Western Civilisation In Crisis


Do we know what we mean by the crisis of Western civilisation? After all, people have been agonising about civilisation for almost as long as it has existed. Decline and decay were popular themes of the Greek and Roman poets and philosophers, and for that matter their counterparts in China and India too. The Hebrew Bible too has its lamentations and jeremiads: “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow!” Jerusalem, as the prophet’s words remind us, has been through more vicissitudes than any other city on earth. The modern State of Israel was right to insist that undivided Jerusalem must be its capital, but in coming to the widow’s rescue and making her a bride again, Israel has focused the world’s attention upon itself — not to mention the insane jealousy of the other suitors. The Palestinians and their supporters won’t accept the status quo, however fairly Israel administers it, because what is really at stake here is much more than a holy city: it is the symbol of our Judaeo-Christian civilisation. The loss of Israel’s control over Jerusalem would signify the impending collapse, not just of the Jewish state but of that civilisation. Why? Not for reasons of political theology, but because Jerusalem, undivided and open to those of all religions and none, is a bastion of the free world. Israel, at once the most ancient and the most modern nation state, has become the front line of Western civilisation, whether or not the West chooses to acknowledge that fact.


What, though, do we mean by Western civilisation? We can list its unique combination of values and distinctive characteristics, as Samuel Huntingdon for example does in his 1996 essay “The West: Unique, not Universal”. Huntingdon argues that what makes the West unique are not recent phenomena, such as modern technology, but cultural factors which had been at work long before modernisation began some two centuries ago: the Classical legacy of Greece and Rome; Western Christianity, with its separation of church and state; the multiplicity of European languages, subordinate to a lingua franca among the educated elite (first Latin, then French, now English); the rule of law, not arbitrary authority; social pluralism and civil society; representative bodies, latterly democratic in form; finally, individualism and individual freedom. Huntingdon’s point is that there is nothing universal about this unique set of values, traditions and institutions; there is no reason to expect other civilisations to adopt all or any of them, merely because they are eager to benefit from the technological or commercial fruits of Western capitalism.

Other scholars would come up with a slightly different list, or at least place them in a different order of importance. For example, some would undoubtedly attribute less significance to Christianity than does Huntingdon, who rates religious factors more highly than secular ones. Earlier writers gave rather different reasons for the domination of the West. Henry Thomas Buckle, in his hugely influential History of Civilisation in England of 1858, claimed to have established two facts: “The first fact is, that in the civilisations out of Europe the powers of nature have been far greater than in those in Europe. The second fact is, that those powers have worked immense mischief . . . The tendency has been, in Europe, to subordinate nature to man; out of Europe, to subordinate man to nature.” A few years earlier in 1854, Leopold von Ranke gave a series of private lectures to King Maximillian II of Bavaria “On the Epochs of Modern History”. Ranke — by then recognised not only as a pioneer of historical methodology but as a historian of universal range — rejected the notion of progress, if by that was meant that each generation was superior to the last. “I maintain, rather, that each epoch is immediate to God, and its value does not consist in what emerges from it, but in its own existence, in itself.” Here we have two contrasting views of the history of civilisation: the free thinker Buckle sees European civilisation — in which he includes the United States — as clearly and inevitably superior to all others, by virtue of its subordination of nature to humanity; while the Lutheran Ranke sees history as the unfolding of an unknown and unknowable divine plan, in which each civilisation has equal value before God. Historicists later took Ranke’s argument further, abandoning its religious motivation in order to claim that all values are incommensurable. Over time, the cultural relativists of today have adopted a kind of uncertainty principle which they interpret to mean that no moral judgments or comparisons between civilisations are legitimate. Indeed, the thesis of Edward Said — that Western civilisation stands convicted of the original sin of “orientalism”, thereby consciously or unconsciously devaluing other civilisations — has been widely taken to mean that the West not only has no claim to superiority, but is in fact irredeemably inferior to all other civilisations, at least in a moral sense. The fact that many people in the West, especially in the academic world, but by osmosis throughout the culture, harbour a prejudice against their own societies, is not without broader significance in the crisis of civilisation to which we now turn.

To see what is at stake, let us consider more concretely the nature of Western civilisation. What do I see as I look around my sitting room at home in London? A portrait of Beethoven, above a Bechstein piano, both from the same century as the composer — so music, then, and not any old music either. As that lifelong pianist Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI remarked, “Western music is something unique, which has no equal in other cultures. And this — it seems to me — should make us think.” For Benedict, music is born of “an encounter with truth, with the true Creator of the world”. To the left of Beethoven, I see a picture of Canterbury Cathedral, drawn about a century ago by my grandfather, a professional artist who was head of an art school in the Potteries, near the heartland of industrial England and thus of global capitalism. Canterbury connects us with the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity one and a half millennia ago, and also with the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in 1170, a landmark in the separation of Church and state. To the right of the piano is a Francesco Piranesi engraving depicting the excavation of Pompeii: at once a matchless, almost romantic evocation of Roman antiquity, and an expression of the Enlightenment’s insatiable curiosity about the past. Among the many other pictures around the room are prints and watercolours of Oxford, images of Goethe in Weimar and Rome, the French Encylopedists, Expressionist lithographs and etchings by Kubin, Kollwitz and Steiner-Prag, drawings attributed to Joseph Wright of Derby and Gainsborough, a portrait of my mother by the late Matthew Carr, and two Rembrandt prints. One, engraved by G.F. Schmidt in 1768 and dedicated to Frederick the Great’s personal physician, Dr Lesser, shows a dejected Jeremiah; behind him, Jerusalem is in flames. The other, an etching by Rembrandt himself, shows three oriental figures deep in conversation; one of them is reputed to be the patriarch Jacob, another is his uncle Laban, who is perhaps remonstrating with his son-in-law about the terms of their covenant. A woman is looking at the three men through a door on the left: could she be one of Laban’s daughters, Leah or Rachel, both of whom married Jacob? We do not know. But there is no doubting Rembrandt’s ability to bring the biblical scene to animated life: this is how Western civilisation recalls its origins in the exile and the exodus.

Then there are the books: philosophy from Aristotle to Wittgenstein, theology from Aquinas to the Zohar, first editions of Marx and Freud, Buber and Rosenzweig, and so on, in bookcases surrounding a wooden statuette of William Pitt the Younger. Our little effigy, inherited from my grandparents, is a maquette by the sculptor Joseph Nollekens for his life-size statue of Pitt at Pembroke College, Cambridge. What has Pitt to do with civilisation? Prime Minister at 24, dead at 45, he was the statesman who paved the way for Napoleon’s defeat, thereby saving not only Europe from tyranny, but the Middle East too. If Nelson hadn’t scuppered Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt at the Battle of the Nile, we would almost certainly now be speaking French. Pitt wasn’t perfect, however. His last words were not, as the official biographer Stanhope claimed: “Oh, my country! How I leave my country.” According to Disraeli, who heard it as a young man from a servant who had been present at his death, they were: “I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s meat pies.” Oh yes, and Pitt also invented income tax.


I am describing my little corner of our civilisation, not to boast, but to make the point that it is all around us — but in Britain we are mostly unaware of how deeply rooted in Western habits of thought we are. In Israel, where Occidental and Oriental civilisations collide and combine, such habits are more starkly illuminated against a background of implacable hostility.

An example of what I mean comes in a review in the Guardian of an exhibition at the British Museum, Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs. The author, the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, praises the BM for presenting Egypt as a kind of multicultural paradise in which Muslims, Christians and Jews lived happily together until Western colonial powers destroyed this idyll. She denounces President Sisi, who was on a visit to London at the time and who advocates a Muslim reformation, without mentioning the lethal intolerance fostered by the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood, but her real target is, of course, Zionism. As she walks round the exhibition, she is really looking at something else: her Palestinian friends are bombarding her phone from Jerusalem: “Images of dead boys and girls come in all day long.” Soueif is not talking about Israeli civilian victims, but the terrorists who have attacked them and been shot. She then launches into a tirade against the Balfour Declaration: “Why did old-style British colonialism, with its last bit of strength, drive wedges round the heart of the region and say: here — against the tradition of 2,000 years of history — here there will be a homeland for a people of only one religion?” Thus Israel, still a century later the only country in the Middle East that is genuinely tolerant of all three faiths, is demonised as the cuckoo in the nest. She claims that Palestinians “welcomed” Jewish refugees without mentioning the Arab pogroms and revolts between 1929 and 1939, which killed many hundreds of Jews, or the Grand Mufti’s genocidal scheming with the Nazis. Then she comes to the expropriation, expulsion and murder of 80,000 Egyptian Jews under Nasser — and blames Israel for “political events that tore the Jews out of the fabric of Egypt”.

Soueif’s indictment of Israel as the spearhead of the West culminates in a fantasy, prompted by an image of an Egyptian Christian saint triumphing over paganism, that feeds into one of the most poisonous of the conspiracy theories promoted by the Palestinian Authority throughout the Muslim world. “Early on in the exhibition,” she writes, “there is a sixth-century manuscript fragment of Theophilus of Alexandria triumphantly sitting on top of the Temple of Serapis with the god still inside — and into my head immediately came an image I saw in Jerusalem: a glass display case, inside it a large model of the imagined Third Temple. The case is positioned so you can, if you wish, gaze through it to the Dome of the Rock and imagine the seventh-century building razed to the ground, the Temple rising in its place. What will be the cost of that event, that sounds so outlandish but draws closer by the day?”

Pause for a moment and consider what this Western-educated Egyptian intellectual is writing in the Western world’s largest-circulation liberal newspaper? (The Guardian is now more widely read online than even the New York Times.) Using the British Museum — probably the world’s greatest single collection of antiquities from all civilisations — as a blunt instrument, Ahdaf Soueif is deliberately driving a wedge (to use her metaphor) between the Jewish state and — well, everybody else. She is not appealing to Muslims as such, but speaking as one secular leftist to another. Her fantasy about Israelis demolishing the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to build a Third Temple fits into an anti-Semitic and anti-Western narrative that conveniently ignores the reality that Islamists in Syria and Iraq are systematically demolishing the ruins of entire ancient cities once inhabited by non-Muslims. There have been protests in the West, notably about the destruction of Palmyra, but from the Muslim world — a suffocating silence. It was the same story when the Taliban destroyed the statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan. Other branches of Islam are not immune to such vandalism: Islamic State has destroyed more than a hundred Shia and Sufi shrines and mosques in Syria alone. And of course churches and synagogues have long been targets even in supposedly moderate Muslim countries such as Egypt or Turkey. There is no parallel to Islam’s industrial-scale iconoclasm in modern Judaism, but the false claim that Israel secretly threatens the Muslim holy places on Temple Mount has acquired a mythology that, not unlike the claim that Israel deliberately engineered 9/11, continually resurfaces.

This is just one example of how defenders of Western civilisation often find themselves fighting phantoms. These enemies are legion, but rarely do they come into the open, as IS has done. More often, they turn our own creations against us: human rights lobbyists, international courts, the United Nations, the European Union, NGOs, the Internet and social media, churches and other faith organisations — the list goes on. But the problem runs deeper than that. The West will never be defeated by its external enemies, only by internal ones. And what gives the enemy within a real chance of vanquishing the most powerful civilisation on earth is that the West is losing faith in itself, in its values and its virtues. Under the relentless assault of their own intellectual elites on both sides of the Atlantic, Western nations are losing confidence in the justice of their own cause. Some have even lost the will to survive.


Much may be learned from previous occasions when Western civilisation looked into the abyss. The period of the Second World War and the Shoah was certainly one such occasion. Already in 1938, the Austro-Hungarian émigré Aurel Kolnai had published a seminal work, The War against the West, which correctly analysed Nazi ideology as the negation of Western civilisation. Churchill spoke similarly during the Battle of Britain. In his propaganda, Goebbels constantly jeered at the decadence of the English and Americans; what strikes us today, though, is not the decline of the West but the debasement of the rest. Take the oldest institution of all, the Catholic Church: from Pope Pius XII down, the vast majority of bishops and clergy obeyed too literally the commandment to render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s. The Church’s attitude to the Jews of Nazi occupied Europe remains highly contentious to this day, but there could be no escaping the shameful history of anti-Judaism that had enabled millions of German and other Catholics to salve their consciences while participating, actively or passively, in the Shoah. A necessary process of self-scrutiny began after 1945, culminating in the document Nostra Aetate, promulgated by the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago. The credit for the volte-face is shared equally between a handful of visionary Catholics, led by Pope John XXII, and a number of Jews, led by the Holocaust survivor and historian Jules Isaac, and especially Jewish converts, without whom the transformation of Jews in the eyes of Catholics “from enemy to brother” (the title of the definitive study by John Connelly) could not have happened. Nostra Aetate marked a radical reversal of previous Catholic teaching on other faiths, and particularly on Judaism. It abolished the “doctrine of contempt” — especially the notion of collective Jewish guilt for deicide, by which the Jewish people as a whole had been held responsible for the death of Jesus Christ — and replaced it with an acknowledgement that God could never break His covenant with the people of Israel. Nostra Aetate was not the end of Judaeo-Christian reconciliation, but the beginning: recent Popes have all deepened the dialogue between Catholics and Jews in unprecedented ways, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that this process offers a model for possible overtures towards Islam.

Certainly the Catholic-Jewish rapprochement shows that, with goodwill on both sides, old wounds can heal. The problem is, firstly, that the West finds few interlocutors among the leading Muslim clerics; second, that the penitential impulse, the intense desire among post-Holocaust Catholics to make amends for past wrongs, is absent from the relationship between Islam and the West; and third, that despite their differences Catholics and Jews have always belonged to the same spiritual family — as when John Paul II spoke of Jews as “our elder brothers”, or Benedict XVI condemned Christian conversion of Jews, or Francis commemorated Nostra Aetate by stating unequivocally: “To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism.” It is very hard to imagine authoritative spokesmen for Islam, such as Sheikh Qaradawi and other imams from the Al-Azhar University in Cairo for the Sunni, or the Grand Ayatollahs of Iran for the Shia, reaching out to Jews or Christians in a similar manner. Rabbi Sacks has eloquently set out the theological case for confronting religious violence in his book Not in God’s Name (Hodder & Stoughton, £20), but however warmly his Christian counterparts may espouse his arguments, on the Muslim side there has only been silence.


Many expected the civilisational gulf between Islam and the West to be bridged by the rapidly growing Muslim minorities in Europe and elsewhere. That some still nurture this hope despite the experience of the past 15 years explains why politicians have been so out of touch with public opinion during the present migration crisis. As Christopher Caldwell describes the scenes all over southern and central Europe, as thousands of refugees arrive every day, it does not seem to bother those in charge that the “native population” never signed up for this influx. One of the consequences is that the right to resist or even to object is eroded — in Austria, for example, the reluctance of local communities to accommodate large new populations of refugees has been overruled by central authorities. This is even happening at the national level, with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel imposing her will on the smaller European countries that lie in the path of the human tsunami, and even offering to bribe Turkey to slow down the flow with the offer of EU membership, thereby helping the ruthless Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to win an election that may pave the way to an Islamist dictatorship, and opening up the prospect of up to 80 million Turks gaining the right to move anywhere in Europe.

There are competing conceptions of what makes Western civilisation both Western and civilised, but none of them sits comfortably with demographic and cultural change on the scale and at the speed that is now taking place, even if parallels with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire still seem exaggerated. In Edward Gibbon’s great History, he famously imagines what might have been, but for the Frankish victory against the invading Arab armies at Poitiers in 752, when “the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.” After a visit to Oxford the American Muslim academic Muqtedar Khan remarked on the grandeur of the Islamic Centre — which dwarfs Gibbon’s (and my) old Oxford college, Magdalen, next door — and other mosques and minarets rising in Oxford today: “Gibbon would have been surprised to learn the lesson that military defeats do not stop the advance of civilisations and the globalisation of Islam is unimpeded by the material and military weaknesses of the Muslim world.” It is not altogether reassuring that the Saudi government has promised to pay for hundreds of new mosques in Germany for the millions of Muslim migrants now flooding in. Yet few expect the Germans to refuse permission for such spiritual colonisation, any more than the British have halted Saudi funding for mosques or schools, despite their radical influence. The Germans have a long history of close ties with radical Islam. It was, after all, in 1950s Munich that the Muslim Brotherhood, with the help of the CIA and an ex-Nazi spymaster, established an Islamic Centre that became the first bridgehead of Islamism in Western Europe.
Perhaps most striking, yet little noticed, about the European and American handling of the migration crisis is the low priority given to resettling Christians and other minorities who have been persecuted and displaced by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. In the words of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, “the Christian community has once again been left at the bottom of the heap.” They, like the Yazidis, have been excluded from UN-controlled refugee camps in neighbouring countries because they fear murder or kidnapping by Islamists there. So the US and British policy of hand-picking its asylum-seekers from the camps, rather than from those who pay people traffickers to get them to Europe, inadvertently discriminates against Christians. The State Department and the Foreign Office have so far ignored protests about such discrimination. As a result, comparatively few Christian refugees have so far been given asylum in the West, even though their prospects of integration are much better than those of Muslims and they are unlikely to pose a potential terrorist threat. Why have Christians been given such a low priority? And why have politicians who call for them to be given preferential treatment been denounced? Nobody would object if Muslim countries gave priority to Muslim refugees (though in practice only the immediate neighbours of Syria — Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — have taken substantial numbers of refugees at all).


In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI and the distinguished Italian statesman Marcello Pera published a book, introduced by George Weigel: Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam. This slightly incongruous duo — the Catholic pontiff and the atheist President of the Italian Senate — found that they could agree on the need to reaffirm the necessity of Judaeo-Christian values in a secular world. They also agreed, however, that (in the Pope’s words) “Europe’s value system, culture, and faith — in other words, the very foundation of its identity — have reached the end of the road and indeed have already departed from the scene” and that Western self-hatred is “nothing short of pathological”. When it comes to Islamic terrorists and their war against “Jews and crusaders”, Pera asks: “Do the Church and Europe realise that their very existence is at stake, their civilisation has been targeted, their culture is under attack?” He answers his own question in the negative, adding that “relativism, after teaching that all cultures and civilisations are equal, makes the contradictory insinuation that our culture and our civilisation are worse than others.”

Europe was the first region to create what we now think of as Western civilisation. Will Europe be the first to renounce that civilisation? Not being a prophet, I have no idea. But I do know that the crisis of Western civilisation, its loss of roots and identity, will afflict us for a long time to come. To survive, our civilisation will have to adapt — even reinvent itself — as it has done before. It must change in order to remain the same. People speak of the “values” of our civilisation, to which we adhere, or not, as the case may be. The language of values comes from German philosophy — in particular from Max Scheler, a Catholic thinker of Jewish origin, whose works deeply influenced St John Paul II, the Polish Pope. Scheler placed love at the apex of his hierarchy of values, and the highest value of all was divine love — “the eternal in man”. Western civilisation has no meaning without these eternal values, but Pera’s idea of a “civil religion”, acceptable to both secularists and Christians, does at least provide the common ground upon which we could begin to rebuild our identity. The Western values that will emerge must at once be very old and entirely new, proof against the ravages of relativism but also opening up a horizon that is not overshadowed by death, but restores to life its value sub specie aeternitatis. As Franz Rosenzweig demonstrates in The Star of Redemption, Christian and Jewish interpretations of God are not mutually exclusive but complementary, just as atheist and theist world views may happily coexist as long as both subscribe to a secularism that allows faith to flourish in the public square.


God, Nature, Humanity: we need to find space for all three in any civilisation worth the name. But we also need to regain a sense of awe at the sublime and the beautiful in creation, a feeling of jubilation at triumph of good over evil, and a confidence in the truth, justice and righteousness of our cause. An inspiring example of all three is the Cantata 50 by Johann Sebastian Bach. This fragmentary work consists of one mighty fugue for double choir and orchestra, set to a text from the Book of Revelation for the Feast of St Michael the Archangel. Christians see Michael as the ultimate superhero who defeats Satan and his angels in a cosmic battle that ends with the Devil cast out of heaven. A copy of the famous depiction of this scene by Guido Reni hung in my father’s office at the New Statesman when I was a boy; it now adorns his studio. Michael also figures in the Book of Daniel, where an angel tells the prophet about “the great prince who protects your people” in the end times. So Michael unites Jews and Christians as an inspiring figure, whom Bach celebrates with the words attributed in Revelation 12:10 to “a loud voice in heaven”, saying: “Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.” The German text reads: Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft und das Reich und die Macht unsers Gottes seines Christus worden, weil der verworfen ist, der sie verklagete Tag und Nacht vor Gott. Luther’s German translation includes old words, abused by the Nazis — “Heil”, or salvation, and “Reich”, or kingdom. These words bear a heavy burden of history of which here in Jerusalem we are especially conscious. Luther’s sense also differs slightly from the King James Bible’s English translation; but both agree in seeing Satan as “that old serpent . . . which deceiveth the whole world”. And so we may properly describe the defence of Western civilisation as a battle for truth against lies. Whether we see Michael as the defender of Jews or as the defender of Christians, we can unite in invoking him, with Bach, in the defence of the truth. For in our time truth must be defended not only against falsehood, but also against relativism — against those nihilists who deny that truth exists. The most important value in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is truth. It is by making a point of standing up for the truth, by making fidelity to truth the standpoint from which to judge our actions, that we may best defend — and embody — Western civilisation.

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