Is a culture war really going on between the West and Islam?

November 5 2020


an article by Mario Giro in "Domani" 4 November 2020

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After the attacks in Paris, Nice and Vienna we wonder whether, if the war between the Western world and Islam is not a real conflict, as very few people hope for, is it a culture war, as many argue? We are well aware of such conflicts. The battles to conquer the spirit of others, to subjugate or terrorise the soul of a nation are not unfamiliar to us, nor are the manipulations between culture and identity. Agit-prop, Kulturkampf - perverted cultures: all regimes in Europe have experienced psychological and propaganda warfare, in which Nazi-Fascists and Soviets proved unbeatable. Even today there is still talk of cultural war in the United States within the increasingly divided political body of the nation.
The perception of history
When it comes to confrontation with Islam, a certain reading of history is critical: a far too fast advance, the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire, colonialism. Islam seems the enemy of all time, a perfect one. A widespread perception has taken shape: after more than a millennium of clashes, a declining West is yielding to a more vital and aggressive religious culture. Being too accommodating with Islam is therefore considered a kind of self-betrayal. Some argue that Europe is worn out by shame and self-hatred because of its past, as the cancel culture demonstrates. According to others, the history of its colonial and cultural domination over the world should be revised and dissolved into a mix in which all cultures, even the subordinate ones are on an equal basis. Consequently, in Anglo-Saxon universities subaltern studies (a definition we owe to Gramsci, known as post-colonial in the French-speaking world) have flourished. It is a "recovery" action on the historical and cultural point of view, an effort to develop a world history not centred on the West, and all in all a peaceful one. As a backlash this translates for Europeans into an ethereal syndrome of decline, a kind of leave from history or a reluctant perception of their responsibilities. Their ambition to conquer the world has failed in favour of a withdrawal attitude. This impulse nurtures the cultural and political Right.
Nice and Vienna
Nevertheless, everything appears different when it comes to radical Islamism which does not recognise the right of the West to a silent and accommodating farewell. It arrives right on the doorstep, converts young Westerners, provokes and kills as in Nice, as in Vienna. "Culture" and "values" become deadly weapons for this version of Islam. It is driven by a revanchist narrative of anti-Western retaliation. The battle is also mental and begins by presenting the opponent as morally unworthy: an old trick of political tactics. On the other hand, the Islamists observe, didn't the West assume the right to civilise by using force? Brahim Aoussaoui, a Tunisian son of emptiness and a society in crisis, absorbed such ahistorical propaganda. He had just arrived in Europe and already hated it, a succubus of long-held resentments. He struck a church, something of little importance for our secularised culture. For him it represented "the Crusaders". Brahim hated a world he was not able to understand. There is something else to consider: in the encyclical "Fratelli tutti" pope Francis mentions the great imam of the al Azhar university, Ahmad al-Tayyeb. This is a historic event: it is the first time a pope mentions an imam in an encyclical. We should not underestimate its effect in the Islamic world, even a kickback for extremists. In addition, agreements were signed between Arab states and Israel. Such gestures have a huge impact in a universe in crisis like the Islamic one, they indicate a path in the middle of chaos.
A matter of trust
The enemies of dialogue always say the very same thing: the other cannot be trusted. To confirm the position, they rage at the reputation of a country or an entire religion. They use the same concepts specularly and refer back to a mythical invention of history with a conservative view. Here we come to the point: what does this alleged culture war correspond to, then? To nothing actually. They are inventions, faded images of a fake past, ghosts, holograms of a history that no longer exists and perhaps never did. History, the real one, is harsher, rougher, more earthly, more concrete. Today's fake culture war is reduced to a moment's emotion, to something ephemeral and evanescent. In order to weave it, it has proven necessary to bring out values and principles that are not believed and not applied, sometimes wrong, are brought out. A fixed point is that of the preservation of life: one must never kill and there can never be any justifiable reason for doing so. The abolition of death penalty in Europe carries this message. To act pragmatically and not rhetorically, would mean for instance finding ways for Arab and Muslim states to abolish death penalty from their codes as well. This would become a powerful message and would de-legitimise extremists. We are well aware that there are people who try to mobilise permanent hatred by creating new pretexts: our common battle is against them. Today, the real distinction is between those who polarise and those who mend. Every torn human, social or economic fabric produces conditions of social resentment and hatred between classes, peoples and civilisations. Mending is the only reasonable remedy. Today, faced with the production of cultural and religious hatred, the Catholic Church represents the most important religious reality that has taken the initiative of dialogue with other religions.
An example is the October 20th meeting promoted by Sant'Egidio on the Campidoglio Hill among leaders of the world's great religions with the presence of Pope Francis. Dialogue offers a positive meaning to existing religious pluralism. Through dialogue it is possible to remain open to the other without being submissive, without denying oneself. This is the answer to those who believe culture wars are acceptable. Wars are never acceptable. In democratic societies the balance between visible communities and universal citizenship is always on the brink, always a work in progress. As Europeans we deny ethnic-racial doctrines, we appreciate open societies, we defend pluralism while remaining attached to our roots. This is a concordance that needs to be continuously improved because there is no future either in autochthony or in globalist rootlessness. What can concretely be done is going back to an ancient and always new foundation, originated in the bedrock of Judaism and taken up by Christianity: the foundation of the Covenant. Allies are and remain different; yet they also know how to become the same thing.

re-post from "Domani" by Mario Giro