Features » Politics And Society

French philosopher Pascal Bruckner accused Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash of propagating a form of multiculturalism that amounts to legal apartheid. His fiery polemic unleashed an international debate. By now Timothy Garton Ash, Necla Kelek, Paul Cliteur, Lars Gustafsson, Stuart Sim and Ulrike Ackermann have all entered the ring. Read their contributions as well as Ian Buruma's initial response here.


The view from the Vistula

Journalist Adam Krzeminski gives a Polish perspective on the multiculturalism debate and warns against oversimplified analogies between Islamic and Eastern European dissidents.

I read the debate launched by perlentaucher and between the "Enlightenment fundamentalists" and the "cultural relativists" in the restaurant car of the Berlin-Warsaw express. The subtle considerations on whether to slaughter liberal values on the altar of an obscure multiculturalism became interspersed with fragments of a verbal skirmish on Polish domestic politics taking place over beer and chitterlings at the next table. I had just got to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Berlin speech in which she compared herself with the Eastern European dissidents of the 70s and 80s and sent a reminder to the West to give more backing to the dissidents of Islam, when I heard the now sacramental words in contemporary Polish debate: "Kaczory" (drakes) and "Michnikowszczyzna" (the Michnik regime).

Poland's governing twin brothers stood here for the radical cleaning up of post-communist trash and the head editor of the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza paper, for a scandalous love-affair with the post-communists. There it is again, I thought to myself, the never-ending argument of your countrymen. On one side the fundamentalists, who wallow in the friend-or-foe principle and hold conflict solution though round-table discussion for the work of the devil. On the other side the so-called relativists, who see Satan in the Jacobinist autism of the self-appointed heirs to righteousness, which leads directly to the Leninist "Who whom?" power principle.

After I had returned to my seat, I finished reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography and I was swept away. Then I flicked through Ian Buruma's book "Murder in Amsterdam" and read Timothy Garton Ash's brilliant review of both books and was similarly impressed. I was left relatively cold by the "Enlightenment fundamentalist" label that was being pasted onto Hirsi Ali, finding it unnecessary. And the French-Anglo Saxon-German banter about which was the superior model for dealing with Islamic immigrants - French laicism or British multiculturalism - left me cold in the sense that seen from the Vistula, both models are highly theoretical.

A lot of water will have to flow from the Vistula into the Baltic before a Polish minister of the interior steps up like Wolfgang Schäuble at the Berlin Islam conference, to announce that Islam is part of the Polish identity. Although the Poles have not been untouched by Islam. And I am not so much referring to the Turkish wars in the 17th century and the minuscule group of Polish Tartars who have lived in Poland ever since, as to the Warsaw's first converts to Islam like Piotr Ibrahim Kalwas, who in two lurid books outlined his break with the coldness of his educated middle-class family and the duplicity of Polish Catholicism in favour of the emotional support that he found among peace-loving Muslims.

This is not to say that Warsaw has a Turkish quarter the likes of Berlin's Neukölln. The gaps in the domestic job market left by the hundreds of thousands of Poles who have gone to Britain and Ireland are filled by Ukrainians not Turks. Oriana Fallaci's broadside against the Oriental illegal immigrants who were defacing the monuments in Florence can be purchased in luxury bindings in Polish bookshops. And at the time of the "cartoon conflict" a conservative Polish paper also published the Danish Muhammad caricatures in a proud show of European solidarity and a nod to the "clash of civilisations".

But Poles are still very much the silent onlookers in Western European debates about Islam. And in Poland there is also no argument worthy of its name about Turkish EU accession. Not even the National Catholics are opposed to it. Too lasting an impression was made on Polish minds by the legend that the Ottoman Empire never recognised the partition of Poland in the 18th century, and that at official occasions in the Sultan's palace the Polish ambassador was ritually invoked only to be excused as "temporarily delayed".

In Western eyes the Poles are often compared with the Turks, as Norman Stone did for example in 2005 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and which was reported in Poland without provoking too much outrage. After all, Polish historians like Janusz Tazbir point out that Polish Sarmatism, that ideology of the Polish nobility which was an autistic mixture of Marianism, Polish self-sufficiency and a mistrust of the Enlightened West, assumed in the 17th-18th centuries such oriental traits that Friedrich II referred contemptuously to the Polish nobility in their Turkish skirts as "Europe's Iroquois" when explaining to the European public why the Polish-Lithuanian nobility-run republic had become so fragmented.

Historical analogies are tempting, yet they can be misleading. Take the comparison between Islam and communism drawn by Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the height of the "cartoon conflict" in her speech in Berlin. It had initial impact but is not convincing in the long run.

The back-up offered to her by Ulricke Ackermann did not make things any better. "The sympathetic reading of Islam recalls that of communism before 1989," she writes. "At the time, the West's self-hatred and invalidation of the accomplishments of free democracy were expressed in a generous interpretation of communism. A similar phenomenon is to be seen in attitudes towards Islam today, in large part thanks to its anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism. Many Western intellectuals had reservations about Eastern European dissidents because they were only fighting for the so-called 'bourgeois liberties.' Many dreamed at the time of a 'third way' between capitalism and communism. The analogy is evident in the terminology: Stalinism could be criticised but communism was handled with kid gloves. Today, criticism of Islamism is common sense, but criticism of Islam has to be conducted with care."

Even if one were to argue that communism - at least in the Russian-Orthodox variation, is an instrument of political theology, it would still be a gross oversimplification to compare it – this still-born theory – with a millennium old monotheistic religion. And whatever the differences between Stalinism and communism – even in the Soviet Union it was never a deeply internalised religion that was carried by the people. It was a social promise and a belief system that was imposed top down and with force. And it imploded by itself like a soap bubble after just 70 years. The reasons for this were manifold: the pressure from within – for which the dissidents and mass revolts like the Polish Solidarnosc, and the Hungarian, Czech, East German, Baltic, Ukrainian and all the other protest movements over the years deserve recognition – as well as the pressure from outside, the involvement in dialogue, the cooperation and finally through what Ulrike Ackermann so disparagingly refers to as "change through rapprochement".

It was the variety of these impulses which so successfully and in the end so un-dramatically saw off communism. The endless debates – as to whether "the West" in other words: one politician or another, for which read: the SPD, was too soft on the satraps in the East and too neglectful of the true heroes of the resistance – were largely unproductive as it turned out, because they dogmatically and retroactively back either one side or the other, with the aim of exposing or settling old resentments, miscalculations and omissions. The victory of the West – which was also keenly felt in the hearts of the people in the Soviet colonies in Central Eastern Europe – is no universal model for the fall of communism elsewhere – as the case of China proves.

Just like the earlier communist "renegades" Arthur Koestler and Ignazio Silone, Eastern European dissidents under "actually existing socialism" - people like Leszek Kolakowski, Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel - returned home to their old, European, Judeo-Christian-Enlightenment cultural roots after their break with the communist aberration. In this they were similar to those political emigrants, apostates and heretics in Europe over the centuries who, persecuted in their own lands, had sought a foothold in neighbouring countries.

When Czeslaw Milosz remained in the West after a diplomatic visit in 1951, denouncing the "misled thinking" of his friends and acquaintances in Stalinist Poland, he was merely returning in Paris to his cultural homeland. Hirsi Ali, by contrast, on arriving in the Netherlands, radically turned her back on her own past, and found a new identity as an apostate in the radical negation of her Islamic influences. European history shows only too well that neophytes and catechumens tend to be overzealous. And it is beyond question that Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a courageous, admirable person, and that she is to be supported in demanding that Muslims - at least in Europe - should respect secular human rights, even if she has been called a "Enlightenment fundamentalist."

And yet there is a fundamental flaw in the analogy between Islam and communism. Communism was an ephemeral apparition, an artificial outgrowth of European intellectual history. Islam, by contrast, is the essence of a deeply internalised mentality, tradition, political and religious cultural outlook, and has been for over a thousand years. Communism could be picked to pieces because it had "scientific" aspirations and - at least in theory - subjected its own intellectual edifice to critical examination. Scripture-based religions, by contrast, claim divine revelation as a fundamental doctrine. And yet these religions have transformed with time - Islam included - because the world has changed, and with it the mentality of believers. They have had their schisms and reformations, their apostates and reformers, their Holy warriors and tolerant unionists who prompted the rival confessions at least to enter into dialogue.

Voltaire and the European Enlightenment emerged from the heart of European culture, and remained there. The Muslim Voltaires are frontier runners, people who seek to infuse their cultures with the Western categories of freedom, human rights and the critique of dogma from the outside, from Europe. This is an entirely different constellation than we saw with the support for apostates and dissidents in the Eastern Bloc after the death of Stalin. Ulrike Ackermann complains that too many Western intellectuals and politicians set far more stock in a "change through rapprochement" from above - that is on discussions and symbolic embraces with the powers that be - than in support for civic movements and dissidents from below. This may well apply in certain striking individual cases. Yet it also reminds one of an age old dispute in Polish cabaret about "the superiority of Christmas over Easter," or vice versa.

Ultimately the "Round Table" and the first relatively free elections in the Eastern Bloc on June 4, 1989 (the same day the protesting students were flattened by tanks in Beijing) were the result of concerted action by many different players. The NATO Double-Track Decision, the Helsinki Accords, the hug between Honecker and Jaruzelski, the spontaneous support for Eastern European dissidents and the huge package action during martial law in Poland, Western Gorbimania (which encouraged the GDR demonstrators in October 1989) and the Polish made-to-measure contribution to system change in 1988/89 (the new wave of strikes and the faculty for dialogue on both sides) all played a role.

The political, mental and philosophical pluralism of the Europeans brought communism to its knees in a concerted action, and very many, very diverse groups and intellectual directions can claim to have had a hand in the European annus mirabilis.

The same is only partly true of the conflict with Islamism. Of course the Muslim Voltaires need support, even if they are touted as "Enlightenment fundamentalists" with perfectly staged media coverage. Wolfgang Schäuble is certainly right when he states that they belong to our pluralistic spectrum just as Islam now (once more) belongs to our European identity. And there is no reason why the Europeans should not take a critical approach to diverse holy scriptures, including the Koran.

Certainly one can discuss which model - the British, French or German - is best for integrating Islam and Muslims in Europe. They all have their advantages and disadvantages, and halfway Europeanised Islamists, with or without a ban on headscarves, have committed terrorist acts in all three. Yet the problem is too complex and too serious to be trivialised by making it a yardstick for the superiority of one's own political culture over the French, say, or the British. It concerns both the Muslims and the European "aborigines", who believe the immigrants are a threat to their cultural identities. In Europe there is no reason - not even multicultural tolerance - for abandoning or diluting deep-seated legal principles like the equality of women or the separation of church and state, with a reference to the need for tolerance of other mores. When people move to Europe for good, they clearly also want to accept European standards. It seems then incomprehensible that female Muslim school students should be exempted from field trips, biology lessons or gym class. School doesn't lead to assimilation, it leads to the integration of immigrants, provided they don't just remain amongst themselves.

European history is familiar with both models in its treatment of "others" as neighbours. For many centuries, Jews were "inner neighbours" in Christian Europe. Often they were much appreciated as traders or craftsmen, brought by kings, princes and city councillors to their ghettos, where they had their own schools and administration, as in Poland before the partition. Sometimes, however, they were expelled or subject to pogroms after proclamations such as "de non tolerandis judaeis." Often they were made to wear different clothing to their Christian neighbours. The result was spatial and linguistic separation. With ethnically motivated uprisings or peasant revolts, these "foreigners" then encountered the full-fledged wrath of the armed mob. During the Khmelnytsky uprising in Ukraine in the 17th century, for example, the Kossacks always hung a Jew, a (Polish) nobleman, a Jesuit and a dog on the gallows - to remove all doubt as to just who the enemy was.

The result was the major wave of Jewish migrants to Enlightened Prussia. They placed their hopes in the Enlightenment as a vehicle for integration - even assimilation - in the Prussian nation state. The inner-Jewish conflict in 19th century Germany saw reformed, often even German-nationalist Jews looking askance at the masses of Eastern European Jews with kaftans and sidelocks in Berlin's Scheunenviertel district. Here one is reminded somewhat of today's debate around Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "Enlightenment fundamentalism." It shouldn't be forgotten, however, that assimilation was no protection for the German Jews. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 were meant to repeal the successful assimilation and integration, and led to the ovens of Auschwitz. Europe is not only a refuge of humanity and tolerance, as the French wanted inscribed in the preamble to the EU Constitution; it also has a long history of separation, apartheid and mass murder.

And now Europeans are not exactly sure how they should react to their new internal mobility and migrations, which are putting fundamental questions to the (not really so old) national state. Must mass immigration involve giving minority status to the new ethnic groups in the EU member states? This is currently a bone of contention between Germany and Poland. If hundreds of thousands Poles live in Germany, why shouldn't they have minority status? Allocating such a status to Muslims has already been broached in debates in Germany. The joke is that until now no Polish National Catholic has demanded minority status for the one hundred thousand Poles living in the UK. What's really at stake in the case of Germany is the lack of symmetry. There is a long-established German minority in Poland, for that reason there should also be a Polish minority in Germany. After all, this minority was recognised as such until 1939 in Silesia and the Ruhr. One hundred years ago it was the subject of a huge conflict, one which did substantial damage to Wilhelminian Germany, when religion classes in Polish were banned in East Prussia. This led to a strike by schoolchildren in Wrzesnia, which was terminated with police truncheons and prison sentences. The Poles were meant to be Germanised by studying religion in German.

These stories may seem old hat, but only at first glance. They show that today's conflict between "Enlightenment fundamentalists" and "cultural relativists" in Europe has very old roots. This Gordian knot cannot simply be cut with the stroke of a sword. For that reason the Islamic challenge in Europe demands - as so often - very different solutions, "fundamentalist" as well as "culturalist". Discussions and negotiations in the form of diverse Islamic conferences are needed, as is fundamental opposition where the conventions of the Sharia run counter to European principles. Europe is pluralistic, and it needs the Muslim Voltaires as much as the Lessings. Certainly it's unfortunate that Ayaan Hirsi Ali saw no place for herself in the Netherlands. But luckily she is still present in Europe, and not just virtually. This applies to Poland as well, a country currently caught up with another type of fundamentalism, and another form of cultural relativism.


Adam Krzeminski was born in West Galicia in 1945 and has been editor of the magazine Polityka since 1973. He is one of Poland's leading journalists and chairman of the Polish-German Association in Warsaw.

Translation: lp, jab. - let's talk european