What is “The West”? The Role of Islam in the Formation of Western Identity – Norman Davies

Posted on September 27, 2010 by


What is “The West?”

The Role of Islam in the Formation of Western Identity

By Norman Davies

Norman Davies, in his work “Europe: A History“, points out that their is little consensus on what it means to be Western. He describes  different conceptions of “The West” as follows:

12 Variant Conceptions of “The West”

  1. Greeks v. Persians (p 22)
  2. Those parts of Europe that claimed a share in the Roman Empire and its legacy. (p 22)
  3. Christendom v. Islam (p 22)
  4. The Catholic World: divergence of the Roman and Greek Churches (p 22-23)
  5. The French variant of Western civilization … secular philosophy of the Enlightenment and the ideals of the Revolution of 1789 (p 23)
  6. The imperial variant of Western civilization was based on the unbounded self-confidence of the leading imperial powers during the long European Peace prior to 1914. (p 23)
  7. The Marxist variant was a mirror image of the imperial one. (p 23)
  8. The first German variant of Western civilization was encouraged by the onset of the First World War (p 23)
  9. The WASP variant of Western civilization came to fruition through the common interests of the USA and the British Empire as revealed during the First World War. (p 24)
  10. The second German variant (Nazi version) (p 24)
  11. The American variant of Western civilization (p 24)
  12. Cold War Era variant, based on the Franco-German reconciliation, rejection of overseas empires, material prosperity of the EEC, and the desire to limit the influence of the Anglo-Saxons. The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, is now resulting in a profound crisis of identity. (p 24)

He argues that these variants are nothing more than intellectual constructs used by various elites to achieve specific objectives.

From all these examples it appears that Western civilization is essentially an amalgam of intellectual constructs which were designed to further the interests of their authors. It is the product of complex exercises in ideology, of countless identity trips, of sophisticated essays in cultural propaganda. It can be defined by its advocates in almost any way that they think fit. Its elastic geography has been inspired by the distribution of religions, by the demands of liberalism and of imperialism, by the unequal progress of modernization, by the divisive effects of world wars and of the Russian Revolution, and by the self-centred visions of French philosophes, Prussian historians, and of British and American statesmen and educators, all of whom have had their reasons to neglect or to despise ‘the East. In its latest phase it has been immensely strengthened by the physical division of Europe, which lasted from 1947-8 to 1991. On the brink of the twenty-first century, one is entitled to ask in whose interests it may be used in the future.” (p 25)

Interestingly enough, Davies points out the role of Islam in the formation of European identity:

“To talk of Muhammad and Charlemagne, however, is not enough. Islam affected Eastern Europe even more directly than it affected Western Europe. Its appearance set the bounds of a new, compact entity called ‘Christendom’, of which Constantinople would be the strongest centre for some time to come. It set a challenge to the pagans on the eastern fringes of Christian-Muslim rivalry, who henceforth faced the prospect of choosing between the two dominant religions. Above all, it created the cultural bulwark against which European identity could be defined. Europe, let alone Charlemagne, is inconceivable without Muhammad.” (p 258)

“Most importantly, perhaps, Islam cut Christianity off from the rest of the world. Before Islam, the Christian Gospels had reached both Ceylon and Abyssinia; after Islam, they were effectively excluded for centuries from further expansion into Asia or Africa. Most Christians never saw a Muslim during their lifetime; but all of them lived in Islam’s shade. Islam, in fact, provided the solid, external shield within which Christendom could consolidate and be defined. In this sense, it provided the single greatest stimulus to what was eventually called ‘Europe’.” (p 266)

Thus, Islam may very well be intrinsically tied into Western/European identity as the eternal and essential “Other.” Something to think about in light of “Eurabia”, “Londonistan”, “Stop the Islamization of Europe”, burqa bans, minaret regulations, halal food restrictions, cartoons, etc.

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