What Is Behind Europe's Rising Islamophobia?

A participant of a rally called 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West' (PEGIDA) holds a hand lantern and
A participant of a rally called 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West' (PEGIDA) holds a hand lantern and sings during a demonstration entitled ‘Christmas With Pegida’ between the bronze equestrian statue of King John of Saxony, left, and the Dresden Cathedral, or the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, in Dresden, eastern Germany, Monday, Dec. 22, 2014. For the past ten weeks, activists protesting Germany’s immigration policy and the spread of Islam in the West have been marching each Monday. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

BERLIN -- Recent arson attacks on mosques in Germany and Sweden, along with the emergence of a movement called the "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident," prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to deliver a "never again" New Year's message to her compatriots in anticipation of Monday's demonstrations in Dresden. Warning against supporting PEGIDA, she said "their hearts are cold, often full of prejudice and even hate."

What is behind this most recent aggressive burst of anti-Islamic sentiment? How should we view it?

The landmass of the Occident spans the territory of many countries; its meaning becomes apparent only in juxtaposition to its counterpart, the Orient. It has more frequently perished in countless texts, speeches and films than all actually existing empires throughout human history combined. In short: The Occident is a fiction -- and that quality has always made it a powerful canvas for the projection of human fears and desires.

The Occident lies towards the Western sunset. Its lands are those of nightfall: heavy, full of melancholy, straining for the final rays of daylight, and hesitantly expecting the pale light of the rising moon. During the Middle Ages, stone-carved creatures of the imagination flanked the walls of Europe's cathedrals and conjured up images of nightly evils: When night falls, darkness envelops the souls of men and threatens them with extinction. The hour of sunset signals the advent of corporeal and spiritual danger. It takes tremendous power to hold demons at bay and to weather the temptations of the night. Two paradigms thus help to map the terrain of the Occident: the fear of darkness, and the belief in the divine light.

Christian churches are built with East-facing chancel windows; on Easter Sunday, the first daylight enters through the colored glass and bathes the barren nave in celebratory light. The organ intones, and the church bells ring out: He Has Risen. Indeed, the liturgy of Easter Sunday presents us with the most condensed enactment of the Occidental yearning for light, for another day, and for triumph over the demons of darkness. Ex oriente lux -- the sun rises in the East. That's why Europeans have always looked longingly beyond their horizon: Towards the East, towards Jerusalem.

The Occident became conscious of itself as a unified entity when Jerusalem fell to Islamic conquest. The longing for Jerusalem was thus also a longing for order and unity at home: One emperor, one pope, one center and one horizon that provided order to the world. At that time, the Occident was still being formed from the rubble of the Roman Empire, and forged during the tumultuous centuries of the migration of the peoples. "Alemannic" -- which is the etymological ancestor of the term "German" in romance languages -- simply means "all men." The longing for Jerusalem unified the Occident's diverse cultures for the first time.

Once again, we can look towards medieval cathedrals for architectural indicators of shared cultural sentiments: The domes of Europe's great cathedrals were shaped to resemble the imagined cityscape of worldly Jerusalem; their spires pointed towards heavenly Jerusalem. Christianity became the unifying identity of the Occident.


But unity remained fragile. New dangers lurked nearby, especially at the borders. From the South, Muslim armies threatened the continent. From the North, Normans invaded. Later came the Huns, then the Turks (whose conquest was only stopped at the gates of Vienna). Southern Spain remained in Muslim hands for centuries. Rome, the caput mundi, continued to be an attractive target for invaders from the Orient. The Occidental fears became manifest -- sometimes obsessively so -- in fears of Islam. For centuries, the religious competitor to the East robbed European emperors and popes of their sleep. Over time, Islamophobia became part of the collective consciousness of the Occident.

What is feared today is not the loss of any particular country to foreign conquest, but the loss of an imagined entity that binds us together. The Occident is a central piece of our mental maps and our cultural inventory. That's one reason why seemingly everyone from "the Old World" has at least an instinctual opinion about it. People harbor within themselves a sense of shared meaning -- the semantic sediments of the Occident.

When those opinions are voiced, they often fall short by the standards of reason and academic science. They are instead informed, in a very visceral sense, by fears of decline and by memories of cultural blossoming. Those fears culminate in the belief that our cathedrals will eventually turn into mosques, that their bells will fall silent and will be replaced by the cries of the muezzin. But fears lead to hyperbole. Let us remember that foreign conquests have failed for many centuries (and not for lack of trying!), and thus proclaim with conviction that danger can be averted again.

Fear of decline, and the celebration of an imagined unity: Those are the parameters that govern contemporary discourses about the Occident -- not as arguments but as discursive foundations. Indeed, the Occident is as much a fiction as the Orient. Both terms reflect the wishes, dreams and aspirations of our forefathers. They were shaped in earlier epochs over the course of generations and centuries.

The history of the Occident is not unlike the history of a cathedral: Every generation has tinkered with the structure and amended it. The foundations were set down during the time of Charlemagne, the aisles were added during Romanticism, a new spire was built during the Gothic period, ornate chapels appeared during the Baroque era. When fire struck, it was rebuilt. It had to be: How could a city exist without its central reference point?

The time of dusk: Fever, madness, gloriole, hyperbole. Death appears imminent until the rise of dawn. In old hymns, sleep is recast as the antechamber of death. No wonder, then, that religious pathologies and political and religious ideologies have repeatedly swept across the continent. Their danger remains acute. But to the arsonists I say: The Occident has never been able to sustain itself. It always required the light of the Orient as inspiration and an external reference point.

"The Occident has never been able to sustain itself. It always required the light of the Orient as inspiration and an external reference point."

During the Middle Ages, a veritable cult developed around the "three wise men" who came from the Orient and whose earthly remains are said to be contained in relics at the cathedral in Cologne. Ex oriente lux -- or, as the gospel of Matthew puts it: "We have His star when it rose, and have come to worship Him." In old paintings, the three wise men resemble representatives from late antiquity's three known continents: One European, one African, one Asian.

Thinkers like Erasmus of Rotterdam turned Christian traditions into undogmatic humanism, bent on eradicating the denominational borders within Christianity. Their effort proved to be a quick flicker: The fanaticism of the Reformation and fights over the correct interpretation of Christian dogma put an end to it. The Occident descended into centuries of spiritual and intellectual darkness. At the end of the 20th century, and after two World Wars, it is in the process of reinventing itself.

As Christianity teaches us, the dead have a way of rising again. Today's discussions remind us that the Occident is not finished yet. But we must not fool ourselves: The legacy of the term is a double-edged sword that can mean nothing and everything at the same time. It was born of emotion and shaped by the highs and lows of history. It is useless as an analytical reference point and cannot supply answers to concrete political questions.

Both the community of Christendom and the unity of the Occident were political ideas. The cost of their realization was paid in blood. But what is the Occident today? It is the community of peoples who have sustained the term in their collective consciousness and have continually amended its meaning.

The Occident extends beyond Christendom and beyond Europe. The term only works if avoids self-enclosure and remains perpetually open towards the outside -- towards the Orient, Africa and Asia -- as indeed it used to be. Its contemporary potential lies in continuing the work of Erasmus of Rotterdam: The formulation of global, humanistic and inclusive ethics.