Enlightenment Universalism, [Islam] & Europe’s Embarrassment (Itamar Mann)


As people en masse drown at sea and dead bodies wash up on shore, as people suffocate to death in trucks along highways, was the discourse of universalism in Europe always in name only? Vouched for by two European Studies friends on FB, this must-read here by Itamar Mann on the current migration/refugee crisis explores the roiling legal, (bio) political, and ethical morass upon which the very demographic and moral identity of “Europe” might simultaneously stand and founder. For readers of Derrida, it puts the concept of “hospitality” to the test. In light of the magnitude of the distress and the unrolling catastrophes in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Libya, is it a test that Europe will not and cannot pass well?

The upshot of Mann’s analysis is this: “Perceived conditions of crisis — this one has been around for much more time than public perceptions acknowledge — have historically always tested this structure. At stake is a kind of existential dilemma: either treat people as humans and risk changing who you are (in terms of the composition of your population), or give up human rights and risk changing who you are (in terms of your constitutive commitments). At the beginning of September, European societies still seem to be faltering on this question. With unauthorized movement soon entering the low season of winter months, perhaps some of the embarrassment will be dispelled.”

My only critique of the piece would be the way in which its author, steeped in the values of European enlightenment universalism now called into question, occludes and even ignores completely the way “Islam” is presented, perceived, and experienced as part of Europe’s inability or unwillingness to deal with this current human crisis. Based on universal principles, Islam should not factor at all into the deliberation one way or the other when at issue is human life, pure and simple. But that’s just in theory. In actual practice, Europe has always had a “minority problem,” defined predominantly in modern times along racial lines. Ignoring the particularities of culture, religion, and identity and the failure to deal with those particularities, is part of that intractable dynamic which is just as much if not more a part of the European tradition as enlightenment universalism.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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