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May 14, 2021

Europe and the crisis

It’s been over half a millennium since the Christian Constantinople fell into the hands of the Ottomans. It was not the first time the Byzantine Empire was being threatened by conquest and disappearance during its millennium of existence. The Turks’ Muslim predecessors, the Arab, came one step away centuries before. Those are the roots of a still unextinguished conflict in history, between Christian AND Muslim powers, a conflict that keeps redrawing geopolitical borderlines. Not only did the Arab become the masters of the various Asian and African Christian communities established during the old Roman civilisation, but they actually entered Europe, governing the Iberian Peninsula for the while and threatening France. The Ottomans, in their turn, conquered the South-East of Europe, going all the way up to the gates of Vienna. Later on, the European powers built on the ruins of the old Muslim powers, their own colonies and protectorates.

Decolonisation was difficult, often turning into bloodshed on both sides. The recrudescence of militant Islamism groups in the recent years has brought a millennial conflict back to life. ‘We are not fighting with the Islam’, the US president reiterated recently, commenting on their new military campaign, but his position, diplomatic in principle, is not embraced by all Westerners. On the same occasion, he explicitly declined Samuel Huntigton’s perspective, whose theory on the ‘clash of civilisations’ had provided a strong argument to Neo-Conservatory ideology of the regime of President Bush Jr. Nonetheless, looking beyond the validity of such strategic analyses, there is a notable cultural European tradition, based on the political theology of Christian superiority, especially to the Islam. After all, most of Romanians’ national historic pride is based on the wars fought by our medieval rulers in the name of the ‘Cross’ against the Muslim Turks. But beyond the nostalgic romantics who dream of anachronical heroism and the fishers in troubled waters who watch out for violence outbursts, there are the people who wonder just jus valid today’s multicultural ecumenism still is. Looking at the current state of play of French Catholicism, Alain Besancon was mentioning a few years ago the insidious fascination represented by the Islam in a country where the Christian belief has been in a regress for centuries. And, to make a historical analogy, he explains the failure of Byzantium in front of the Islam by its contradictions of civilisation and theological strive. Such refined analyses may be seductive, but they can often be treacherous, too. Anyway, they do speak about a matter that, before being a geopolitical one, is inherent to Western couture. Especially to the European culture. For the dispute over Europe’s Christian ‘roots’ cannot be settled through a political debate of circumstance. Let us take an example from an already set world. Magyar writer Ferencz Herczeg was releasing in 1904 a drama called ‘Byzantium’, on the fall of Constantinople. Only a few years alter, his drama was seen as a prophecy of the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, explained by the author as the denouement of a period of moral decadence. Herczeg was a conservative, and his followers today believe we are facing a major crisis coming from the progressive de-Christening of our civilisation. That is also proved by the transformation of the century-old drama into a contemporary lyric piece, currently mounted on stage in Cluj. The composer, György Selmeczi, explicitly invokes the crisis of Europe with transparent references to the Islamic threat. Even the scenographic geometry symbolically suggests the ‘fall’ of an ascending diagonal (politically and spiritually) of the ‘city’, which, in the end, will break. The correspondent of the ascending line is another line, which leads down into hell. An apparently cheerful hell, suggested not just by a ‘brothel in flames’ – a classic image of conservative imagery – , but also a society of the show, once criticised solely from the point of view of the anti-capitalist Left. What’s interesting about Selmeczi’s work compared to more classic pieces is the muting of voices in relation to instrumental music, which is given a more obvious, almost soloist role. After all, this decisive musical ‘commentary’ – behind the stylistics one can sense the long experience of the composer as a film music writer – filling the part of antique tragedy chorus, corresponds to an outlook on History where the protagonists are pawns in a script that exceeds them. But, as the last part, where ‘voices’ gain back their aplomb, sows this prolonged ‘prologue’ serves to highlight the ‘heroic’ role of the personality who tries, even if in vain, to resist ‘blind fate’. It is definitely a view, and not because it privileges the value of human decision and action, but because it mythicises the image of heroism. We end up by asking ourselves how ‘Christian’ our heroes are and how Christian heroism should be understood, because, otherwise we risk using Christian colours in illustrating questionable heroism. In Herczeg’s drama only the Genovese mercenaries are loyal to the Byzantine emperor, the Orthodox patriarch himself being at the heart of plots. There is also a historical truth in that, because the Orthodox leaders had come to prefer a Muslim power to the scorned Catholic influence, rejected as ‘heretical’.
If we look for the signs of European weakness, it may be a more responsible thing to analyse the immanent validity of our civilisation, to lucidly asses the costs and benefits brought by Christianity historically speaking, not to rush to either discard Christian tradition or decline competing values. The crisis of a civilisation is not equal to a condition of decadence compared to a claimed ‘flourishing’ period. One has to relativise crises, refusing facile catastrophic interpretations, and treat them with more lucidity.

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