Identity Challenges and Opportunities in the Middle East

I believe that there is much to discuss and much to discover about the identity of the Occidental civilization. Occidental is not just a geographical or cartographical description, but an identification with a heritage, a history, and a cultural and religious unity. This means that the concept includes Europe and also the Americas, and even some African countries, parts of Asia and of Oceania.

This identity is currently being challenged because it is in the midst of a profound cultural and spiritual shake-up, due partly to the fast process of globalization that we have experienced in the past decades. I will try to give a brief picture of this process:

Up to the beginning of the 20th century, it was common for societies worldwide to have a stable set of values, within a stable and self-contained cultural and religious framework. These sets of values and cultural frameworks were the source of the self-esteem and self-image of individuals, and of national and supranational groups alike. Various societies and cultures learned about each other also in the past, but the knowledge each one could obtain about the other was much more superficial, and progressed at a much slower pace. As a result, the other was always perceived as something exotic, a far-away reality that could not challenge the world one lived in.

The novelty today is that the world has experienced in the past decades a vertiginous process of globalization due to the development of communications and information technologies. This process has taken place at great speed, in a period much shorter than a generation. As a result, the world’s societies and human groups have been faced with each other at much closer proximity and which much more detail than in the past. The natural human reaction to “meeting the other in its otherness” is to reflect and to look at oneself, to compare and find similarities and differences. And the question arises naturally: Which one is better? Which one is superior to the other? This happens both at the individual level and at the group level.

In the case of the Occident as a whole and in the case of Europe particularly -though we could find some nuances depending on the geographical location and the history of each Western country-, there is an added complication to the already complex situation. This process of globalization has caught Europe in a process of disconnection from its own cultural and intellectual roots, of forgetfulness of its spiritual heritage. Contemporary Europe risks today being cut off from its own foundational values. The causes for this inner process (unrelated to global changes) are multiple and complex, and describing them would require a much longer space than allotted to this paper.

The sudden globalization I just referred to has pitted the various human self-images coexisting in the world against each other. As a result, the self-esteem of many individuals and societies has been deeply shaken, challenged to the point of causing collective identity crises. Some of those with a strong cultural and spiritual identity but without the values of dialogue and respect for the other have reacted to the challenge with hostility and assertiveness, while those with a weak cultural identity and blurred spiritual heritage have reacted with accommodation and compromise.
This panel will devote sessions to the various crises that affect Europe. I believe that all economic, political, juridical and social crises we are witnessing today are just byproducts, manifestations of a deeper crisis which is rooted in culture and spirituality. When an organism -and a culture is a living organism- loses contact with its own origins, it loses its own DNA and mutates in a way that cuts it off from its own kind. The loss of cultural identity provokes a chain-reaction of mutations in the social, political, economic and legislative areas, until the national or supra-national entity that shared the same values falls apart and dies or is absorbed by a stronger entity.

For this reason, I also believe that the way to address this crisis is not so much one of evaluating the apparent or real strength or weakness of other cultures, of other spiritual and religious traditions. The way is recovering the roots of our own civilization -which, by the way, has caused and led the globalization process that we find ourselves in. By recovering the awareness of our own heritage, we can renew our appreciation for it and, with it, our self-esteem. Recovering awareness is a pre-condition, because one cannot appreciate what one does not know.

Embracing the other as other can only take place in the context of acceptance of self. Otherwise, the embrace becomes the dissolution of the welcoming party. The way for survival is not so much a rejection of other identities –something that is not even possible in today’s global world without causing destruction- but a recovery of oneself; a strengthening of one’s own knowledge and appreciation for one’s own history and cultural roots. A return to the elements that gave birth to one’s own identity. But what are the elements that gave birth to what we call “the Occident”?

From a cultural perspective, it is common knowledge that Europe was born of the encounter between Greece and Rome between the 5th century BC and the 2nd century AD. Our cultural origins are therefore Greco-Roman, a combination of two traditions linked to two peoples that populated and dominated politically, culturally and commercially, first the Mediterranean Basin and then spreading westwards all the way to Britain, northwards up to Scandinavia, eastwards to Armenia and Mesopotamia (Alexander the Great reached as far as India), and southwards along the entire North of Africa. This cultural domination included literature, philosophy, natural sciences, technology, art… The literary sources of the Greco-Roman heritage have nourished Europe and occidental values and worldview for millennia.

Then, from a religious perspective, we also speak about Europe as having Judeo-Christian origins. European history of the past 2,000 years cannot be understood or explained without referring to the Hebrew Bible and the history of the Jewish people and to Christianity, which was born in Jerusalem in a Jewish milieu and quickly spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, among Romans and Greeks, and then to other peoples. The Jewish foundations and the Christian message and worldview infused Greco-Roman culture and gave rise to something new, a civilization that later on spread to other continents and had a thrust that has lasted up to nowadays.

According to Remi Brague, the peculiarity that has characterized European and Occidental identity since the period of the Roman Empire is its “eccentricity” or relative position (secondarité) with respect to the great traditions of Jerusalem and Athens, namely the Jewish and Christian tradition on one hand, and the Greek classical tradition on the other.1 The culture of Western Europe has a distinctly Latin character, but its canon comes mainly from Athens (in Greek texts) and Jerusalem (in Hebrew and, to some extent, in Aramaic and some Greek texts). Occidental culture is “eccentric”, and this “eccentricity” lays in its non-Western origins.2 The civilization that arose of the infusion of Greco-Roman culture with the Judeo-Christian worldview was characterized by being deeply conscious of its predecessors, who were elsewhere, to the East.

Europe has always had to rediscover its roots by revisiting texts that were originally written in a language that was not Latin, and by visiting places that were outside of its boundaries. This work of recovery always had the same effect of renewal and gave rise to various Renaissances, keeping the Occidental civilization alive and nourishing it anew throughout the centuries by inspiring new works of literature, poetry, philosophy, in Latin and in the Romance languages that developed overtime.3

There are two key elements that I would like to propose in this presentation as priorities for recovery, if Europe wishes to overcome its current loss of self-awareness and the apparent oblivion of its roots that it finds itself in. The first element is the languages that were at the heart of Occidental culture for millennia. The second is the knowledge and affective connection to the very places that were the cradle of Occidental spirituality.

I entitled this presentation as “Identity Challenges and Opportunities in the Middle East”. Recovering these two elements are the challenges that are mentioned in the title. In connection with this, I would like to refer to two projects that have been launched in Jerusalem and its vicinity with the aim of contributing their small part in the recovery. These projects are the opportunities that the title also mentions. They are modest in their size and scope. They were born independently, have independent goals, and are of a very different nature, but both are collaborating because they have found complementarities. Because both of them have been born of the same felt need of recovery of the roots of the Occidental worldview, and it is not by chance that they are located in the very region where this worldview was born.

I will first give an overview of Polis, The Jerusalem Institute of Languages and Humanities; my home institution. The Polis Institute was born of the desire to recover the ancient languages that were the vehicle in which the Occidental cultural and intellectual heritage was expressed from its very beginnings.
All the sources of Greco-Roman culture and those of Judeo-Christian heritage, were written in either Ancient Greek, Latin, or -to a lesser extent but also relevant- Hebrew. Classical Arabic also played a part as the vehicular language that carried the philosophy and science of Aristotle, the medicine of Galen, and other Greek and Arabic scientific works into the West through translations into Latin, and brought these works to Europe during the Middle Ages. We have Latin translations for most of these works of Antiquity.

After Classical Latin and Ancient Greek stopped being the common spoken languages, scholars kept studying them and writing in these languages. All the philosophical, theological, and scientific works of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and up to the 19th Century, were written in one of these ancient languages, and intellectuals of every generation mastered them even if they did not use them for daily conversation. They were used at school, in the universities, for political speeches or other formal occasions. They were the language of our culture for over two millennia.
From the beginning of the 20th Century, a revolution in education took place that removed progressively from the school curricula the study of ancient Western languages. This was not accompanied by a significant work of translation of these texts into modern languages. The percentage of literary texts from Antiquity and even more so from the Middle Ages that have never been translated into any modern language is overwhelming, counting up to 70% of our literary, philosophical and scientific heritage. Unless one knows ancient Greek or Latin, it is impossible to access these texts. We are only aware of a tiny part of our common cultural heritage, that was translated into one or more modern languages. But translations are not always accurate, for various reasons that I will not go into now. For the rest, that 70% of our cultural and spiritual heritage, our knowledge of the ideas and thoughts of the authors who wrote those works for the posterity is close to nil.

Moreover, generations up to the 1980s grew up with printed books. For us, formal and written language were synonymous, and books had a tangible beginning and a tangible end. For these generations, it was still possible to learn classical languages through Grammar, charts and declensions. However, the generation that grew up with Internet has developed a radically different access to knowledge. Traditional learning through books and charts no longer works for them. The problem is not one of lack of interest, but of teaching techniques that belong to the past.
Polis – The Jerusalem Institute of Languages and Humanities was founded in Jerusalem in 2011 to contribute to the revitalization of humanities through its language pedagogy and research. Polis’ international group of scholars is motivated by the shared conviction that the direct and fluent study of ancient sources is vital for understanding the roots of our cultural heritage.

For more about the Institute, please watch this video.

Among its academic activities, the Polis Institute hosts research projects and is currently cooperating with Saxum Foundation for the development of the Saxum Visitor and multimedia resource center.

The EU Heads of State and of Government approved the final draft of a European Charter of Fundamental Rights in Oct. 14, 2000. The 2nd sentence of its Preamble reads: “Conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage, the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity.”4 This sentence codifies an image of man that is an essentially Judeo-Christian heritage. The Christian element is a fundamental factor in European identity and one of the founding elements of the Occidental worldview. Thus, when the Occident looks for its own roots it must necessarily look Eastwards, to the Near East, and specifically to places in Israel and in Palestine that were the cradle, the landscape and the geographical context in which Christianity was born and from which it spread.
The Saxum Visitor and Multimedia Resource Center, located 15 km west of Jerusalem, makes a digital library and resource room for research available to pilgrims, visitors and scholars from all over the world.
For more information about the Saxum Project, please watch this video.