The Occident is notoriously hard to pin down: It is neither a state nor a community united under a single government and its administrative apparatus. The Occident is not a democracy but an empire, governed by kings and emperors instead of presidents and chancellors. It is a fairy tale, not a travel destination. Today, we can no longer access this bygone world. It would take a magical train to take us there, similar to the train that takes Harry Potter from platform 9 ¾ to Hogwarts.
The Occident is a narrative, as mythical as the kingdom Albion in the legend of King Arthur. Albion is the epitome of a peacefully united kingdom – the Occident describes the peaceful community of European Christians. Albion and Occident are utopias: They exist only in our imagination, never in reality. They are constructs of the mind.
Leadership within the Occident has always bestowed strong political and symbolic power on those who could claim it: It was a privilege with divine providence. Thus, the occidental narrative was frequently co-opted by existing empires to further their respective interests and to increase their political legitimacy. The Franks, the Ottomans, and the Russian czars all regarded themselves as the legitimate and chosen heirs of the Roman empire; they saw their respective empires as the new Rome.
The translation of utopian ideas into the practice of realpolitik illustrates the dark side of community: Collective moral reference points are rarely established without coercion. Forging political practice out of good ideas comes at a cost, which is usually paid in human lives. The emperors of the Occident were willing to pay a high price for internal homogeneity and external exclusivity. Thus, and not surprisingly, the political practices of the Occident were neither peaceful nor harmonious: Who is the legitimate king? Who is the divinely blessed pope? Which Christian faith is the true faith? How should religious deviants be treated?
The world is never monolithic
Today, the term “Occident” and its historical connotations have lost much of their relevance. One of the achievements of modernity is the disenchantment of the idea that all people could (and should) be brought under the unified umbrella of Christianity. Yet the success of modernity does not absolve us from the responsibility of interpreting the terminology of the Occident – especially during a time of Occidentalist resurgence, when old terms are used to defend the idea of European homogeneity and to mount a political campaign against liberal immigration policies. In Germany, the Pegida protests have invoked “the Occident” to reduce complex realities to simplistic slogans. The Other is caricatured as a monolithic alien, as the enemy, as Muslim. It’s us-versus-them rhetoric. Intellectually, this agenda is bound to fail.
When protesters invoke “Islam” as an abstract enemy, they reduce the complex realities of life of more than one billion people – from Morocco to Malaysia – to a few childish catchphrases that sound embarrassing when uttered by adults. The world is never monolithic! Diversity, divergence and difference are always with us, but they are discussed in selective fashion: We tend to regard ourselves as individualistic and diverse, but describe others in simplistic terms that confirm prejudice, prompt dismissiveness, and fuel resentment. The German Pegida demonstrations are a case in point.
To speak of the Occident today would require a discussion of Europe’s diversity, of the continent’s multiple languages, customs, traditions, and life courses. Do the opponents of immigration and Islam understand Europe’s diversity? Do they understand that the Occident can no longer be grounded in an alleged homogeneity but must accept diversity as a social fact and an enrichment of social life?
One utopian vision of our forefathers has become reality: Europe has experienced seventy years of peace; we no longer consider it legitimate to discriminate against someone because of race, ethnicity, or religious faith. This vision has seeped into realpolitik to an extent that would have seemed impossible to our medieval ancestors.
But let us look towards history once again: When the term “Occident” was invoked by previous generations, it usually implied the Christian Occident. The religiously infused rhetoric helped to construct a great and glorious past that could be pitted against frustrations and anxieties of the present. The distant Other and the religious Other were painted in broad strokes as monolithic, and were either glorified or condemned. Indeed, the greater the spatial or temporal distance, the easier it becomes to stylize others positively or negatively, and thus to instrumentalize them for one’s own interests.
Nothing has changed
The Middle Ages – long seen as a dark period – experienced renewed interest during the age of Romanticism. Architectural trends drew inspirations from earlier epochs, recycled medieval styles, and gave rise to the Gothic Revival. Composers like Charles Widor and Louis Viernes committed themselves to the revitalization of Gregorian choral music. One reason why people turned towards the past: The rapidly changing world of the 19th century. Steam engines, electricity and evolutionary theory had altered reality with unprecedented speed and consequence. The longing for simplicity and purity manifested itself transcendentally in a turn towards the Middle Ages.
On its journey towards realpolitik, the Occident also had to contend with the rise of nationalism, and thus with the increasing division of the world into “us” and “them”. The peoples of Europe confronted each other with delusions of superiority, and sought to justify dominance of colonial subjects and of their European neighbors with accounts of national and ethnic destiny. But even then one could have realized that a homogeneous world was nothing but a fiction, and that Europe’s nations were diverse and pluralistic entities. The unity of Christendom had already been shattered several centuries before during Reformation, and only blind frenzy could ignore those social realities: Frenzied arguments do not aspire to accurately reflect the world, but seek to bring about a particular vision of the future.
The idea of capital-T Truth had already become blemished by the end of the 19th century. But instead of defending it, one could have turned towards an ethically oriented Christian anthropology that takes Erasmus of Rotterdam as its intellectual forefather. Erasmus and other thinkers of the medieval renaissance posited a humanistic account that aspired to overcome petty differences between people. The fanaticism of Reformation put an end to their project and clung to political discourse like clumps of dirt cling to old boots. For centuries, difference and differentiation became the guiding principles of political order. 19th century nationalism represented the culmination of this trend – and has now re-emerged in slightly altered guise. How sad if we were forced to admit that nothing has changed.
In “The World of Yesterday”, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig describes Europe before the first World War. His descriptions might as well apply to today: Four decades of peace, technological progress and economic growth had helped to create more wealth for more people. Insurance companies offered increasingly far-reaching protections that promised to insulate the individual against the uncertainties and upheavals of politics. Two World Wars and several decades of nationalist fervor later, we have started to realize that we cannot insure ourselves against social risks.
To prevent the resurgence of destructive forces in Europe’s cities and minds, it is necessary to dry up the fertile ground upon which parochial ideas can flourish. The task, in other words, is to expose two central aspects of the Occident’s gradual transition from mental utopia to political agenda as ideological simplifications: first, the claim of internal homogeneity, and second, the claim of exclusivity vis-à-vis external others.
An arena of intellectual and political pluralism
This second claim becomes intelligible once we consider the history of Christendom: In the Arabic countries of North Africa, people from the Occident used to be called “the Latins”: Muslims perceived and defined European Christendom primarily through its liturgical language. The Second Vatican Council ended the dominance of Latin as the language of rituals and religious practice in the 1960s. Even today, some groups within the Catholic Church reject this loss of exclusivity, but their argument appear increasingly anachronistic: In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Catholic Church transcended the borders of Europe’s cultural region and expanded into Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
A consequence of the Church’s global footprint was the inclusion of external influences into a world that had been protected by codices and rituals for many centuries. Popes that hail from Poland, Germany, and now Argentina are one aspect of the opening of the Catholic Church to new influences; diversity is its necessary consequence. The current Argentinian pope is indicative of the Church’s inclusivity, and of a universality that characterizes not only the Catholic Church but many political and international institutions. Universalism is the realpolitical reply to the intellectual achievements of modernity.
The Occident today is an arena of intellectual and political pluralism. Critical discourse and cultural diversity are more prevalent than ever. But those achievements are once again in jeopardy: They are threatened by proponents of simplistic world-views who elevate themselves and devalue others. Will we succeed in defending the pluralistic and tolerant Occident against this booted horde of misanthropes?