Editor’s note: Juergen Habermas and Asef Bayat are towering global thinkers. Their books have been translated into multiple languages and are taught in universities throughout the world. Habermas is part of the pantheon of the legendary Frankfurt School of critical theory, along with the late Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse. Yet he is perhaps best known for his ideas about the “public sphere” — a realm where citizens come together to debate matters of general concern and “public opinion” is formed, which he traces back to coffeehouses and literary salons in 18th-century Europe — and as a defender of liberal democracy against its critics on both the left and the right. He is no stranger to the challenge that Bayat poses in this open letter; his very public debates and intellectual battles over many decades have made him a household name in Germany.
Bayat is a sociologist of the contemporary Middle East best known for his concept of “post-Islamism” and for his textured studies of street politics, everyday life and how ordinary people change the Middle East (the subtitle of his 2013 book, “Life as Politics”). Habermas has been widely criticized for his recent statements on the Gaza war, but what distinguishes this open letter is its immanent critique: Bayat sets out to show how Habermas fails to apply his own ideas to the case of Israel-Palestine. It is a critique from within the logic of Habermasian thought. This gives it a force that will — or should — resonate with Habermas and his defenders. It is more of an invitation than a polemic. It is an attempt to engage, and we publish it here in hopes that it will do just that.
Dear professor Habermas,
You may not remember me, but we met in Egypt in March 1998. You came to the American University in Cairo as a distinguished visiting professor to engage with the faculty, students and the public. Everyone was enthusiastic to hear you. Your ideas on the public sphere, rational dialogue and democratic life were like a breath of fresh air in a time when Islamists and autocrats in the Middle East were stifling free expression under the guise of “protecting Islam.” I recall a pleasant conversation we had on Iran and religious politics over dinner at the house of a colleague. I tried to convey to you the emergence of a “post-Islamist” society in Iran, which you later seemed to experience on your trip to Tehran in 2002, before you spoke about a “post-secular” society in Europe. We in Cairo saw in your core concepts a great potential for fostering a transnational public sphere and cross-cultural dialogues. We took to heart the kernel of your communicative philosophy about how consensus-truth can be reached through free debate.
Now, some 25 years later, in Berlin, I read your co-authored “Principles of Solidarity” statement on the Gaza war with more than a little concern and alarm. The spirit of the statement broadly admonishes those in Germany who speak out, through statements or protests, against Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza in response to Hamas’ appalling attacks of Oct. 7. It implies that these criticisms of Israel are intolerable because support for the state of Israel is a fundamental part of German political culture, “for which Jewish life and Israel’s right to exist are central elements worthy of special protection.” The principle of “special protection” is rooted in Germany’s exceptional history, in the “mass crimes of the Nazi era.”
It is admirable that you and your country’s political-intellectual class are adamant about sustaining the memory of that historic horror so that similar horrors will not befall the Jews (and I assume, and hope, other peoples). But your formulation of, and fixation on, German exceptionalism leaves practically no room for conversation about Israel’s policies and Palestinian rights. When you confound criticisms of “Israel’s actions” with “antisemitic reactions,” you are encouraging silence and stifling debate.
As an academic, I am stunned to learn that in German universities — even within classrooms, which should be free spaces for discussion and inquiry — almost everyone remains silent when the subject of Palestine comes up. Newspapers, radio and television are almost entirely devoid of open and meaningful debate on the subject. Indeed, scores of people, including Jews who have called for a ceasefire, have been fired from positions, had their events and awards canceled and been accused of “antisemitism.” How are people supposed to deliberate about what is right and what is wrong if they are not allowed to speak freely? What happens to your celebrated idea of the “public sphere,” “rational dialogue” and “deliberative democracy”?
The fact is that most of the critics and protests you admonish never question the principle of protecting Jewish life — and please do not confuse these rational critics of the Israeli government with the disgraceful far-right neo-Nazis or other antisemites who must be vigorously condemned and confronted. Indeed, almost every statement I have read condemns both Hamas’ atrocities against civilians in Israel and antisemitism. These critics are not disputing the protection of Jewish life or Israel’s right to exist. They are disputing the denial of Palestinian lives and Palestine’s right to exist. And this is something about which your statement is tragically silent.
There is not a single reference in the statement to Israel as an occupying power or to Gaza as an open-air prison. There is nothing about this perverse disparity. This is not to speak of the everyday erasure of Palestinian life in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem. “Israel’s actions,” which you deem “justified in principle,” have entailed dropping 6,000 bombs in six days on a defenseless population; well over 15,000 dead (70% of them women and children); 35,000 injured; 7,000 missing; and 1.7 million displaced — not to mention the cruelty of denying the population food, water, housing, security and any modicum of dignity. Key infrastructures of life have vanished.
While, as your statement suggests, these may not technically amount to “genocidal intentions,” United Nations officials have spoken in unequivocal terms of “war crimes,” “forced displacement” and “ethnic cleansing.” My concern here is not about how to judge “Israel’s actions” from a legal perspective, but how to fathom this moral coldness and indifference you exhibit in the face of such staggering devastation. How many more lives should perish before they become worthy of attention? What meaning does the “obligation to respect human dignity” that your statement emphatically underlines have in the end? It is as though you fear that speaking of the suffering of Palestinians would diminish your moral commitment to Jewish lives. If so, how tragic it is that the righting of a colossal wrong committed in the past should be tied to perpetuating another monstrous wrong in the present.
I fear that this twisted moral compass is related to the logic of German exceptionalism that you champion. Because exceptionalism, by definition, allows for not one universal standard but differential standards. Some people become more worthy humans, others less worthy and still others unworthy. That logic shuts down rational dialogue and desensitizes moral consciousness; it erects a cognitive block that prevents us from seeing the suffering of others, impeding empathy.
But not everyone succumbs to this cognitive block and moral numbness. My understanding is that many young Germans privately express quite different views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from those of the country’s political class. Some even participate in public protests. The young generation is exposed to alternative media and sources of knowledge and experiences different cognitive processes from the older generation. But most maintain silence in the public realm, for fear of reprisal.
It appears as though some kind of “hidden sphere” is emerging, ironically in democratic Germany, similar to pre-1989 Eastern Europe or under despotic rule in the Middle East today. When intimidation shuts down public expression, people tend to forge their own, alternative narratives about key social matters in private, even as they go along with the officially sanctioned views in public. Such a hidden sphere can explode when the opportunity arises.
These are unsettling times, professor Habermas. It is precisely at such times that the wisdom, knowledge and above all the moral courage of thinkers like you are most needed. Your seminal ideas about truth and communicative action, cosmopolitanism, equal citizenship, deliberative democracy and human dignity remain immensely important. However, your Eurocentrism, German exceptionalism and the closure of free debate about Israel and Palestine to which you contribute would appear to contradict these ideas.
I fear that mere knowledge and awareness may not be enough. After all, how can an intellectual “know” without “understanding” and understand without “feeling,” as Antonio Gramsci wondered? Only when we “feel” the suffering of one another, through empathy, might there be hope for our troubled world.
Let us recall the words of the 13th-century Persian poet Saadi Shirazi:
Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain!
Dec. 8, 2023
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