By Khaled Diab
A new alliance of Italian, Polish and Hungarian far-right parties promises a renaissance that will make Europe great and Christian again. The trouble is the original Renaissance was not Christian, and Europe has never been better.
Thursday 6 May 2021
In one of those ironies of modern politics, a new pan-European alliance has been formed to undermine the pan-European EU project. It groups together Viktor Orbán and Mateusz Morawiecki, Hungary and Poland's premiers, and former Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini of the Northern League.
The irony did not end there. The three men, none of them a homo universalis or polymath, vowed to set in motion a “European renaissance based on Christian values”. Salvini said the new alliance would “make Europe great again”, presumably by tearing it down.
One challenge for this nascent project to rebirth a continent is that its midwives need to brush up on their history. The original European Renaissance was, if anything, founded on a departure from (medieval) Christian values and any return to them could undo the process.
Intellectually, the Renaissance actually involved the embracing of “pagan” values. Intellectually, the Renaissance was rooted in Greek philosophy and Roman humanitas.
Worse still, for these xenophobic politicians, their dreams of a rebirth rooted in the past would involve them reneging on their promises relating to keeping out Muslims – or “invaders” in the words of Orbán – and defending Europe against Islam.
Claiming that Hungary was the last bastion against the “Islamisation” of Europe, Orbán accused, in 2018, his fellow European leaders of overseeing “the decline of Christian culture”.
Echoing his Hungarian comrade, Salvini warned, in no uncertain terms, in 2019: “If we do not take back control of our roots, Europe will become an Islamic caliphate.”
Now the two men threaten to undo their own work. After all, the European Renaissance they seek to revive relied heavily on the science and philosophy of the Muslim world, as well as the Arabic translations of Greek philosophical works, which European scholars relied on for centuries.
The scientific method, of which these anti-science men are admittedly not huge fans, was invented by Ibn al-Haytham, the father of modern optics. Arabic treatises in astronomy, mathematics, science and medicine were used and taught in Europe for centuries.
And it is not just boring science. There was also cultural Islamisation over many centuries. In fact, today, the fashion industry upon which Italy depends and is so proud, particularly in Salvini's north, would not have existed if not for the outsize influence of one man.
No, I'm not talking about Giorgio Armani or Gianni Versace. I'm referring to Ziryab (born Abul Hassan Ali Ibn Nafie), a medieval singer and hipster who invented fashion seasons, not to mention fine dining, and found time to be a polymath too.
Even some of the most jealously guarded elements of Italian cuisine have Arab influences or carry Arab flavours. Salvini would be horrified by the theory that Italy's beloved pasta may have been introduced, not by Marco Polo returning from his travels in China, but by Muslims in Sicily.
Then there is the devil's own brew. Although Italians happily sip on their light-heartedly named cappuccinos (because they resemble the attire of Capuchin friars), the Italian clergy once regarded coffee as satanic because of the demonic buzz it gave drinkers and because it originated in Muslim lands.
It was not until Pope Clement VIII, as legend would have it, tasted coffee, liked it and decided to baptise it that the ban on coffee in Italy was lifted. Italians may today brew probably the best coffee in the world, but they owe coffee and cafe culture to Arabs and Muslims.
The same goes for Hungary and Poland. Not only was coffee introduced to the two countries mostly by Armenian Christians from the Ottoman empire, the Ottomans influenced the region's cuisine.
Poles and Hungarians also have Muslims to thank for vodka and palinka. Without the distillation technologies and processes developed by medieval Muslim chemists (from the Arabic al-kimia), these spirits would not pack the alcoholic (also another Arabic word) punch they do.
Given the reputation Muslims have in Europe as teetotallers, this religious-sounding ancient quest for the “spirit” of wine is bound to come across as counterintuitive. Part of the reason is that medieval Muslim doctors regarded alcohol as medicinal.
But there was also the recreational aspect. As I explain in a chapter on booze in my book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, Islamic societies have always had a vibrant drinking subculture whose advocates, on a constant search for stronger kicks, would make today's binge drinkers look tame.
What all this demonstrates is that the idea, as popular in Muslim societies as it is in Europe, of a past cultural purity and the quest for a past free of foreign influences is a myth. Every society in the world is a mongrel mix of mostly foreign influences and every society, even the most apparently stable, changes radically over time.
This fiction of past glory is made all the more poignant when contrasted against a present of supposed degeneracy and a future of doom. This enables these far-right politicians to claim the elevated mantle of national saviours, rather than the divisive chancers they really are, who will make Europe “great again”.
Salvini did not explain what he meant by “great”. However, from where I stand, it looks to me that Europe has rarely, if ever, been better.
The world may no longer be Eurocentric, or as Eurocentric as it used to be in days of European empire, but Europe is a better place for it.
Despite widening wealth inequalities, Europe remains the most egalitarian region of the world. Seven of the top 10 most gender-equal countries and all but one of the most economically equal countries are in Europe. The same applies for quality of life, where 9 of the top 10 countries are also in Europe.
This has been facilitated by possibly the longest period of internal peace Europe has known. More remarkable still is that the European integration project is the first time Europe has been unified through the power of democratic choice rather than the edge of a sword and is more successful than any imperial project on the continent.
If the European Union were classed as an empire, its geographical reach of around 4.5 million km² is more than double the size of the Western Roman Empire (2 million km²) and 4.5 the size of the Holy Roman Empire (1 million km²).
Of course, that is not to pretend that today's Europe is ideal. It suffers from numerous internal socioeconomic problems and, despite the official end of colonialism, continues to overconsume the world's resources and disproportionately trash the planet at the expense of poorer societies. However, the solution to Europe's problems does not lie in the past but in the future and it does not lie in insularism but in integrating itself better into the wider world, with all the common challenges humanity faces.
This article first appeared in The New Arab on 30 April 2021.