Does the attack of 11 September mark or does it not mark the beginning of a conflict of civilisations between the Islamic world and the Western world? The answer to this question, whether in the negative or the positive, necessarily assumes a definition of the 'West' and without doubt as a consequence also of the 'East'. What follows is only a series of questions posed by a French Catholic about this geopolitical situation which begins with these major notions of East and West.
1. Geography. The roundness of the earth makes the notions of 'East' and 'West', on the basis of the conventional position of a point taken as a reference, clearly relative. The Muslim world extends from the Atlantic to Oceania. Seen from Indonesia, America is the East, like Australia and New Zealand. Seen from the Far East, for example from China, the Muslim world, even when reduced to its core, which is known as the Near East, is in the West. In addition, with the extension of the phenomenon of migration every place ends up by being present everywhere because of those that left it and bear the marks of their origins.
2. History. The notions of 'East' and 'West' were clearer during the medieval period when America, Oceania and Sub-Saharan Africa did not matter. It was said that at that time there was only immense Eurasia with its West, its East, and its Centre. In the West what would be called Europe was nothing else, for example at the beginning of the ninth century, than the western and Christian part of Eurasia gathered around the Byzantine empire and the Kingdom of the Franks, which at that time could be called neither France nor Germany nor Italy. Europe, that is to say that part of Christendom not subject to Muslim power, was surrounded on all sides by the Islamic Crescent within which survived a large number of Christian Churches. Beyond this there was the Far Eat, vast Asia, which was populated in large part by the yellow race and animated by non-monotheistic wisdoms. Beginning with the Renaissance, Europe broke its encirclement by the Crescent, discovered America, circumnavigated Africa, impinged on Asia and seemed in 1914 to dominate the world. It was the epic greatness of Spain and the Habsburgs that launched the worldwide and Catholic policy that France and England would block. At the same time Christian unity was broken by the Reformation, the Christian identity of Europe was weakened by the Enlightenment thinkers, and the identification (which was always only partial) of Europe with the Church was reduced as evangelisation spread the Christian faith amongst all races and nations. The Catholic Church, which was certainly not opposed to freedom but to its frenzies, has seen its faithful lose political power where they were used to exercising it and this is the effect of the fact that the Catholic Church no longer identifies with a specific political community, nation or groups of nations, whether European or Western, and is a body that is completely spiritual and increasingly universal. Protestantism, although it, too, has been globalised, remains rather strongly identified with the world political community of white Anglo-Saxons, with their more individualistic idea of religion, the economy and politics. The Anglo-.Saxons, whether Protestant or secularised, form the first power in the world and tend to organise the world in line with their principles.
3. Politics. During the modern age France was by tradition opposed to the great imperial and Catholic world policy of the Habsburgs, in part out of envy and imperial ambition, in part out of fear of a despotism connected with world political unification, and in part, lastly, in order to avoid an overly developed confusion between politics and religion. The policy of Richelieu without doubt was moved by all these considerations. For this reason, the policy of caution followed by President Chirac (who is not exactly a Richelieu) during the crisis that followed 11 September 2001 is to be located in the trajectory of this traditional policy of France and also certainly expresses, mutatis mutandis, the three above-mentioned considerations.
Al-Qaeda declares that it is fighting against the atheist, corrupt, materialist etc. 'West' and against America, which is leading its infernal dance. But in definitive terms, whatever may be the role of economic interests in American policy, the core America that elected President G.W. Bush is the most religious, the most moralistic, the most idealistic, the least atheistic, in short the least 'Western' (in the sense employed by Al-Qaeda) America that we have known for some time. If the United States of America has remained largely attached to the compromise signed at the end of the eighteenth century between Protestant denominations that are not recognised as religions of state and the philosophy of the Enlightenment thinkers,1 one may ask whether American popular neo-Conservatism corresponds to a revival of this fundamental pact or a break with consensus which would mark in the United States of America the beginning, two centuries behind, of a crisis similar to that of the eighteenth century in Europe which, indeed, involved the opposition of philosophers and religious.
The war in Iraq is not only a crusade, and yet it seems to be 'also' a Protestant crusade conducted by America. To speak in these terms leaves open the question of knowing whether the war in Iraq, because it has recourse to armed force to solve a unsatisfactory 'political' situation, meets or does not meet the criteria of a just war. Yet on the other hand there can be no doubt that the interest of every true religion, that is to say the good of the life of men in God, requires nowadays a rejection of the principle of killing each other in the name of God. It is no paradox to say that the two principal belligerents have points in common. The same imperial and sacred dream, one Muslim and the other Protestant, the same dangerous taking on of a religious universal by nationalities that are overly proud of themselves, and the same justification of means, which are certainly very different, but on both sides cruel and exaggerated. In short, evangelical Protestantism is about to do what Protestants have traditionally rebuked Catholicism (or France or Spain) for doing but without having on their side the attenuating circumstances of difference of epochs and historical inexperience, so that, if this process is not deviated, Protestantism will not come out unharmed from this adventure; no more than Islam, for that matter, or of a democracy confused with the Kingdom of God.
One grasps the extent to which the Second Vatican Council and its exegesis at the hands of John Paul II, and at the present time of Benedict XVI, constitute riches for mankind, which can no longer allow itself either irreligiosity or fanaticism (or even an easy syncretism), and how, without failing to recognise the dangers, the Holy See has been wise not to allow itself to be involved in this affair.
4. the Empirical West. If we wanted to argue rightly we would declare as follows: in the world there is a set of democratic nations that are technologically very advanced, rich and powerful, with white majorities, the members or ancient dominions of the nations of Europe, whose dominant culture is a mix of Christianity and secularisation. This set of nations, which is an empirical fact, may be called, following a linguistic convention that is not absurd, 'the West'. There are conflicts of interest between this empirical West and the rest of the world and in particular the Muslim world. The principal reason for this conflict lies in the fact that globalisation seems to force all nations to accept certain common principles, and that it is the West that seeks to provide these principles, but without taking into account what other nations want, which, indeed, they do not necessarily know. France has in common with the Catholic Church the desire to contribute to a peaceful solution of problems and tensions by cultivating in the world a sense of justice, and this pre-supposes a more correct assessment of the relations between the individual and society. The Catholic Church occupies an intermediary position or one of synthesis between the secularised West., which tends to give everything to the individual, and the rest of the world, which is more attached to an overall idea of the community. Through its expression of faith and reason the Catholic Church thereby avoids the exaggeration of tensions between rationalist philosophers and fideist religious.
5. Science and Technology. If the West is a spirit, that of technology founded upon scientific knowledge, then the West is always present where technology is used. Are not perhaps the Islamic countries that possess or want to possess the atomic bomb in this sense Western? And if the West is a nihilistic hypertrophy of the unilateral technological spirit, is not the ordinary Muslim, who applies himself to technology, perhaps more protected than others from this temptation of frenzy?
6. Doubt and Philosophy. If technology and science assume in one form or another methodical doubt, some forms of which end up by being fatal to every authority, faith, or tradition, if the practice of these forms of doubt tend to see man as a pure individual and an autonomous individual, and if this autonomy leads to atheism and nihilism, in what way is a Muslim more defended than anyone else faced with such an evolution, given that he equips himself with commitment to science and technology? Just as a weed killer strikes to begin with only the leaves but then advances and invades the whole plant, drying up the stem to the roots, so the same happens with the spirit of technology, unless there is a revival at the level of foundations. But such a revival, which in its own way can be a struggle for God, does not have its suitable instruments in bombs and explosives but in philosophical thought. If Islam does not engage in philosophy it will be lost. If an Islamist should reply 'if Islam engages in philosophy, it will be lost, and if he was right to reply in this way, then Islam really would be lost. The suicidal character of contemporary military Islamism perhaps derives from a widespread awareness of this dilemma and from a desperate powerless in dealing with it. But man loves life and a Muslim loves it no less than others. It is for this reason that Islam can end up by engaging in philosophy.2
7. Dialogue. An Islamic-Western tête à tête too often forgets the Far East and the remote history that unites us all. We have not spoken about philosophy. And so? Is Western philosophy thus Western? Is Eastern philosophy thus Eastern? What we call Chinese philosophy comes from India, just as European philosophy comes from Greece (to acknowledge this does not take away anything from the genius, for example, of China or Germany). Now, the same ancestors that left central Asia conquered Persia, India and Greece. They established three branches of civilisation, impregnated with linked thought, enriched by exchanges that have at times been forgotten. European philosophy, it has been written, is a set of footnotes to the dialogues of Plato. This may be accepted, But if Greek philosophy had marginalised Plato, Democritus and Aristotle, and held up as masters Pyrron, Parmenides and Heraclites, in what ways would what we call Western philosophy be different today from what we call Eastern philosophy? The German nineteenth century, from Deussen to Schopenhauer, is full of an unsatisfied orientalist dream.
The ancient Greek world, before being included in the Roman world, was an immense area that extended from the western Mediterranean to contemporary Afghanistan and the Indus; a trace of this spirit is visible in the forms of statues of Buddha. This was the empire of Alexander the Great, the political expression of a Hellenistic dream of a synthesis between Asia and Europe, which expressed, more than classical Greece alone, that overall human genius which wanted to keep together reason and mystery, the one and the many, mysticism and freedom. Seen from above, so-called Western rationalism belongs more to those kinds of fanaticism that provoke sadness. Reason is born in the morning of mystery and is fortified every evening by it. The Christian religion developed in this truly universal terrain. Philosophy is a common good of mankind given that all its branches have at base a common origin whose grafting has been successful in the most varying ethnic and linguistic groups. A thousand years ago the Muslim world produced great philosophers who stimulated the greatest doctors of the Catholic Church. The ordinary forms of philosophical emptiness (relativism, materialism nihilism atheism etc) injure the so-called Western countries as much as they do other nations. These are not Western errors but errors tout court, human errors, all too human errors. And the West, if by this is meant France, Canada or New Zealand, for example, have no less an interest in ridding themselves of them as do Iraq, Algeria or Indonesia. But one does not rid oneself of ideas by blowing up sky scrapers. One has to engage in philosophy.
1. Cf. Carl A. Anderson, 'Una comunità per tutte le differenze', Oasis n.1 (2005), pp. 20-21.
2. Cf. R. Brague, 'Bagliori medievali della filosofia islamica', Oasis n.3 (2006), pp. 90-94.