Multi-culti is a complete misunderstanding

Bassam Tibi interviewed by Karolina Wigura · 19 June 2012

Karolina Wigura: ‘A total disaster,’ ‘a complete disgrace,’ ‘a serious mistake.’ These are a few of the opinions recently expressed about multiculturalism. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is becoming more and more common in the European Union: it can be heard not only from leaders of certain Dutch or Finnish political parties, but also in the French presidential campaign. Is this the end of a tolerant Europe?
Basam Tibi: Let’s start with the notion that multiculturalism is indeed a complete misunderstanding. In Western Europe, and probably in Poland as well, it is identified with cultural diversity.And these are two completely separate things. Multiculturalism is cultural relativism. This means is that immigrants come to Europe – let’s say we are talking about people from Muslim countries settling down in Germany or France, and very soon in Poland as well – and they can cultivate their values in an unchanged form. And their new hosts must accept that, whether they like it or not. Such an approach leads to abuses, though.

You are originally from Syria and you are a Muslim. You have been living in Europe for a number of years. How did you find a balance between your native tradition and the European one?

I am a supporter of a culturally diversified Europe – this means openness towards people from outside its cultural sphere, but wi- thout consent to lack of respect for the values held here. Cultural pluralism means ‘yes’ to migration, ‘yes’ to representatives of many cultures entering the European community, but a strong ‘no’ to the blurring of the set of European values. And this set includes democracy, gender equality, and separation between politics and religion, for instance. So if someone comes to Europe and claims that Islam is the one and only religion, I should answer him – no! The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen says about religious freedom, and this is the law here, not the Quran. If someone arrives and says that his life is regulated by sharia law, I answer again – no! If you want to think like that, no one is forcing you to live in France, Germany or Denmark.

But if someone wants to live according to the sharia only in Iran or in Saudi Arabia?

I will answer with a question. I understand that you, as a European woman, expect me to follow European rules, even if I was raised in Islam, and women are subservient to men there?

Are we talking about Europe or the Middle East?

And what’s the difference?

A fundamental one. If this happened in Europe, I can expect from you to honour European standards. But if I were in the Middle East, and a man refused to shake my hand in greeting, I wouldn’t lecture him on that, because I know that in Islam a man and woman who are strangers cannot touch each other.

Then you’re a cultural relativist.

Rather a realist. If I expected people from the Middle East to follow my rules in their own country, they would demand the same in Europe.
This is correct, but on the condition that we agree that there is a set of rules that is universal. I consider some of the European values I have mentioned before, like democracy, gender equality, etc. to be universal. Naturally, one has to be sensitive to social conventions found in other cultures: that men and women who don’t know each other don’t come into physical contact in Arabic countries, or that you should let a woman go first through a door in Europe. Not following such customs might, but doesn’t have to, result in violating the basic values.

And do European politicians distinguish between cultural relativism and pluralism?
I suppose they don’t. And identifying one with the other can lead to tragic results. Multiculturalism in Great Britain led to a speci- fic anything goes ethos, immigrants allowed to do anything they wanted. Or try to walk down the Berlin’s district of Kreuzberg. The same ideology in the Federal Republic led to development of something that Germans call parallel Gesellschaften, parallel societies. And there’s more to it than that. We started to identify multiculturalism with the issue of migration as such. That’s the reason why Europeans are unwilling to accept new waves of migrants. I think that some 90% of the EU’s inhabitants are against further inward migration.

Frank Furedi once wrote that multiculturalism has in Europe become a convenient substitute for serious discussion about what really connects people. Plurality of cultures is not the problem then, the problem is that societies have lost a shared vision of how world should look like…

We have rather experienced a complete confusion of different terms. Let’s look at another two: assimilation and integration. Assimilation would mean that during my years in Germany, I would have to abandon the whole lifestyle and worldview brought from Syria in order to become a European. I am against that. In contrast, integration is a process of adaptation, where I could remain a Muslim, and acquire and respect the European norms of behaviour at the same time. That’s how I’ve become a citizen of Europe. Many Muslims don’t accept that, however. And they use the ideology of multiculturalism as an easy method for self-justification.

But you’re talking about a confusion of terms. In whose he- ads? From what you’re saying, it seems to me that responsibi- lity is on the side of Europeans – because they haven’t really thought through their expectations towards immigrants.

It is like that to a great extent. You’re saying ‘Europeans,’ exactly… The term ‘Europeans’ must not be an empty term. But it is. You’re not listening to your own culture, you’re not sure yourselves what foundations it has. And these are the crucial issues!

And immigrants coming to Europe in great numbers after the Arab Spring, is this a marginal phenomenon?
Of course not, thousands of people are escaping to your part of the world. All over the globe, they watch TV and see how life in Europe looks like, and they’re thinking what to do in order to move there. One of my friends in Turkey conducted research about how many inhabitants of that country were willing to move to France or Germany. Almost 50%! Half the Turkish population, that’s 40 million people. However, we confuse the result – a fear of the migrants – with the real reason. European politicians may say whatever they want. But this will be nonsense, as long as Europe doesn’t have a common immigration policy, same procedures, education programmes…

Peter Sloterdijk recently told me that European problems result from the fact that we can’t truly understand our own identity. People of the Old Continent got a second chance in 1945. Sloterdijk recalls this the myth of Aeneas, who got a second chance as well, and built a new city. If we all reali- zed that, as Sloterdijk argues, we could then ‘emigrate’ from our narrow national communities. We could start a serious debate about cultural diversity, integration, and only after that, as a consequence, about a common migration policy…

This is all very spectacular, and probably right to some extent. But one thing is a complete nonsense. Sloterdijk grew up and lives in Western Europe. And, like all Western Europeans, he doesn’t understand what’s going on around him. Like the fact that globalization and global migrations have both a positive and negative impact on the Old Continent – and we need a policy to reflect that. Sloterdijk is a Romantic, if he claims that we are all migrants. Perhaps the reason for that is because he is a German, and he has never had to prove that his German is good enough so he could work at a German university… as I had to. Perhaps that is the reason why I wouldn’t call myself an important point of reference in the German intellectual community, even though I have published 30 books in Germany. A few books in the United States were enough to get a job at Harvard. In fact, America is the continent created per se by the migrants. Americans are fulfilling the ‘myth of Aeneas’.

But you have also said that Sloterdijk is right to some extent…

Yes, but something would have to change in Europeans’ men- tality, so that they would be more open to newcomers. But the problem is not a misunderstanding of the European myth, but simply a lack of a clear definition of what belongs to the set of the most important values. Please have a look: you are a Pole and you look European. I am a Syrian and I don’t look like you. But it shouldn’t really matter. A European – this means a person who is blind to religion or ethnic background. The only criteria should be professed values.

Now you’re saying rather spectacular things, and yet you are also simplifying a lot. When you define what it means to be ‘European’, you focus only on the one current of that tradition. But there are others as well. Europe is to a great extent based on Christian traditions. It is still a group of na- tional states, hence it’s not so easy to decide which of these currents is the most important. But I would like to ask about something else. Let’s get back to the believers of Islam. You are a critique of that religion yourself, but you have also developed a model of Westernized Islam.

Yes, I call it ‘Euroislam.’ Adapting a critical approach to my own religion is absolutely fundamental. If you are a Catholic in Europe, and you criticize Catholicism, no one will excommunicate you for that. But there’s no such tradition of tolerance in the Islamic culture. People who are critical towards Islam are accused of be- ing the enemies of Allah. In some countries, all forms of critique are forbidden. And what’s worse, such arguments are starting to appear in Europe as well. Many insist that you mustn’t cri- ticize. In the name of multiculturalism, since, as they explain, multiculturalism means respecting other cultures.

It’s not exactly like you’re saying. The protesters against the building of mosques in Germany manage to get dozens of thousands of signatures on their petitions. Thilo Sarrazin’s book, even though it was hugely criticized, remained at the top of the bestseller lists for a long time. It seems that you may gain a lot of political capital by criticizing Islam.

I am talking about the behaviour of European Muslims. Instead of trying to behave like partners, they perform some self-victimi- zation. Some people even talk about the phenomenon of ‘stealing the Holocaust’ by the Muslims, who are claiming to be the Jews of Europe today. With such an approach, they are naturally not willing to accept any form of criticism. They tell me: ‘Mr Tibi, you have no right to criticize us. If you are criticizing us, you’re not a Muslim, you don’t belong with us.’ On the other hand, the reason for that might be the fact that Islamic immigrants were tied up with different chains in their own countries. Tied up in a literal sense, like in Syria, or censored like in Tunisia, where the Internet was banned before the Arab Spring. Not to mention that very few foreign books were translated. Let’s think: there are about 350 million Arabs. And there were only 1,000 translations of foreign literature into Arabic for those 350 million! It means that Arabs had no idea what was going on abroad. Many of them took those chains – in a mental sense – with them, when they came to Europe. But this has nothing to do with multiculturalism. Overcoming it is a question of an inter-European discussion.