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The Power of Religion

Steffen Leidel interviewed Hans Küng (tip)September 10, 2007

For Catholic theologian Hans Küng, religion has again become a power factor. While Islam and Buddhism are getting more popular, Christianity isn't. The controversial theologian spoke to DW-WORLD.DE about the reasons.

Hans Küng
Küng: Religion can co-exist with democracyImage: Steffen Leidel

Born in 1928, Catholic theologian and church critic Hans Küng made his mark as a promoter of dialogue between religions and as president of the Global Ethic Foundation. In 1979, the Vatican withdrew his license to teach after the Swiss native questioned the infallibility of the pope. In the fall of 2005, Pope Benedict XVI invited Küng to a private meeting.

DW-WORLD.DE: Professor Küng, people -- and not only in Germany -- are again enormously interested in religious issues. Can we speak of a return of religions?

The return of Ayatollah Chomeini with cheering audience
Teheran in 1979: Ayatollah Chomeini is back from exileImage: AP

Hans Küng: "Return of religions" -- that is an ambivalent term. Religion never disappeared. Just like music, religion is something that stays, even if it is suppressed for some time. It is true, that since the new awakening of Islam, since the creation of the Islamic republic of Iran in 1979, Europeans have realized that they don't rule the world by themselves. For a long time, secular Europe had not realized that it was an exception, and that elsewhere, religions is a power.

"No peace among the nations, without peace between the religions! No peace between the religions without dialog between the religions!" Those are two central sentences of your World Ethic principle. In a time of globalization, there are many undreamed-of possibilities for communication on the Internet. The access to knowledge is easier than ever before. Can this development improve the dialog of religions?

In principle, I would say yes, even though this brings many problems. It's a positive thing that today we can know a lot about other religions. A different question, of course, is whether we do want to be in the know. There are people who don't -- they already know everything, without studying the Islam.

Who doesn't want to know?

For one, the fundamental Christians who take everything the Bible says literally and say they don't need any other religions. Then there are the very secular people, dogmatists of laicism. They get worked up simply when the word religion is mentioned, and they think that we should not talk about it in schools. They have issues with the fact that religion, again, is a powerful factor in world history.

According to a survey, not Christianity but Buddhism is the most likeable religion for Germans. How do you explain that?

Dalai Lama drinking water
The Dalai Lama is a role model for many WesternersImage: AP

Buddhism, in the West, is perceived as being free from dogmas, as a religion without many rules. It is a religion that's turned to the inside and that emphasizes meditation. It is a religion, which has no anthropomorphic, concrete picture of the last reality.

The other is that Christianity -- with its concentration of power -- gets on many people's nerves. When we have a pope, who claims that -- as theological Lord of the world -- only those who are with him are true Christians and that only his Roman-Catholic Church is the true church, it gets on many people's nerves. Even though they don't protest publicly, they will turn away and say they don't want to have anything to do with that.

Let's get back to Islam, and to the question about the most peaceful religion: Buddhism leads with 43 percent, before Christianity with 41 percent. Islam only has one percent of people naming it as the most peaceful religion. Is Islam viewed as the enemy in the West?

Yes, Islam is definitely viewed as an enemy in the West, because the West only concentrates on certain points of Islam. It was like that in the past. Europeans look at it from the view of Islam's advancement from northern Africa to Spain, between the eighth and 15th century and the leadership of the Ottomans on the Balkan. They don't see that Christians not only had the crusades, but until the 19th century they colonized the entire Islamic area from Morocco to the Indonesian islands. That leads to tensions.

A tank with soldiers and a warplane
The Six Day War continues to have an effect todayImage: AP

The West did not resolve many of those tensions. That's especially true for the relationship between the Palestinians and Israel. Had they made peace after the Six-Day War in 1967, there would have never been a Bin Laden and neither would there have been attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Instead, a feeling spread that Westerners even settled in the holy Arabic lands, made themselves comfortable in Afghanistan, and everywhere else they pushed to the front, so that defense forces were created. Desperate young people resorted to terrorism. Of course we have to judge suicide assassins and assaults. But we have to think about why so many young people became so desperate to make themselves available for such assassinations.

Could the Catholic Church better contribute to the resolution of these conflicts and to the dialog between the religions?

One has to say at least that John Paul II clearly rejected the Iraq war, just like the Patriarch in Moscow, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the World Council of Churches as well as the National Council of Churches USA. Unlike in previous times, it's no longer easy to get churches excited about war. Of course more could be done, especially when it comes to enlightenment.

When the pope in [a much-publicized 2006 speech in the Bavarian town of] Regensburg tried to define Islam as a religion of violence, he noticed himself that he took the wrong path. You have to remember the kind of trails of blood Christians left in history. Then you become modest, and you won't say that we have the religion of love and they have the religion of hate. Just like you and me, the majority of Muslims in Egypt, Morocco, Afghanistan or Pakistan want to have peace.

Do you think that Pope Benedict sees his speech in Regensburg as a mistake? It doesn't really seem that he distanced himself much from it.

Pope Benedict XVI giving his speech in Regensburg
Pope Benedict XVI has a hard time admitting mistakesImage: AP

He did notice that it was a mistake, and he had to take in quite a bit of criticism. He corrected his speech many times. The Romans, the Roman bishop, i.e. the pope, have a hard time admitting mistakes. When you have an ideology of infallibility, then infallible mistakes will be made, and those cannot be corrected. It was clear that the pope tried hard during his trip to Turkey to improve the bad image that he had due to the speech in Regensburg.

Even though Islam is seen skeptically throughout Europe, it attracts many, especially young people, around the globe. There are 1.3 billion Muslims, with an upward trend. From Rabat to Damascus there are Islamic groups that are becoming increasingly important politically. Why is that so? Are there religious or social reasons for this?

Both. Those are religious groups that help people. Many Muslims in those countries feel that the ruling elites have a life of their own and don't take care of the population at large. The fundamental Islamist groups -- or whatever you want to call them -- try very hard to do something for people. They take care of schools and education, and they give people clothes and food.

Why did Hamas win the elections [in the Palestinian territories]? Because they worked for the people. One of the biggest mistakes of Western politics -- Germany included, by the way -- was to not accept those elections. Instead, fingers were pointed, saying: "You have to accept Israel!" Tell that to people that have been terrorized by an occupying power for decades. That is not the right way to solve those problems. You have to realize that there are parties that do have Islam as a basis, yet they campaign for the people.

Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center
Desperate young Muslims make themselves available for terrorist attacksImage: AP

A better example is the party of Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey. Why did they win? Because they helped people. They showed -- with all weaknesses that they have -- that they will bring their country forward and in no way did they develop an Islamic theocracy, such as the one in Iran. They want a democracy, but they don't want to limit Islam to the private sphere, as Atatürk did.

You once called Turkey the "laboratory for democracy." Can faith and religion co-exist with democracy?

Religion can co-exist with democracy. The leading architects of Europe, from Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer to Robert Schuman and Alcide De Gasperi, were all pious Christians. The reason why Islam has more problems with democracy than Christianity is that Islam, in contrast to Christianity and Judaism, had no Reformation and Enlightenment, leaving out a few special circles. If you want to help there, you have to support the moderate powers and isolate the radical ones. The most foolish thing to do is to go against those people with armies. That's as stupid as going against the mafia with fighter jets.

How far would the willingness to negotiate with the radical powers have to go? Would one have to negotiate with the Taliban and al Qaeda as well?

You cannot negotiate with al Qaeda. It is a secret terrorist group. You can only dry them up. But the West has watered them so much that they could sprout. The American secret service recently admitted in secret documents that the Iraq war only helped al Qaeda. Before, there was no al Qaeda in Iraq.

You could certainly negotiate with the Taliban. They aren't just crazy people. There are some extremists, and there are, on the other hand, those that warned the Bush administration about Sept. 11. But it wasn't taken seriously. There were chieftains in Afghanistan that warned against marching in with an army.

A personal question: On Sept. 12 you will introduce your autobiography "Controversial Truth." If you look back, are you still as optimistic as you were in 1990 when you wrote "Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic"?

George W. Bush with Hamid Karsai
What will happen after Bush?Image: AP

When I wrote the book in 1990, of course, one hoped that in the future, problems would not be solved with military means, with aggression and animosity and war, but instead -- just like it worked in western and eastern Europe -- through mutual understanding, cooperation and integration. Unfortunately, this was disrupted by the mad policies that the second Bush administration initiated with a clique of archconservative Jewish intellectuals, so-called neocons and Protestant fundamentalists.

I am not an enemy, but a friend of the Americans. I hope that, despite the backlash that the policies of Bush Jr. brought on, Americans can remember their great democratic tradition and lead in terms of international understanding, moderation and world peace.

Were you hurt that Pope Benedict XVI never accepted your idea of the World Ethic?

He accepted the idea as such. He realizes that there have to be common ethical standards. During our conversation he conceded that those standards need to be valid for believers and non-believers. One could only have expected that he would personally advocate this. But that might still happen.