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"The West Has Made Many Mistakes"

Steffen Leidel interviewed Hans Küng (jam)
February 8, 2006

Theologian Hans Küng says the West carries some responsibility for the violence over caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. In an interview with DW-WORLD, he called for reflection in both the western and Islamic worlds.

Hans Küng, Catholic theologian and frequent church criticImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

Catholic theologian and church critic Hans Küng has made a name for himself as a advocate of inter-religious dialogue and as the founder of the Global Ethic Foundation. The Vatican stripped Küng, who was born in Switzerland, of his license to teach in 1979 when he expressed doubts about the concept of papal infallibility. Last fall, Pope Benedict XVI invited the 77-year-old Küng, who taught at the University of Tübingen until his retirement in 1996, to the Vatican for talks.

DW-WORLD: The violent protests in many Arabic countries over the Mohammed caricatures are continuing. In this context, there has been a lot of talk about Samuel Huntington's concept of a "clash of civilizations." Has his theory been confirmed?

Hans Küng: No, this thesis is, and will remain, incorrect. Cultures themselves do not wage war, but bad policy can make war a reality; they bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy. The West's pursuit of policies that cause widespread anger in the Muslim world has resulted in a dangerous escalation.

Do you mean to say that the West is partly responsible for the violence?

First, I want to say that I condemn this outbreak of violence and that I find the offensive remarks of Iranian President Ahmadinejad completely unacceptable. But it is also crucial that the West reflect on the situation and accept that it has made many mistakes.

Such as?

Instead of engaging in a police action in Afghanistan, a war was waged there, which could have been avoided. In Iraq, a morally intolerable war is now going on in violation of international law. We have the establishment of an oppressive regime in Chechnya and the founding of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state has been delayed for decades. When that is all seen together, it should be no wonder that a huge amount of frustration, anger and rage has built up in the Muslim world, which could explode at any time.

The trigger of the current violence is the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Did those who drew them go too far?

I don't want to express blanket criticism of the media here. There have been many very good commentaries on the topic, many of which have been very self-critical. But I must point out that press freedom goes absolutely hand in hand with press responsibility. For the InterAction Council of Former Heads of State and Government, under the leadership of former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, I worked on a statement outlining the duties of the press. In paragraph 14 it states: "The freedom of the media brings with it a special responsibility for exact and truthful reporting. Sensationalist reports, which debase individuals or harm their dignity, must be unfailingly avoided." At the time, several press associations protested this statement. Today we know that it is crucial that along with press freedom, press responsibility has to be stressed.

So the caricaturists did not behave responsibly?

They broke several taboos at once. Islam frowns on religious depictions of people and does not want to have the prophet depicted, in order to avoid any kind of idolatry. Now when the prophet is depicted in the form of a caricature accompanied by terrorist symbols and with modern weapons, the illustrator has gone too far. If a person can be punished for libeling an individual or organization, or denying the Holocaust, then it can't be the case that religious symbols can be abused at will. That applies not only to the Prophet Mohammed, but also to Jesus Christ. I have often been very annoyed at the flippant and shameless way Jesus of Nazareth has been treated. That simply goes too far and some reflection is urgently needed.

How much does the Arabic world need to reflect? Is there a willingness to engage in a dialogue?

Mohammed Zeichnung Botschaft Dänemark Teheran Iran
Firebombs burn at the gate of the Danish embassy in TehranImage: AP

Reflection in the Arabic world is urgently called for. And basically, it is beginning to happen. Look at developments in Turkey where in the last few years, much has changed for the positive. However, the problem of violence -- even that contained in the Koran -- is something the Muslim world needs to address. I have devoted many, many pages to this issue in my book about Islam. But that will only have the needed effect when the ambiguity of western policies comes to an end. One should not give the radical groups an excuse to say: "You want to talk to us about violence and you yourself wage war in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Chechnya and in Palestine."

How should the West deal with radical Islamist groups, for example, Hamas? Despite its recent electoral triumph, the US and Israel don't want to talk to the group.

You can't demand democratic elections on the one hand and then complain when a group wins, which you didn't want to win. It's the same for Iraq. One should at least acknowledge (the victors) and shouldn't say from the outset: "We're not talking with them."

Should the West negotiate with Hamas?

The West can negotiate with Hamas just like it eventually was able to negotiate with (Yasser) Arafat. One should refrain from making negative statements at the very beginning and simply wait a while. One should try to learn who we are dealing with and what kind of goals this group has. If you exclude negotiations from the beginning, you have a very poor starting position. Sooner or later, you're going to have to talk with them.

The spokesman for the German foreign ministry, Martin Jäger, said the West was now witness to a "difficult (period of) self-discovery in the Islamic world." Do you think this assessment is correct?

Demonstration in Pakistan gegen Mohammed-Karikaturen
A Pakistani journalist with a placard during a protest outside the Danish embassy in IslamabadImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

He is right. Islam is engaged right now in a powerful process. In many respect, Islam is still following a medieval paradigm and must go through an Islamic reformation and an Islamic enlightenment at the same time. The West is making a mistake when it comes to the Islamic world shaking its index finger, setting conditions and telling Muslims they need to finally enter the 21st century. This is not helpful to Muslims; more cooperative efforts are necessary. German policies, on the other hand, have been useful in bringing the dialogue forward. At the same time, the Bush administration has done much to let moderate Islam down. Take former Iranian President Khatami, for example. He was involved in a dialogue in Weimar with former (German) President Johannes Rau, Prof. Josef van Ess and me. But the Bush administration included him in its "axis of evil" and said that Khatami was no better than all the others. And now one is surprised that a fanatic like Ahmadinejad is in power in Iran?

What do we need to quiet the current situation in the Middle East?

Above all, calm and reflection. We need to look at the roots of this explosion of violence. Most urgently, the Palestinian problem must be solved.

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