The Undiscovered Continent, Part 1

There is a silent consensus around the notion of “Europe” and “European”. So silent, we often don't really know what it means

What makes me a European? I was not born in Europe but in the Middle East, and I can still remember how at primary school in Vienna I played up the fact that I came from a different continent. Back then I maintained that I was Asian. All the others in the all-boys class were born ‘real’ Austrians—a term still used today. I was the exception. Someone exotic. No other pupil in my class had already flown in an aeroplane. The whole of Vienna seemed to me to be a place of grey uniformity. Scarcely anyone was foreign or different. I had no idea that the former metropolis of the multinational Habsburg state was once characterized by a diversity that has since been eradicated. The large Jewish community that existed here was in part expelled and in part murdered. Vienna was a city which now found itself in a Cold War no man’s land between the two superpowers. We lived in the shadow of the Iron Curtain. Not many from the East got as far as the city on the Danube. Some who did were the Turkish and Yugoslav men who were invited to Austria to take on those jobs that indigenous people did not find sufficiently lucrative. Austria did not yet belong to the Europe which was then called the European Economic Community (EEC), what we now know as the European Union.

I was born in Israel and lived there only in my early years. While not in Europe, Israel is certainly Europe’s progeny. Even though we were an Ashkenazi family, in my early years we lived in Sh’chunat Shapira, an area of Tel Aviv that was home to mostly poor, oriental Jews. My father and mother came to Zion as survivors of the Holocaust: he from Romania in 1944, she from Poland at the beginning of the 1950s.

Was I born a European because European history shaped my family history? That may be so, but could not the same be said for many people who grew up in Morocco, Algeria, Turkey or even Argentina around the same time? Isn’t their fate also influenced by European politics and history? Aren’t many of them also shaped by the literature, music, art and culture which we associate with Europe?

Anyway, what does it mean to be a European? What is Europe and where is it? We are taught when other continents were ‘discovered’, which for the most part means being able to say when some European country conquered them and at what point it enslaved, exploited or even murdered their peoples. We hear about the so-called ‘natives’ and how the Church forced them to adopt Christianity. We read of tribes who were baptized not so much with water as with blood. The maps of the other continents were once full of blank spaces. They were already marked as the possessions of European countries, but seemed at the same time virginal and untouched. Europe, by contrast, pretended to be complete and unsullied.

Nevertheless, one might sometimes think that the continent of Europe never really existed as a common space, but merely as a geographical area in the process of fragmenting into its separate states. After all, it is well known that the notion of ‘Europe’ is a myth that precedes by many centuries the notion of ‘Europe’ as embodied in the EU. The Greeks of antiquity believed that Europe was a young princess seduced by Zeus who had assumed the form of a bull. She came from Sidon, which we know was in Lebanon, in the Middle East, approximately that region from which people are now fleeing to Europe. When the child princess climbed on the divine bull’s back, he swam with her out to the open sea. She was at his mercy. A reminder perhaps of today’s boat refugees? Zeus took the under-aged princess away to Crete to rape her and the land mass was named after her. The foundation myth of this continent is not a charming bedtime story for children. It tells of violence and abuse. A minor must submit to her kidnapper in a foreign land.

We are consoled by the fact that the bull is actually immortal. Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi (‘What is permitted to Jupiter is not permitted to an ox’). The Greeks saw Europe as chosen and elevated by the king of the gods over and above Asia and Libya, as Africa was then called. Here, in their eyes, was the centre of the world. Here they wanted it to remain. Their view still determines our perspective today and leads us all too often to ignore the rest of the world, even though the Hellenistic view was superseded long ago by hard facts. Not only are the other continents, with the exception of Australia, bigger and furthermore home to many more people, but they are discrete land masses. There can be no doubt about their physical integrity. Europe, by contrast, contradicts the common geographical understanding of what a continent should ideally look like. As has often been observed, it is no more than an appendage of Asia; a mere bulge. For this reason it makes no sense to try to align the EU with so-called ‘natural borders’: they do not exist. They are sheer inventions, arbitrary demarcation lines which became untenable in an age of motorized transport, hi-tech communication and globalized economies.

Culture cannot serve as the dividing line between the continents either. Not only because it does not work as such, but also because the peculiarity, the advantages, indeed the originality of Europe are ultimately the result of its diversity, the wealth of its languages and traditions. From the beginning the Occident, the ‘Abendland’, as it is called in German (the old Christian West) was a battle cry. Yet it was nothing but a counterpart to the Orient, the ‘Morgenland’ (the East). Significantly, ‘Occident’ depicts an empire that boasts of being where the sun sets, while ‘Orient’ speaks of an empire of the rising sun. Tomorrow seems to be a land in the East. The contemporary crusaders of the old Occident are fighting for an empire with no rising sun, but only a fading light.

The word originated in the fourteenth century, when the New World had yet to be ‘discovered’ and when it was not known that there were five continents. The earth was seen as flat—just as extreme right-wing populist thought would have it today. Whoever now talks of the Occident does so only to lament its demise, echoing the thinking of Oswald Spengler in his Decline of the West. The sole desire of such people is arrogantly to affirm the primacy of a particular culture. Whoever wants to revert back to the old Christian Occident will be thwarted fighting new crusades. A new Europe cannot be discovered in this way. It will always be elsewhere.

The unresolved question of where Europe’s soil begins and ends is possibly what lies at the root of this continent’s singularity and uniqueness. Perhaps we can define Europe as a continent precisely because it is the exception that proves the rule. It has no geographical unity but is characterized by bulges, isthmuses and meandering coastlines. It consists of peninsulas and islands from the Scandinavian archipelagos to the Italian boot, from Ireland to Cyprus. This physical topography has influenced the development of its internal diversity and at the same time its openness to other continents. Could geography be a reason why so many languages are spoken in Europe? Every bay is its own cultural community. Every patch of land was once its own small state, with its own particular costume(s), music and language. This territorial configuration encouraged contact with other cultures, offering the possibility of trading with and learning from them, but also subjugating and exploiting them.

Fragmentation is Europe’s common denominator. A strange interplay has dominated the history of the continent. Every time the world seemed to have been destroyed by war and barbarism, Europe longed for unity. But as soon as integration looked possible, indeed, became almost real, separatism and regionalism reared their heads again. Europe is Janus-faced. It resists uniformity. Whoever wants to unite the continent must respect its infinite variety.

Geographical, national or cultural seclusion do not make for a strong, united Europe. On the contrary, they manifest isolation, resentment, timidity and chauvinism, thereby demonstrating the very weakness many hoped that the EU would consign to oblivion. This ambivalence, already evident from the Greek myth, should not be overlooked. Europe is necessary in order to overcome Europe.

But where is this Europe’s border? Who is a European today? The EU holds out to us the promise of supra-national citizenship in which skin-colour, ancestry and religion should play no determining role. In a Europe seen thus, the abducted princess brought here from abroad by Zeus was perhaps the first true European because she—like so many other Europeans—came from somewhere else.

From the beginning Europe was a political construct that served power interests. The EU is no different. It too has to take into account the facts of the market. At the same time it was about reconciling Germany and France after two world wars. The European project resulted from a crisis and has developed through crises. It differentiated itself from the Warsaw Pact. It was not a cultural or religious project, for that would have necessitated Austria, Hungary, the German Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic constituting a united group within it. It was, rather, economic conditions that led to the establishment of the EEC and at first it went quite well. But had it only been about economics, Greece, Spain and Portugal could also have joined early on. However, these states were only accepted after their democratization. So economics is only one factor which makes for a common Europe. From the very beginning, the rule of law and democracy were equally fundamental to the European project. And when the former Eastern Bloc states became candidates for membership in the post-1989 enlargement drive they were only accepted once reform of their political systems brought them into line with the so-called ‘free West’.

The crises confronting the EU have increased alarmingly in recent years and they cut a swathe right across the continent. Europe is an empire that prides itself on advantages that it is simultaneously abolishing: Europe extols its social policy and engineers its collapse. It praises its health services yet cuts them. It hails its educational institutions only to progressively deprive them of financial resources. The continent celebrates itself as the land of democracy while taking from national parliaments what it still won’t give to the European Parliament. Culture and art are lauded only to be made subject to the exigencies of the market. It’s important to highlight these contradictions, but it’s not my wish to badmouth Europe. The anti-EU, populist agitators are doing this already. And all too often governments make Brussels responsible for everything unpleasant that they themselves have agreed to. No, I would not want in any way to malign the EU. On the contrary, we need more Europe.

As the Europe of capital is now a reality, so the Europe of politics has become a necessity. A strong political roof is needed to protect the people and the continent’s cultural diversity from the ravages of neoliberalism. The problems we face can only be solved together. The economic crisis, ecological dangers, jihadism and the return of racist movements demand European answers. The terrible murder of 130 victims in the November 2015 attacks in Paris, news of which reached me as I was writing this essay, only serve to reinforce the need for collective action against such threats.

We were understandably scornful when President George W. Bush justified the war against Iraq in 2003 using the slogan ‘War on Terror’. And the fact is that under Saddam Hussein Baghdad had no operational relationship with al-Qaeda. The ‘old Europe’, as US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld called it, was right when it doubted that terrorism could be defeated by military means alone. But did we foresee that terrorism might conduct open war against us? That selective, isolated attacks might cease and instead an army of assassins would cross several countries and borders, wreaking havoc? That such a war could be declared on us via YouTube and Twitter with not only innocents and bystanders being slaughtered live on camera, but also non-partisan aid workers? It all happened; a terrible reality we continue to experience.

The crimes of the assassins of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) are not carried out in secret. Humanity is being subjected to ritualized murder. Mass executions, which include children, are staged and broadcast. Beheadings of women doctors and humanitarian aid officials are celebrated. The sexual enslavement of captured women goes unchallenged. Enthusiastic cheers greet the destruction of churches. Training camps for child soldiers are presented to the press as if they were orphanages or day schools. Part of the programme is the extermination of minorities—whether they are Yazidis, Kurds, Muslims or Christians—who are branded as infidels. The goal is ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Terrorism celebrates its atrocities. Its battleground is the international public arena. Its area of operations is civil society. Murderous gangs, armed to the teeth with howitzers, tanks, helicopters and missiles, are pictured travelling from town to town to massacre the inhabitants. A hooded executioner pronouncing judgement in British English and seizing a knife to cut off the head of a hostage is videoed and repeatedly broadcast. The media provide the scene for the criminal enactment of this primitive barbarism. In seeing what happens, we are seeing that it happens.

IS rules over an empire in which all minorities are persecuted. It invokes Sharia law and dreams of the caliphate. Initially nurtured by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, IS was also secretly encouraged by Turkey. But it would be wrong to confuse jihadism with Islam. We must also differentiate between the various Islamist tendencies and jihadism. High Muslim clerics condemn the theory and practice of IS. The majority of Muslims fear jihadi terror.

All the same, the power of jihadism’s appeal should not be underestimated. Boko Haram in Nigeria, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Jund al-Khilafah in Algeria and other similar groups have signalled their support for IS. Sympathizers worldwide are turned on by its violent videos, which show murderers indiscriminately shooting civilians, playing football with severed heads or nailing people to crosses. Many radicalized followers from all over Europe, often déclassé youth, have gone like pilgrims to fight with IS.

The EU is based on the credo that everything can be resolved through discussion. But jihadism does not want to negotiate. It has declared a war on us that eschews dialogue and understanding. Its real goal is the end of all coexistence. Not fighting it means leaving its victims, mainly Muslims but also the entire population of cities like Kobani in Syria, in the lurch. Admittedly, neither IS nor jihadism itself is likely to be defeated with weapons alone. One terrorist group would only be replaced by another.

The essay was first published in "Do I belong: Reflections from Europe", edited by Antony Lerman, Pluto Press, 2017

To be continued next Friday