29 May 2003
Israel, Europe and Islam
Jerusalem, Hebrew University
1. Beliefs and problems
I would like to begin by listing three things in which I believe absolutely, all three of which are connected to democracy.
The first thing I believe in is a definition. Following a widely accepted view, I consider democracy to be a regime in which government power changes hands without violence and through free elections.
The second thing I believe in is a historical fact. Democracy was born in the West. It is above all the product of the long struggle of European individuals against absolute powers, whether secular or religious.
The third thing I believe in is a value. Democracy is a universal good, and therefore it is not just a fact that regards a certain part of the globe but rather a duty for all peoples.
These three beliefs raise at least two problems that I would like to address more specifically. The first is that if democracy is a fact of the West, does transforming it into a universal value not amount to a form of imperialism? The second is that if democracy is a fact of the western world, can it be exported to other areas?
I believe these problems can be resolved. In seeking to do so, I also hope to answer the objection that arises from the title of my address, namely that putting together two historical and political entities – Europe and Israel – and a religious entity – Islam – is a “category mistake”. I believe that there is no such error if we look at the three entities from a cultural standpoint. Europe is the cradle of democracy, Israel is one of the cradles of our civilisation and Islam is one of the major religious and civil traditions.
2. Democracy and imperialism
Let me then begin with my first problem: is democracy a form of Western imperialism?
In arguing that it is not, I will make use of the definition I gave earlier. If democracy is a regime that rejects the use of violence in governmental change, then democracy is based on dialogue. In democratic systems, governments are replaced through free discussion of the merits and shortcomings of those who govern.
“Dialogue” is more than “discuss” because dialogue has a practical end. A dialogue is a discussion aimed at inducing a change of opinion, an action. Typically, in a democracy that action is voting.
This means that dialogue implies an appeal to reason: if I discuss an issue with someone in order to change his opinion, it means I acknowledge the other person’s ability to follow my arguments, to advance his own point of view and to compare it with my own. Dialogue establishes a sort of “citizenship of reason”, which requires tolerance of persons and their opinions, whatever they might be.
But there is more. Dialogue is a symmetrical relationship: just as I want the other to accept my point of view, the other wants me to accept his. Dialogue therefore implies respect, and respect is something more than tolerance. Tolerance is a passive virtue that merely acknowledges an interlocutor with his own opinions. Respect is an active virtue that goes beyond this to acknowledge that the other may change my opinions. Tolerance moves in one direction; respect works in both.
I emphasise this difference because, especially in European countries with religious minorities (Italy, for example, is home to about one million Muslims), there is a tendency to believe that tolerance is enough to ensure integration. This is not true. Tolerance alone threatens to create closed communities, and hence tensions and conflict. True integration requires that each community have the right to hybridise the others. Remember that dialogue means changing opinion but not necessarily changing that of others: it may also result in a change in our own opinions. As Popper would say, the success of a dialogue between A and B does not depend on the fact that A has converted B but rather on the fact that after their exchange of views, A and B have become wiser, intellectually richer, because each understands the other better.
I can now answer my question as to whether democracy is a form of Western imperialism. If democracy is based on dialogue, then democracy is based on consent, not force. The idea that democracy can be imposed against the will of a people is as inconsistent as the idea that we can have a dialogue simply by indoctrinating the other party, or, even worse, by eliminating it.
One might object that history shows the contrary. It is argued that Italians and Germans, for example, were forced to accept democracy after the second world war. This is wrong. The second world war tore down two despotic regimes – Fascism and Nazism – but it did not in itself impose democracy. After the war, Italy and Germany became democratic countries because their peoples wanted democracy, and they were successful because they founded their efforts on their previous, deeply-rooted traditions.
This experience must be borne in mind in the wake of the second Gulf war. Having eliminated the dictator, the challenge is now to create a tradition of dialogue and respect in Iraqi society. And the greatest effort must be made to create the conditions – through trade, preaching, education, administration, legislation, etc. – so that this new secular tradition takes root and intermingles with existing cultural and religious traditions.
Traditions are fundamental. Democratic institutions evolve into differing species because local traditions influence them in their own way. The idea that there is a sole model of democracy is as naive and erroneous as the belief that there is only one species of animal. In actual practice, democracies evolve together with their own traditions, and if democratic institutions demand norms of conduct widely rejected in a society, they easily degenerate.
3. Exporting democracy
I have now laid the ground to address my second question: is democracy exportable? Since democracy takes on different shapes depending on the local traditions it interacts with, the question with regard to Islamic countries becomes: are Islamic traditions compatible with democracy? Some authoritative Western scholars are sceptical. They argue that democracy presupposes the separation of religion and morality from state and law; or separation between the state and the civil society. To frame it differently, their view is that democracy requires acknowledging the moral neutrality of the state. Since this concept is foreign to Islamic tradition and is explicitly rejected by many Muslims today, it would follow that democracy is incompatible with Islam and cannot exported to Islamic countries.
Against this view, it could be objected that there are several countries – the Turkish Republic is one – that have constitutionally, or as a matter of fact, accepted those distinctions. However, the problem cannot be solved this way. Since it is a cultural issue, we must take a conceptual rather than historical position.
Like Christianity, Islam is a complex entity in which different nuances and even radical divergences coexist. To the best of my (poor) knowledge, I do not see any essential point in it that clashes with the basic cultural tenets of democratic institutions. However, since the objection relates to an alleged aspect of democracy, I will address the question from this point of view.
I would argue that, strictly speaking, the ethical neutrality of the state is a myth. Nowhere in the West has this been fully realised, and there are good reasons for believing that it cannot be realised. It is misleading to think of religious beliefs as merely a matter that concerns the private sphere of individual choices alone. Religious beliefs have consequences for public policies. The heated debates on issues such as abortion, euthanasia and the use of biotechnology are related to deep religious and moral beliefs. Polygamy is forbidden by law simply because we are all the heirs of a common Judeo-Christian heritage.
Thus the moral neutrality of the state is not a matter of “all or nothing”. It is a matter of degree. As far as morals are concerned, the most important question for democracies is not the full implementation of the neutrality of the state. Rather, the real question is how to cope with clashes caused by deep moral and religious divergences.
Here I have to return to the concept of respect. After long and bitter religious wars, Europeans have acquired the habit of mutual respect. Debates may be harsh, but the public tries to understand the reasons for the disagreement. There is no easy solution to these differences, but what respect allows us to achieve is a reasoned, and temporary, compromise that safeguards a common modus vivendi. And what respect leads us to accept are legal and institutional compromises that preserve peaceful coexistence.
I see no reason to believe that even the most fundamentalist countries will not be able to devise similar compromises that will prove to be compatible with democracy. Autocratic societies can only survive in a static environment, but today’s world is changing swiftly. Television, the Internet and rapid advances in technological and scientific knowledge naturally produce pluralistic societies, since individuals typically react in different ways to novelty. This at least partially explains why despotic regimes tend to be of short duration. Of course, the collapse of one despotic regime can be followed by another despotic regime. There is no historical necessity for democracy to replace despotism, nor is it historically impossible for despotism to be followed by democracy.
4. The scourges of Europe and coexistence among peoples
Let me conclude by discussing more political problems and current situations, which I believe can be placed within the conceptual framework I have tried to trace.
The history of the European peoples and that of the Jewish and Arab peoples teaches us that no historical or theological determinism prescribes reciprocal irreducible hatred. Europe is not only the ghetto in which the Jews were persecuted. It is also the home of Zionism and a place where Jews and Muslims have lived together peaceably: in the Iberian peninsula in the High Middle Ages, but also in the Balkans under Muslim rule. The reciprocal benefits for both peoples were enormous both materially and, in an even more lasting way, culturally.
However, Europe’s recent lapses cannot be passed over in silence. Europe did not pay full attention to the influence first of Nazism then of communism in some key Arab countries. Europe viewed Middle Eastern states in a rather cynical fashion, as if they were mere geographical entities. After the birth of Israel, Europe largely neglected that tradition of dialogue and contamination of peoples of different cultures which for centuries had been an essential part of its heritage. Europe today runs the same risks with Israel, shrugging off its concerns and fears.
Unfortunately, Europe is forgetting that it is a very special hybrid: it is the child of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome and, later, Paris, Amsterdam, Cambridge, Florence, Pisa and Königsberg, where its many celebrated fathers were born and where they worked. Today, scepticism, relativism, post-modernism, multiculturalism and many other similar intellectual scourges afflict Europe. They threaten its identity and are undermining the leading role it played for centuries. Like nature according to Heraclites, Europe today tends to hide itself.
Among other things, this retreat of Europe from its roots has fuelled Israel’s mistrust of the Old Continent, and lies at the root of Europe’s underestimation of the terrorist phenomenon. Muslim fundamentalists have sought to find in Europe – especially within some radical areas of the no-global and pacifist movements – a possible interlocutor for their war of civilisations.
All this can and must be corrected. My view is that if Europe rediscovers the motivation behind its democratic nature and identity, nurtures them and safeguards them, and if Israel perceives that Europe, thanks to this rediscovery, strongly and effectively defends the right of the Israeli people to a secure existence, then neither the recent history of Arab countries, nor the tragic episodes of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, nor Islam itself are an insuperable obstacle to peaceful coexistence, and that even the suspicion that still tinges relations between Israel and Europe will dissipate.
Summing up and returning to the problems I raised at the outset. I believe that democracy is a universal value. I also believe that democratic regimes can emerge anywhere in a rapidly changing world, albeit with many difficulties and in different ways. Philosophical purists will obviously be unhappy with the institutional and legal compromises that all these approaches entail; and as a philosopher, I am unhappy, too, in many respects. But I am also a politician, at least temporarily. And I believe that what matters is less the intellectual happiness of philosophers than the moral wisdom of politicians. They can strive for co-operation among peoples with different cultures, traditions, habits and values. And since they can, they must.