Am I the only one to feel the contraction of Northern Ireland’s political difficulty from the epic to a profoundly local scale? Richard Delevan on Islam, the West and the Irish Saving Civilisation, in which he scratches the surface of what we are regularly invited to believe is a clash two opposing and separate civilisations… Disappointingly for some, we Irish barely feature.
His [Pope Dominic’s] visit has been painted as the peaceful side of a clash of civilisations between the West and Islam. This misses two key points.
First, the West as we understand it could not exist without Islam. While Europe devoured itself in centuries of backwards feudalism, economic malaise and theocratic control, the Arab world was buzzing with wealth, power, technology and worldly intellectual rigour.
Muslims ruled the Mediterranean, brought advanced medicine to Muslim Spain. Arab scribes kept alive texts just as sacred to the Western canon as the Bible . . . those containing the thoughts of the philosophers of Greece and Rome. It was from Arab sources that those texts made their way to Thomas Aquinas, and sparked the reinvention of the West.
Second, the very identification of the West with Christendom is only a notion. As Danish historian David Gress sets out beautifully in From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents, the idea of ‘the West’ has been incredibly pliable over the past 3,000 years. And powerful; whoever owns the idea has owned the future.
(Gress, it should be noted, works for the newspaper that published the inflammatory cartoons of Muhammad, and he may disagree with what I’m about to write.) Benedict began his trip by arguing for Turkish accession to the EU. He’s right to do so for a number of reasons, but one above all: the West does not end at the Bosporous; its greater cultural area is centred on the Mediterranean and ends at the Ganges. It can grant space to faith without giving primacy to one in particular and without sacrificing reason as its mode of discourse.
The societies and cultures within this space are impossible to imagine without each other. The supposed clash of civilisations is actually, I would argue, the last civil war of the Greater West. Whether civilisation itself will survive is another question.