Nearly all the interesting discussions about Islam are coming from Europe rather than the United States. In Germany the debate was given a major jolt by Thilo Sarrazin, as I noted in German Angst and Islam. Unlike debates in the United States — which are usually reduced to simple dichotomies that can be quickly judged as good/evil or black/white — the intellectual atmosphere in Europe typically produces far more nuanced perspectives and positions. While nuance and complexity in America is often associated with passive academics or naive liberals, European intellectuals more often assess complexities and arrive at conclusions. One such person, the Egyptian-German political scientist Hamed Abdel-Samad, was recently interviewed by Der Spiegel.
Before highlighting some of the more interesting statements from the interview (which I encourage you to read in its entirety), I want to congratulate the anonymous Spiegel interviewer. If we could only get Brian Williams, Katie Couric, or Anderson Cooper to ask questions like these, American national debates would benefit immeasurably.
The interviewee, Hamed Abdel-Samad, has a remarkable biography:
Hamed Abdel-Samad grew up in Egypt as the son of an imam. He came to Germany at the age of 23, and he has lived here for most of the last 15 years. He worked as an academic in Erfurt and Braunschweig and conducted research at the Institute for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich before deciding to devote himself entirely to his writing. Though highly critical of Islam, Abdel-Samad has never turned away from the faith completely. His new book “Der Untergang der islamischen Welt” (“The Downfall of the Islamic World”) is published by Munich’s Droemer Verlag.
The interview commences with this is inauspicious exchange:
SPIEGEL: You predict the “downfall of the Islamic world,” to quote the title of your new book. But Islam is the fastest growing of all religions, and Europe, in particular, is worried about being overwhelmed by Muslims.
Abdel-Samad: The numbers don’t tell us very much. There are 1.4 billion Muslims. So what? The important thing is that in almost all countries with a Muslim majority, we see the decline of civilization and a stagnation of all forms of life. Islam has no convincing answers to the challenges of the 21st century. It is in intellectual, moral and cultural decline — a doomed religion, without self-awareness and without any options to act.
If this were the gist of the interview, American rightists would be nodding their heads in agreement and American leftists would be shaking their heads with frustration. But with the next question the interviewer saves the day and receives a sobering response:
SPIEGEL: Aren’t you making the mistake of many radical critics of Islam, by lumping together the entire religion, in all of its many forms?
Abdel-Samad: Of course our religion has many directions. The differences may be of interest to theologians and anthropologists, but they are quite irrelevant from a political standpoint. The decisive element is the general lack of direction and backwardness, which often lead to an aggressive fundamentalism. That sets the general tone.
Leave it to a political scientist to remind anthropologists and theologians there is a difference between the world of description and thought, and the world of action. For those familiar with the early history of Marxism and Bolshevism, this should sound familiar. While the intellectuals were hard at work producing brilliant works of critical theory and the working classes continued to do what was necessary to survive, there were always those who were inclined to action, of the most decisive and homicidal sort. Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh were fundamentalists of a kind who believed that small groups of able people (the vanguard) could transform society from the top and deal with the directionless bottom later.
After issuing this warning, Abdel-Samad opines:
In a sense, Islam is like a drug, like alcohol. A small amount can have a healing and inspiring effect, but when the believer reaches for the bottle of dogmatic faith in every situation, it gets dangerous. This high-proof form of Islam is what I’m talking about. It harms the individual and damages society. It inhibits integration, because this Islam divides the world into friends and enemies, into the faithful and the infidels.
Standing alone, this opinion does not say much — it is primarily a conclusion. But in the context of Abdel-Samad’s life, experiences, and learning — all of which are discussed in the remainder of the interview, it says a great deal.