REVIEW ESSAY WITHOUT ROOTS: THE WEST, RELATIVISM, CHRISTIANITY, ISLAM BY JOSEPH CARDINAL RATZINGER AND MARCELLO PERA [Basic Books, 159pp. 2006]
CHURCH & STATE: ST PAUL AND CAESAR
On 12 May 2004, the political leader of a people gave a speech in which he outlined his conceptions of the state of “the West”. The next day, the religious leader of the faith that most of that people nominally adhere to happened to give a speech on a similar topic.
The first was Marcello Pera, the President of the Italian Senate. The second was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who soon after became the Pope of the Catholic Church.
The representative of the Church, and the representative of the State-coming together to register their concerns. The West is losing its roots… or perhaps its roots are rotting. And they will continue to rot, these representatives warn, unless the West renews its commitment to itself and rediscovers its identity. This book includes the aforementioned speeches (issued separately, coincidentally around the same time), and the subsequent correspondence between the two figures. It serves as an illustration of increasingly strong sentiments in today’s changing Europe.
THE FUTURE (DEMISE) OF EUROPE
For all its talk of “the West”, the book is really about Europe, and generally western Europe. Other parts of ‘the West’ do not warrant that much of a mention, and an essentialist description of that appellation remains unchallenged. The ambiguity of what “the West” denotes is not clarified, but to be fair, the authors expect the audience they speak to not to be unduly concerned with such scholastic niceties. The real point of their speeches and discussions is far more interesting.
The speeches have a very deliberate and well-articulated theme: Europe/the West has a particular historical heritage, which has defined its values. Those values have now been eroded by the behemoth of modernity, radical cultural relativism, and a loss of higher purpose. The solution? Europe must renew itself, on the basis of its pre-modern values that deserve to be championed, and regain its rightful standing in the world.
Otherwise, it is in danger of destroying itself, or of being destroyed.
ISLAM, MODERNITY, RELATIVISM AND THE EUROPEAN NARRATIVE
Europe does have a historical heritage that defines its values. Nevertheless, while historians have begun to recognize and admit that a great deal of that historical heritage is inseparable from Muslim contributions, Pera chooses to take another approach. Not only is Islam not a source of European culture and civilization, it is also the antithesis of it. Pera’s passionate writing unfortunately includes a great many inaccuracies regarding Islamic values, to the point that the educated reader wonders if he took the time to read much about Islam from (perish the thought) a normative Muslim perspective.
Cardinal Ratzinger does not say much about Islam in this book, except to make it very clear that it does not belong in Europe ; a theme he has followed in other works as well. But Pera is the one who is particularly fearful of the prospect that Europe will lose out, and that one day, through conversion or birth rates, it might become dar al-Islam (in his mind, a Muslim majority continent, although dar al-Islam technically has a very different meaning).
Other European authors have also made the point that the impact of modernity has not always been positive. Radical relativism, the absence of the sacred, and the elevation of humankind’s need to fulfill its greed have all been cited as reasons for the destruction of the world’s environment, the impoverishment of the exploited, and the breakdown of social cohesion. These are all issues that the authors of this book clearly share. Europe is not only a great power; it is one whose vitality is based on values, and those values are less cherished as time goes on.
The irony, however, is that many of the most incisive critiques of modernity and its effects in Europe on many levels took their cue from European Muslim authors, even if they did not do so consciously. A number of European Muslims in the early part of the 20th century made these claims and many more, but their critique is ignored in these pages. These were European patriots of the deepest commitment, but their contribution is unworthy-or at least, unwanted.
CREATIVE MINORITIES; WHAT ROLE WILL THEY HAVE IN EUROPE?
As noted, these discussions deserve to be taken very seriously. The issue of the future of Europe and the issue of Islam’s role in it are not minor concerns on negligible sections of European societies. These are issues that occupy the political elite and the grassroots; the left and the right; the religious and the secular. There is much talk in Europe regarding the “Muslim identity crisis”, but there is a greater identity crisis manifesting itself every day, and we need only open the newspapers to see. The Pope’s speech in September 2006 that so enraged the Muslim world was built on this theme, but few seemed to notice (see this author’s commentary in Islamica Magazine, issue 20).
There is a sense of hope as well in these pages: Pera notes that Cardinal Ratzinger recalls Toynbee ‘s idea of a “creative minority” that can revitalize a civilization in its twilight. Pera, a non-believer in religion in general, proposes that this creative minority be a non-denominational elite that respects Christianity as the root of Europe and its core. The irony escapes him that as a non-believer, his own intellectual pedigree is less solid in a Europe traditionally defined by sacred ideas than that of European Muslims. But in truth, his respect for Christianity is not a spiritual one; it is a recognition that any successful culture must have an absolute moral core, and he sees Christianity as the only possible core for a European identity that can emerge victorious against Islam. He does not stop to consider the question whether a European identity must be forged in contradistinction to Islam in the first place.
Europeans, as any other people, deserve the chance to renew themselves. They can choose to use the tools at their disposal to selectively enfranchise parts of themselves, while marginalizing others, both historically and presently-but it is unclear if that will bring any renewal. Or they can choose to use the tools to embrace the entirety of their own selves, putting an end to the European crisis of identity that so threatens it today, by balancing diversity with common purpose.
Without a doubt, they have the tools. History will judge them, both Muslim and non-Muslim, accordingly. One thing is hard to ignore at this juncture however: the future of Islam in Europe and the sustainability of its Muslim populations seems increasingly linked to the “what is the future of Europe” debate. It is certainly not a foregone conclusion.