Europe is undergoing an identity crisis and Islam has been put at the center of it. The recent terrorist attacks in Norway by a deranged man who harbored anti-Muslim sentiments and sympathized with far right wing anti-immigrant political ideologies has brought this crisis once again to the surface. The crisis of Islam in Europe revolves, in part, around Europe’s own confrontation with its cultural tradition and the debates raging about multiculturalism. What might Nietzsche, the nineteenth century philosopher who famously coined, “God is dead” have to tell us about Europe’s ongoing problems with Islam and multiculturalism?
Ibrahim Kalin, a scholar of Islam at Georgetown University argues in a recent essay, Islamophobia and the Limits of Multiculturalism that debates about Islam in Europe tend to boil over into debates about multiculturalism. This phenomenon leads Kalin to argue that Islam and the role of Muslims in Europe short circuits the discourse on multiculturalism, and tends to lead towards a type of European identity crisis.
In many ways, Nietzsche was the first major thinker to confront the loss of a religious worldview in Europe. Yet he was always an admirer of religion, which he referred to as “the highest form of art.” The best kind of religion for Nietzsche is concerned, not with the nature of reality, but with the ultimate existential meaning of life.
At the core of the multicultural debate in Europe are questions of values and tradition; a topic Nietzsche took head on in his famous work, On the Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche held a much different definition of culture than the one that shapes our debates about multiculturalism today. He saw Kultur as emblematic of an entire civilization, and his work sought to establish a genealogical reevaluation of the decadent values that brought Europe to a stage of existence that he deemed weak and degraded.
Nietzsche believed that cultural identity is intimately tied up with cultures outside of Europe, and especially with Islamic culture. Scholars of Nietzsche, Roy Jackson and Ian Almond have recently wrote about Nietzsche’s unique views on Islam in seeking better understand how the prolific thinker might instruct us today as we face debates about multiculturalism and the rise of political Islam. Although Nietzsche never references the Qur’an or hadith (sayings of prophet Muhammad) and never travelled to a Muslim country, he did read voraciously from the European Orientalist authors of his time.
Nietzsche believed that close personal contact with Muslims was the best way understand and appreciate Europe’s own tradition, and unravel its crisis of values. In a letter to a friend, Nietzsche wrote that he desired not only to get to know Islam, but to get to know the most conservative type of Islam so as to see his own European soul under the mirror, where he might grasp the decadence of Europe’s declining values. He wrote,
“I want to live for a while amongst Muslims, in the places moreover where their faith is at its most devout; this way my eye and judgment for all things European will be sharpened.”
Nietzsche never did live amongst Muslims, yet if he hadn’t gone “mad” at a relatively young age, scholars suggest that he would have eventually written a more focused work on Islam. It must be understood that Nietzsche’s understanding of Islam was informed in the context of a late nineteenth century discourse of European Orientalism. Certain clichés are apparent in his writing about Islam. His obsession with the will to power colored his reading of Islam and made him praise Islam for what he called its “manliness,” its un-democratic spirit, ordered discipline, and what he referred to as a “life affirming will.”
Nietzsche and Multiculturalism Today
It is likely that Nietzsche would be a strong critic of certain forms of multiculturalism, especially those that promote cultural relativism and political correctness. At the same time, in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche was a strong advocate against those in Germany that were anti-Semitic, a position familiar to European Muslims today.
Political leaders in Europe today such as German Prime Minister Angela Merkel have referred to multiculturalism as a failed project due to rising immigrant crime and poverty, and an overall loss of connection to an original European cultural identity.
What would Nietzsche say in response to Europe’s crisis with Islam and multiculturalism? Nietzsche found liberation in destroying all foundations of cultural values and radically questioning the foundations of tradition. But would Nietzsche prefer that Islam assimilate into Europe, or that it integrate and retain its own autonomous culture distinct from Europe? Based on his desire to maintain a clear distinction between Islam and Europe in his own time, it is clear that Nietzsche would prefer that Muslims retain their own culture and not passively assimilate into a secular Europe.
His vigorous support for contact and interaction with Muslims provides a key to Europeans seeking to understand Islam, but even more importantly, his message can help Europeans better understand their own identity crisis.