November 20, 2002
LE WEEKENDER:Deconstructing Giscard (MICHAEL GONZALEZ, 11/20/02, Wall Street Journal [subscription required])
[T]he more one looks at Mr. Giscard's contention the more one realizes that it rests almost solely on the cultural-religious argument. Though many would want to quickly dismiss this line of reasoning, especially in today's secularized, increasingly de-Christianized Europe, it is here that one must battle the convention president.
The idea that Christianity formed Europe -- more than geography, ethnicity and so forth -- is of old pedigree and cannot so easily be discarded. Before Mohammed there was "Christendom" and little notion of Europe. It was the emergence of Islam from the Arabian sands that made Europe fold back unto itself. The eminent Belgian historian Henri Pirenne put it best when he wrote, "Charlemagne without Mohammed would be inconceivable." Even Voltaire, amongst many others, spoke about Europeans all sharing "the same religious foundation." In our era, T.S. Eliot, in a radio broadcast to Germans in 1945, expounded about "the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is.
"It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe-until recently-have been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true; andyet what he says and makes and does, will all... depend on [the Christian heritage] for its meaning."
Very well, then, does this mean that Mr. Giscard is ultimately right? No, not really. But it does mean that a response must address these issues. It could begin by noting that the notion of "Europe" has moved throughout the centuries and there's no reason it should remain static today. "We're building a new Europe in the 21st century not in the 16th century," I was told by the historian Norman Davies, who's delved in his books into the question of what it is to be a European.
"Turkey has been Europeanized by Kemal (Ataturk, father of modern Turkey) and it has been modeled on the European democracies," says Prof. Davies, bringing up the all-important political consideration. Turkey, geographically and historically in Europe, has made every effort to join up. What keeps it out, religion? But that would be most un-Christian. "The principle of Christianity is Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself," says Prof. Davies. "I see Europe as a very diverse continent, and Islam is very much a part of the diversity. Just go to London, or Paris," he adds. There is, then, no clear definition of what is a European. (The Italian writer Luigi Barzini included Americans, and so would I sometimes). But Mr. Giscard has thrown down a gauntlet that must be picked up now by EU leaders and others.
It may in fact be the case that in a few years Turkey will be more Western than much of Europe will be. The nations at the heart of the EU--France and Germany--are after all largely post-religious societies. Turkey on the other hand has a chance, by combining Ataturkism and Islam, to develop along the lines that Europe originally did, secular government undergirded by a thoroughly religious private sphere. It seems, from the Western experience, that religious morality may be the necessary prerequisite of democratic liberalism and that once religious belief atrophies the state too fails. If this is the case, then Turkey's future may well be brighter than France's. Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2002 10:17 AM