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Does Europe Exist?

By Barry Gewen

May 7, 2008, 12:25 pm


Clash of Civilizations?: Turkish women in Ankara protest a ban on wearing Islamic head scarves in universities. (Associated Press)

O.K., you can stop reading right now. Over the last few months I’ve had at least three very intense conversations about whether Turkey should be admitted into the European Union, and that’s what I’m going to blog about today.

Still with me? Actually, the issue raises extremely deep questions. These are touched on in a 2003 lecture delivered by the literary scholar and critic George Steiner entitled “The Idea of Europe.” Steiner’s talk is available in book form from the Nexus Institute, a Dutch organization dedicated to preserving what it calls “the best of European culture.”

The most serious of my conversations was with a British friend who had recently retired from an important position in international finance. I was arguing that Turkey should be welcomed into the E.U., and he was against it. He said that if the E.U. was to survive, it had to be more than an economic arrangement, more than simply a “customs union”; it had to have a cultural identity as well. Steiner makes the same point when he says the vision of a parliamentary bureaucracy in Brussels “is hardly one to rouse the human soul.” My friend went on, rather more sotto voce, that, like it or not, the identity of Europe was Christian. And Steiner again: “The ‘idea of Europe’ is inwoven with the doctrines and the history of western Christianity. Our architecture, art, music, literature and philosophic thought are saturated by Christian values and reference.”

So there’s the crux of the matter. Does Europe have any identity qua Europe apart from Christianity? The Pope doesn’t think so, but then that’s part of his job definition, isn’t it? T. S. Eliot didn’t think so, either. Steiner, with his exquisite, throbbing awareness of the Holocaust, understands the problem, which can be summed up in one word: Jews. A “Christian Europe” is an exclusionary Europe, and we all know where that can lead. This wasn’t an issue when, for instance, Renaissance Italy was producing the masterpieces that are so integral to European identity (though from a contemporary perspective, it would have been nice to do without those ghettos). But in the 21st century, exclusion does matter.

Modern Europe could try to unify around a restrictive, “Christian” mindset. The result wouldn’t have to be genocide. But it’s hard to see how it could be anything other than soul-deadening — the very thing Steiner is most intent on avoiding. (One can imagine Brussels even setting up a committee on un-European activities.) Steiner himself holds out for something he calls “secular humanism,” though he isn’t clear about what this is, or how it’s to be distinguished from the values of blue-state America. And wouldn’t secular humanism, with its universalistic implications, call for reaching out to a Turkey that’s struggling to modernize, rather than rejecting it?

Responding to my friend’s objections, I agreed that Turkish admission to the E.U. represented an enormous challenge: how could millions upon millions of Muslims, so many of them ill-educated and non-Western, be brought into a European polity? It wouldn’t be easy, and it couldn’t happen overnight. But, I continued, it had to happen eventually, one way or another, if a unified Europe wanted to play an influential role in the world, and, more important, if it wanted to remain spiritually healthy. Raising my voice slightly and almost pounding the table, I declared, Europe can’t define its future simply by its past. It has to have a vision moving forward, a message for all mankind. To which my friend replied, “Barry, you’re so American!”

11 comments so far...

  • 1.

May 7th,
1:39 pm

Even as a Christian, I intensely dislike it when Europe is spontaneously associated to Christianity.

Like it or not, Europe is the land of the Enlightenment, the land of the French Revolution, the land of the Illuminati/Freemasons.

What countries in the world today have the highest level of abortion ? The Europeans. What countries have the highest divorce rates ? The Europeans. They are also the most atheist and the least religious of all places.

To simplify a bit, Christianity ‘’is'’ the Church. The Church is not European per se; conversely, Europe is not ‘’the'’ Church, it is just plain old enlightened Europe.

The secret reason I believe that many want to bring Turkey into Europe is that Turkey also has its own brand of the Illuminati Enlightenment : Mustafa Kemal, founder of ‘’modern'’ Turkey, was clearly inspired by the ideals of Jules Ferry and the French Revolution and Third Republic.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that the Turkish affair has absolutely nothing to do with religion : it is an alliance of former revolutionary comrades ; why bother contemplating that that Turkish secularism has nothing do with autocratic Belgian secular and politically correct power ?

I’ll leave it at that.

— Posted by Alexander Monette

  • 2.

May 7th,
4:16 pm

I think it a serious distortion to raise the issue of the Holocaust in connection with Europe’s identity as Christian. That crime was not committed in the name of Christianity — nor could it be — but in the name of racial purity. Christianity, after all, includes Judaism. Europe’s culture today is most reasonably described as “post-Christian.” Just as Christianity itself was a hybrid of Jewish theology, Greek philosophy, and Roman ecclesiastical organization, so Europe today is a hybrid of Christianity, empirical science, and its own post-Royalist political structure. The same is true of the United States except that it is — alas — not post-Christian for the most part.

— Posted by Leon Surette

  • 3.

May 7th,
6:44 pm

My objection to Turkey being allowed into the EU is based not on religion but common-sense geography. Except for the ancient region of Thrace (what — 5 percent of the land area?) Turkey is part of Asia. Admittedly it straddles both worlds, but it has much more in common culturally and socially with the Middle East than with Europe.

— Posted by Walter

  • 4.

May 7th,
10:18 pm

If it is a simple matter of geography, then why is Cyprus part of the EU? It is to the south of Turkey and does not border Europe. And what of Albania which is in Europe, but Muslim. Will it be excluded as well because it is not a Christian country, although it is in Europe. People who have strong opinions about Turkey most likely have never visited the country. Istanbul is as sophisticated, modern and cosmopolitan as other European cities. Sure, the border areas near Syria, etc. are more of a middle eastern flavor. At the end of the day, Turkey will have much more to offer the EU and the other way around.

— Posted by Ahmet

  • 5.

May 7th,
11:47 pm

“Christianity, after all, includes Judaism.”

But Judaism doesn’t include Christianity. To call a region Christian or post-Christian is to erase the inhabitants who don’t identify with Christianity.

I don’t think it’s a distortion to bring up the Holocaust. Racial purity, religious purity, cultural purity - when one’s primary concern is purity rather than plurality, something’s gotta give, and it’s always going to be minority groups.

— Posted by The Girl Detective

  • 6.

May 8th,
6:10 am

Despite the geography, Turkey has play a large
role in European history and in forming some cohesion among the disparite nations–if only in unifying them again herself.

As an American abroad, I find the Europeans are now dragging their feet, because they themselves
have yet to achieve a common sense of whatever “European” means or should mean.

The role of national, ethnic, language or reginal identity is still strong. Apparently, a true feeling of being European is developing more among
young people, so it may take time and end of being
their decision.

I believe Turkey should be welcomed, but I also believe that “Europe’s” failure to construct a true identity will keep Turkey at bay for another twenty or so years.

— Posted by Ken

  • 7.

May 8th,
7:06 pm

I always imagine europe like a seven year old who can do everything himself every active, lovely, thinks more smartter than his big old brother (USA) He some reason always finds himself in trouble and always asks from his some favor from his brother.

Europe will admit Turkey to their club, but it will take some time for some of older conservatives to swallow this idea.

— Posted by Bulent Mamikoglu

  • 8.

May 9th,
9:43 am

To re-use a characterization of the Israelis: the Europeans don’t go to religious services, but the religious services they don’t go to are Christian.

(If you haven’t heard the original: the Israelis don’t belong to a synagogue, but the synagogue they don’t belong to is Orthodox — said as a lame explanation of their hostility to Reform and Conservative Judaism.)

— Posted by mae

  • 9.

May 10th,
9:05 am

The question of admitting a Turkish country will become moot not long in the future when a number of European countries gain a Moslem majority. At that point, Christian, post-Christian or however you want to characterize the underlying values will begin to be phased out.

— Posted by Banjo

  • 10.

May 10th,
7:27 pm

Europe is being swamped by Muslims. Admitting Turkey will only speed up this phenomenon… As it is going, European identity is slowly but surely disintegrating! What a shame!

— Posted by Rhea

  • 11.

May 11th,
12:47 am

The Europeans won’t let them in because the European countries-despite the pretense of liberalism-are narrow minded and bigoted. They don’t like Muslims; never have, never will. They will continue to offer gestures to the Palestinians or Turkey, while treating their own muslims as second class citizens.

— Posted by PeterC 

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