What is certain is this: The birth of Europe is coterminous with the rise of the idea of Europe. Europe was born when it became conscious of itself as a distinct entity with a particular identity. According to Italian historian Federico Chabod, who wrote one of the earliest books on the “idea of Europe” in 1947, “the concept of Europe is formed by counterposition to all that is not Europe, and it acquires its characteristic … through a confrontation with what is not Europe.”
From antiquity to the present, “Europe” seems to have been formed and shaped in opposition to an “other” or many others as the case may be. Barbarians, i.e., those who cannot speak Greek; Persians; Asians; Africans; Saracens, i.e., Arabs and Muslims who were deemed to be both irrational and violent; Ottoman Turks; contemporary immigrants; Indians; and others have been enlisted as Europe’s significant others and helped shape the idea and, in some important ways, the identity of Europe.
In Greek mythology, Europa was the daughter of Phoenician king Agenor and was kidnapped by the love-stricken Zeus, who appeared in the form of a white bull in order to seduce and ravish the beautiful princess Europa. Zeus takes Europa to Crete, where she is forced to become the mother of what came to be known as Europe. Thus the first self-conscious history of Europe begins in Asia with the abduction and forced migration of a Phoenician princess in what is the Levant.
Obviously, this is a mythical story and one should not read too much into it. The story of Europa, however, suggests something about the uneasy relationship between Europe and Asia or between the Occident and the Orient. For much of history, Europe was not considered a separate continent; it was seen as an offshoot of Asia. Interestingly, this is also related to another meaning of “Europe.”
According to one etymology, the word “europa” is derived from the Greek words “euros,” meaning wide, broad, and “opsis” or “optikos,” meaning eye, sight or vision. Literally, “Europe” means one who sees very far or what we call today “farsighted.”
Given that the idea that Europe was crystallized in opposition to others that represented the non-Europe, the “farsighted” Europe is both ironic and suggestive. As an idea, geographical boundaries, culture and civilization, Christendom or secular Enlightenment, Europe, like any other historical collectivity, has struggled with the vexed question of self-definition.
As the birthplace of Western civilization, Europe is home to both Athens and Jerusalem when in reality neither Athens nor Jerusalem is properly European in the modern sense of the term. The Greeks never saw themselves as “Europeans”; they lived on both sides of the Aegean Sea and saw the world through the eyes of civilized, rational Greeks versus irrational and violent barbarians, not Europeans versus Asians or Africans.
The idea of Europe as a Christian continent is more complicated than it seems. Europe has been Christian at least since the time of Charlemagne, the “father of Europe.” Christianity has shaped European identity as both religion and culture. But the core values of today’s Europe, enshrined in the institutions of the European Union, numerous national and intergovernmental organizations and treatises as well as national constitutions across the old continent, have a weak genealogy with the Christian tradition of the Middle Ages. The central figures of medieval Christianity, from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas and even Blaise Pascal, the passionate defender of Christ against 17th-century paganism, would consider the core secular values of modern Europe today as strange if not outright apostasy.
Have Muslims, Turks and others replaced the ancient “barbarians” and “Asians” in the self-identification of Europe? Some radical groups may think so, but this is not the case, at least in a categorical way. Yet, there is a corollary between the rise of Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslim minorities in Europe and the anti-Turkey populist politics in key European countries opposing Turkey’s EU membership.
What is interesting is that those who oppose Turkey’s EU membership use both religious/Christian and secular/liberal arguments. A similar set of mixed arguments are used to oppose the presence of Muslim minorities in Europe. A striking and rather ominous example of this was Oriana Fallaci, the famous Italian author who described herself as a “Christian atheist” and spoke with “rage and hatred” after the 9/11 attacks. She believed, like many of her peers, that Christianity provided Europe with a sense of cultural and intellectual identity against the threat of Islam. Along the same lines, the British historian Niall Ferguson laments that “there is not any religious resistance to radical Islam” in Europe.
It would be too simplistic to claim that Islam has become Europe’s significant other. But there are obvious questions that call for some answers.