Interview with German Islam Expert Bassam Tibi "Europeans Have Stopped Defending Their Values"

For years, political scientist Bassam Tibi has been urging Muslims to integrate into European societies and Europe to stand up to Islamists. He spoke with SPIEGEL about the weakness of Europe, the orthodoxy of Islam and what Germany needs to do to open up.

SPIEGEL: The administrator of one of Berlin's opera houses, the Deutsche Oper, has cancelled the Mozart Opera "Idomeneo"  out of fear of an Islamist reaction. Is this the first sign of Germany bowing down to Islam?

Tibi: It's not the first sign, but rather a repeated one. Recently we have been seeing more and more acts of submission,  the most recent case being the Pope's apology. When it comes to Islam, there is no freedom of the press nor freedom of opinion in Germany. Organized groups in Islamic communities want to decide what is said and done here. I myself have been dropped from numerous events because of threats.

SPIEGEL: You are trying to say that critics of Islam are systematically silenced in Germany?

Tibi: Yes. Even the comparatively moderate Turkish organization DITIB says there are no Islamists, only Islam and Muslims -- anything else is racism. That means that you can no longer criticize the religion. Accusing somebody of racism is a very effective weapon in Germany. Islamists know this: As soon as you accuse someone of demonizing Islam, then the European side backs down. I have also been accused of such nonsense, even though my family can trace its roots right back to Muhammad and I myself know the Koran by heart.

SPIEGEL: You have said numerous times that the conflict between the Western world and Muslim groups here is an "ideological war."

Tibi: The result of a conflict between two sides is that people politicize their cultural backgrounds. In Germany representatives of the Islamic communities try to hijack children who are born here, along with the entire Islamic community, to prevent them from being influenced by the society which has taken them in. Children born here are like blank sheets on which you can write European or Islamic texts. Muslim representatives want to raise their children as if they don't even live in Europe.

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. The argument over the cartoons for example was completely orchestrated. Nothing was spontaneous. A lot of people don't know if Denmark is a country or a cheese. Where did they get the Danish flags? Protests like these are weapons in this war of ideas. Or take another example: The president of the Iranian parliament was visiting Belgium where he had an appointment with a female Belgian colleague. He refused to shake her hand, so she didn't meet with him. He left Belgium and accused her of racism. The accusation of cultural insensitivity is a weapon. And we have to neutralize it.

SPIEGEL: Can the Islam conference which the German minister of domestic affairs, Wolfgang Schäuble, organized in Berlin last week, help in this regard?

Tibi: No, because the biggest taboo is that there even is a conflict at all. Everyone denies that. Instead people talk about misunderstandings and how these should be resolved. But a conflict of values is not a misunderstanding. Islamic orthodoxy and the German constitution are not compatible. And that is why the Islam conference failed.

SPIEGEL: So what's the answer then?

Tibi: Muslims have to give up three things if they want to become Europeans: They have to bid farewell to the idea of converting others, and renounce the Jihad. The Jihad is not just a way of testing yourself but also means using violence to spread Islam. The third thing they need to give up is the Shariah, which is the Islamic legal system. This is incompatible with the German constitution. There are also two things they need to redefine.

SPIEGEL: Which are?

Tibi: Pluralism and tolerance are pillars of modern society. That has to be accepted. But pluralism doesn't just mean diversity. It means that we share the same rules and values, and are still nevertheless different. Islam doesn't have this idea. And Islam also has no tradition of tolerance. In Islam tolerance means that Christians and Jews are allowed to live under the protection of Muslims but never as citizens with the same rights. What Muslims call tolerance is nothing other than discrimination.

SPIEGEL: How many of the 3 million Muslims living in Germany would agree to these demands?

Tibi: A few thousand perhaps.

SPIEGEL: And what about the organizations at the Islam conference?  After all, they all clearly said that they accept the German constitution. They also stated that it is allowed to change religion or to have no religion at all, even though the Shariah punishes a loss of faith with the death sentence. Is this a credible statement?

Tibi: I doubt that these statements are correct. Only representatives of organized Islam went to Schäuble's conference. Schäuble's problem is terrorism. And when the organizations tell him: "We are against terrorism," then everything is hunky-dory. But that is not a policy.

SPIEGEL: So who should Schäuble talk to? To you? 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.

SPIEGEL: So the German state should reform Islam?

Tibi: Of course not. But the 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: Schäuble is looking for partners who can help in the teaching of Islam in schools and the training of Imams.

Tibi: That is a good start. The important thing is that the teachers must be trained here and that the state and the society decides on the curriculum.

SPIEGEL: You have often said that the integration of Muslims in Germany has failed. And that integration can only be achieved by "educating a civil society." But who should do this and who decides who needs to be educated?

Tibi: I am thinking in particular about the re-education programs which were carried out in Germany after the Third Reich. Social studies teachers and political science faculties were given the task of turning young people into democrats. That worked then. Why shouldn't we have a similar model for Muslims? In youth clubs, or during Islamic instruction in schools. Of course it takes a long time, 50 years say, but we have to start.

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.

Interview conducted by Cordula Meyer and Caroline Schmidt

Translated from the German by Damien McGuinness

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