Recently, against the sound of dominoes falling across the euro zone, I participated in a BBC radio discussion about the “Idea of Europe”: Specifically, could the notion of the continent as the home of democracy and reason survive the economic crises convulsing one country after another?

Oddly, my fellow participants, including Slavoj Zizek, who identified himself as a “radical leftist,” seemed to assume the existence of one “idea” of Europe -- as distinct from many ideas of Europe that include, in Asian eyes at least, imperialism as well as liberal democracy, racial and religious intolerance as well as individual liberties.

For what we think of Europe is shaped by our particular historical and political circumstances. The Indian economist Amartya Sen, among others, has argued convincingly for traditions of democracy and reason in non-Western societies.

The idea of Europe is periodically revised within the continent itself. Wishing to pin down Muslims as Europe’s unassimilable “other,” the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy claimed that France’s roots were “essentially Christian” -- as close to blasphemy as you can get in a country that purports to be the product of the secular Enlightenment.

Visiting Alhambra

Walking through the palaces and gardens of the Alhambra a few days after the BBC discussion, I marveled at the thoroughness with which a Europe determined to identify itself as Christian had expunged the long centuries of Islam from its past. Spain’s greatest modern thinkers, Jose Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno, presented Islam as an unfortunate irruption in the history of Europe, vigorously denying any Arab contributions to European culture.

This decontaminated idea of European culture barely existed before the invention of modern historiography in the 19th century; there was Christendom, but no Europe. It was the scholarly discovery of the classical past -- Athens and Greece - - combined with the political and philosophical breakthroughs of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution that first made Europe appear the originator of such virtues as modern democracy and scientific rationality.

The expansion of Spanish and Portuguese, and then British, French and Dutch empires across Asia, Africa and Latin America seemed to attest European claims to moral, intellectual and political pre-eminence.

Such self-perceptions did not survive Europe’s fratricidal 20th century. Liberal democracy was under stress in Europe for much of the century’s first half; the mechanized slaughter of an extraordinarily gifted and fruitful minority made scientific rationality itself seem dubious.

By diminishing Europe’s power, the two wars also destroyed its claims to moral leadership. That role passed, along with many thankless imperial duties, to the U.S.

The Mexican poet and thinker Octavio Paz could write in the late 1940s, “Europe, once a storehouse of ready-to-use ideas, now lives as we do, from day to day. Strictly speaking, the modern world no longer possesses any ideas.” Jean-Paul Sartre was harsher. Europe, he claimed, “is springing leaks everywhere. What then has happened? It is simply that in the past we made history and now it is being made of us.”

Unknown to Paz and Sartre, Europe, assisted by the U.S., was embarking upon a remarkable period of political and socioeconomic reconstruction.

Taking Liberties

To be sure, the idea of Europe we talk about so confidently, as the guarantor of individual liberty, is a post-World War II construct. It is an ideological notion, outlined vis-a-vis the “free” world’s common enemy in the Cold War, totalitarian communism.

Nevertheless, it has a great deal of truth in it. Spain and Portugal were far from democracy and closer to Third World despotisms until the 1970s. Parts of rural Italy, Spain and Portugal actually looked like the Third World. But by the 1990s the rights of women, factory workers and sexual minorities were never as secure as in the U.K., France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries.

Those of us in war-scarred parts of Asia could only marvel at the peace between Germany and France after centuries of bloody conflict. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and the establishment of the European Union seemed a major leap forward. The EU seemed a logical model, for instance, for South Asia, whose fractious new nation-states had sundered centuries-old cultural and economic links between the subcontinent’s different regions.

We didn’t know then about the rickety basis for Europe’s economic union, created by unelected technocrats and enforced by faceless bondholders. We were deceived, too, by Europe’s apparent prosperity, and failed to enquire into its sources: The streets below the Alhambra, I discovered last week, have many more credit-lavishing and now imperiled banks than churches.

In any case, the rise or fall of the euro should not obscure the continent’s longstanding political and moral challenge: how to accommodate social and cultural difference.

Europe’s record on this score was extremely poor well before the atrocities of the 20th century. Its most eager imitators in Asia -- Anglophile Indians or Francophile Vietnamese -- quickly found themselves up against racial and religious barriers. Permanent inferiority seemed the fate of even the Japanese, the quickest and keenest among Asians to adopt the ostensibly superior and rational laws and institutions of European civilization. More recently, the Turks have known the bitter failure of non-Europeans trying to break into Europe’s racially exclusive club.

Minority Report

But how will Europe cope with the many non-Western minorities it already contains, many of these originally brought as cheap labor from countries it once ruled? It has been bewildering, and dispiriting, to see not only right-wing extremists but also many liberal politicians and intellectuals in Europe flirt with a majoritarian nationalism, recoiling from what by Indian standards at least seems an extremely limited experience of social diversity and political extremism.

Mixed populations are of course inevitable in the West, given the declining birth rates in many European countries, not to mention the need for cheap labor. And political elites will have to find new ways to deal with altered demography.

But they have been locked into a game of political one-upmanship: Who can get more votes by stoking anti-immigrant anxieties? Thus the platitudinous rhetoric -- from Angela Merkel to David Cameron -- about various European and/or national “values,” which when clearly defined -- fair-play, decency, tolerance -- turn out to be no different from the values upheld by most people anywhere in the world.

As the 1920 and 1930s showed dismally, economic crises are a minority-bashing time. European societies will be judged once more on how they treat their weakest members -- whether minorities will yet again be made scapegoats for national humiliation and individual failure.

What then of the singular idea of Europe? Is there one? Certainly, as the continent lurches from one bailout to another, and moves, as Sartre predicted, from being the maker of history to being its object, its exceptionalism seems no less an exaggeration as the one on the Mercator map that made the continent look much bigger than it is.

The provincializing of Europe is well under way. And Octavio Paz may have been right, after all. Like the rest of us, Europe will have to live from day to day, pragmatically improvising temporary solutions to what seem like permanent problems.

(Pankaj Mishra, whose new book, “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” will be published in August, is a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra at pmashobra@gmail.com.

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