We Are Not Who We Think We Are

A new book on the West’s declinist anxiety is a welcome antidote to Islamophobic alarmism, but it could go further in debunking misguided notions of “us” and “them.”

Nuns visit the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba on Oct. 14, 2014.
Nuns visit the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba on Oct. 14, 2014. GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images

There is something strangely comforting about a community that seems preoccupied with the notion that it is in crisis. Throughout what is commonly known as the West, there has been a slew of books, articles, and public interventions calling attention to the notion of a cultural crisis within. Such a phenomenon ought to be followed by self-reflection, self-interrogation, and retrospection. By and large, however, the past decade has seen far more of the opposite: The alarm surrounding crisis has been more of a call for “us” to attack and problematize “them,” which invariably leads to propositions such as “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board,” as Douglas Murray, a hardcore right-wing pundit, once argued—not to mention conspiracy theories that blame all the ills of the modern world on those who look different than “us,” meaning white Europeans, or, worse, pray differently than “we” do.

The West does, of course, face challenges in an age when movements of people happen far more quickly across vast distances than ever before; an age in which the notions of meaning and virtue are more contested; an age where technological advancements and their corresponding impacts on society develop more rapidly. All of that has understandable impacts on how communities and societies think of themselves and conceptualize their common bonds. The question is, how do societies address these challenges and find answers that are likely to heal the rifts that exist rather than exacerbate them on the altar of “saving ourselves,” when the notion of “ourselves” is a wholly mythical construct?

A new book by the British writer Ben Ryan, who worked until recently for the religion and politics-focused think tank Theos, seeks to tackle this question. His book, How the West Was Lost: The Decline of a Myth and the Search for New Stories, takes this distinctly Western anxiety and characterizes what many consider to be “the West” as something of a myth that is reaching a point of decline that may lead to its extinction as an idea.

How the West Was Lost: The Decline of a Myth and the Search for New Stories, Ben Ryan, Hurst Publishers, 344 pp., £20 (.98), October 2019

How the West Was Lost: The Decline of a Myth and the Search for New Stories, Ben Ryan, Hurst & Co., 344 pp., £20 ($26.00), October 2019.

As far as Ryan is concerned, Westerners themselves are to blame for it—because a critical mass of them no longer seem persuaded by the current formulations of what it means to be Western, and thus the West fails to be a convincing proposition altogether. Yet, as Ryan posits, there is a chance to rescue the West from its own travails—if only Westerners could construct a new myth to gather around as they move forward in the 21st century.

Ryan identifies the West as an intellectual space, rather than solely a geographical one. His model of what the West entails has three pillars: “the belief in a moral endpoint; the trio of republican values (liberty, equality, solidarity); and universalism.” Ryan correctly points out that all of these pillars are in crisis—and yet, the situation is, he argues, “not entirely hopeless.” The final section of the book, following Ryan’s take on what has happened to each of these pillars, is about identifying ways to rebuild and renew those pillars. For Ryan, rebuilding them is a necessity, because the Western model remains the best hope for a future world order that finds its root in virtue and morality.

Ryan identifies the West as an intellectual space, rather than solely a geographical one.

Ryan’s background within the world of political theology—which is evident in his writing, but also in his new professional capacity as a home affairs advisor for the Church of England, means that readers legitimately expect a discussion of higher morals and ethics, rather than a focus on the merely earthly domain of politics.

That’s an important element in the debate around the future of the West as well, which Ryan does touch on in terms of identifying the importance of Christianity to the formation of the West. In this regard, he’s not positing Christianity as a rallying cry for promoting difference—as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban does—nor in some kind of secular tribalistic fashion—as Murray does—but as the source of positive virtues, and a recognition of what he considers to be the historical roots of the West.

Much of what Ryan writes is a good place to start. He is thoughtful and attempts to be inclusive, drawing far more on civic notions of patriotism rather than any reliance on ethnic nationalism, or even nationalism rooted in a religious identity. That approach gives readers hope for progress toward a better future. At the same time, however, some readers will be left hoping that Ryan had gone deeper and further, at times writing more critically than he does.

When it comes to conceptualizing themselves as a Western “us,” European Christendom has historically done so by positioning itself against the Muslims of the Mediterranean, be they Ottomans or Arabs. Indeed, the construction of national identities throughout the European part of the West—and in places like the United States and Australia—have ended up viewing Muslims in a particular way, usually negatively. And when such societies consider how they go forward in the 21st century, that’s an obstacle that requires a massive rethinking.

That rethinking, if it is to be meaningful, needs to not construct new myths of the future—but rediscover large swaths of the past. It’s a project that institutions such as the British Council have tried to bring to fruition, through enterprises like “Our Shared Europe” and “Our Shared Future,” which sought to uncover the huge amount of historical evidence that showed that Muslims and Islam played much wider historical roles internally in the West than was hitherto understood.

At a time when the likes of the far-right Orban in Hungary claim they are defending Christian values, while carrying out patently xenophobic policies, it’s tremendously important to transcend such rank tribalism with facts that provide a bedrock for a sustainable future. Indeed, those inhabiting the intellectual universe of Christendom need to be clear that given the choice, they see the likes of Gabor Ivanyi—a Hungarian Christian minister who fought communism in the 1970s and now rails against Orban’s xenophobia—as their paragon, rather than Orban. Ivanyi may not be perfect, but a form of Christianity that focuses on solidarity with the oppressed, rather than promoting tribalistic hate against the “other,” is precisely what Europe needs more of.

Such an understanding could help Westerners hold on to such values of inclusivity and pluralism, and at the same time respond to the concerns that certain people have about this multiculturalist modern age. Ryan knows this, but his three pillars are still too narrowly defined. And all of these three pillars have already been deconstructed by some of the best minds in Western intellectual thought, due to their internal contradictions—not simply in terms of ideas, but in terms of empirical realities. After all, is “liberty, equality, solidarity” really what the West stood for in terms of its engagements with minorities at home, and colonized peoples abroad? If the West is to look for a better future, intellectuals ought to be transcending untenable readings of their history and looking for better ideas.

Ryan is admirably clear-eyed about the dangers of other ideologies masquerading as defenses of the West, including the “great replacement” theory that underpins much current white nationalist discourse—but Ryan could identify the problems with some of these theories even more pointedly. When he describes the U.K.-based academic Eric Kaufmann’s analysis of how, “what is deemed to be the majority culture is more elastic than people might think”; and that, “The category of what counts as ‘white’ is most likely to simply expand as the majority of the population inter-mixes and inter-marries,” I instinctively wonder: should these cultures really be described as white at all?

Rather, perhaps Ryan ought to take the critique of writers such as Jonathan Portes fully on board. Moving beyond Kaufmann’s suggestion to give preference to immigrants from ethnic or cultural backgrounds that are supposedly easier to assimilate, Portes suggests the British government should advocate “a more positive approach to the impacts of immigration on communities and services at a local level – by promoting integration and channelling funding to areas where there are pressures resulting from population growth.”

In this regard, perhaps Ryan is not thinking as much out of the box as he might want to, though I suspect his argument would actually dovetail quite neatly with Portes’s. But being more explicit is warranted, given the current caustic tone of public debate in Britain.

The same reflex comes up when Ryan describes Islam as a newcomer to the West: “In short, the task facing the West as it relates to newcomers and Islam is essentially the challenge of this book: to find a story and moral vision through which a diverse people can come together, and to find a way to create this collective ideal without betraying what the West fundamentally is.” That is a perfectly noble goal; the only problem is that Islam isn’t a newcomer.

A decade ago, I wrote a book titled Muslims of Europe: The ‘Other’ Europeans that included an examination of Islam’s long European history. But one could write an encyclopedia that focused only on the history of Muslim European communities and figures, be they in premodern Spain and Portugal or the Emirate of Sicily or indeed the many Northern and Western Europeans who became Muslims. Framing Islam as a newcomer immediately restricts the scope of discussion that is needed. And such framing leads to a focus on salvaging broken models rather than seeking a new model for the West.

There are two fault lines here that will be crucial to the future of the West. The first relates to the issue of “rootedness,” that people like the British writer David Goodhart—who has recently renounced the center-left and joined the chorus of anti-immigration voices on the right—define as those who are “Somewheres,” as opposed to the so-called Nowheres, who, in his view, are cosmopolitans with no real loyalty to a place. It is also tied to concern around Blue Labour, a movement within the British Labour Party that prioritizes emphasis on what it means to be English and British (at least in Blue Labour’s conception of both) and that seeks to restore some sense of patriotism to the left.

There is already a well-developed school of thought that takes the notion of common interest and many of the imperatives of so-called progressive patriotism very seriously—it’s the subject of works by scholars such as Tariq Modood of the University of Bristol, and it’s a topic I’ve written on myself. Indeed, many writers discuss the remaking of common citizenship and national identity, not their ending. But recently much of the discussion around rootedness has become infiltrated with undercurrents of bigoted notions about nonwhite foreigners, leading to proposed solutions like Murray’s—ones that are basically anti-immigrant. The West needs better than that.

Any progressive patriotism must include all citizens and give all of them proper agency in defining what inclusive means. They shouldn’t be included as the result of debate; they should be included in actually defining the terms of that debate.

The second fault line relates to religion, as most religious minorities in the West come from nonmajority ethnic groups. The fear of Islam is where all of these insecurities come together—a world religion being caricatured to represent all the trials of the world coming upon “us.” It causes even normally thoughtful, interesting writers about these wider issues, such as the British Christian writer John Milbank, to make fanatical and outrageous assertions, as he did when he described the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor as a “civilisational traitress” when she converted to Islam.

That fault line of religion comes up every so often in Ryan’s book—and when it does, this reader came away wanting more. After all, the subject of religion always arises when pundits and intellectuals discuss the ostensible faltering of the West. Either it is the instrumentalization of a bigoted interpretation of Christianity (à la Orban, but also many others) to support a renewed core at the heart of Western civilization—or it is the demonization of a skewed view of Islam to create an other that the Western “we” should wage against with all their might. It’s something Ryan hints at, but he doesn’t go far enough.

As Ryan notes, the sociologist Rogers Brubaker has characterized this stance as “a secularized Christianity as culture. … It’s a matter of belonging rather than believing.” He further describes the attitude as being one in which, “We are Christians precisely because they are Muslims. Otherwise, we are not Christian in any substantive sense.”

Here, Ryan is to be applauded for correctly noting, “This says far more about the West’s insecurities over the depth and commonality of its own values than it does about a real threat posed by Western Muslims. It is not a lack of certainty over who Muslims are, but rather a lack of confidence in who Westerners are.” But Ryan doesn’t quite seem to recognize that Muslims are not only a part of the current Western story—they have been part of the West’s story since its inception.

That said, Ryan’s book is a thought-provoking read even though it stops slightly short of taking the argument to its logical conclusions in certain places—especially in terms of correcting the mistakes around dominant discourses of who “we” and “they” are.

Righting that wrong means not simply reimagining a new national myth to gather around, but Westerners forging a new narrative that dispenses with the historical marginalization of “them” in favor of creating what has always been a mythical “us.” What is needed is a new notion of “us” that emerges strongly and true, based on values and principles that the peoples of the West will be able to rally around in a cohesive manner for generations to come. Ryan’s book is a welcome addition to that debate.

H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Among other books, he is the author of Muslims of Europe: The ‘Other’ Europeans. Twitter: @hahellyer