Europe in search for an identity
We discussed what we learned about the East in Western schools in a previous post – basically nothing. In this post, we will look at how the concept of Europe was created, which indeed differs from the content defined by the Western Education Departments. In contrast to the myths explained in class, there was (and still seems to be) a very different political-religious-social reality.
Europe for centuries in early and middle antiquity meant the world around the Mediterranean (Sea among lands), or Mare Nostrum («Our Sea»), as the Romans called it. North Africa was included. North Africa was, in fact, as important a centre of Christianity as Italy or Greece in the early 5th century AD, when St Augustine lived in what is now Algeria. With the rapid advance of Islam in North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries, however, it virtually extinguished Christianity there, thereby dividing the Mediterranean region into two halves of civilisation, having the «Middle Sea» as a hard border between them rather than a unifying force.
In short, «the West» emerged in northern Europe (albeit very slowly and tortuously) mainly after Islam divided the Mediterranean world.
Europe was not a harmonic whole but rather was torn by internal conflicts: peasants and nobles, nobles and leaders, leaders and clergy, leaders and the popes, and the popes and the Holy Roman emperors. There was not an intrinsic uniformity. The only means of constructing a unique self-identity was making an outer ‘other’ against whom a uniform self might be built. Put another way, as there was no oneself, it was easiest to frame the self by the non-self. The self and the other are, anyway, merely depictions or conceptions of how we want to see the other and ourselves.
In a medieval context, the «self» was everything good and right, whereas the «other» was built as its evil (“China becoming an evil empire…”, words from former Vice President and possible 2024 Presidential Candidate Mike Pence during a speech at The Heritage Foundation in Washington DC) or its undesired counterpart. Now and then, same storytelling, same objectives, same interests…
Looking for an suitable enemy
So the first challenge was finding and creating an alternate image
But who should be picked? As Christian prelates had become the main actors of the European entity construction, they selected Islam as the most suitable contender. However, they had to construct Islam not only as an evil but as a threat so that «Europeans» would unite against it.
Thus, how did Islam come to be conceived as an evil threat? Firstly, Islam’s rise turned out to be a great boom for the European myth-makers. Europeans instantly denounced Islam as a pagan idolatrous faith (despite the many similarities between the two religions).
This was justified by citing the Genesis story of Noah and his three sons. Basically, Japheth was given «Christian Europe» that was «destined to expand.» In contrast, Shem got Asia which was «populated by pagans,» and unbelievers destined to be swallowed by Japheth. This was especially helpful in allowing key Christian decision-makers to depict Islam in general and Muhammad in particular as the epitome of heathen evil. He was described by Pope Innocent III as the «Beast of the Apocalypse.» Ham’s descendants were the dark skinned people who eventually inhabited Africa. As such, the use of the descendants of Africa as slaves was given a sense of Biblical justification.
Making the enemy appear evil and a threat
Muhammad’s denunciation culminated in Dante’s Inferno.
The more evil the character had been in his lifetime, the more profound the circle he was condemned to. It was in the 8th circle, practically at the very bottom, that Dante met Mohammed. Beneath him were Judas Iscariot and Brutus, just before the bottom, where Satan resided.
Interestingly, Dante didn’t wish to consign the Islamic philosophers to Hell, for he was greatly influenced by their texts, sending them to ‘limbo.’ So Islam was deemed the negation of Christendom and Mohammed’s impostor, an evil in league with the devil. The world of Islam was considered to be anti-Europe.
This invention process involved significant creativity for a variety of factors. First, Islam and Christianity have a lot in common. Though Muslims believe Mohammed, not Jesus, to be God’s prominent prophet, they do recognise Jesus as a significant prophet and above all tolerated the existence of Christians among them. Both traditions were based on Judeo-Hellenic traditions. Furthermore, both faiths have their roots in Abraham. Such similarities might have provided a good bridge for smooth relations between the Middle East and Europe. But ultimately, the European elites opted to take a course that would enable them to suppress Muslims to artificially engender a uniform European «self.»
The second approach to depicting Islam as an imminent menace was to construct a sort of Islamic domino-style theory. Since Islam espoused the universalistic idea of jihad (though this was a deliberately misunderstood concept), the Muslims could overrun the rear of Europe had they wished to do so. However, they decided not to do so («If Arab geographers did not concern themselves with Europe, it was not out of hostility, but rather because at the time it did not have much of interest to offer,» Carlo Cipolla). This, of course, clashes with the mainstream Eurocentric assertion that had it not been for the 733 Muslim invasion defeat at Tours and Poitiers by the heroic Charles Martel, Europe might have been taken over.
But in the Muslim history of the time, there is no mention of these battles or Charles Martel. The Arab defeat at Constantinople in 718 receives much more attention. But more importantly, it wasn’t an Islamic invasion but a gang of riders on a minor looting spree: St Martin’s rich sanctuary. The victorious Franks at Poitiers met with little more than a bunch of Islamic bandits far beyond their own far-flung borders. As Bernard Lewis explains….. «…It was not the failure of the Arabs to conquer Constantinople, nor Martel’s ‘heroic’ victory, that enabled eastern and western Christianity to survive».
Despite the Muslims mainly taking Spain and Sicily, the truth is that they had no interest in moving further since the western part of Europe was inferior and of limited value – one only has to compare the state of the European cities with the splendour of Baghdad or Córdoba. Here, Byzantium was more impressive and more appealing. But the European myth-builders opted to overstate this Islamic threat to cement a new European identity as «defender of the one true faith.»
Much as the US’s domino theory after 1947 was tied to the inventing of the Soviet threat to contain, a similar thing was devised in Europe a few centuries before. This European policy of containment found its most obvious manifestation in the first round of Crusades from 1095 to 1291. Maxime Rodinson notes, «the image of Islam was not simply derived from the Crusades… but rather from the ideological unity of the Latin Christian world, which gradually developed. It provided a more accurate picture of the enemy and focused the energies of the West on the Crusades.»
Nobles answered Pope Urban II’s war cry as ‘knights of Christ,’ prompted by the certainty that were they to fall, they’d become actual Christian martyrs. They would be awarded a ticket to paradise (or with Middle Eastern treasures if they did not die).
Building European Christianity and Identity
It is worth noting that Europe doesn’t exist if we assume that it exists in a geographically well-defined area. There’s no such thing as a natural Europe (just as there’s no such thing as a natural Asia). It’ is a concept created and adapted over subsequent centuries to suit different political and historical contexts. It was not defined based on geographical circumstances but rather according to a moral framework that reassigned its boundaries depending on how Europeans wished to picture themselves.
Against this background, Europe has built its ‘self’ in respect to the Islamic other. It was shaped within a global dimension: a Christian Catholic in contrast to the Islamic East. This shaped European identity up to the 16th century. That Christian Europe is an ideal is illustrated in that Christianity was initially an Eastern faith. Unavoidably, to present Europe as the representative birthplace or the advocate of the Christian faith required quite a few tricks to ensure the link between Europe and Christianity could be taken for granted.
Bringing back the story of Genesis’ three sons was vital in this case as Islam was depicted as a pagan religion. At the same time, Japheth (Europe) was portrayed as Christian. Robert Holton points out: «Christianity originated in the Middle East, not in Europe, but was later westernised and Europeanised. It was so successful that it later became the bulwark of Western civilisation against Islam in the Crusades. Again, powerful elements of the emerging West appropriate a non-Western development as part of their own distinctive way of life.
Hence, Europe was depicted as the origin of Christianity, with a mission to carry the universal truth worldwide to enslave the ‘pagan infidel.’ Building Europe as a Christianity was the essential prerequisite to create order and provide legitimacy to an inegalitarian feudal political and economic system. No easy task… How was it achieved?
Shaping order and legitimacy: a new Storytelling
A new Christian ethical code that would provide legitimacy to the unfair feudal political and economic framework was the so-called ‘Decree of the Three Orders.’ It was written by several powerful prelates back in the 11th century. It stated that God had set three separate duties for humanity. In descending order, these were: praying for the salvation of all – the clergy and bishops – (as the Spanish saying goes, «he who distributes gets the best share»); combating and defending all – the knights or nobles; and labouring to supply the resources to sustain the two first groups – the peasants (sometimes it seems to me that things haven’t changed much over the many centuries that have passed until now). The peasantry needed to serve the nobles so that they would protect the clergy.
In a nutshell, it was simply ‘God’s will’ that the peasantry should serve the nobles and the priests. Such a good idea, except for peasants. So, Christianity’s construction served two essential social purposes: to provide a cohesive self against the other (Islam) to enable unity and relative harmony in Europe. Still, for the decree of the Three Orders, a feudal economic system would have virtually collapsed. But now, with the «godly rule,» non-compliant peasants were presented with devastating images of the Hell that awaited them unless they abided by the ‘will of God.’
The Catholic Church enjoyed a monopoly on means of mercy or salvation. By the late 13th century, Dante’s depictions of Hell were so terrifying that breaching the Christian code seemed a fate worse than death to the masses. It was so successful that the peasants hardly could imagine another social order (surely sacrilege).
Therefore, the building of an inexistent European identity was crucial to the strengthening and replicating medieval feudalism and a European identity grounded in confrontation with the Eastern and Islamic evil empire construct.
And as another Spanish saying goes … “from those powders, these muds come ” (de aquellos polvos, estos lodos). And still today, in the East, we see ourselves as Japheth, the brave and free, that has the moral (and economic) mission to concert Shem.
Europe was essentially defined by Islam. And now the East is redefining it.