Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Europe-Islam-Identity Round-Up

In some ways it's odd that I've written so much lately about European identity, Islam in Europe, and the EU; I'm not a Europeanist nor a scholar of Islam by any stretch of the imagination (what little actual knowledge I have in the area of comparative politics is grounded in East Asia). But still, Europe's present (and likely to continue for the foreseeable future) crisis fascinates and worries me, and fires up all my philosophical pistons. Europe (like Canada, and Israel, and Iraq, and really any society dealing with the mixed issues of history, identity, political modernity, nationality and constitutionalism) is at the forefront of the essential, worldwide debate which 9/11 helped throw wide open: what kind of sovereignty--the ability to rule oneself, to achieve democratic legitimacy, to have a foreign policy--can exist in a postnational age? (The corollary questions to that big one being: do we have, and do we need, a new definition of sovereignty? and are we in fact "postnational," or is that even possible?) So I just can't get away from it, and I follow up on every argument pertaining to it (from Habermas's and other's heavy theory, to the latest secularist nonsense coming out of France) as best I can.

Which doesn't mean I have the time to get it all down on this blog. So let me review some recent matter that I've haven't commented on (at least, not here) the way I would have liked, but which anybody who is into these debates ought to be familiar with.

There's always good stuff to be found over at A Fistful of Euros, and one recent thread in particular made for good reading. Responding to an essay on immigration and belonging by Amitai Etzioni, a leading communitarian writer and thinker, Edward Hugh invoked French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to claim that "one of the measures of our degree of civilisation as a community is our open-ness to the other"--or, in other words, as I understand his point, that any sense that immigrants and others ought to conform to some static, cultural "us-identity" is to wrongly privilege a false communal unity over the actual fluid diversity of "otherness." Interestingly, he titled the post "Diversity within Unity," and I'm not sure if he was aware that that's the title of one of Etzioni's more influential political platforms, or if he was and meant to criticize it. In any case, his comments gave rise to a vigorous debate over the changing character--social, ethnic, and otherwise--of Europe and various European nation-states as a consequence of Muslim immigration, and Scott Martens and I tangled some over what kind of diversity is and is not possible within a legitimate community. Read and enjoy.

Speaking of Scott, he's active again at his own blog Pedantry, thankfully, and producing great stuff. He recently put together a very long, insightful and thoughtful post on versions of secularism, the ways in which religious identity might be expressed in the social context of such, and particularly what Islamic law and thought might be able to contribute to the growth and adaptation of the European secular tradition of justice of law. He's done a tremendous amount of reading and thinking, the results of which enlightened me about a great deal.

On the opposite end of things, George Weigel's mournful diatribe in the latest First Things against Western Europe's "atheistic humanism," and how it has led to Europe's moral, demographic, and political decline, is anything but informative. Granted, it's a wonderfully written piece, and plays to the conservative view of "Old Europe" expertly. But as a work of political theology, it was weak: to simply say that Europe has turned atheistic is neither entirely accurate, nor new, nor particularly insightful. He does do a good job deepening and expanding on Robert Kagan's rather simplistic America-Europe, Mars-Venus, Hobbes-Kant thesis, and there were a few points where I thought Weigel was touching on the real heart of the matter: that politics takes place within horizons, and that by lacking (spiritual) horizons Western Europe has thus to a significant degree weakened its belief in the possibility of political construction, improvement, progress; bureaucracy and top-down justice (via the European Court of Justice, for example) thus becomes a refuge from a deeply human, democratic enterprise that has perversely come to seem barbaric to a great many European minds. But Weigel doesn't, at least in my view, make nearly enough of that hermeneutic; in the end, he just baldly claims that they're all a bunch of secularists over there, and hence lack faith in the future, and hence have become secretly (or openly) bitter of those states whose faith in God enables them to continue to still insist upon their cultural viability. He makes an interesting connection to WWI, and how it became an orgy of "self-mutilation," but to say that WWI was made possible by an "atheistic hubris" is insufficient. WWI was the result of decisions made by robust, culturally assertive, spiritually confident states (maybe not Russia, but definitely France, Great Britain and Germany). There was a great deal of piety on both sides, with churches lining up to bless the troops. If Weigel wants to trace Western Europe's struggles to a civilizational crisis which began in the trenches in France, then he needs to explain how atheistic humanism somehow got into the bloodstream of societies which tolerated a war conducted via trenches. (He does, rather reluctantly, suggest that part of the answer might be found in thinking about what the Catholic Church--and presumably other churches--were doing in response to the rise of democracy in the 18th and 19th centuries, but he goes no further, which is too bad: if he did, then he might have to acknowledge that the "secularism" he decries (as Charles Taylor, whom he uses crudely, could have told him) was more than just a "turning away" from the spirit, but was in part an outgrowth of the purposive direction of the spirit of Christianity in Europe itself.)

Finally, check out this opinion piece from last Sunday's Washington Post. There are uncomfortable questions that need to be asked about Europe demographic transformation and immigrant Muslim populations, and too few people are asking them. This essay is a good start.