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Being in the WorldDialogue and Cosmopolis$

Fred Dallmayr

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780813141916

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813141916.001.0001

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(p.217) Appendix D Dialogue in Practice

(p.217) Appendix D Dialogue in Practice

Conversation with Members of a “Youth Forum”1

Being in the World
University Press of Kentucky


  • We would like first of all to thank you very much for being with us today. For us, young people, it is a unique possibility to learn from you in an informal way. And we would like not only to learn from you but hopefully have an informal discussion. During the Youth Forum a lot of people with very different backgrounds met, and we were working together for a few days. The questions we want to raise deal with democracy and religion, and we notice that the relationship between Islam and democracy is very complex. So we would like to ask: What do you think, how complex is the relationship between Islam and democracy in reality?
  • A:

  • First of all I’m greatly concerned about democracy. In 2010 I published a book called The Promise of Democracy. What is that promise? In my view, the promise of democracy is that people can rule themselves. It so happens that 2009 was the year in which we celebrated a book written by Gandhi one hundred years ago: it was titled Indian Self-Rule. What is the point of Indian self-rule? It means that Indian people are not ruled by others, not dominated, not exploited; and this means that they have to rule themselves; Gandhi called this swaraj. The promise of democracy is this kind of swaraj, that I’m not ruled by others, nor do I rule others, but we all are able to rule ourselves. This means that we are able to control our selfish impulses and be responsible for our actions. What I advocate in my own book is this ethical conception of democracy (p.218) where people do not only pursue selfish interests, their own desires or impulses, but pursue the Common Good, what the Greeks called “the good life,” the life of goodness. Not the life of leisure, not la dolce vita, but rather a life devoted to goodness, to the pursuit of the Common Good, which is beyond our individual self-interests.
  • My book was published in 2010, but I wrote it earlier (2009), just at the time when the world was suffering from the effects of excessive corporate selfishness, from the collapse of financial markets, the collapse of neoliberal capitalism as we knew it. So capitalism was seriously questioned at that time because the capitalist system is based on the profit motive, my profit, corporate profit, not a common profit. This crisis of Western markets demonstrated that we have to formulate a new conception of democracy. Not democracy that is built purely on private greed, but a democracy devoted to ethical standards, of justice and good life. This was basically also Gandhi’s argument. In Hind Swaraj, he said: “It is not just sufficient to drive away the British and to replace British governors by Indian governors. It is not sufficient that we are now dominated by native elites. What we need is really that we are able to govern ourselves.” This is a very important notion of government, of democracy as a regime, and we all have to learn about this.
  • Frequently democracy is identified with liberalism or neoliberalism. Frequently democracy is said to mean economic or laissezfaire liberalism. But we have seen in the financial fiasco that this cannot be correct. This identification of democracy and economic liberalism needs to be revised or overcome. We have to find ethical standards to curb the relentless pursuit of self-interest. Where do we find these ethical resources? Well, we find them to some extent in the great cultural traditions. Gandhi found them in the great tradition of Indian culture, which is spelled out in the teachings of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita. Gandhi always had a copy of the Bhagavad Gita with him in his pocket and read verses of it in the evening. The Bhagavad Gita is like a bible for Indians. Of course, in Asia we also have other cultural traditions, such as Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Confucianism teaches that we only find ourselves in relationships with others. We are not isolated individuals; we cannot pursue only our individual interests. (p.219) There are famous relationships: fathers/mothers, parents/children, friends and friends, younger child to older child, and of course people to each other; all these relationships involve ethical responsibilities. Such responsibilities we cannot avoid. Similar things could be said about Daoism and Buddhism.
  • In the West we have other ethical traditions. We have, of course, the great Greek tradition, especially the tradition of Plato and Aristotle. But we also have a biblical tradition: we have the Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition. But we have also—and this leads me to the point of your question—the Islamic tradition, which is a great resource of religious, spiritual, and ethical inspiration. So, Islam also can contribute to the building of an ethical society. Now the issue we have to face when we talk about religious resources is that, in the past, religious leaders were frequently also government leaders, political elites. In Christianity the pope and the cardinals were frequently associated with kings, with rulers. But that is also true in the Orthodox tradition, where the Orthodox hierarchy frequently was in close connection with tsarist regimes. Now we are asking how religion, especially Islam, is compatible with democracy. Our question is not how Islam is compatible with monarchy, just as we are not asking how Christianity is compatible with monarchy. We are asking: How is it compatible with democracy? And, as I have said, democracy means self-rule. So it means that we cannot be ruled by either political elites or religious elites. This means ultimately that, in a democracy, individuals have to be their own religious leaders, that people can no longer rely on external authorities but have to rely on their own resources.
  • The problem of compatibility arises only if religion or clerical elites insist on exercising political rule and seek to dominate people. Unfortunately, this happens and has happened often. We have had this problem in Christianity, and it took a long time for Christian churches to accommodate themselves to democracy. Contrary to some extreme agnostics or secularists, this does not mean that religion becomes irrelevant in democracy; actually it becomes more relevant, because every individual has to be his or her own religious leader. Long ago, Martin Luther expressed this in the idea of the “universal priesthood of believers.” Democracy does not negate faith but grants to everybody the “freedom of faith.” (p.220) This idea was again exemplified by Gandhi; he was very faithful as a Hindu, but he also was a democrat, so for him no religious elite could govern India. The people have to govern India. What does this mean for churches and religious leaders? It means that they can exercise the role of teachers, of counselors, of spiritual advisors in society. Democracy does not abolish churches or religious leaders. This is a mistaken notion of an extreme secularism or laïcism that says “we do away with all churches.” That was also the great mistake of communism. It was a mistake because people have a longing for the spiritual, a longing for something more than the things of this world. So, what I am saying is that religions can help people to govern themselves; they can provide resources on how to practice democracy ethically.
  • Some time ago I wrote an article titled “For a Religion of Service,” not a religion of domination. This motto also applies to Islam, especially some Islamists who try to establish what is called “theocracy,” where God is said to rule but actually the clergy rules. This is very dangerous. To an extent, such an attempt has been made in Iran, in the Islamic republic of Iran, where you find a partial theocracy. Iran has two levels of government: One level is popularly elected and thus democratic. There is a parliament (majlis), and there is a president who is also popularly elected. But above and beyond this democratic structure there is a higher elite, a “guardian council” that is composed mainly of ayatollahs, priests. And these ayatollahs can nullify what the democratic structure has done. So, there are actually two governments. They are bound to collide, because they are opposite to each other. I have made a proposal and submitted it to many Iranian friends. I told them: “Look at England. Everybody says England is a democracy. But England has two chambers: a lower chamber and an upper chamber which is called the House of Lords. And in the House of Lords you find the archbishop of Canterbury. Clergy are in the House of Lords by right. Others are elected or appointed to the House of Lords. So I proposed: Why don’t you transform what is called the Council of Guardians into a House of Lords? Then you can collaborate, cooperate between the two chambers.” I understand, the ayatollahs are not very keen. But in my view it is the only solution. If you want to avoid chaos, revolution, or civil war, it is really the (p.221) only option. Such a solution would preserve democracy but at the same time preserve the religious resources that democracy needs. So there is a possibility of an Islamic democracy.
  • The fact that Islamic democracy is possible is demonstrated in Turkey, where most Muslims are also democrats. Malaysia also has a majority of Muslims and a democracy. The same is true of Indonesia. So, the thesis that Islam is incompatible with democracy is simply false. Of course Muslims have a problem because they have among them many fanatics. But all religions have fanatics. We have to safeguard the true message. The true message of every religion is to promote life, not only life but the “good life.” But fanatics promote death or terror, which means the killing of people. No religion tolerates killing of innocent people. And that is true not only for Jews but for Christians and Muslims. So, those who resort to killing really violate their own religion.
  • But there are counter-examples, and a particularly good example is again Gandhi. He was a religious person, I mean not outwardly but inwardly religious. But one of his main principles was nonviolence, what he called ahimsa. He devoted all his life to the struggle for democracy without violence. So that is true religion. I believe that Gandhi can always be a model, a mentor to inspire us. Gandhi was an inspiration for Nelson Mandela in South Africa and also for Martin Luther King in America. King struggled for the rights of black people without violence. And many leaders in East European countries, like Vaclav Havel, also were inspired by nonviolence. That is what we mean by “velvet revolution.” So at the end, all of it comes together. I started out with swaraj, with democracy, then turned to the relation of democracy and religion, then democracy and Islam, and finally I came back to Gandhi.
  • Q:

  • With your permission we would like to ask two additional questions. What do you think about democracy in the Western countries today? Is democracy not being replaced by ochlocracy, plutocracy, and demagoguery? They forget democracy in the meaning presented by Aristotle and Jefferson. Today democracy means just the power of big numbers, but not of the most competent or upright people. And the second question: Don’t you think that religion is often a tool in the hands of the state? Religion is just a means to control the masses by the rulers?
  • (p.222) A:

  • Thank you very much. I cannot speak about all governments in the West. But I know very well the situation in United States, because I have lived there for fifty years. So, I know that we do not really have a democracy in the United States. We have only the outward forms of democracy. We have elections. And what happens in elections? Money wins. The candidate who has more money wins, because TV costs money, newspapers cost money. So we have what Plato called plutocracy—the richest rule. Unfortunately many of our media are controlled by financial and corporate elites: the TV stations and major newspapers are owned by billionaires and corporations. How can the ordinary citizen compete against corporate money? So the situation is bad. But there are efforts to correct it. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was, I think, a demonstration that if the people wake up and organize themselves at the grassroots, they finally make a difference. So much on the first question.
  • The other question: religion unfortunately can be used as an instrument of domination and manipulation. This is true. Because people have this longing, this search for religious guidance, they can easily be taken advantage of. There are always religious charlatans who exploit people. So, you have to be very careful with religion and especially when religion is in politics. You have always to ask yourself: What do they want to do? What is behind this? What kind of strategy do they follow? In Latin: Cui bono? Who benefits?
  • Q:

  • Thank you for your answers. I have another question, directly related to Islam. Don’t you think that the cause why Islam is often opposed to democracy nowadays is because some countries insist that Islam and democracy are incompatible and they enforce this separation for their own political concerns?
  • A:

  • Thank you. Yes, my concern is to bring Islam and democracy closer together. But there are people who want to separate them as much as possible. These people are both in the West and in Islam. There are people in the West who believe that a nondemocratic Islam is helpful to their own purposes, their own politics. For instance, Saudi Arabia is not a democracy; they do not even have a constitution. And yet Saudi Arabia is a friend of the West. Why? Because the Saudis are useful, they provide recourses. Maybe a democratic revolution would finish that. On the other hand, there is of course (p.223) a very extreme movement within Islam that claims that democracy is a form of heresy, of infidelity. They argue that democracy makes the horrible mistake of replacing the authority of God with the authority of people.
  • But this is a mistake on the part of radical Muslims, because their claim implies that God is totally outside of human beings. And so if people want to rule themselves they necessarily have to deny God. But that doesn’t follow because God and humans are not opposites. So, yes, on both sides there are enemies of democracy.
  • Q:

  • I want to ask you about principles of life. I know that Mahatma Gandhi had used sacred scriptures to discover the principles of life. Referring to the New Testament, he said that if all people would follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, there would be no wars. And my question: Is it enough to use the New Testament, the Bible or Qu’ran, and other sacred scriptures, or do we not also need religious leaders for that?
  • A:

  • I think obviously we need not only scriptures; these are just books. You have to learn how to read these books. And that is why religious leaders are important. They can teach us how to read. I mentioned before Martin Luther King. He was a religious leader and a political leader. He was a preacher in his church, and he interpreted scripture. It is not a matter of doing away with religious leaders. It is to give to religious leaders the proper role, the role of giving advice, the role of teachers, but not of governors. Ultimately, in a democracy, all people have to be able to read and interpret.
  • Q:

  • Thank you very much for sharing with us that democracy and Islam are not just theoretically compatible, but you gave us some great examples like Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and you told us also the reasons.
  • A:

  • Could I just ask you one thing in return? I am now rather old. I have to place my hope into the young people. You are the future. But you have to follow the right path, what Muslims call zirat almustaqim. This is the path of righteous people, and it is in the first surah of the Qu’ran. So this is my hope: that you will find that right path. Many of the teachings of the last century have proven to be insufficient: liberalism, socialism, communism. So your task is to find a new way, where people can live together in solidarity but also in freedom. I can be free even though I am committed (p.224) to you; I can be free in our connection. To find the way is to link my freedom with responsibility, social responsibility. This path is called the Good Life.
  • Q:

  • Mr. Dallmayr, what do you think is the role of the state in educating the youth?
  • A:

  • The education of the youth is the most important task of any generation, because youth is our future. And the task of education rests with the family, the schools, society, and lastly the state. Public education, offered by the state, is important because it brings together children and young people from all walks of life. If we give them good instruction, if we give them a good example, then they can follow the right path.
  • Q:

  • What should these examples consist of?
  • A:

  • The examples should be to show what it means to be a good and responsible person. A father should be good father, a mother should be a good mother to her children, young people should be respectful of the parents, friends should be good friends, and people in politics should pursue just policies. This would give good examples.
  • Q:

  • What do you think is the difference between the education of the older generation and that of the new generation? What are the changes in the educational process then and now?
  • A:

  • I think the educational system has opened up. A hundred years or even fifty years ago, education was more restricted. It followed a traditional curriculum and was limited to a regional or national tradition. But today we have a process of globalization, so people interact across the entire globe. So we suddenly have to learn about different cultures, different teachings, different traditions. This is what we call “multiculturalism.” And this has entered into the schools, into the curriculum. If properly handled, it can be very fruitful.
  • Q:

  • A last question: Your view on the young people today? Are there negative features in the young people that you would criticize?
  • A:

  • The thing that worries me about young people is sometimes the abuse of freedom. But I do not really blame the young people for it; I blame the older generation for giving a bad example to the young people. If the parents are alcoholics, how can you prevent the child from becoming alcoholic? If the parents use drugs, how can you keep the child from becoming a drug addict? So this is (p.225) the negative side. But the positive side is that young people are very open to new experiences and very eager to learn about many things in the world. Of course, they have the Internet; they have email, Facebook, so they can communicate with the whole world. And there is a great desire to expand horizons and to learn many new things. The older generation was sort of born into certain ideologies that were very limiting, like capitalist liberalism or state socialism. The young generation has the opportunity to find a new way, and hopefully a better way.
  • Thank you.
  • (p.226)


    (1.) This conversation was held during a meeting of the World Public Forum in Rhodes, Greece, in Oct. 2010. (p.262)