Ian Almond


On his book History of Islam in German Thought: From Leibniz to Nietzsche

Cover Interview of December 20, 2009


The significance of this book lies in three directions.  First of all, society’s responses to the foreign are irredeemably multiple, even in the individual.  And when I say “multiple” I don’t simply mean in that obvious psychoanalytical, fetishism/phobia way we have two names for Persia/Iran, one connoting mystical poetry, exquisite miniatures, and nice carpets, the other a fanatical dictatorship which has to be destroyed.  The multiple responses to Islam in German thought reveal a profound polyphony in the human subject, an ideological schizophrenia which could never really make up its mind about what it thought about Islam.

Secondly, the fact that the thinkers I deal with in this book were able to read sophisticated accounts both of and by Muslims and still reproduce the clichés of fanatics, terrible Turks, etc. not only reflects upon the compartmentalization human beings are capable of, but also makes us question what it actually means for knowledge of a foreign culture to reside in society.

In our “awareness-raising” epoch, which is trying to reverse negative representations of Islam and Muslims, we assume that simply providing people with correct information about the Muslim world will automatically remove stereotypes.  What my research suggests is that this sort of education is simply not enough—it underestimates the psychic need for a notion of fanatical, barbaric Islam, and the need for a consequent “civilized” notion of Europe to persist.  Asking people to acknowledge that these barbaric, backward “others” of the West are as civilized and multi-faceted as we are would be like asking them to talk about incest in their family.  It would be asking them to embark upon the dissolution of themselves, and of the grand concepts with which they associate themselves.

Finally, last year I wrote a history of Muslim-Christian military alliances in Europe, to try and show the extraordinary extent to which Islam is involved in the history of Europe.  In many ways, History of Islam in German Thought also shares the goal: to bring Islam into Europe, to highlight the futility of talking about Europe without ever referring outside it.  Herder understood this simple truth over 200 years ago.

© 2009 Ian Almond