There is a growing feeling of discontent in today’s Europe. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the refugee crisis, the European jihadists in Syria, and the financial crisis are factors that have created this condition of “Unbehagen in der Kultur (Civilization and Its Discontents)”, to use Sigmund Freud’s words. However, unlike the uneasiness described by Freud—as being the result of a fundamental tension between individual quests for instinctive freedom and a repressive civilization—today’s malaise in Europe stems primarily from a predisposition to aggression from those elements of collective identities facing each other with daggers drawn. Our crisis today is not only a crisis of individuals seeking answers for existential questions, but also a crisis of groups, entities, blocs desperately in need of codes to live together, to share the same time and space.
Does wisdom matter in this context of uneasiness, malaise, Unbehagen, or discontent? When we look back at the history of attempts at reconciling warring identities, we are rather inclined to adopt a pessimistic, unwise stance, similar to the one articulated in E. M. Foster’s famous declaration: “I think that most Indians, like most English people are shits”. For, however successful the individual skills might be when it comes to harmonizing different cultural identities, the risk of emotional collapsing under the weight of fighting ideologies and warring factions remains very high. Hence, wisdom should not be only a matter of individuals mulling over nothingness in solitude, but primarily a matter of collective awareness and action.
How do wisdom and action relate to each other? In Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, Oliver, a wicked character, asks his gentle and modest brother Orlando: “Now, sir, what make you here?”, and the latter answers: “Nothing. I am not taught to make anything.” “What mar you then, sir?” retorts Oliver. Unless we do something, we are likely to make a mess of something else. Mesmerized by breaking news, we have become merely gazers and watchers, and have ceased to be “merely players” as Shakespeare says: “The world is a stage, and all men and women merely players”. The endless flow of images unfolding in front of our eyes forces us to ask “what is happening?”, a question that overshadows other questions such as “what went wrong?”, “why did it happen?”, let alone “how to prevent it from happening again?”.
What role can wise people play in our European context characterized by friction between identities? According to sayings, adages and maxims common to all cultures and philosophical traditions, wisdom consists in being moderate and master of one’s passions. Some etymologies strike us as being of paramount significance. The Arabic word “Hikma” (wisdom) shares the same root with “Hakama” (“bit”, the steel part of a bridle used to curb a horse). Another interesting etymology is the noun “wise”, which originally indicates a manner or a way of proceeding. From these etymologies, we infer that wisdom is a state of awareness, a tools, or means to curb and restrain the self, and to make one steer a middle course between extremes.
By curbing and restraining the self, wisdom can prevent us from indulging in narcissistic conceptions of who we are, and accordingly it can enable us to sustain interchange between different identities within a European space. The afore-mentioned unwise obsession with what is happening hinders the deconstruction of the murderous logic of extremists who, by being either “ready to die” or “ready to kill”, prove their inability to open a space for viable co-existence and peaceful living together. More than any time before, European social cohesion depends on stemming extremist impulses and defeating the nihilistic culture of death. It augurs badly for the future of the continent if extremists keep feeding on each other’s extremism. It is not wise to combat one extremism by resorting to another extremism, to fight religious extremism with another religious extremism, or by political extremism for example.
The most dominant form of extremism consists of projecting the enmity of yesterday into tomorrow. Such a projection predicates itself upon a false assumption of the immutability of both the moral righteousness of the self and the evil wickedness of the other. A preconceived notion of the other as being inherently immoral comforts us in our infatuation with our own presumed moral merits and justifies the deterministic view of historical conflicts and sworn enmities. If Muslims and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, or Islam and Europe have, for one reason or another, fought against each other in the past, there should be no reason why they should remain locked in perpetual war. Only obscurantist, extremist forces cling to the deterministic conception of sworn enemies. Wise people, on the contrary, do not exclude the possibility of seeing the enemies of yesterday merge into a new harmonious whole. No doubt the European space lends itself very well to breaking with the logic of warring identities, if the will to consolidate the fundamental European values of democracy, diversity and human rights prevail over the impulse to disown them.
The unwise arguing for the perpetuation of enmities in time goes along with an imprudent call for self-insulation from the outside world, a world assumed to be immoral, barbaric, uncivilized, wicked, decadent or evil. The consistent separation between the self and the other along geographic lines paves the way for xenophobic political thought and condones inquisitional and witch-hunting activity to unveil and expulse the enemy dwelling inside. It provides extremists with a simplified map of a polarized world where one geography stands opposite to another geography, for instance the geography of enlightenment opposite to the geography of obscurantism, the geography of the West opposite to the geography of Islam, or the geography of faith opposite to the geography of disbelief. The belief in a pure, self-enclosed geographic space is not conducive to a climate and a culture of coexistence. Rather, it is a sign of a fragile condition, when civilization fails in outgrowing the inside/outside dichotomy and thus gets bogged down in an irreversible process of decadence and decay. When coupled with the notion of pure race, creed, and identity, the assumed purity of place does not just shut outsiders out, but also provides fuel for insidious ideologies that are tolerant of hateful oration and calls for deportation and ethnic cleansing.
Obviously, hateful oration is also the result of the capitulation to fear or to anger, which is the result of the mayhem born of differences, especially religious ones. To smooth the course of encounters between different communities, there must be enough room for society to voice reasonable concerns related to minorities. It is not wise to gloss over the thorny issues of migration, radicalization, integration, Islamism, faith and the European public space, or religion and freedom of expression, for example. We should be exceedingly careful about where we draw the lines between outright racism, discrimination, Islamophobic or anti-Semitic attitudes, on the one hand; and constructive criticism of or inquiry into the cultural or religious specificities of minorities on the other hand.
Often, specificity and cultural or religious particularism are used in minority discourses to counteract the coercive relations of power that claim the right to define who one is. Much as the mainstream extremist ideologies that call for separation between the identities of the West and the rest along geographic lines, some self-proclaimed leaders of Islamic communities in Europe endeavour to fortify the belief in the blessings and benefits of emotional and dogmatic barriers to insulate the Islamic, sacred identity against the influence of the European, profane world. This kind of separation adds up to an increase of radicalization among the young Muslim generations, for it fails to open up options of identity or self-expansion for them. In lots of cases, radicalization is the result of the disabling effect of a bitter and deeply ingrained feeling of belonging to two conflicting worlds.
In many respects, globalization has blurred the lines of distinction between minority and majority. In today’s Europe, one experiences the sense of belonging to a minority and to a majority at the same time, which might have a paralysing effect on groups and individuals. Yet, this new situation presents an incommensurable chance to open a new conceptual ground and a new field of action for those who want to think and act wisely.
The Brussels Forum of Wisdom and World Peace is willing to address the serious problems that threaten European security and stability, to contribute to building trust in a Europe of tomorrow, where majorities and minorities must join forces to:
a. Combat the culture of death and consolidate the culture of living together
b. Counteract the nonsensical culture of immediacy and instantaneity to restore meaning
c. Liberate Europe from the shackles of extremism and determinism of sworn enmities to consolidate cultural diversity
d. Condemn and counteract all forms of violence and division of Europeans along religious lines
e. Deconstruct the inside/outside dichotomy to enable Europe to interact with the rest of the world
f. Reeducate the young discontented European generation into new conceptions of faith, belief and religion, and build an inclusive view of the world
g. Awaken the peoples of Europe to wise new methods on how to inhabit the Earth, not to squander our natural environment.
Our motto is: “Neither pessimism, nor optimism, but ‘possibilism’”. We cling to the belief that it is possible to contribute to cohesion, peace and harmony between the constituents of European citizenship.