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Religion and Society

A Complex Encounter Destined to Change Us

Europe has in its DNA the capacity to “integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures”

[This article is published in Oasis no. 24. To read all the contents buy a copy or subscribe]



“A political culture of total optimism” is how the political scientist Giandomenico Majone defines the body of values and ideas that shaped the European Union. The “common home” was built without contemplating the idea of failure and thus without envisaging mechanisms for crisis management.1 One could say that the single market and monetary union have been the European version of the illusory “end of history” foretold by Francis Fukuyma. Right on cue, however, history has become pressing again, producing the implacable sequence of financial crisis, migrant crisis and jihadist terrorism. And the optimism has given way to quite different sentiments. As Pierangelo Sequeri writes in this edition’s opening article, “Considering the matter from the perspective of the new migrants flow towards Europe, it is as if the desperation of men and women, children and young people who are counting on the confidence of a small continent enjoying a consolidated well-being and peaceful co-existence, finds itself destined to collide with a growing resignation to their own humanism’s impotence in the peoples who have jointly lived it.” So it is not just a question of rethinking the Union’s institutional architecture but also one of “fighting, at a cultural level, our resignation to the emptying out of our present.” It is a challenge on which the future of European Christianity is staked, called as the latter is to once again open up the “perspective of an integration of the human that all peoples have in common” and “religiously deconstruct the religion of money” that is “the central theological-political phenomenon for working out whether or not a new Europe is possible.”



In order to contribute to this undertaking, we must, first of all, put things in the right order and in the right perspective; something that we have tried to do in the first part of the Focus section. Here, for example, Omar Dahi and Helen Makkas recall that “with the panic accompanying the dramatic rise of refugees and migrants entering the European Union in 2015, it is easy to forget who is suffering the real burden of this crisis,” that is to say, Syrian society and the neighbouring Middle Eastern countries, in which 55 per cent of the world’s displaced population is concentrated. Kamel Doraï examines the condition of this population in depth, analysing the situation of the Syrian refugees suspended between “the precariousness resulting from the material conditions” and the “will to reconstruct a ‘normal’ life in exile.” Just how uncertain this normality is, is illustrated by Rolla Scolari’s reportage: an investigation into the 250,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon aged between 13 and 18 who risk becoming a “sacrificed” generation, with devastating human and social consequences.



To the dramatic Middle Eastern situation must be added the countries of the Sahel, a forgotten frontier “from which or through which almost all the immigrants who have swollen the central Mediterranean flows in recent years have come or passed.” Emilio Manfredi talks about it in an article which also makes plain the short-sightedness of a Europe that, while it – rightly – condemns the walls being built along its borders, does not have many qualms about trying to contain immigration through agreements with predatory governments (with questionable results, moreover).


Confronted by the magnitude of these phenomena and the distortions they cause, people from various camps have called for a sort of “Marshall Plan for the Mediterranean”: an idea born of good intentions – states Giulio Sapelli – but perhaps premature, given that both the economic and the geostrategic pre-requisites necessary for achieving it are lacking.



At the point it has reached, Europe cannot fail to reckon with that great human reality that we have chosen to consider in depth in the Classics: hospitality. The legendary figure of the poet-knight, Hātim al-Tā’ī, introduces us to the all-pervading virtue of Arab hospitality, something taken up in a more moderate form also by Islam, in an oscillation between ideality and its rationalization that, as Martino Diez writes, has “something to say to our own, disenchanted days.” A text by Jean Daniélou remind us, on the other hand, that the ability to welcome guests is not only an inescapable dimension of Christian life but also one of the surest criteria for measuring a civilization’s degree of development. This, suggests Claudio Monge, is the reason why hospitality is, today, “a profoundly spiritual requirement in complex societies where peaceful co-existence is often difficult.”



It is not enough to talk about welcoming if the welcoming is not also thought through and practised within a shared cultural perspective. It is often said, and rightly so, that it is a mistake to confuse immigration, Islam and terrorism. However – and it is here that the second part of the Focus section begins – it cannot be denied that it is primarily the presence of Islam (and the Islamist drift) that is provoking the anxieties felt by many Europeans. And if these anxieties are fuelled by prejudices and exploitation of various kinds, it must also be recognised, as does Brigitte Maréchal, that “we find ourselves facing a ‘complex encounter’ of civilizations.” So the stake becomes the building of a society in which respect for pluralism goes hand in hand with a new sense of common belonging. A look at the American context, as presented by Amir Hussein through the figure of Muhammad Ali, demonstrates one of the possible forms of this belonging.



Of course, the irruption of jihadism on European soil complicates not a little the attempts to create new frameworks. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to raise it to the level of our new “ontological enemy”. Sequeri says quite clearly that it will not be the “barbarians” who kill Europe, but, rather, “it is her own ‘liquefaction’ that is making her sterile.” In this sense, jihadism is perhaps more of a symptom than the illness. As can be inferred from Farhad Khosrokhavar’s article on European jihadists (and the French ones, in particular), the illness is the lack of ideals capable of sustaining life.



Felice Dassetto also reflects on jihadism, taking as his starting point the “case of Molenbeek”, the quarter in Brussels that was the base for some of the terrorists who hit Paris in November 2015 and the Belgian capital in March 2016. In a masterly reconstruction that interweaves the social, town-planning and religious factors, Dassetto highlights how, albeit in its own specific way, the global city of Brussels is illustrative of the problems with which the Old Continent will have to reckon. Indeed, “new configurations” are needed and “the challenge is to find the conditions and methods for constructing them alongside the religiously committed Muslim populations.”



By the end of the reading, it will be clear that these new forms of good life still largely need to be thought through. For now, we are seeing, rather, “what we are not, what we do not want” (Montale). But, as Pope Francis stated when he received the Charlemagne Prize, Europe has in its DNA the capacity to “integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures.”2 It is from here that Europe must set out again if it wants to still have something to say to the rest of the world.



[This article is published in Oasis no. 24. To read all the contents buy a copy or subscribe]



1 Rethinking the Union of Europe Post-Crisis: Has Integration Gone Too Far? (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014, p. 59). Majone is Professor Emeritus of Public Policy at the European University Institute (EUI).


2 Francis, Address upon the Conferral of the Charlemagne Prize, 6 May 2016.

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