We Europeans are in fact in the middle of a difficult argument. We are constantly quarrelling with ourselves over definitions of belonging. We can unite to build an Airbus, but will we really unite around a moral or cultural ideal? What, after all, are the exact historic grounds for European cultural unity? And – this now looks like the continent’s greatest concern – how can Muslims fit in?
Perhaps it helps if we look at Europe’s distant roots. Homer, long ago, told us how Europa, the daughter of the King of Phoenicia, was abducted by Zeus, duly ravished, and borne off to the island of Crete, where she gave birth to the Europeans. There is something emblematic and transgressive about this myth of origin: a Lebanese maiden torn from the breast of Asia and deposited in a corner of the continent which eventually bore her name. The beginning of our story is a violent European raid upon Asia, an unhappy immigration, and a confiscation of identity.
Perhaps we can trace back this far – and Europe’s literature in fact begins with Homer – Europe’s ambiguity about its self and its values. But Europa only finds herself, and discovers the limits of her soul and body, long after this classical prologue. For the Romans, it was the Mediterranean which defined the core of their terrain and their commercial and religious life. Rome equally embraced the European, African and Asian shores of the Middle Sea. But while it saw itself as superior, it rarely sought to impose its philosophy or social values on others. So we will hesitate to accept the common cliché that in our time, ancient history has been reborn: America is Rome, Europe is Athens, while Islam is an endlessly troublesome Judea. Ancient Rome and Athens had no systematic programme of universalizing their values, even within the bounds of their political sway, and still less did they encourage other nations to accept their social beliefs.
When Islam appeared in the seventh century, the African and Asian shores were lost. Thrown back on its own resources, Europe sought to define itself, then as now, as the prolongation of the rather small remnant of antiquity that the Saracens missed. From that time on, it developed ideas of its unique and universal social rightness.