Europe and its Intimate Enemies

By Professor Bichara Khader
Catholic University of Louvain



We do not count anymore the number of conferences, seminars, symposiums on Islam and the West or Islam in Europe or Islam of Europe. … I participated no later than last week in three seminars on these issues held in Barcelona and Zaragoza. I will not give you a summary of our discussions. But I propose to sketch out a brief background of the construction of the collective imagination of Europeans on Muslims and Arabs, before delving into future columns on collective imagination Arab and Muslim world of Europe and the West, then into the Muslim question in the Europe of today.

Many authors have looked into the imaginative interplay between the West and East, and particularly between Europe and Muslims. Let me quote, off the top of my head, a few titles: “L’Orient Imaginaire” by Thierry Hentsch, “L’Image de l’Autre” by Philippe Senac, “L’Islam de l’Occident” by Claude Liauzu, “L’Europe et l’Orient” by George Corm and “L’Europe et l’Islam” by Hicham Djait. Hundreds of other papers have attempted to decrypt the historical relationship between the different sides of the Mediterranean, sometimes putting emphasis on the notion of clash, confrontation, conflict, rivalry, and sometimes on blending, mixing and cross-fertilization.

In fact, the history of the Mediterranean has been a pendular story: with conquest and reconquest, Jihads and Crusades, victories and defeats. Over the last 14 centuries, we have witnessed major events like the Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the Crusades, the conquest of Constantinople, the Battle of Lepanto, the European colonization and the struggles for national liberation. Such historical intimacy was bound to mark the European imagination, then Western, on the understanding that neither the West, neither Europe nor, a fortiori, the worlds of Islam constitute monolithic blocks with a unique way of thinking.

The first contact between Europeans and Muslims, from 711, was one of conflict. Tarek Ben Ziyad crossed the strait that now bears his name, and launched, in 711, the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. From the outset, Europeans, Arabs and Muslims were military adversaries certainly feared, but admired for their bravery and statecraft. With the Crusades from the 12th and 13th centuries, Muslims were seen as religious adversaries: religious writings of the period abound with demeaning adjectives of the Prophet and Islam. From then on, the Islam-Christianity binomial was established. With the fall of Granada in 1492, the establishment of the Inquisition, the first conquests of America, Arabs are relegated in the category of « ontological difference »: they are no longer perceived as adversaries but as different. This brought about the famous break in the Mediterranean: us and them. From the Fall of Constantinople in 1454, the figure of the threatening Turk took over from the Arab. The Battle of Lepanto, in late eleventh century, was a kind of response to the fall of Constantinople. The Sublime Door witnessed its first major military setback. The descent into hell continued from there: Turkey became the sick man but imposed its iron law on Arabs of Syria all the way to the gates of Morocco…

Meanwhile, Europe confirmed its power in all areas. In the 15th century, South America, became Latin, invested by the Spanish and Portuguese, while other European powers were preparing their colonial assault on the Arab world: the expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt in 1798 was cut short, but as of 1830, the colonization of the Maghreb (in various forms) and all Arab countries, was initiated.

During the long dark colonial period, the image of Arabs and Muslims was varied: they were often described as lazy, immobile, filthy, fatalistic, even fanatics, but they were recognized a number of virtues: family solidarity, hospitality, simplicity. The reading of European literature, especially in the nineteenth century, is instructive in this regard … But the people did not interest the colonisers as much as space. However, the latter is categorised as a « culturally empty space. » When speaking of space « culturally empty », I refer to this terrible sentence by Metternich, who in the early 18th century, said: « any territory outside the borders of Europe is an empty territory, not necessarily void of inhabitants, but culturally void and therefore subject to colonization”, because “nature hates emptiness« . Concepts such as « The civilizing mission of France », or « the white man’s burden » or « the manifest destiny » served as ideological covers to justify colonialism.

It must be said that Europe made so much progress on all fronts that it began to view its career as exceptional. This conviction of exceptionalism produced a feeling of superiority, which, as recalled Samir Amin, constituted the very foundation of Eurocentrism. Already from the 17th century, Europe revived its Greek heritage and highlighted its Greco-Roman roots, in the way we speak today of Judeo-Christian roots. The contribution of Arabs and Muslims to European civilization began to be downplayed if not obscured. Ousted from their own land by colonization, Arabs were thus evicted from history.

This annexation of Greece to Europe, proclaimed by the thinkers of the Renaissance and later by Byron and Victor Hugo (remember the « Greek child ») was the forerunner of thearbitrary cut in the Mediterranean region between North and South and between the world of Islam and the West, said to be a permanent obvious split. The Mediterranean thus became a barrier between progress and stagnation, between tradition and modernity, between mind and Promethean spirits and fatalistic minds, between reason and metaphysics, between the nation-state and the Islamic Ummah.

I would not have done this long detour through the history of the construction of Western thought, if present realities did not confirm the preservation of past stereotypes. I have previously dealt with scholarly Islamophobia represented by Gougenheim, who, in a book published in 2008, rejected all Muslim contributions to Western civilization. I could provide even more recent examples … but what concerns me here is that Europe continues, to this day, to see Arabs and Muslims as « uncanny »… Hicham Djait prefers to speak of « intimate enemies« , as we do not hate those who are totally foreign; Germaine Tillion speaks of « complementary enemies« : both arise in opposition; and Claude Liauzu views the East as « the closest difference. »

The arsenal of clichés and stereotypes in Europe of Arabs and Muslims has been fueled by 14 centuries of constant friction. It has not miraculously disappeared in the twentieth century. But the Cold War has somewhat relegated it to the background: the Red foe eclipsed the Green Islamic enemy. The West needed the Arabs and Muslims in its strategy of containment of the Soviet and communist threat. That is why it had forged strategic alliances with many Arab countries without worrying about their political system or their religious austerity. Remember the mobilization of Muslim volunteers in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

But since the collapse of the Soviet « evil empire », to use the formula, the Arab and Muslim East reappears as a ghost: the East of anxiety. He resurfaced through the face of bin Laden, through that of bearded militants of Al Qaeda, and now increasingly through the face of the Muslim immigrant. Terrorism, fundamentalism, immigration, these are, for now, the keywords that dominate western media coverage of the East. Media representations reactivate images of an Orient eternal, warrior, violent, sexist, bigoted and despotic … One wonders sometimes if the construction of an enemy figure is not a structural element of the identity of Europe and the West. How else can one explain the article and book of Samuel Huntington « clash of civilization« , published immediately after the implosion of the Soviet Union? How can one explain the statement by NATO Commander, General Calvin, made in 1993, i.e. well before the attacks of September 11, 2001: « We have won the cold war. After this aberration of seventy years, we are now back to the conflictual situation old of 1300 years, the one confronting us to Islam. » These words are frightening… But do Arabs and Muslims also feed the feeling of Islamophobia?