Local Advisory Council Chair
It was Barack Obama who coined the widely known adage that elections alone do not make true democracy. Wise words indeed – and nonetheless: the right to vote is considered democracy’s greatest good. In the personal perceptions of individual citizens, voting probably even constitutes their main act of participation in democratic government. The framework for this participation is laid down in the Basic Law. It defines the principle of representative democracy as the state order of the Federal Republic of Germany. This means: the people does not exercise state authority directly, but transfers it to elected bodies – parliaments. The Bundestag, or federal parliament, in Berlin is the parliament for the whole country. Then there is a Landtag, or state parliament, for each of the 16 German states, while in districts, cities and municipalities there are local bodies of self-government. These parliaments are the only constitutional bodies in Germany that are directly voted for by the electorate.
“People will judge you by your actions, not your intentions.” So goes the adage that even well-meant behavior may result in unforeseen condemnation. Or, in other words: It’s not enough just to want to do the right thing. In this sense, the last few months must have been rather painful for Peter Schäfer, the highly esteemed German scholar of ancient religious studies. Indeed, the former director of Europe’s largest Jewish museum, himself a Catholic, has been accused of quite a few offenses of late: spinelessness, poor leadership and even anti-Semitism.
Can we learn democracy, Mr Krüger?
Bonn was not meant to be like Weimar, but Berlin was meant to remain like Bonn – what sounds like a convoluted story of cities is nothing less than the chequered history of German democracy, of its failure, its reestablishment and its transformation in the 20th century. The Basic Law, promulgated in Bonn on 23 May 1949, gave birth to the Federal Republic of Germany. It was only to be a “temporary measure”, because soon afterwards, in October of the same year, a second German state, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), was founded. This was a result of the Second World War and the collapse of the National Socialist dictatorship. The Basic Law was envisaged as an interim statement of fundamental principles, which is why it was not described as a constitution nor ratified by the people, but approved by the existing states with the exception of Bavaria. The Basic Law was only meant to last until Germany was reunified in unity and freedom.
Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us,” said John F Kennedy in 1963 during his famous speech in Berlin. Freedom (of thought, of expression, of research and of movement) and democracy are closely interlinked. However, they are extremely precarious achievements that need to be constantly reaffirmed. Free acquisition of knowledge, critical analysis and argument are a central foundation for academic freedom, a fundamental right in Germany and simultaneously a cornerstone of liberal democracy. However, Article 5, Paragraph 3 of the Basic Law states: “The freedom of teaching shall not release any person from allegiance to the constitution.” Academics must be conscious of the responsibility that their freedom engenders. Legal and ethical constraints on research are scrutinised against the background of developments and debates within society. At the same time, the basic freedom to select the subjects of research is an achievement of the liberal political system that must be maintained for the sake of diversity and creativity. After all, the innovative capacity of industry and society is especially strengthened by academic freedom. Active exchange and good research communication are absolutely vital here in the age of fake news and fake information. Today especially, it is important to strengthen the commitment to impartial debate. This also includes acceptance of “agreeing to disagree”. After all, new solutions can only be found through open discourse and debate between people with different ideas. Pluralist democracy and free research go hand in hand. Both require self-discipline: learning – listening – understanding – thinking – presenting arguments – reaching conclusions – deciding. However, democracy and academic freedom need to be constantly realised anew, because only then will we become stronger and better able to address the challenges of the future.
One main goal that democracy and religion have in common is the welfare of the people. Democracy aims to implement the opinion of the people that will support the way they want to live freely and happily in their country. Religion is also a kind of collection of rules that guide people on how to live happily with each other in society. When democracy is unable to achieve this, it has failed completely. The same applies to religion: if is betrays its principles, it becomes a tyranny to people, an instrument of destruction. We are talking about justice, in the sense that if people are citizens in our country, we expect from our government to provide the basic things we should live on. We expect the government to do the right thing, that it is effective and efficient. Religion is not different from that. It is a set of principles that guide people’s lives. One of these principles is the principle of justice – treating everybody the right way, treating everybody equally, not serving some people and leaving some behind. Religion is an instrument for justice that makes everybody belong to a society. We are taught we are all children of God. Nobody is greater than the other. If we want to establish democracy, women have to be fully part and parcel of it. Sometimes their religious leaders or their governments do not teach them writing, although it is very important for women to be educated in their rights. Even though I am a Catholic nun, I am also a Nigerian citizen and have the right to vote. I have the right to say this policy of our government does not achieve peace or equality. But some people do not understand the relationship between religion and democracy. They say, ‘Sister, you are a nun, you are not supposed to talk about politics.’ But of course I have the right to hold the government accountable. There are many good things in democracy, but there are flaws as well. Do other societies have other avenues that promote freedom, dignity and equality? If they do, we have to tap into that. I am interested in using religion AND democracy to promote peace.