Read in Berlin, 25.11.06 Opening of Artneuland
I take great pleasure in being able to participate in this event – which we see as a first preparatory step for our project: To initiate a kind of cultural cooperation between different religions. I would like to begin with a quote from Albert Camus:
“You spoke of the Last Judgment, of Judgment Day? Permit me to laugh – with due respect. I will face it without any fear. I have been through the worst of all: The Judgment of my fellow men. They don’t allow for mitigating circumstances, and even good intentions too often count as evidence against you. I’ll tell you a grand secret, my dear: Don’t wait for Judgment Day – in our life every day is judgment day …”
Camus’ statement bristles with pessimism – this was my first impression on reading it. However looking at the course of human history, we realize how painfully accurate he was. We learn the lesson anew every day: Living with others, sharing, and communicating with them, is a highly problematic and very often a dangerous enterprise.
However, our world also knows a different model, which all too often we simply don’t recognize; one could be tempted to think that we are afraid of its potential implications, and consequences, despite the inherent which has always existed.
Despite the salient violence there is, and always has been, all over the world there is an unmistakably yearning for peace, love, and harmony among people. We appear to be incapable, of finding the path towards this ideal’ – we regularly get lost looking for it – so regularly, in fact, that one could think that failure is our destiny. Should we resign, give up this hope and desire – or should we reconsider and accept it as a challenge – without the use of arms, even without continuing to work on the further development of our weapon systems?
Today we are meeting in Berlin to face – and undertake – this crucial challenge: Using the means and medium of culture: culture quite literally as a mediator. We invite, and urge, different people to approach one another. A culture of peace, where culture is taken seriously, and stands up for its ideals, would serve this crucial function. Instead of fighting against one another, we could learn to respect and talk to one another. To achieve this, we certainly should not overlook the barriers which have prevented such an approach until now – if we ignore past mistakes we are bound to repeat them. In my view, a stable image of the others as being my permanent enemy is the most massive barrier of all – such self-perpetuating images should be stopped and finally debunked by the kind of trialogue we are planning. Various individuals have described these images in different ways, but they all have one thing in common: They don’t refer to any concrete enemy but to a generalized image or model which acts like a filter, a perceptual filter between him and us.
Once imprinted in such a manner, it is almost impossible to clear and clean yourself of this stigma. Note that these images always emerge when there is little or no contact between the parties concerned, let alone any direct knowledge of or experience with the other. Thus, the images inevitably remain fragmentary – which means that our fantasies will provide the missing parts and aspects. (In my opinion, even a poem is incomplete if one letter is missed out…)
The current most fashionable image of a natural born enemy - at least in the Western world – is Islam per se.
However there have been phases of resentments and animosities between the Orient and the Occident, as well as ups and downs and turn away between Arabic Islamic and European Christian world, 9/11 has been the climax in the development of Feindbild Islam.
Islam itself, it seems, was stigmatized; Islam became the enemy of civilization. Rapidly, the image of Islam as an uncanny and aggressive, religion spread over the Western world. Publicly and in privately, Muslims became prime suspects, who were persecuted for no other reason.
These images of apparently natural enemies are easily interchanged. At certain times, they might be Jews, at others blacks – at present it is Muslims. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that two of the three countries forming “the axis of evil” are Islamic.)
Muslims in Germany in no way were spared the consequences of this development. So far, Christians and Muslims had co-habitated, so to speak, quite peacefully in German cities – a desirable state which was disrupted almost overnight after 9/11. No one cared about cultural peculiarities – until that date which suddenly seemed to reveal insoluble problems – as evidenced by the – emotionally charged – controversy about wearing the headscarf in public. An all-encompassing distrust and anxiety seem to pervade most walks of life at this point, everyone seems caught in a vicious circle which no one seems to be able to leave. There is a merciless battle raging, threatening to destroy all of us unless we find alternative ways to deal with it. Sam Huntington’s comment, wherever there is Islam, there is violence, too, or “Islam has bloody borders” seem to be poor counsel in this respect, as useless as the divisive confrontation between Orient and Occident: It seems we need a new kind of enlightenment today.
Perhaps it is worth some second thoughts why, of all possibilities, it should be Islam that the West picked as a prime enemy. There are various explanations: One of the most frequently cited ones is that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West needed a new enemy to adequately fill the gap left by communism. History will tell us the truth about it. Some of the most remarkable hypotheses, however, can be gleaned from Peter Sloterdijk’s new book Zorn und Zeit.
There were times in the history of Western culture when Islam held a different status. Friedrich Rückert, for instance, was not only acutely interested in the Islamic notions of God but even translated the Koran. Goethe praised this particular religion for its tolerance, nay for its capacity for enlightenment. His own advertisement for his East-West-Divan culminated in an amazing sentence: “The author will not reject the supposition that he himself might be a Muslim.”
And, in one of his poems, Goethe writes:
“Isn’t is quite foolish that everyone praises his very own opinion!
If Islam means “devoted to God”, then all of us live and die as Muslims, so to speak.”
My hope is that this society which is rightly proud of this national poet, will also take pride in emulating his interest in everything alien. For this occasion tonight I could not think of a better Motto than another quotation from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – may it also be the motto of Artneuland’s future work:
“If you know yourself and others,
You’ll know it in the end:
There is no way to separate
Orient and Occident.”
// April 2007