European Identity the construction built through history predominantly in contrast to an eastern Other?

Autor: Łukasz Krzyżanowski


This article examines the question whether European identity has been constructed through history mostly in contrast to an eastern ‘Other’. This is done by discussing the role of the contacts between the Muslim world and the West in shaping European identity. From many different notions of European identity, the sense of political unity and unifying ideology were chosen for this paper. Beginning with a brief theoretical introduction, the article consist of five sections which discuss different contacts with the Muslim ‘Other’, from Middle Ages to the present day, and their role in constructing unity in Europe.The subject of this article is remarkably broad and in fact contains more than one question that might be worth answering. However, the limited space available in this paper for a discussion, requires us to narrow the scope of the topic. Thus, some questions will unfortunately have to be left to one side, and will remain only as potential areas of examination. Elsewhere assumptions must be made, despite the fact that they are likely to be the subject of numerous academic discussions.
To address the difficulties mentioned above, it is necessary to deconstruct the title of this article. The first of the terms used in the title, that itself might well be a title of the essay is ‘European identity’. In spite of many issues still being discussed we have to agree on one definition of European identity in this paper. There are many different notions of European identity, to mention among the others; cultural approach, the notion of a shared system of values, European identity as a political phenomenon, or even a notion of European identity as sense of shared religious background (Delanty 1995, Asad 2002). This paper will deal with European identity in the sense of political unity or some kind of unifying ideology present in European history (Strath 2002: 387-401).
Another ‘problematic’ term which appears in the essay title is the concept of the ‘Other’. This is used in different ways, usually to signify for signifying a group which is distinctive from ‘us’ or ‘Self’ – the group which perceives the ‘Other’. The concept of the ‘Other’ is closely related to identity, which in Greek means ‘sameness’ (Asad 2002: 211, Strath 2002: 387). Thus the notion of identity, or the ‘Self’, depends on the notion of the ‘Other’. Only if the group recognizes its boundaries, can it construct its identity. From this perspective the construction of the identity, recognizing differences and distinctions between the group and the ‘Other’ is just as important as defining common things inside this group. It is possible to construct the identity, only when there is the ‘Other’ who the group identity can encounter or be contrasted with. In fact the significant part of every identity is constructed in contrast to those ‘of other identity’, however it cannot be said that the whole construction is built on the contrast. This article will try to prove this assumption.
It is possible to distinguish between two different kinds of the ‘Other’ as far as the relation to the perceiving group is concerned; the internal ‘Other’ and external one. However this distinction is sometimes difficult to notice, especially nowadays.
The eastern ‘Other’ mentioned in the title of this article also needs to be discussed. There are many very different ways in which the term ‘eastern Other’ might be interpreted. It is possible to say about Eastern Europe as the ‘eastern Other’ for the Western Europe, also about the Far East in relation to the West, Muslim World in relation to the Christian West, Soviet Russia in contrast to democratic West – to mention only few examples of the external eastern ‘Other’. It is also likely to view Jewish Diaspora imbedded in European society as its internal eastern ‘Other’. If we add to this the different notions of identity mentioned above we get appreciate much more the complicated nature of the topic of this essay. In order to narrow it somehow, this paper will deal with Islam as the eastern ‘Other’ for Europe. This paper will try to argue that on one hand European identity, perceived as political unity and unifying ideology, in many historical conditions has been constructed in contrast to this eastern ‘Other’. But it will also try to signalise that it cannot be a subject of generalization as there were times and places in Europe where this statement must be regarded as false. At the end some of the implications of such a state will be discussed.

Crusaders and infidels

The first time, when it is possible to view the creation of certain kind of unity among European countries as a result of the contact with a Muslim Other are the Middle Ages with its crusades. Many Christian states responded to the appeal made in 1096 by Pope’s Urban II and later popes to take part in the Holy War against infidels in order to free Jerusalem and other holy sites from Muslim obedience (Hallam 1996: 59 and after). It was the first time that medieval European states had faced a common external ‘Other’ which constituted a terrible religious and military threat. However it is necessary to remember that the Saracens or the Moors (as Muslims were then called) were primarily the religious ‘Other’ and as such they were Christendom’s other, not Europe’s one (Neuman 1999: 43, see also Strath 2002: 392, Lewis 1990: 92-94). In fact the term “Europe” was not commonly used at that time, the term “Christendom” was used instead. “The Crusades did not curtail commercial and other contacts but built a cultural distinction between the Christian Self and a Muslim Other” (Strath 2002: 391).
The crusaders had created an image of the Saracen which was present in European culture for long time after Middle Ages, of which traces can be noticed even nowadays. According to this notion, the Saracen was the antithesis of Christian – a non-believer, and Mahomet was an opposition of Christ. This found an explicit expression, for instance, in one of the polychromes in the Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna, where Mahomet is portrayed as devil in the scene of the Final Judgment. Also Dante in hisDivine Comedy had placed Mahomet in the hell among the renegades of faith and heretics (Dante 1966: 239).
It is important to mention that crusades were not only conflicts motivated by religion. They also solved some of the Medieval European states’ internal problems by engaging many noble men who not having any prospects in their home country, were a serious threat to the stability of the state. As well as the crusades had been often used to strengthen the emerging states, and to improve its position in competition against other European states. Probably the best example of such use of crusades is the Fourth Crusade which, instead of liberation of the Holy Land, had conquered Christian Constantinople in 1202 and improved the position of the Republic of Venice among Christian states. Despite these facts the confrontation with the Muslim ‘Other’ during the crusades and “the presence of the other that could be characterized as embodiment of evil continued to unify and strengthen the disparate Christendom of the fourteen and early fifteen centuries” (Neumann 1999: 43).
There was also another contact with Islam during the course of thirteenth century when European powers revealed a certain level of cooperation and worked together for the common aim. The Mongol invasions, spoken about here, had seriously threatened not only the Eastern European states but also, if not stopped, had enough power to conquer Germany and then move further West (Lewis 1990: 92). The biggest Mongol invasion took place in 1241, when Mongols (known also as Tatars) had conquered and occupied Russian duchies, Hungary and had plundered vast areas of Polish lands. This Muslim onslaught had been stopped by an alliance of Polish, German, Teutonic Knights and volunteers from Western Europe forces in the battle of Legnica. It can be used as an example of cooperation between European forces while facing the external, Muslim threat. Especially when we acknowledge that forces that fight together against Mongols had fight against each other in the past as well as after resisting the invasion. This shows clearly that despite many conflicts between European states, it is possible to point out some facts from the medieval history when European states took unified actions in order to fight against the external enemy – the Muslim army. However it is necessary to remember that it was more the common Christian heritage than consciousness of “Europeaness” that drove them to cooperate (Neumann 1999: 41-43).

Not only crusades

However mentioning only the crusades and battlefields would not give the whole picture of Europe meeting the Muslim ‘Other’ in the Middle Ages. Even though the contact with Muslims begun with the conquest, it was not necessary followed by the ruthless occupation and forced conversions on Islam. The Iberian Peninsula and its unique culture can be a good example here. By the end of eighth century the peninsula was conquered by the Muslim army. Although the movement of Islam towards France had been stopped in 732 AD by Franks in the battle of Poitiers, the Islamic rule in Spain had started consolidating (Lewis 1995: 144). After a period of fights, the Arab aristocracy had gained a great influence and started Muslim rule. What is more, the establishment of Muslim governance in Spain cannot be seen only in terms of conquest as vast groups such as peasants and Jews had really welcomed Arabs. With the constant flow of Berber immigrants which continued until the eleventh century and still raising number of conversions on Islam, Muslims quickly became a majority both in power and number. There is much evidence that at this stage Muslim rule had been nourishing a policy of tolerance towards the conquered population, especially towards Jews and Christians – both faiths sharing some beliefs with Islam. Hence the very unique culture had been developed in Spain under Muslim rule, with Arabic language popular also among non-Muslim population (Lewis 1995: 144-156). This period can be seen as time of peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians on the Iberian Peninsula and a period of great development of technology, science and arts in Toledo, Cordova, Malaga. Simultaneously, the new invasions had began – Christian from the North and Berber from the South (Lewis 1995: 150). The Christian re-conquest finally succeeded in 1492 with the fall of the last Muslim state, Granada. This finished the period of tolerance and Muslims in Christian Spain were given the choice to convert, leave the country or be killed (Lewis 1990: 91). The period of Muslim presence on the Iberian Peninsula is one of the examples that the encounter with the Muslim ‘Other’ could have been a period of prosperity for both Muslims and non-Muslims and not necessary meant a permanent conflict. But this was finished by the Christian re-conquest.
The other example of cooperation of non-Muslims with Muslim population is the state established after the Normans had conquered Sicily with its Arab inhabitants. Long after this event the Arab culture had a great impact on the shaping of the Norman state. It was until the beginning of the fourteenth century when the Islam had been wiped out of the island (Lewis 1995: 141-143).

Civilization contra barbarians 

In the first half of the fifteenth century a new Muslim menace on the Eastern border of Europe emerged – the Ottoman Empire continued its conquest towards the West and started threatening Byzantium (Hallam 1996: 285). While facing the serious danger, Constantinople tried to create a common Christian front against the Turks. The expression of these attempts can be found in the union with Rome signed by the Orthodox delegation during the Ferrara – Florence council of churches (Neumann, Welsh 1991: 335). All those efforts did not help and the Ottoman army had captured Constantinople in 1453. This fact had been interpreted by the Orthodox hierarch as the punishment sent on Greeks by God for the union with Rome (Neumann, Welsh 1991: 335). This reveals that the notion of the Muslim peril as the religious danger did not change since the era of crusades. In fact the notion of the fight with Muslims in terms of the defence of Christendom was continued during the Renaissance. Although the European states revealed more particular interests, the appeal for unity and the defence of ‘Respublica Christiana’ facing new a Muslim threat, was still raised and Pope Pius II had appealed to “our Europe, our Christian Europe” (Neumann 1999: 45, see also Wilson, der Dussen 1993: 35). During the Renaissance, notions of the eastern ‘Other’ discovered in ancient Greek tradition were added to the notions of Islam inherited from medieval crusades. Europe, which then started perceiving itself as the successor to this ancient tradition, transferred the eastern ‘Other’ – the barbarian present in Greek culture, to the Muslims (Lewis 1990: 113). In this way it created the opposition; barbarous (Ottoman Empire) and civilized (Europe). The secular concept of civilization slowly started to substitute the religious one – Christendom. Very clearly, the attributed characteristic of Europe had been drawn from the contrast with the Muslim ‘Other’. What is more, the perception of this ‘Other’ had changed – from the religious to the military – political opponent, “but the existence of the other as an other, not as part of the European self, definitely did not change” (Neumann 1999: 46). It is also significant that within the course of the fifteenth century the term ‘Europe’ began to be commonly used (Neumann 1999: 44).
Soon after the fall of Constantinople, European states had began a new era in contacts with Muslim opponent – some of the European countries started to make alliances with the Ottoman Empire against other European states. This began the period in which European identity cannot be seen as constructed in contrast to the Muslim ‘Other’ as the antagonisms between European states were sometimes equally strong. In fact in can be argued that with the beginning of alliances with Turks, the Christendom as the political term had been finished (Neumann, Welsh 1991: 338).

Modern State and the Muslim ‘Other’

One can argue that the Thirty Years’ War and the treaty of Westphalia which finished this conflict, signified the end of the era of the unity of Christian states. In fact the Thirty Years’ War and religious conflicts among protestants and Catholics revealed the level of barbarization that was equal, if not bigger, that the one characterizing the conflicts with the Muslim ‘Other’ (Bartov 2001: 155-156). The treaty of Westphalia had continued the process of secularization and modern European states becoming independent from the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy (Neumann 1999: 49, Neumann, Welsh 1991: 338-339).
However the Ottoman Empire once again had threatened Western Europe during the second siege of Vienna in 1683. It was warded off by the “league of Christian forces” (Neumann 1999: 50) led by John III the King of Poland. This victory of the Christian army over the Muslim troops became the period of decline of the Ottoman Empire and its withdrawal from the Europe. On one hand the Muslim threat again made Christian European states cooperate, but on the other hand it is necessary to remember that some of the European states started signing alliances with the Ottoman Empire. The empire itself noticed that it needed those alliances to guarantee its security. The Muslim ‘Other’ which for many ages remain completely distinct from everything that could have been called ‘European’, now gradually entered the theatre of European internal policy. The boundaries between the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’ became blurred to some extent. The Muslim states became dependent on European colonial powers. Even though the figures of the crusade and civilized Europe meeting barbarous Islam were still present in the European discourse (Neumann 1999: 52). However the Muslim empire was no longer strong enough to be a serious peril to the Europe and its identity. It might be argued that the Muslim ‘Other’ had an influence on the creation of European identity mostly when it was strong enough to be a serious menace, that the single European state itself could not have coped with, and therefore European countries were forced to unite and cooperate.

Muslim as a Contemporary ‘Other’

In the twentieth century, during the Cold War the main political and ideological ‘Other’ of the Western Europe and United States (which gradually gained more power in the field of international relations) was Soviet Union and Eastern Block countries (Delanty 1995: 120-125). The foe from behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ had taken the position of the main ‘Other’ of the Western Europe. However, as some argue, it did not wipe out the notion of the Muslim ‘Other’ from the European consciousness (Huntington 1998: 209). In fact it is interesting that almost immediately with the fall of the Soviet Block, the new question of the Muslim ‘Other’ had been raised with the 1990 – 1991 Gulf War. This may make us wonder whether the Muslim ‘Other’ had been used throughout history as the necessary opponent, the existence of which would allow the West to consolidate. Have Europe invented this opponent or was it real? (Said 1995) These are obviously only speculations but it might be worth giving them a while. The question that must also stay open is; to what extent the figures of the crusade and civilized Europe meeting barbarous Islam are imbedded in European consciousness, and whether they have an influence on present policy towards the Muslim ‘Other’.
The impact of the Muslim ‘Other’ on the European identity could be seen only very recently during the second invasion in Iraq. This revealed the lack of a cohesive stance by the European Union countries – some, such as Spain, the United Kingdom and Poland took part in this military operation, while others such as France and Germany opposed the war. This might be viewed as the case in which the confrontation with the Muslim ‘Other’ not only did not reveal the ‘spirit of unity’ among the European states but also showed tensions between them.
It is difficult to fully agree with the statement that European identity had been constructed through history predominantly in contrast to an eastern ‘Other’ – Muslim ‘Other’, as some of the above arguments prove that there were times in European history when the distance between the Muslim ‘Other’ and European states itself was similar. As well as that, there were times and places where Muslims and Christians coexisted peacefully. In addition, what was not a subject of interest in this paper, but cannot be forgotten is that the European culture had often benefited from the encounter with the Muslim ‘Other’. It is necessary to acknowledge the important role played by the Muslim ‘Other’ in shaping European identity. In fact European identity in sense of political unity or unifying ideology has often been created in the contact with the world of Islam and sometimes, but not always, in contrast to it. The meeting with the Muslim ‘Other’ has often been an important test for Europe’s unity as we witnessed very recently. If one take a closer look at the contemporary meetings with the Muslim ‘Other’, it appears that this dialogue is getting very complicated as the modern communication technologies and increased mobility of persons and groups had blurred the boundaries and the notion of the external and internal ‘Other’ (Eriksen 1995: 246). Many societies nowadays are meeting the Muslim ‘Other’ as its internal one which generates new challenges. This is probably the most important thing in meeting the ‘Other’ – it is always some kind of challenge that enables us to construct or to try out the ‘Self’. The processes that take place during this encounter tend to be much more complicated than just based on contrast.


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