Scholars of European populism (including Rogers Brubaker recently in Foreign Affairs) have identified the shift from nationalism to ‘civilizationism’ among European populist-nationalists. Rather than positioning themselves solely as defenders of their nation, like the far right of the past, today’s populist-nationalists brand themselves as defenders of a wider civilization, namely the “Judeo-Christian West”, against the supposed threat of “Islamization”. However, key features and implications of this development have gone unexplored.
First, those European-Populist nationalists working to construct a taken-for-granted civilizational boundary between the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic are not working alone, but rather as part of an unholy trans-national and even trans-civilizational alliance. Their open partners are US Conservatives and the Israeli right – each one promoting this identity divide for their own domestic political purposes – with growing channels of mutual political, institutional and even financial cooperation. But the silent partners and beneficiaries are the Islamists. The ‘Judeo-Christian civilizationists’ and the Islamists mutually reinforce one another’s political project to define the West and Islam as inherently incompatible mutually threatening, making a self-fulfilling prophecy of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis.
Second, the very idea of a “Judeo-Christian” civilization or tradition (as opposed to Christian, or secular), that provides the consensus ground of Western values, is a dubious claim that has always been driven by political agendas. A historical analysis shows the extent to which the idea of a distinct “Judeo-Christian civilization” is contingent and constructed. The very notion of a shared Judaic and Christianic tradition would have shocked most Jews and Christians until quite recently. The European emancipation project to redefine Jews as a legitimate part of European society was a theological and political struggle, resisted by anti-Semites, for which the Holocaust was the symbol of catastrophic failure.
It was in early and mid-twentieth century America that the notion of ‘Judeo-Christian civilization’ gained wide acceptance, serving a liberal political purpose of including Jews and Judaism within the boundaries of ‘Western civilization’, in opposition to anti-Semitic racism and “godless Communism”. In 1980s America it was harnessed for a new purpose, to lend legitimacy to socially conservative values in America’s culture wars.
In post-Cold War Europe, the “Judeo-Christian” discourse, largely a US import, was utilised to push back against secularising and homogenising versions of modernity, as highlighted in debates about whether the phrase should be included in the preamble to the draft EU constitution.
It is in the post 9/11 world that “Judeo-Christian” discourse was morphed to serve its latest political function. Now references to the “Judeo-Christian” are a rhetorical tool in the hands of populists, who wish to define themselves as the true defenders of European values against mainstream politicians whose fetish for multi-culturalism, they claim, is surrendering Europe to “Islamization”.
Uncovering the entirely contingent and inessential nature of the Judeo-Christian construct clears the way for a clear sighted view of the alternatives. Four other version of civilizational identity are competing with the Judeo-Christian idea to shape the identities of Western societies: secular-universalist; neo-Marxist; white-Christian supremacist; and Abrahamic.
The outcome of this struggle has profound implications for the relationship between Western societies with large Muslim minorities, for the future of European integration, for relations between the Western and Muslim majority countries, and for the international politics of the Middle East. The problem is, mainstream politicians in Europe seem barely to be aware this game is afoot, much less have a strategy to advance a version of Western identity that supports their liberal and inclusive values.
For international relations theorists this essay will highlight new features of the evolving significance of civilizational identity politics in international affairs. For policy makers in western societies it will serve as wakeup call and orientation map to a struggle of great consequence, to define a social and cultural identity for Western (and Islamic) societies that promotes cooperation and not conflict.