Navid Kermani Solidarity, Liberty and Openness

Navid Kermani is a multiple award-winning writer, publicist, Orientalist and holder of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.
Navid Kermani is a multiple award-winning writer, publicist, Orientalist and holder of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. | © Goethe-Institut e.V.

Navid Kermani is one of Germany’s most compelling thinkers and has close ties with the Goethe-Institut. In an interview with Catherine Newmark, he speaks about literature und politics, the threat of freedom and Europe’s perspectives. You can find this and other articles in the recent supplement "das goethe" to the weekly DIE ZEIT from 24 March 2016. For download see goethe.de/publikationen.

Mr Kermani, your activities are quite diverse: you are an Orientalist, novelist, travel reporter ... How does that all fit together?

With a few exceptions, all of my activities can be traced back to literature. In my fiction as well as academic writing and journalism, I always reach for books, both nonfiction and fiction.

When we look at your political reports from regions of war or conflict like your recent journey on the refugees’ trail published under the title Einbruch der Wirklichkeit, isn’t your technique alone completely different than, say, sitting at your desk writing fiction or academic essays?

Of course, a reporting journey is a very specific genre. They are always very short journeys for which I need to be very well prepared, but where I may actually just be traveling for ten days or two weeks. For my latest book it was only eight days, but they were eight days of pure experience. If I had stayed longer, I would have quickly exhausted my perceptive capacities; then I would have had to stay for several months in order to delve further into deeper layers.

The next step, however, the writing process does not differ significantly from other writing processes. It's always reflections on experiences, giving shape to chaotic experienced reality while preserving contradictions and nuances. And I never leave myself out in my reports. This is not neutral observation. These are my eyes; other eyes would see differently.

In your writing it seems that even when you express yourself politically, the literary tradition almost always remains your reference. For example, not many would analyze terrorism alongside Lessing...

That may well be. But my library contains not only political non-fiction, but first and foremost the literary classics. So at times I may catch something in the morning newspaper that I link to Lessing. What actually differentiates me from many of my generation is that the literature that has influenced me is not post-war literature, but the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although, of course, I understand that after 1945 the post-war generation had to distance itself from the pathos that resonated in German literature, from this metaphysical reference.

Does this pathos, which you occasionally appropriate, also stand for something specific: for an idea of German culture that is not tied to a German nation?

Absolutely. Of course, someone like Kleist had his nationalistic tendencies, but in its breadth, German literature before the twentieth century did not identify itself with the German nation, just as my point of reference is the German or, to be exact, the German-speaking culture and not the German nation.

In addition to the literary pathos, you seem to have inherited the gesture of moderate reason from the age of Enlightenment, a moderate and humane attitude that neither glosses over nor demonizes things. Don’t you despair sometimes, today in particular, over ever more radical extremes in the anti-culture of public debates, fuelled by the crude tone often used on the Internet, in social media?

The public debate has indeed become very loud and very unproductive in many ways. But I think there are also hopeful counterexamples. For example, in January when we published the Kölner Botschaft, an open letter against sexual violence and against xenophobic agitation, the response was overwhelming. For days the Kölner Stadtanzeiger published whole pages of letters from readers, 90 percent of which were positive, or at least very objective and differentiated. That certainly had to do with the fact that there was no comments function activated on the web, but that you had to send a letter, an email or a fax or could call at the times indicated in order to talk with the editors.

The readers responded constructively, were grateful that we expressed certain difficult things, but in a tone that made it possible to discuss them. That also allowed us to express our bafflement. I think this is a good example of how we can trigger a constructive debate at least in the local context: simply by outwitting the medium of the Internet with its fully unleashed, unrestrained and largely mindless debates.

Speaking of bafflement, how, in the face of the massive wave of immigration we are presently experiencing, can we remain – or perhaps become – a tolerant, multicultural, multi-religious society?

I have no simple solutions. One is the daily, small-scale local work. The other is at the political level. I am convinced that it can only succeed if it remains European in an emphatic sense. What we should have learned from the twentieth century – most recently in the Balkan Wars and right now in the Middle East – is that the tolerance of the modern European nation-state is very fragile.

This is a model that inherently amounts to the ethnic definition of a nation state and therefore the definition of those who allegedly do not belong. We now observe the discourse and, unfortunately, the practice of exclusion wherever the nation state regains its power, from Poland to Hungary to the right-wing nationalist parties in Germany and France. Europe did not abolish the differences – that would be terrible – it preserves the national cultures, languages, traditions, but it defuses the differences politically.

But at present Europe is still lacking not only an idealistic idea, but also quite tangibly the ability to act politically.

Yes, unfortunately. But that belongs together. Maybe in the EU smaller alliances will have to be formed again to create the ability to act. A two-speed Europe, that's not an outlandish idea... But what I hope is that the present generation, which grew up in prosperity, freedom and peace, with Europe, democracy and human rights as matters of course in their lives, that this generation will again see and feel more clearly how very much we need Europe.

Given the new nationalism, but also the growing misery on our doorstep, Europe needs another social boost. We cannot always expect that from above; it has to come from the citizens themselves. For we can see now at the very latest what kind of society it is that those who reject the European project want to live in. What is at stake – our solidarity, our liberty, our openness to all ways of life, not only for foreign cultures – is threatened more by Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen and the AFD than by one million refugees.

Interview by Catherine Newmark. She lives in Berlin and works as a cultural journalist focusing on philosophy and the humanities for Deutschlandradio Kultur and the ZEIT Online column "10 nach 8."