“Identity is oneness in substance,” Aristotle tells us, meaning it is given, permanent and unalterable. To a large extent, this definition of identity still governs Europe’s consciousness. This is particularly so since the 17th century, with the end of wars of religion, the emergence of the European state system, the gradual secularisation of governments and the establishment of capitalism. Alongside these, the decline of the Ottoman empire and the new technological developments in shipping and weaponry that paved the way for overseas expansion and colonialism, meant that a rising Europe embarked on a quest to assert its uniqueness and purity. The guiding question in this search for identity was: What is it that Europe has which other cultures and countries lack? What is the source of its singularity, of its triumph over other nations?
Philosophers, clergymen, statesmen, travellers, artists and writers all mobilised to define the secrets of this uniqueness. Some, such as Kant and Hegel traced it to Christianity and the Hellenistic Greek tradition. Some, such as Montesquieu (and later Marx and Engels) to Europe’s socio-political order; others like Weber referred it to its economic system. To all, Europe was the seat of reason and order, the realm of freedom and subjectivity.
Although modernity’s “grand narratives” have been severely battered by post-modernity’s hammer, attacking its faith in the universal, given, meta-historical and timeless, these categories have remained central to the west’s self-definition. Its discourse of identity is still largely dominated by the belief in the peculiarity, superiority and universality of its values, of which Fukuyama’s cry of the end of history is a pertinent example. Humanity has reached the pinnacle of its progress with the American liberal model. It is the ultimate embodiment of rationality, nothing less than the incarnation of history’s spirit.
The truth, however, is that this pure, absolute and uniform identity which Europe – and later the west – has constructed for itself, along with its manufactured history, with its metamorphoses from the Greek, to the medieval Christian, to the modern, is little more than myth and illusion. The “west”, as it conceives of itself, is a gigantic lie. Although the Greek Hellenistic and the Christian traditions were undoubtedly vital in the west’s evolution, so too were other elements from which it has sought to distance itself and assert its difference.
At the forefront of these expelled forefathers, these banished ancestors, is the Islamic. It is the missing link in Europe’s self-narrative, occupying the imaginary vacuum it likes to refer to as “the dark ages”. By all accounts, this period in Europe’s history is worthy of its association with darkness and decadence, with its superstitions, waves of persecution and bouts of plague. But European history is not world history. When compared with Baghdad, wrote historian Z Oldenbourg: “Paris, Mainz, London and Milan, were not even like modern provincial cities compared to a capital. They were little better than African villages or townships.” This idea does not stand up within the entire European context. When London was little more than a collection of huts built along the banks of a muddy river, a few hundreds of miles away, Cordoba, Granada and Seville were vibrant, flourishing metropolises which gave the continent its first universities, street lights, pavements, sewage systems, windmills and public parks.
A balanced conception of identity largely depends on a profound reading of history, one that avoids reductionism, superficiality, glorification or vilification. The outcome of this revision process is a recognition that the perceived “other” is in reality intrinsic to the self. Without the gifts of Islamic civilisation in philosophy and astronomy, mathematics and physics, art and architecture, “modern” Europe would have been virtually impossible.
Try as it may to expel the Islamic factor from its constructed self, Europe cannot. It remains inhabited, haunted by it, both by direct intellectual and cultural influence and through negation and the desire to form an identity that is a series of contrasts, set against an imaginary Islam.
Neither can Europe refer to geography as a ground for self-definition. Far from being fixed, geographic frontiers change constantly, according to politics and power balances.
Until recently, eastern Europe was seen as lying outside the European framework, culturally tarnished by its prolonged encounter with the Ottomans and its briefer experience of socialism. And today, questions over whether Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Turkey fall within Europe’s borders or outside it still generate heated debate.
The parameters of identity are not neutral, pre-given or natural. They are enclosed by culture and politics. Europe is a cultural and political construct. If that were not the case, few would have questioned the “Europeanness” of former socialist orthodox Russia, or former Ottoman Muslim Turkey. And if Ukraine’s Orange Revolution had reached the outcome desired by Europe without the intervention of Kremlin-backed counter-revolutionaries, it would have found itself only a few years away from full membership of the EU.
But the most striking instance of the shift of Europe’s identity in the last few decades has been caused by immigration, which brought new races and religions into Europe’s bosom. The dismantling of modern-day empires and economic constraints moved the relationship between metropolis and colony from the outside to the inside. Yesterday’s colonials became today’s immigrants. Indians, Algerians and other obscure colonial subjects made London and Paris their homes. From outsiders on the periphery of the empire in distant overseas colonies, they turned into outsiders on the periphery of capitals and industrial cities. Distant, alien Islam, in opposition to which Europe manufactured its identity, was now part of its national borders.
Many find these changes hard to swallow. To a large extent, this unease explains the rise of the far right and the deepening sense of identity crisis in countries such as France and in others in central and southern Europe. Time is needed before these countries come to terms with accelerating change, before Islam and Muslims are recognised as part of the fabric of European society and identity. No doubt it is easier to accept couscous and curry than it is to accept those who bring them in, along with their mosques, hijabs and beards, but it’s only a matter of time.
First Published in The Guardian, Monday 30 April 2007