Karin KneisslEnergy Analyst
I do sense as a teacher, as a writer, the renewed search among younger generations for just such certainties and the concomitant tendency towards, let’s say, a firmer, more conservative worldview. I like to pun that orientation comes from the Orient, which is to say that we have always looked to the East for new ideas, thoughts – whether classical philosophies or the alphabet, it all came from the Orient. Over the past thirty years we have been able to observe in some Arab-Islamic countries that there was also a certain vacuum there, above all an ideological one, a societal one, and one response to this, among others, has been political Islam. Doubtless, the roots are manifold, but if I had to elucidate a single cause in greater detail, it would be this: that political Islam – a new, extreme, conservative, political Islam – has had a strong influence on society and politics. I have seen this especially in Egypt and Jordan, among other things a kind of critique of globalization. I have seen it again in families where the grandchildren were in some ways more conservative, which is not to say more devout, but more extreme than their grandparents’ generation. And the mosques have been filled in recent decades mostly with young people, not those sixty and older.
For me this is more generally indicative and reminds me a little bit of the tendencies that I have seen in the last twenty years even in the very liberal social circles of the Arab world, where a new conservatism has also taken root. Now I am myself a very secular person and so I make a very clear distinction between politics and religion, but the return of religion into the public arena has been simply immense. Islam was always relatively heavily influenced by religion and you can see this precisely in places like Egypt, which always had a tradition of piety and the roll of the divine, a little bit like in ancient times. The intellectual elites in the Arab world were oftentimes a kind of limousine liberal; salon communists, who were feudal lords but also, at the same time, toyed with the idea of communism as a kind of thought experiment, so to speak. And it was, one might say, dissident in many Arab nations before the fall of the Shah, whether in Egypt or Iran, to be a communist. And when this system also fell apart – I still remember it well – a lot just went to pieces and many certainties were lost. I have had personal encounters with people as well who were still adamant communists in the late 1980s and who go around today with large beards and embody an extremely devout and absolutist-religious worldview and who wouldn’t shake my hand.
Loyalty to the religious community is very pronounced again these days. There was a phase of secular thinking, where one considered oneself Syrian or Iraqi before all else. At present we are seeing an extremely unsettling desecularization that is making even the Islamic world more and more uncomfortable because, of course, many proxy wars have broken out, just as the battle between Protestant nobility and the Catholic Habsburg Dynasty in Central Europe during the Thirty Years War was also a struggle for power and religion and an ideal instrument for this struggle. I have seen it in Sarajevo and Beirut, how societies that just days before had been completely liberal-minded, cosmopolitan, can suddenly, as if overnight, adopt a very ethnocentric, even rivalistic attitude. But we are witnessing a return of the religious, I would go so far as to say that today we can observe this desecularization even in France, where, for instance, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was still the Minister of the Interior in the early 2000s, in 2002 began to speak regularly about France’s Jews and Muslims. Well, how can you draw people in? And it’s really only possible if you are more conservative than everybody else. As a young person today, that’s a much more effective way to rebel than just getting another tattoo, because everybody already has one of those. It’s not as easy, I think, to show rebelliousness these days.
I therefore try to motivate young people or to reassure them, because I know how hard it is: work, study, and that doubting question: is anything still up for grabs or is everything already taken and does this world have any place left for us? And to that effect I’m pretty convinced that things will get turbulent. I don’t indulge in the illusion that everything will be fine. There will be turbulence – economic, political – but I draw my hope or reassurance from the possibility that afterwards we might be in a place where merit and achievement count, where decency counts, and where we will reward those who make something of themselves and aren’t merely successful due to networking, because they have certain connections, or whatever, and where what will matter is an individual’s accomplishments and decency.
Just such an old European Enlightenment ideal, such a citizenship independent of origin, of family background and a rupture with feudalism, a rupture with ethnic belonging, will hopefully enable us to get back to a model where the citizen, with his or her rights and responsibilities, helps to shape society, I hope. This is where I find my reassurance, and I try to share it with younger people as well, because I often have the sense they understand how bleak things have become. For many this has become perfectly clear in the last five years, they hear the conversations going on at home or hear about it when their parents or their relatives become unemployed.
In addition to all this, what has really always seemed very sad to me over the past twenty years is a strong conformism, a reluctance to question anything, although I always tell them: you’re still in academic life, now is the time to question critically, while you still can. Because once you’ve started your career, you will have to sell something that you can’t always identify with one hundred percent, a company’s product or a political position. And this has always seemed lacking to me: may Enlightenment ideals come to the fore again! At least this is my hope, but in the meantime things will get turbulent.