Behind Europe, Christiandom

To open this reflection piece, I’ll break the class rule of not citing outside sources. This one struck me enough that I think it’s worth it.

Trivellato, F. (2010, March). Renaissance Italy and the Muslim Mediterranean in Recent Historical Work. The Journal of Modern History, 82(1), 127-155.

Amongst other points, the author tries to reinterpret the Renaissance, not so much as an architectural or intellectual evolution, but as a revolution in European-Ottoman relations. The Byzantine nobles forced out of their ancestral lands by the Ottoman takeover of Anatolia and the Balkans fled to Europe, many of them to Italy – and attempted to rally the local rulers to their cause, hoping that if the Ottomans could be routed, these Byzantine nobles would be able to reclaim their lands and the associated wealth.

Such an endeavor would require massive allies – the entirety of Christian Europe, perhaps. And so the Ottomans had to be seen as an existential threat – more than a simple imperial rival. To create this perception, the Byzantine refugees started a long campaign of redefining this as a religious conflict, conflating Christianity and Europe, and thus arguing that the Muslim Ottomans could never legitimately hold European land. Instead, that land belonged to Christians – more specifically, it belonged to them.

I believe we can see the repercussions of this redefinition in the attitudes described by Göle and the other readings of this week. There remains, in the popular view, a deep conflict between what is European and what is Muslim, he says. Yet, clearly, there is intellectual dishonesty at work here – at first blush, ‘European’ is a geographical descriptor (not that the borders of Europe are uncontested, but it remains a geographical concept), while ‘Muslim’ is a religious, if not cultural, label.

And yet, there is a conflict. And so it must be that ‘European’ does not refer to a purely neutral, objective concept. Instead, it is a linguistic legerdemain, itself also referring to ‘a religious, if not cultural, label’.

That underlying definition can be seen, perhaps, in the insistence of European populists – such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, as reported on by the Guardian’s Julian Coman – on helping Christians in the Middle Eastern, while rejecting Muslim refugees currently in Europe. The bond is built not along geographical lines, as would be suggested by the ‘European vs. Muslim’ framing; instead, it is built along religious lines, with European Christians (with Orban constantly emphasizing his faith) reaching out to Middle Eastern Christians. It’s why there remains an unresolved tension in the identities of Muslims living in Europe, as described by Fatima El-Tayeb.

This doesn’t explain why, however, the dominant rhetoric emphasizes ‘Europe’ rather than ‘Christianity’. And Göle has the answer here as well: it is a question of portraying oneself as modern and rational, while the other is tribal and superstitious. This “moral grammar of war”, he says, is why these European populists speak not of ‘headscarves’, a neutral garment, but of ‘burkas’, to emphasize the Islamic and foreign nature of the garb.

After all of this comes Renaud Camus, who speaks of a ‘Great Replacement’, of Muslim immigrants eroding the identity of Europe. If Europe were but a geographical border, this would mean nothing; instead, he – and the far-right circles recycling his concept – are tapping into centuries of propaganda. They cannot be dismissed as some new outgrowth, born merely of populist backlash to the Syrian migrant wave; instead, one must look at their historical roots. As Camus says: “Distance is very, very necessary for observation,” and for understanding.

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