The West should keep in mind that Islamic civilization reached its peak long before Europe's Enlightenment, says German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, adding that isolation is a death sentence for every culture.
Enzensberger says Islamic civilization was at its peak well before European greats came along
Deutsche Welle: In Dubai, we are witnessing the realization of a gigantic modernization project -- albeit without the adoption of "Western values" such as democracy and the rule of law. Can this experiment succeed in the long run? And should we be content with this purely technical or administrative modernization from above?
Hans Magnus Enzensberger: As we can see, the Gulf region is going through a breathtaking modernization project like no other, particularly in Dubai. This accelerated, primarily economic modernization is being pushed by the rulers; and without a doubt it is bringing more openness and a great deal of momentum into the countries in question. This certainly plays a role in the onset of modern values in the region, however slow that may be. In the case of Dubai and its ruler Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, we are looking at a kind of "enlightened autocracy" in my opinion. So it is more than mere technical modernization.
In your opening address at a recent German-Arab cultural dialogue in Dubai, you emphasized that Europeans claiming the Enlightenment for themselves could only be a half-truth. What exactly do you mean by that?
Al Maktoum's rule is an 'enlightened autocracy,' says Enzensberger
As we can tell by the different names for Enlightenment, it is a very complex phenomenon with varying nuances and parameters, depending on the country and the language. Enlightenment is a work of humankind; it has its own inherent contradictions and paradoxes.
In my opening speech, I wanted to make people aware that the Europeans possess no kind of copyright on Enlightenment, even though many in the West cite the Greeks as a historical model. The numerous attempts by many Europeans to claim the Enlightenment for themselves are half-truths at best.
I wanted to remind the audience that what the "West" tends to forget is the fact that Islamic civilization in Arab Andalusia was at its height many centuries before David Hume and John Locke, Diderot and Immanuel Kant wrote their epochal works.
For two centuries, Arab Andalusia was an incomparable center of philosophical and scientific scholarship. Muslims, Jews and Christians held critical debates there on all sorts of issues, without fear of religious controversy. The Aristotelian tradition would probably have died out without their work. Dante and Nikolaus Cusanus, Giordano Bruno and Spinoza owe their Islamic teachers just as much as do modern astronomy, logic, optics, mathematics, medicine and -- not least -- poetry. As we all know, though, this heyday was not to last.
That prompts the question of whether the current situation in Islamic culture calls for a new Enlightenment in the European sense?
Enzensberger says cultural isolation is dangerous
Regarding the deficits in the Islamic and Arab region, we are dealing with bitter truths, particularly in the education sector. The number of translations into Arabic is a perfect illustration. From the time of Kalif Al-Mamun until recently, over a period of twelve hundred years, far too few books have been translated into Arabic -- only the same number of translations as appear in a single year in modern-day Spain.
At the recent German-Arab dialogue forum, the Swiss writer Adolf Muschg emphasized the role of culture in international relations, above all as an instrument for rapprochement and mutual understanding. Do you agree?
The fact that respected German and Arab writers and opinion-makers are meeting here and talking with unusual openness about what we have in common -- and also about differing positions -- shows that people in the cultural sector can actually get things moving, beyond the realms of politics and business.
And when it comes to cultural dialogue, allow me to point out one fact: Every culture will die of thirst in the long run if it isolates itself and renounces the free exchange of ideas.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger was born in Kaufbeuren in 1929. He studied German literature and philosophy and worked as an editor in radio and publishing. He spent some years living in Norway and then Berlin, and has been based in Munich since 1980. Enzensberger's work, particularly as a poet and essayist, has had a profound influence on German literature since the 1960s. He has also played a key role in German publishing. In 1965 he founded the magazine Kursbuch (which he edited until 1975), in 1980 the magazine TransAtlantik (editor until 1982), and he published the book series Die Andere Bibliothek (Eichborn Verlag) from 1985 to 2004.