Conference Conversation Starter: the multicultural legacy of Europe

Conference Conversation Starter: the multicultural legacy of Europe

The 29th annual EAIE Conference is just around the corner. If you haven’t already, now is the time to download the 2017 Conference Conversation Starter. With this year’s theme, ‘a mosaic of cultures’, in mind, Elena Arigita gives us a piece that explores the multicultural roots of Europe in order to help us better understand current opinions regarding cultural and religious differences of today. Check out the final Conference Conversation Starter piece here then grab your copy of the volume before heading to Seville next week!

What narrative for Europe?

Along the past two decades, different projects and debates have focused on the definition of an inclusive European identity. Cultural and religious heritage have been observed as the roots of Europe. For instance, in 2002, during the process of drafting the (failed) European Constitution, one of the controversies was whether or not the European identity should be defined as Christian or based on Christian roots. The debate was polarised between those in favour of giving a privileged status to Christianity while others were reluctant to include any mention of religion in favour of secularism. Fifteen years later – as the European Union is challenged by the rise of extreme nationalism, violent radicalisation and xenophobic claims – religious identities, and, more specifically, Muslim identities, are often alleged as an obstacle for integration. With this complex and difficult scenario today, how can European societies extract lessons from the past?
The accounts of European culture and civilisation have configured historical narratives that emphasise the Greco-Roman juridical and philosophical legacies and the Judeo-Christian traditions as foundational myths. This emphasis obscures the complexity and mythical nature of these narratives as well as it excludes the Arab Muslim legacy and the interaction between Jewish and Muslim culture in the South and East of Europe. And yet observed in its complexity, Europe is an intricate multicultural reality, with outcomes that can be sometimes difficult and at other times inspiring.

Europe was never exclusively Christian

An exploration of the notion of religious pluralism in relation to the transmission of knowledge in Europe helps us transcend the exclusive narratives of Europe as essentially Christian. It also provides a means to think beyond simplistic clashes or incompatibilities between religions and modernity or secularity and between Islam and the West. For instance, during the Middle Ages, Greek and Arab scientific knowledge circulated normally among Christian and Jewish circles in Europe. A look at its dissemination during this period shows how adaptation and innovation were made possible through the translation of Greek and Arabic texts into Latin, Hebrew and European vernacular languages; also through the collaboration of scholars across or beyond their religious affiliation. The study of the biographies of scholars and the circulation of their works prove that the translation of ancient traditions entails the Europeanisation of knowledge that had been developed in another time and geography.
The lack of attention to these multiple influences and their transcendence for the European intellectual history results in the consolidation of narratives that dismiss the impact of the Muslim and Jewish traditions in Europe, and accordingly it also results in the consolidation of narratives of difference and enmity. The history of the University as a genuine European institution that emerged during the so-called medieval renaissance of the 12 th Century is a paradigmatic example that proves the existence of an intellectual exchange that was multicultural and multilingual in nature. These examples are not mere episodes in history. On the contrary, history provides an enormous number of crossroads, accounts of assimilation and examples of re-elaboration of traditions, facts and ideas that contradict a univocal narrative of an essential Christian Europe.
However, what is equally important about this legacy is not just to rescue the ‘forgotten’ Jewish and Muslim heritage of Europe that proves its multicultural and multi-religious roots, but also to understand the historical processes through which various narratives exclude Jews and Muslims as part of Europe and to reveal how the rhetoric of modernity obscures their role and ultimately give them the antagonistic role of otherness.

Religious diversity through higher education

International higher education clearly has a role to play in this situation. For thirty years, the Erasmus Programme has made it possible for several generations of Europeans and non-Europeans to experience the diversity of Europe through higher education. The challenge for Europe, through this as well as other research and cultural programmes, such as the Horizon 2020 or New Narrative for Europe, is in developing strategies that transcend national idiosyncrasies in order to strengthen a truly transnational cooperation in initiatives for inclusion – particularly towards ethnic and religious minorities – and fostering diversity consciousness as part of the European identity.
Thanks for following along for the Conference Conversation Starter blog series. Hopefully you’ve been able to mine some interesting thought pieces in time for some insightful discussion next week in Seville. If you’re interested in more, download the full volume from the EAIE website or through the EAIE Events App. You will also find a printed copy in your conference bag.
Elena Arigita is Assistant Professor and the University of Granada in Spain.