The west is not a tribe

The West is a capacious and contradictory thing, but it is identifiable. When I was in Cairo, I knew I was outside of it. The West comes from Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Having inherited a religious revelation that bursts into recorded history, sub Pontio Pilato, the West is deeply historically conscious. It says with Constantine, “In this sign, conquer.” At the same time, it has a distinguishing impulse to revere, and even adore, the weak and the outcast, urging, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.” It has the Roman belief in administration as a form of power, and a peculiar romance for rebellion. It is outward-facing and adventurous, like a figure from a Dumas novel, and lately it is also wracked with inward doubt, like a character from Dostoyevsky. Like every other great civilization, it is filled with hypocrisy, and nobility. Capable of monstrous cruelty, and great beauty.

And I’m happy to have the West as an inheritance, blessing and curse that it is. I’m proud that it is the civilization that the Islamic jurist Muhammad Abduh looked upon and paid it the highest compliment he could: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” Even as someone who believes that the pace of migration into Western Europe must slow down, I’m delighted to live in a civilization that people want to enter rather than leave, and I’m delighted that its great conversations and its inner turmoil are understood and shared by people from Puerto Santa Cruz to Minsk, from California to Kinshasa to Aukland. Even if I disagree with Trump about the seriousness of some external threats to our common civilization, I believe that Western civilization is undergoing a deep crisis in its spirit, that it suffers from having lost its faith and also all the hope it had placed in the ideas and ideologies that it used as substitutes for faith. In some ways Trump is symptomatic of the problem. He’s symptomatic of all the trends he condemns. But recovery will be a common civilizational project.

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