. Examples: 1) Freedom of religion for Muslims in public as well as in private life. Recognition of religious exemptions on the same grounds conceded to adherents of other faiths. For instance, allowing the construction of mosques, subject only to general zoning laws, or allowing employees to observe religious holidays. 2) Practices that cannot ever be permitted, no matter what their religious legitimation: jihadi terrorism; honor killings; genital mutilation. 3) Areas of prudential negotiation and search for compromise—always, wherever possible, with a bias toward respecting religious freedom. These include: separate school sports for girls and boys; situations where a woman cannot wear a veil covering the entire face. Possible compromises: giving parents a choice; having female photographers take the picture for the driver’s license and female police officers examine it.
Does Islam belong in Europe?—If I think of this question, I compellingly think of Istanbul, that wonderful city at the location where Europe is closest to the part of Asia dominated by Islam. I have long felt an affinity to that city. I know where it originated. I first learned French in my teens. The first book I read in French was a text (a novella, I think), by Pierre Loti (1850-1923). It describes the return to Istanbul by a Frenchman and his search for a woman whom he had loved in the past. In the end he only finds her grave. It is probably autobiographical, full of descriptions of various parts of the city. Since my knowledge of French was still very limited, I had to read it very slowly. Loti had lived in Istanbul as a young man, and his fascination with it communicated itself to me as I read laboriously from one chapter to another. Years later, when I first visited there, the fascination revived powerfully—especially along the skyline of mighty mosques along the Golden Horn, most memorably when I was alone in the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (popularly known as the Blue Mosque), in the vastness of that space which happened to be empty of people at the moment, and where I had my closest sense of the majesty of the God of Islam. Salaam alaikum (“May peace with you”).