It’s an interesting characteristic of Western culture (and maybe of cultures in general) that, over time, we tend to forget exactly why we do the things we do. Of course this is to be expected, as behaviors and preferences become institutionalized over time, making it less important to remember who was the first person to do or say something, and under what authority this was done. The task of the cultural critic, or perhaps more specifically, of the cultural anthropologist, is to look to the past in order to explain the persistence of certain beliefs and patterns of behavior among a group of people with divergent personal preferences. While I’ve always thought this sort of academic exercise as capable of producing ‘cocktail party knowledge,’ one such tidbit of information has come to linger in my thoughts far longer than it should have. In 1059, Pope Urban II called for the universal Church to band together in support of the First Crusade, then being waged against the Seljuk Turks who had since come to occupy the Holy Land. According to Pope Urban, it was the duty of every European Christian male and monarch to regain the Holy Land from the ‘Mohammedans,’ as Europe remained the only place on earth where the message of Christ still held sway. The dichotomy that Urban developed in 1059 has since come to occupy a significant, and surprisingly stable, place in the Western cultural psyche. Put simply, Urban’s cultural formula asserts that Europe is Christian, that the lands of the Mohammedans (what we would call North Africa and the modern day Middle East) are Muslim, and that a strict boundary between the two must be maintained. To most of us, this rings as incongruous to our own ideas about culture that have come to be dominated by the belief that cultural exchange is in itself something to be valued. And yet, this formula continues to influence the ways in which some European’s conceive of Europe, the Middle East, and, most importantly, the relationship between the two. On the eve of the European Union’s granting Turkey ‘candidate’ status, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later to become Pope Benedict XVI) reminded reporters—almost off-handedly—that the Turks “had once come to the gates of Vienna,” a reference to several instances of Ottoman Turk aggression into Western European territory. Pope John Paul II also reminded European officials that “Europe has always been a Christian Europe.” While it would be incorrect to accuse either Ratzinger or the late Pontiff of anti-Muslim sentiments, their comments do hint at the persisting notion that Europe’s identity is rooted in its Christian tradition, an identity that holds little room for the formal acceptance of the ‘other,’ the Muslim. Several noteworthy European cultural historians have also noted that Europe’s identity as a collective whole is itself dependent upon the existence of ‘the other,’ which has for the last ten centuries consistently been the ‘lands of Muhammad.’ It is of little wonder, then, why the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, drew such virulent criticism when he brought up the subject of Muslim Sharia law and its potential place in Western law codes. As smear campaigns usually go, Williams’ critics claimed that the Archbishop had called upon the British government to create parallel legal systems, in which Christians, Jews and Muslims would be judged according to their own religious code. What the Archbishop really said in a speech given before the Royal Courts of Justice was that, as a matter of fact, the British legal system already recognized certain elements of Muslim Sharia law (which informs and orders Muslim social and civic society in accordance with the Koran) . He then went on to explore the ways in which a pluralist society can reasonably accommodate various religious consciences within existing legal structures. While William’s statements may seem innocuous, they nevertheless carried the weight of revolutionary propaganda among the culturally conservative. In essence, Williams issued a direct affront to the notion that Europe and the Middle East continue to exist in diametrically opposed spheres of influence. His speech was a sobering call for policy makers to recognize the growing presence of Muslim communities, and to search for ways of accommodating both their civil and religious conscience–a luxury that, Williams argued, is already offered de facto to Christians and to Jews. Perhaps most importantly, Williams comments shed light on the cultural questions that continue to underlie the relationship between Europe and the Middle East. Though often overlooked, they nevertheless continue to exert significant pressure on the thought processes of various social and political actors. And though he has received a significant amount of backlash and taunting, I for one would like to thank the Archbishop for having the courage to engage in a dialogue about the coexistence of ‘Islam,’ ‘Christendom,’ and the rule of law in the 21st century.

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