The massive flow of immigrants in Europe has led to predictions about future culture clashes because the values and mindsets of mainly Muslim immigrants are said to be incompatible with those of Western Europeans. The fact that most immigrants are religious is a main factor because in secular Europe the firm belief in God or literal interpretations of scriptures tend to be met with incomprehension. Most Europeans have a secular attitude that remains indifferent toward absolute values proclaimed by religion. This attitude has been referred to as “relativism” or—in more extreme cases and rather paradoxically—as Enlightenment Fundamentalism.
The European indifference toward absolute values does not only concern religion. Europeans, probably more than any other people in the world, have ceased considering their national ideals as absolutes: the creation of the European community can be seen as a result and as a catalyzer of this “relativist” mindset.
The European relativism can clash with religious attitudes that have been maintained in other parts of the world. Bassam Tibi, one of the most liberal intellectual reformers of Islam living in Germany, contrasts his own modernized version of Islam with the “value-relativism of today’s Europeans” (“Europeanisation, not Islamisation” in Sign and Sight March 23, 2007). Tibi also quotes the moderate Islamist Hasan Hanafi who holds that Europe is stuck in the “moral crisis of relativism,” and that only Islam can solve this problem. The relativism approach often occurs when religious people criticize a West that has lost all of its values. Sometimes Western relativism is referred to as “postmodernism” because the “postmodern” summarizes the absurdity of an “anything goes” attitude that puts all values upside down and sees good and bad as equal.
Criticism of Western relativism is not limited to religious critics. The American philosopher Allan Bloom has been intrigued by the contemporary Western infatuation with “all things being relative” in which he even sees the emergence of a new “absolutism.” For modern Westerners, the true believer appears as dangerous because she can turn into a fanatic at any moment. As a result, one prefers to say that everything is relative: “History teaches that all the world was mad” and therefore “we should be tolerant.” Finally, you should “never think you are right” (The Closing of the American Mind, Simon and Schuster, 2008, p. 25). Truth with a capital ‘T’ is seen as totalitarian. According to Bloom, this is the typical Western attitude, which he calls the “anything goes relativism” practiced by what he has dubbed a “Nietzscheanized Left” (217). Nietzsche, who declared that “God is dead,” is seen as the founder of a naive and exaggerated kind of relativism. The relativism becomes a new absolutism because fanatic relativism is nothing other than “relativist fundamentalism.” Of course, this is paradoxical because, normally, the purpose of relativism is to prevent fanaticism.
When tolerance becomes dogmatic, it lacks the particular self-reflectivity that is normally enclosed to relativism by definition. It is no longer controlled by a critical mind and ends up preaching tolerance for its own sake.
I don’t believe that Nietzsche’s main ideas about relativism are used appropriately in this context. Even worse, I believe that neither Bloom nor religious critics have understood the real nature of “Western relativism,” and it is important to explain its meaning at the moment this European cultural particularity clashes with that of Muslim believers.
The point of any relativism is to reveal absolute beliefs as relative because they are thought to be founded on merely communitarian standards and not on values that can pretend to be universal. This relativism does not negate the existence of values as such, but it criticizes an attitude proclaiming random and particular values as absolute. Bloom will agree until here, but he will point out that sometimes this relativism becomes a universal value in its own right, and then it represents a new absolutism. When tolerance becomes dogmatic, it lacks the particular self-reflectivity that is normally enclosed to relativism by definition. It is no longer controlled by a critical mind and ends up preaching tolerance for its own sake. This attitude does indeed exist, but depicting “Western relativism” in such a restricted way is misleading and does not do justice to the real sense of relativism present today in the European mind.
In a religious context, Bloom’s reflections have been complemented with other, more blunt, opinions. People who dismiss Islamic fundamentalism because of its intolerance have been called Enlightenment Fundamentalists. The term occurred in the debate revolving around the work of the radical critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The British journalist Timothy Garton Ash called Hirsi Ali an Enlightenment fundamentalist. Though Garton Ash relativized his statement later, it is interesting that such a concept could emerge in the first place, especially since it echoes the idea of “fundamentalist secularism” that regularly appears on Islamicist websites. Enlightenment fundamentalism overlaps with what the religious Islam specialist Ziauddin Sardar has called the philosophy of the “militant, dogmatic secularist” (Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: A Ziauddin Sardar Reader, London: Pluto Press, 2003, p. 231) who has, as Sardar adds, the imperialistic tendencies of “dehumanization, domination and meaninglessness” (p. 165).
The above debate, which involved Garton Ash, Hirsi Ali, and Ian Buruma, has been documented by Paul Berman in his The Flight of the Intellectuals (New York: Scribe, 2010) and I agree with his conclusions. However, some ideas need to be developed further in order to explain what is really at stake when religious people meet European relativists and feel that the latter are too consistently sticking to their Enlightenment values.
First, it is obvious that the word Enlightenment has here been profoundly misunderstood. The Enlightenment that many religious fundamentalists—and also Garton Ash—put forward is a fantasy mix of positivism and skepticism and has never existed in the history of philosophy. Enlightenment thought was not as radically anti-religious as is often supposed today. Until the end of the eighteenth century (thus roughly until the end of enlightenment), practically all great scientist were preoccupied with religious problems, seeing God as “the grand clockmaker.” Further, Enlightenment did not base all philosophical considerations on science and reason. Reason in the history of Western thought—and especially in the Enlightenment period—was rarely seen as a provider of absolute truths. Enlightenment philosophers were aware that reason, exactly like human institutions, is constructed according to random situations. In other words, reason was not the faithful reflection of abstract truths but rather the rationalization of certain social customs that can be more or less reasonable and must be criticized accordingly. Scientific truths depended on place and time. This means that when Enlightenment developed its generalized critical spirit influenced by reason, it took care to also criticize itself and its own reason. Caricatural presentations of “Western reasonableness” as a fanatic adherence to reason overlook this fact.
The relativism that has become part and parcel of modern European culture descends from this Enlightenment capacity to imbue one’s life with critical discourse. This includes self-criticism, which is why Enlightenment thought cannot end up as an Enlightenment fundamentalism.
Bloom attributes a particular kind of Western relativism to Nietzsche, or rather to a superficial interpretation of Nietzsche that extracts from the German philosopher’s thought the potential of “conflict-resolution, bargaining, [and] harmony” (Bloom 1987: 228) and nothing else. This is the mindset of the “Nietzscheanized Left.” However, while Nietzsche remains indeed important in any discussion of Western relativism, not every Western relativist will summarize Nietzsche’s relativism as the simpleminded belief that everything is equal and that tolerance must be practiced for its own sake. The Nietzschean input in contemporary Western culture is more complex. The special brand of relativism issued by Nietzsche is supposed to restore a tragic sense of life that has been lost in Christianity. And I believe that European culture is influenced by those ideas much more than by simplistic nineteenth-century positivist attitudes. The more substantial part of European relativism is determined by a complex, self-critical, and ironical form of relativism that can be called “tragic relativism.”
For Nietzsche, the tragic is not simply sadness but it also contains also joy and beauty. In order to achieve a state of mind able to experience tragic events in a relativist fashion, it is important to master the technique of irony. This is not the postmodern irony that has lost contact with truth and is just “playing around” because it believes that “anything goes.” There is a profounder form of irony that is closely linked to Nietzsche’s idea of the tragic and this irony is important for an understanding of the European cultural situation and its relationship with the believers who are currently crossing its borders. It is an irony that has interiorized the most tragic experiences of the past.
The ironical relativism current in Europe uses some Enlightenment paradigms, but it mainly evolves out of the tragic insight that absolute truths are lost and cannot be retrieved.
European relativism is not merely a superficial adventure of liberation (from religion, nationalism, the family, etc.), but it has been shaped over a long period by a series of tragic events. The disastrous experiences of two world wars, generalized insights into the evils of colonialism, the disappointment with communist utopias, plus a disillusionment with scientific progress in some fields, have created a consciousness that treats any overly optimistic belief in absolute truths and ideal solutions with irony. Again, this is not the postmodern irony playing with its own emptiness, nor is it an arrogant form of irony negating all values that should better be called cynicism. The ironical relativism current in Europe uses some Enlightenment paradigms, but it mainly evolves out of the tragic insight that absolute truths are lost and cannot be retrieved. This does not mean that truth does not exists. This kind of relativism is no straightforward nihilism or pessimism but rather a nihilism with ironical connotations. It culminates in the conclusion that all worldly matters are “tragically relative.” The irony implied is not superficial but serious and says a lot about the mode of existence of contemporary Europeans.
Though the tragic-ironical way of thinking is woven like a red thread into Nietzsche’s philosophy, the link between irony and the tragic is not a modern invention. The two have been linked since antiquity. In ancient Greek tragedies, heroes do everything to prevent disasters but by doing so, they produce the real disaster. This is tragic irony. The most famous example is King Oedipus who undertakes immense efforts to find his father’s murderer and discovers in the end that he himself is guilty of the crime. I say “guilty” because in tragic irony there is no absolute innocence. Guilt is always shared. The connections by which the tragic situation has been produced could not have been prevented, they were given. Still everybody is guilty. That’s the meaning of tragic irony. In it we might even find a grain of humor. The entire history of mankind can be perceived through the model of this tragic irony. A recent example of such an event is colonialism. Colonies were trying to become free and self-determined, but by doing so, many of them made themselves more dependent than ever within a globalized capitalist economic system. Of course, one can use Marxism and other theories to explain such developments, but the ironist is tired of such explanations because—and this is the essential point—all of them remain based on a grand narrative built around an absolute truth. The ironist does not believe in such truths. Instead she prefers to refer to such events as tragic.
This is precisely Nietzsche’s approach: he does not believe in scientific, dialectical, and Platonic explanations but decides to replace the dialectic with the tragic. Nietzsche formulates his tragic position like this:
Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems, the will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility even in the very sacrifice of its highest types—that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet (Twilight of the Idols, Oxford University Press, 1998: 80).
This is no superficial relativism suggesting that good and bad are simply the same. Seeing life as tragic sparks a dynamic gaiety through which one attempts to unify—but not to erase—opposite extremes.
The majority of immigrants, Islamic leaders, as well as Western and Muslim intellectuals who analyze the immigration crisis have not bothered to understand this concept of European culture. However, if there is a culture clash it will be due to misconceptions about relativism. Nothing can be more opposed to this ironic spirit than the fundamentalist attitude. Fundamentalists (no matter whether religious or nationalist) do not have this Nietzschean irony of the tragic but tend to see things in terms of black-and-white, good and bad. As a result, they do not understand the particular brand of relativism that flows out of this irony either. Fundamentalists and nationalists do not like the tragic but love the dramatic. The dramatic is always dialectically calculated and tends to be pompous and full of pathos.
Nietzsche’s relativism, on the other hand, is representative of a mindset that has interiorized the tragic sense of the world. It also refuses to make statements about absolute truths in the sense of: we are innocent, they are guilty. The result is not a simplistic drama with good guys and bad guys but rather an ironical tragedy. The logic of fundamentalists and nationalists, on the other hand, is based on straightforward “true” and “false” schemes. In the end, instead of attempting to gain a Dionysian insight into life’s tragic reality and to live their lives accordingly, they prefer a serene escape from reality. In the case of terrorism, the clearest manifestation of this attitude is suicide bombings.
It is important to note that the dialectical attitude that opposes good to bad, life to death, belief to non-belief, etc., is not backward but modern. From a Nietzschean perspective, fundamentalists and terrorists are modern in the sense of Socrates, whom Nietzsche wanted to combat. Socratic thought is against contingency, ambiguity, variety, and… irony. Socrates, just like positivism, does not acknowledge the tragic sense of the world. It is therefore not Western relativists who are positivist. The positivists are the terrorists and fundamentalists because they declare a holy war against everything that is impure, nuanced, ironic, and tragic.
We need to come back to the guilt question. History is determined by tragic irony and Oedipus is guilty. This means that the philosophy of tragic irony is opposed to a mindset of terrorists and fundamentalists who relish in conspiracy theories. For conspiracy theorists nothing is tragic. The good is the good and the bad is the bad. If the bad ones win, then we have a drama. If they always win, then it’s an eternal drama. The drama of being the eternal loser will be attributed to a conspiracy, but the situation will never be recognized as tragic. We will punish “them” by blowing everything to pieces. Of course, “we” are never guilty of any crime because we are the good ones.
This conception differs very much from the idea that life is tragic. The tragic state of the world is not a plot invented by the Jews, the Americans, or the Freemasons; it’s just the way life is. The conclusion is that we all have to assume our responsibility and only by doing so can we improve our situation. Even Oedipus is responsible for what he was doing. The purpose of conspiracy theories is to shift the responsibility to others.
For fundamentalists, the world is in a perfect state when only the good exists and the bad has been entirely exterminated.
The tragic as it appears in Greek plays is due to the fact that the good and the bad can overlap, that they can temporarily share the same space. The result is a particular kind of ironic relativism. Religious thinkers of the fundamentalist kind are making big efforts to disentangle those two spaces. Sometimes they go even further than that: they want peoples’ entire life space to be good while the bad should simply appear out of sight. Then the good, the holy, and the sacred will not be limited to religious precincts (to the mosque), but it will be extended over the entire space. The implementation of religious dress for women is part of this project. Whereas in many religions veiling is only necessary in temples, Islamists want to extend the space of the sacred to everything. There is no irony and, as a consequence, no sense of the tragic either. Eroticism, which is a source of many tragic encounters, must be banned from life space all together. However, eroticism is a prime example of the ironic play with the ambiguous. For fundamentalists, the world is in a perfect state when only the good exists and the bad has been entirely exterminated.
Tariq Ramadan is a liberal religious thinker and Paul Berman in the above mentioned book, has linked Ramadan to the discussion from which emerged the curious concept of Enlightenment Fundamentalism. Berman writes that in Ramadan’s version of Islam
the zone of the sacred contains only a single concept. The single concept is tawhid, or the oneness of God. Tawhid leaves no room for tension between the sacred and the non-sacred, such as you see in Western thought. Nor does tawhid allow for a Promethean spirit of rebellion. Nor does tawhid permit a sense of the tragic. A deep and tragic sense of doubt is not even a conceptual possibility. Tensions, rebellions, tragic doubts—these are Western concepts. There is no room for anything of the sort in the version of Muslim civilization that Ramadan draws from al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyya (Berman: 16–17).
There is no doubt, no skepticism and, as a consequence, no irony. Tragic irony, in particular, is unthinkable because the zone of the sacred contains only one single concept and one single point of view from which the world can be interpreted. Tragic relativism has a different world view. The mixing together of the serious and the non-serious or of the sacred and the non-sacred is the specialty of tragic irony. Atheists are not tragic people either because they refuse relativism. Ironic relativists, on the other hand, follow a particular approach: I can not believe in God but still practice certain religious rituals, meaning: I can bring together in one cultural space the sacred and the non-sacred by using irony. This is also very different from the naïve relativism that declares everything to be equal.
Those Who Came Off Badly
Why do vast amounts of individuals fall on the side of conspiracy-theory-fundamentalism while others go for tragic ironism? The reason cannot be that the former have experienced more misfortunes than the other. Disasters of all kind have occurred almost everywhere. Belief—strong religious belief—explains a part of the difference. But then again, not all believers are on the conspiracy side. The main reason why some people or entire nations or regions fall on the side of conspiracy-theory-fundamentalism it that they feel inferior. This in itself is a tragic-ironical statement. Some people feel inferior, and Nietzsche even had a special term for them: they are those “who came off badly” (“die zu kurz gekommenen”), those who got the short end of the stick. The concept appears in the Thus Spake Zarathustra. You will not guess whom Nietzsche had in mind in the first place. Christians! Christianity is for Nietzsche the sum total of oppressive morals defended by those who got the short end of the stick.
There is obviously more to Nietzsche than blunt relativism propagated by the “Nietzscheanized Left.” While Bloom’s Nietzschean relativists vibrate the untragic undertones of tolerant resignation incompatible with Nietzsche’s Dionysianism, in reality Nietzsche is the philosopher of a Dionysian—that is tragic—affirmation of life. He is the philosopher of a world that has overcome the religious fictions maintained by puritans and all those who “came off badly.” The latter are hostile to life and will do everything to submit the lives of others to their anti-life standards. They indulge in ascetism. However, when they claim that they have adopted those standards voluntarily, Nietzsche labels them as the representatives of the “slave ethics” (Sklavenmoral). Those who came off badly are constantly imagining how their mighty god will punish and torture those who are strong and avenge the weak. But why are they weak? Is it because of an international conspiracy? Nietzsche’s depth psychological approach shows that they are weak because they have interiorized the ethics of slaves.
This article was not supposed to be on terrorism but on refugees, and I do not believe that most refugees are fundamentalists or even terrorists. On the other hand, it is difficult not to notice parallels between Nietzsche’s Christian “zu-kurz-gekommenen” and fundamentalists. It also remains a fact that the mindset of tragic relativism current in Europe today is diametrically opposed to that of all people who continue thinking in clearly distinguished terms of good and bad. And as long as refugees are representatives of this mindset, they will accuse Europeans of relativism.
Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is Associate Professor of philosophy at the Gulf University in Kuwait. He has a maitrise from the Sorbonne, a Ph.D. from Oxford University, and a “habilitation” from the EHESS in Paris. He has done research in Finland, Russia, Japan, and China, and taught at Tuskegee University in Alabama. His most recent books are Transcultural Architecture (Routledge) and Organic Cinema (Berghahn). www.botzbornstein.org