Seeing Things: Dialogue of Civilizations

By the time you turn to this, gentle reader, your humble scribe will have Deo Volente, returned from sojourning in Asia Minor, the land of Mount Ararat, the birthplace of St. Paul, and the final home of the Virgin Mary, and the tomb of the apostle John.

I intend to refrain from even the appearance of competition with a distinguished cleric given to epic bouts of historical name-dropping in a neighboring page, but I can’t help posing a question to the history-loving devotees of this journal: Where did Caesar say, “Veni, vidi, vici“? No, not the battlefields of Italy, Germany, or Britain. He wrote the phrase in a letter to the Roman Senate after defeating Pharnaces, king of Pontus, in what is today Turkey.

Today’s Turks are in a bind—the main reason for my trip. They have labored with intermittent success to become a modern state. Mostly Islamic for centuries, they became officially secular after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the founding of the new state by Kemal Ataturk in 1923. Ataturk banished Islam from the public square, resulting in two fiercely competing factions: a “secular” group, backed by the army, committed to maintaining religious neutrality, and an Islamicist group trying to bring religion back to the schools and the government.

The Turks would also like to be part of the European Union and the West more generally. The Turkish poet and political writer Ziya Gokalp (1876-1924) expressed their self-understanding thus: “We belong to the Turkish nation, the Muslim religious community, and the European civilization.” These three things may seem incompatible to us, but the Turks see themselves as a bridge nation that hopes to dispel the notion that there is no dialogue with Islam.

On the face of it, this dialogue among civilizations seems at once a necessity and a near impossibility. The world has shrunk through air travel, television, and telephones; but divisions between civilizations remain wide. The American political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote a highly influential book last year entitled The Coming Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. He argues that the world is modernizing, but not westernizing. Peoples everywhere want modern technologies, but, as in our own country, are embracing traditional religion and culture as a refuge from the “acids of modernity.” According to Huntington, resurgent religion and non-Western mores will drive conflicts between civilizations.

But what exactly is “the West”?

On the surface, the West is European and Christian, modern and urbanized, and politically at harmony. Yet, we only need to dip below the surface to see that, outside the United States, the West is not Christian any longer. In Europe, even the secular heritage is being swamped by immigrants from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, the Arab States, and Southeast Asia. For the first time since the Ottomans, Europe is besieged by non-Europeans. And the low birth rates among Europeans spell disaster. Marseilles is already a North African city; Paris will be a majority Muslim within decades.

The Western tradition demands we receive those fleeing hardship and persecution. Stopping immigration would present moral as well as political problems. So while Huntington argues the West needs to recognize itself as a civilization and fortify that identity as other civilizations grow stronger, how are we to do so if part of the Christian and European dimension of the West goes under? Will minarets someday rise above Notre Dame as they do at Hagia Sophia?

We Americans like to think oceans and history separate us from European problems. Our situation is different, but not without difficulties. We have, for example, our own version of the struggle of the Turks between secularists and resurgent religion. Our courts have played the Ataturk card, expelling religion from the public square.

Ataturk had some justification, since his country faced chaos. By contrast, we have elites denouncing everything Western and Christian in tones comparable to the most fanatical ayatollah. As the Turks have learned, one consequence of the Ataturk solution is that both sides see any concession as the prelude to cataclysm. Can any civilization long exist if it comes down to a duel to the death between the moral equivalent of the ACLU and fundamentalism? Not here. Perhaps not anywhere.

Robert Royal

By

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)
MENU