One civilization, many cultures?

CÔME CARPENTIER de GOURDON

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LEAVING aside Mahatma Gandhi’s reported quip that western civilization ‘would be a good idea’, there is indeed a valid controversy about the unity of European civilization, even taking into account the fact that it comprises many diverse cultures. In German, civilization and culture are indistinguishable and one word is used to define both, but in Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Slav languages a distinction is made between them.

If cultures are intrinsically linked to national and regional communities and their respective histories, customs, languages or dialects and traditional artistic and literary expressions, civilization is generally regarded as a set of values, achievements, utilities and amenities – in other words, ways and means shared by a particular people or set of peoples that may not necessarily speak the same tongue or practice the same faith. By definition, a civilization is urban (even though it encompasses outlying non-urbanized areas) as opposed to a purely rural or nomadic culture such as have existed since the dawn of humanity.

As a concrete example, European civilization is generally admitted to have appeared as a unified entity when the Romans brought together in their empire most of the continent (as well as the Asian and African regions around the Mediterranean) and assimilated the diverse peoples that lived on it. They forged a common set of political, social, technological and cultural concepts and practices to which the Christian religion was added in the final centuries of their rule.

The Byzantine successors to Roman hegemony deepened the legacy in Eastern Europe, but lost most of the West which largely fell under the sway of Germano-Scandinavian tribes. Hence a mixed Roman-Gothic-Frankish civilization emerged in Occidental Europe and solidified under Charlemagne and his successors while the Orient created its own blend of Greek, Slavic and Near Eastern ingredients. There is however little doubt, as Fernand Braudel and others have pointed out, that Rome built on and expanded a primarily Mediterranean civilization whose foundations had been laid many centuries earlier by Egyptian, Chaldeo-Phoenician, Hellenic and other peoples.

The frontier between that tri-continental commonwealth encircling the ‘Mare Nostrum’ and the Northern European continental and oceanic civilization is almost as clearly marked as the well known Eastern divide that crosses the Balkans and reaches the Baltic. The North-South border was only partly wiped out in France in political terms by the Albigense crusade of the thirteenth century and for hundreds of years rulers such as Spanish kings, German kaisers and Russian czars strove to bridge the gap with the Mediterranean (or Black Sea shore) peoples they had conquered. But geography and climate are permanent realities and even today a southern Italian or an Andalucian Spaniard has probably more in common, in spite of the religious separation, with a Tunisian or an Algerian than with a Swede or a Scot.

 

So is there a single European civilization? The answer to this question would have been different just a hundred years ago. Indeed, French and German people would have hardly agreed that they shared a common civilization, though their technical and scientific achievements were equivalent while their cultural records were related and broadly similar. Today, on the other hand, the gradual ‘death of distance’, the standardization of technology and the homogenizing influence of the European Union and other supranational bodies – not to mention the compulsion to cooperate in order to fend off threats from major political or civilizational blocs such as the USA, China, West Asia and Africa – have made obvious to most that Europe is both the mother lode and the commonwealth of a civilization whose key features undoubtedly are the shared Graeco-Roman heritage, Christianity, rationalistic ‘Enlightenment’ and the related so-called scientific approach.

Europe was, paradoxically, also the cradle for the notion and theory of the sovereign nation state based on language or ethnicity and history, which eventually led to the dismantling of the last multinational empires in the early twentieth century. It also inherited a legacy of colonialism since most of its component countries conquered and held sway over other, often distant, overseas territories. Hence, European nations can be expected to surrender only reluctantly their hard-won and hitherto much prized independence to the apex bodies of a new, multinational empire. Like power, sovereignty and patriotism cannot be divided.

 

There is general agreement that Europe is the motherland of democracy, as it was broadly defined in ancient Greece and developed during more than two millennia through several stages of maturation. However, there are legitimate reasons to doubt whether democracy in general is a specific product of the continent in view of the fact that it was adopted only recently under the pressure of external actors and global circumstances and that several European states not so long ago tended to be more aggressive, expansionistic, violent and tyrannical than many other polities on other continents. Slavery and absolutist governments were in existence well into the nineteenth century while some of the bloodiest dictatorships and most cruel wars occurred in Europe in the last few decades.

In a way the history of democracy in Europe is as chequered and controversial as the record of Christianity which was used as a reason to dominate other regions of the globe, destroy their own cultures and civilizations and enforce an often harsh expatriate rule on the conquered peoples in order to exploit their lands and resources while claiming to save their souls and to bring them the only real (i.e. European) civilization.

Rival European powers tended to affirm belonging to separate civilizations vis-a-vis one another whereas they told their colonial subjects that they were bringing them Civilization, as such, since nothing outside of the continent could be compared with it. Before the nineteen hundreds, few scholars or statesmen were ready to admit that there was indeed a plurality of civilizations of more or less equal standing. The only candidates to that designation – China, Japan, India and the Islamic regions – were customarily described as the loci of ancient cultures that had great achievements to their credit in the past but that had been frozen in time for centuries and had lost the evolutionary race of progress.

A similar attitude prevailed in matters of religion. The West emphasized its shared Christian heritage to the outside world but its inner sectarian divergences came to the fore both at home and in the colonies. Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists generally found little in common between each other and evinced an aversion for the Eastern Orthodox that were universally seen as members of another, rather backward civilization dominated by the Russian nation.

 

The United States of America emerged as a refuge for politically disgruntled, religiously repressed and economically underprivileged Europeans who quickly came to define themselves in contrast to the states of their origin, almost as the builders of an anti-Europe, as described by Claudio Finzi in an article on Eurasia Rivista,1 since the Old Continent was seen by most of them as a ‘realm of war, cruel despotism and vacillating thrones’ in the words of early American writer Timothy Dwight, echoing the convictions of Jefferson, Washington and Franklin.

However, the Utopian New World envisioned by the Pilgrim Fathers and the framers of the American Constitution carried far too much baggage from the Old, whether in the Bible or in the Graeco-Roman heritage, to be too different despite the ‘vast ocean’ which, according to Jefferson, mercifully kept it apart from its alma mater. America was seen as the home for the new Israel by some and as the reborn Athens or the future Rome by others. But in both cases its architects harked back to the ideal source and essence of European identity, shorn of its Byzantine and Germanic feudal and theological accretions, such as monarchies of divine right, all powerful centralized governments and hereditary nobility, representing the ‘stratification and oppression’ decried by Jefferson.

 

Indeed, over time, the isolationistic US ideal, inspired by a ‘moral and political rejection of the eastern hemisphere’, while it never disappeared, quietly transformed for practical reasons into an ever sharper design to reshape Europe on the American model and lead a unified and democratized western world gathered around the North Atlantic as a new ‘Mare Nostrum’ for a Neo-Roman Anglo-Saxon empire, merging the British Commonwealth with the American hegemonic sphere. The English language and culture, historically and geographically marginal to Europe, became rather central and came to be seen by many as the common, supra-national ground on which to bring the continent together, thus superceding traditional and even bewildering diversity with a common bond, analogous to Huntington’s cherished ‘American creed’, but described by Claude Levi Strauss as a mere ‘mass civilization’.

Finzi puts it thus: ‘…The West, with a US stamp, created to separate America from Europe now absorbs Europe itself by Americanizing it.’2 Instead of remaining faithful to its original tenet of keeping European states and their bellicose designs out of the Americas, the USA has now firmly entrenched itself in the old continent and in the rest of the world while trying to keep itself free from any supra-national rules and obligations.

 

The new meaning of multiculturalism: If only for the sake of convenience we accept Huntington’s definition of Europe as sharing a civilization with northern America and probably Australia, New Zealand and other territories inhabited by a clear majority of European expatriates (amongst which he is hesitant to include Latin American countries), we nevertheless know that the continent is multicultural by definition since culture is inseparable from language even as it is connected to but not coterminous with religion. The once common Latin heritage, propagated along with its civilization by the Roman state and preserved until the Renaissance and beyond by the Catholic Church, mostly dissolved long ago into a mosaic of national and regional cultures.

However, since the 17th century Westphalian treaties, the principle cujus region ejus religio has also been applied to culture, in the sense that each sovereign state is supposed to have and enforce, if need be, a ruling culture manifested in its way of life, literature, fine arts and historical narrative. Ruling elites in the USA itself remain fiercely committed to the principle of linguistic unity (mono-glossy) and monoculturalism, known as integration, while they take a very sceptical, if not dim, view of Europe’s many languages and national traditions which they see as formidable obstacles to the EU’s plan for continental unification.

In the past, there were exchanges and connections between those national ‘lores’ but they were relatively small and restricted to the learned elites, even when a particular country became predominant and exercised a powerful influence on the intellectual and artistic life of the others, such as France in the 18th century and England in the 19th.

 

As a result of the growing importance of the nation state as a defining authority, regional cultures and their languages generally suffered and were often deliberately repressed or assimilated by the majority, as was the case in France, the United Kingdom, Spain or resurgent Germany. The main reason for the preservation of many minority cultures was the paucity of means of communication and the relative isolation in which large territories remained until the second half of the last century. However, with modernization and the end of colonial empires, at least after the Second World War, came a growing awareness of many hitherto suppressed regional identities that translated into demands for autonomy or outright independence, as in the Spanish Catalan and Basque provinces, in French Savoy, Corsica and Brittany, in Belgian Flanders and in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Many cultures yearned to be freed from the straitjacket of the nation state and to freely restore their transnational linkages. A few well-known examples of this phenomenon are to be found in the cross-border revivals of the Celtic, Occitanian, Germanic, Hungarian and Alsacian regional identities. More controversial and violent phenomena are connected to the arousal of Bosnian and Albanian nationalism in the Balkans which has an added religious component.

Large scale immigration, mostly from Africa and Asia, fuelled by economic and political factors, has added a new and problematic dimension to the issue of multiculturalism since the migrant communities, such as the Turks in Germany, the Algerians in France, the Pakistanis in Britain and the Moroccans in Belgium do not always integrate well with their adopted countries, and may not always wish to, for fear of losing their own treasured religious and ethnic identities, especially when they do not feel welcome or fully accepted by the local population. The mutual dislike and resentment creates explosive tensions that often result in vandalism, riots and recourse to arms. The spectre of terrorism and civil war hovers over Europe because of this tense situation, now worsened by a deep and lasting economic crisis.

 

When looking at the situation of Muslims and of many non-Muslim Black Africans and Asians living on the continent of whose states most of them are citizens, one cannot help but recall the words of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, at the Muslim League session of 23 March 1940 in Lahore since many among both the autochthonous Europeans and the immigrants do think in similar terms, whether they admit it or not:

‘…(Hindus and Muslims) belong to... two different civilizations which are mainly based on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their concepts of life and on life are different. It is quite clear that (they) derive their inspirations from different sources of history. They have different epics, different heroes and different episodes. Very often the hero of one is the foe of the other and likewise, their victories and defeats overlap. To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the governance of such a state.’3

There is no dearth of divisive issues between Europeans, whether practising Christians or not, and Muslims. A few instances are the Crusades and their effects, the origins and practices of colonialism, current policies towards the developing world and especially vis-a-vis Muslim countries, the legitimacy of Christianity and Islam as the rival interpretations of Divine Truth, the admissibility or at least the definition of secularism and atheism, the role of faith in society and politics, the economic system and the legality of speculation and of charging interest.

 

Despite all attempts to paper over or evade disagreements, the inter-religious dialogue between Christianity and Islam has produced few positive tangible results, apart from theoretical commitments to tolerate each other as far as possible. The opposition of Islamic theology to many of the basic tenets of western liberal materialistic societies is radical and the latter cannot but remain committed to pushing the ummah towards a drastic reform or aggiornamento, in order to ensure sincere adhesion to the basic rules adopted in Europe for individual liberty, sexual equality, moral relativism and the separation of religion from socio-political and economic legislation.

In short, modern western society professes to ignore traditional teachings of religious morality to which it tries to substitute a utilitarian and relativistic ‘ethics’ that seems to have had little effect in business practice and family life, as can be seen from the proliferation of financial fraud, divorce, venereal disease, sexual abuse of children and major criminality in many of those societies which are at the forefront of liberal emancipation. Indeed, many question, and for good reason, the allegedly secular and universal character of the European and Euro-American ‘normative power’, arguing that this supposedly neutral and objective set of principles and rules is a smoke-screen for propagating revised Judaeo-Christian notions, in keeping with the age-old western commitment to expansion, evangelization and conversion, whether in religious or secular garb.

 

Can Europe forge multicultural unity or will it be a federation of separate communities? Summing up some of the considerations expressed earlier, it appears that the dream of a united Europe is inspired by two originally opposing visions which eventually converged, in part because they are both universalistic and expansionistic. The first is the Graeco-Roman civilizational oikoumene or ‘Imperium’ and the second is Pauline and Augustinian Christendom, destined to pave the way for God’s Kingdom on Earth, which Emperor Constantine established politically when he made the Creed of the New Testament the official religion of the Empire.

It can be said for the sake of simplification that Catholics naturally tend to share the latter notion of Europe while secularists and many members of other confessions favour the former. Eighteenth century Enlightenment, whether agnostic or theistic, promoted a modernized, secular concept of European civilizational unity, combining French revolutionary political ideals and trust in rationalism with English notions of economic liberalism, religious pluralism and scientific empiricism. Whereas the Roman empire found its natural boundaries in the final centuries of its existence, both Christianity and Enlightenment have global callings and have not ceased to spread by converting new nations to their beliefs. As a result of this ideological heritage, the European Union has trouble defining its own borders and gives the impression of harbouring all-inclusive ambitions by its outreach, in one form or another, to the other shores of the Mediterranean, Central Asia, Latin America and Africa. That centrifugal trend, perhaps an inevitable reaction, is meeting with an equally powerful centripetal pull which attracts immigrants from many of those less fortunate areas where Europe is projecting its influence.

 

The popular fear, expressed in many quarters of the continent is that they are being gradually colonized by the fast-rising number of immigrants who generally have very different cultures and historical experiences and uphold divergent interests, since they are keenly aware of having being dominated and exploited for centuries by the nations in which they have now settled.

The fall of the Roman Empire at the hands of its allogenous slaves, mercenaries and downtrodden minorities is also vividly recalled by many educated Westerners and that growing feeling can only fuel the rise of far right-wing nationalist parties and movements which in turn whip up xenophobic tendencies. Building a bureaucratic, supra-national and allegedly undemocratic European administrative superstructure in such a context is bound to be an unpopular endeavour and the anti-EU sentiment is likely to gain ground amidst the populace.

 

There is hence a prospect of the EU becoming an ever-growing multinational, multicultural and multireligious commonwealth in which national and even the ancestral common European identity will inevitably fade. That end result is warmly desired by the generally left-wing secular multiculturalists and by some ultraliberals but it is a nemesis for Christian and secular conservatives, such as the French Jacobine Republicans who fear that the entire civilizational capital of the continent and of the countries that comprise it will either be irremediably diluted in a global melting pot or fragmented within walled enclaves struggling to survive in a state of perpetual conflict. That would be the fate that Jinnah foresaw for an undivided India. Therefore, in spite of the many differences, South Asia’s history and current experience holds valuable lessons for Europe’s future.

Some historical analogies to what a decentralized, confederal European Union may look like are provided by the Delian League of Greek city states and more recently by the mosaic of Italian and German states that perdured until the second half of the nineteenth century. An even closer parallel might be found in the multinational Habsburg empire of the eighteenth and nineteenth century with which modern Europe shares a paradoxical reputation of political weakness coupled with administrative oppression. As was the case in the Austrian and later Austro-Hungarian Reich, fissiparous trends are being resisted through the centralizing dynamics of the European Union’s apex body, the Commission (the EU’s response to the Habsburgs’ Kanzlerei), which is largely working under the inspiration of Leibnitz’s and Kant’s proposals for perpetual peace, as modernized by Habermas.

In practice, today as in the past, this vision of a continental super state depends on the willingness of the two central nations, France and Germany, to closely cooperate (since neither can any longer attempt to conquer or submit to the other) and adopt joint policies and that in turn implies that they prioritize their mutual equation over and above their other alliances and commitments.

 

Keeping in mind the extensive German economic involvement and geo-strategic interdependency with Russia with which France has a traditionally privileged connection, the bi-pole may become a triangle that would form a basis for the Eurasian political, civilizational and economic block. The three nations have in common a large part of their respective cultural heritages, including capitalism and socialism, those two by-products of the European Illuminist geo-culture, as Andrei Foursov defines them, but they have always tended to place political and social values and institutions above economic and financial ones. In this, they generally differ with Anglo-American liberal empiricism and have therefore often tried to adopt ‘Third World’ oriented policies, in the sense that Friedrich Ratzel advocated in his day for Germany’s anti-colonial economic cooperation with Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Reasserting its ancestral pluralism but also its rootedness in the face of relative Anglo-Saxon utilitarian uniformity may be Europe’s viaticum against both disintegration and loss of its traditional identity.

 

Footnotes:

1. Claudio Finzi, ‘Europa ed Occidente’, Rivista di Studi Geopolitici 1, 2007, pp. 45-54.

2. Op cit., p. 52.

3. Pakistan Times, Special Report, 23 March 1940, the Lahore Resolution, www.pakistan times.net, ISSN 1729-7915, consulted on 17 April 2010, 5.20 pm.

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