We have to fight political Islam with militant democracy, says Cliteur

  • Monika Tesařová
  • 15.1.2018 10:54

Paul Bernard Cliteur is Dutch professor of jurisprudence at Leiden University. We interviewed him at Forum 2000 Conference in Prague, where we discussed religion, multiculturalism and security issues.

You criticise religion, but some authors argue Christianity is the defining factor of Western societies. Do you think modern society does not need religion? What replaces religion in the current world?

I wouldn’t say that I criticise religion in general, I tend to have a sceptical attitude. I’m not a religious believer myself at least not in the ordinary sense to the world. Of course, you must believe something, then you are a believer. Humanism is also kind of religion. So in that sense, we all are believers.

What I’m especially interested in is where you see tensions between religious beliefs and modern democratic views. That’s triggered by the terrorist attacks, the motivation of terrorists and that’s something very interesting. You see that the terrorists usually refer to their religious ideas and that’s what people with a number of religious backgrounds talk about: “Oh, that’s nothing to do with religion.” Although, there is a real religious motivation. What I try to do is to analyse that motivation and I try to go in religious tradition and see where you have more prevalence.

I do not want to reject the religion in general.

Fukuyama mentioned that Islam can be a political alternative to liberalism. Is that realistic?

That’s not unrealistic, an impossibility. The great religions, they are inspired by their believers and Islam is very active religion, a supportive one. It has some mission that in this moment at the time, most of the Christians lack, Judaism was never a mission religion. In the sense of religion, which has some critical view, Islam is competing with liberalism. It is not entirely strange.


Democratic governments have a very low interventionist approach.


Do you believe in a reform of Islam?

I always found very difficult to predict the future. I found very difficult to say what will happen. I am more philosophical about opinions on what should happen. What should happen is, of course, that radical tendencies within Islam get mitigated in that sense. That the defenders of rational or liberal Islam gain the upper-hand in comparison with the radicals. But I’m not sure that this will happen. I mean certain point of view, you can say that the radicals are quite successful, and liberal Islam is not very successful.


Democracy has to be more militant than it used to be.


Of course, I hope that it will change and perhaps what could help is more tough stance from democratic governments. Democratic governments, at this moment, have very low interventionist approach because of the freedom of religion. The freedom of religion is a very important value and we should not interfere in religion. But the question is what stance can be supportive also for the future because democracy has to protect itself against annihilation. Democracy has to be more militant than it used to be.

What will happen in the future with Islam? Do you think that Islam will change politics?

It has already done that in the sense that Islam is a politically active religion. There are some religions that are not active. Take for instance pantheism, Spinoza and Einstein they are pantheists, they see the divine all around them, they see the divine in nature, that’s not a very political religion.

But Islam was founded by prophet Muhammad, who was a politician and a religious believer in one person. Islam is a state religion (Saudi Arabia, Iran), so there are lots of political elements connected to Islam.

What I hope is that Islam will develop into a more spiritualistic religion with the respect for freedom of religion and expression, individual choice and also make possible that people apostatise – that’s very vital,  that you leave the religion or choose another.

In the concept of freedom of religion, is inherited that there is freedom to choose a certain religion, also to relinquish that religion for another religion. In that sense, the concept of freedom of religion is entering in the European Human rights charters. 


No democratic state can adopt one official religion. The whole idea of a state religion is all wrong.


Newly-appointed Tunisian Prime minister Habib Essid takes an oath of office during the country's new government swearing-in ceremony at Carthage Palace in Tunis on February 6, 2015. A secular-led coalition government that includes Islamists took office in Tunisia, three months after the North African state's first free parliamentary elections. Copyright Profimedia.cz


Political Islam was the leading ideology during Mursí’s era in Egypt. Is the fall of Mursí an evidence that political Islam cannot be functional?

I hope so. I’m a secularist (I mean a separation of church and state). No democratic state can adopt one official religion because once it does that’s always exacerbating a religious rise. The whole idea of a state religion is all wrong.
Great Britain has Anglicism as a state religion what is basically an illegitimate system. In the UK the Anglican Church is a shadow of what it was in the times of Henry VIII.

Especially, in the countries in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, people still play with the idea of having a state religion. Same se the Muslim Brotherhood does. The Muslim Brotherhood is not now a ruling party, which is a great blessing for democracy and Egyptian people.


The biggest minority of Muslims lives in France. Why is France failing to integrate them?

That’s one of the most difficult questions. The problem is that the integration has failed in many more countries than just in France. If you look at the terrorist attacks by lone-wolves (people coming to the country alone), you can see that you have terrorist attacks in Spain, the UK, France etc. I do not think that France has this problem only.

So you mean that it’s a problem in general.

Yes, because of people say “Well, we take up the honesty.” and go fight for the caliphate in Syria and Iraq. There are different results of integration. It is not true that they made a wrong choice and forgot their reasons. They leave their country to fight for another one and for some kind of ideals. That is also a result of integration.


Belgium is already a split country and has a weak national identity.


What is interesting – many of the jihadists come from Belgium. It can mean that Belgium is already kind of a split-country and has a weak national identity. I think that could be a solution or contribution to seriously start thinking about national identity. The national state has to be real in a force in that sense. One thing is sacred – France has potentially very clear political philosophy to make people integrated into the French culture and that’s the principle of laïcité – I think it’s very good principle which should be followed in Belgium and other countries.


National identity must be explicitly democratic.


We can say that political Islam is a security challenge for Europe. How can we deal with it?

By what I call militant democracy - strengthening democracy, real and force democracy, but also in more ways than we are claimed to do. We cannot afford the luxury anymore to formulate wishes and see if people follow them. That stage has passed.

We have to develop democratic citizens and teach people about human rights at primary and secondary schools. We have to show the children that democracy is better than theocracy.

National identity must be explicitly democratic. Well, now we leave that very much to freedom of choice as a meter. There is only one model and we should cultivate that model explicitly.

You support the idea of multiculturalism. Do you think that multiculturalism is compatible with Western societies? Is not multiculturalism the opposite of the idea of Western societies?

It depends on what you understand by multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is a very complicated word, sometimes you hear: “We have a multicultural society because we have here people from all different backgrounds, living peacefully together.” If that’s your definition of multiculturalism.

But there is also another type of an ideological multiculturalism which says that a religious or ethnic identity is much more important than national identity. That’s the type of multiculturalism which is very dangerous and has disrupting effects in nation states. Unfortunately, that was the state policy of lots of countries in Europe. That means if you come from abroad as a migrant, for instance, people start to think: “Where are you from?”, “Morocco, okay, then you have an Islamic identity”. We’re going to facilitate the identity of the country you come from. I think that’s the disrupting effect you have now in Germany, Turkish people who have primary loyalty to Erdoğan and not to Merkel. That consequence of multiculturalism is dangerous.


Diversity is a good thing, but up to certain points.


History shows that countries which were not homogenous were not successful – Yugoslavia or Austria-Hungary. So how can multiculturalism be applied in current states?

Diversity is a good thing, but up to certain points. So multiculturalism is a good thing, up to certain points. There are always rules of a game that you cannot contest to play. You need to follow the traffic rules and then you can go all kinds of direction – London, Paris or Amsterdam. If you ignore the red light, you get lots of accidents.

Multiculturalism is based on respect for the human personality, certain human rights as freedom of expression, freedom of religion that you cannot make relative freedom of religion or expression. That would be a cultural relativism and I think that’s very negative.  

Multiculturalism brings, also, hatred. How do you think we can deal with it in European countries?

By preaching politeness and showing people that there is a kind of human nature in all of us. We and refugees have same needs and wishes – find loving partners and jobs.

We should point to communality which keeps us together. The main thing is that you are Czech, I’m Dutch and there is also kind of human nature that we share. It’s very important to have that in public and political discourse too.

If we accept the idea of multiculturalism, do we have to deal with the flows of immigrants as security challenges? Do you think it’s possible to apply multiculturalism without threatening the security of the state?

I don’t think so. Multiculturalism in the second sense (ideological multiculturalism) is a fall, not for good but, for evil. If people primarily identify with their ethnic or religious group it disrupts a national state. In that sense, religion can be a very seductive threat to national identity. So I see competitors in that sense. Only a religion which is kind of liberal is possible to integrate into a democratic nation-state.

What is the solution to the migration crisis? What did the European countries do wrong? Is the hatred toward multiculturalism evidence of an unmanageable migration crisis?

First of all, I think that one of the problems of the migration crisis is that Europe did not protect its borders. That’s the basis.

Every nation-state has borders which have to be protected. If you give those borders up in the nation-state, you have to protect the borders of Europe. If you are not able or not prepared to do that, you will be in big trouble. I do not believe in a situation without borders.

What we have to do is revitalise that whole idea of borders. The illusion are things like that we live in a cosmopolitan society, no borders anymore, a problem should be solved internationally and not on a local level. The primary cause of the migration crisis are illusions basically.

Secondly, we have to develop a clear persuasion to distinguish people who are threats in the country they come from and people who simply had a bad life in another country. We tend to relativise that kind of distinctions.

Paul Bernard Cliteur is a Dutch professor of jurisprudence at Leiden University, and also a philosopher, writer, publicist, and columnist. He is known for his conservative perspective, his atheism, republicanism and efforts for animal rights. Photo copyright: Wikipedia.

About author: Monika Tesařová


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