Anyone who has followed Dutch politics for the past few years must know Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch ultra-right political movement PVV (which translates to: Party of Liberty). Those who have even examined Wilders’s speeches and pamphlets must be familiar with that curious and controversial little phrase: ‘the judaeo-christian tradition’, or alternatively, ‘our judaeo-christian tradition’. This concept, so little elaborated, is sometimes presented as the core of Wilders’s anti-Islamic stance, which in turn can be described as the core of Wilders’s political programme. If the judaeo-christian tradition can be termed the core of the core of Wilders’s politics, then it is absolutely crucial to get a clear sense of what the judaeo-christian tradition means. Only once we understand what maneuvers Wilders is making by using this phrase in the way that he does, we can effectively counter this concept or expose it for what it really is: a poorly concealed desire to have an uneducated and sheepish Dutch people to carry out his every wish.
As the Frankfurter Schule recognised decades ago, it is not enough simply to denounce an unsavoury political argument as a hoax or a mistake. The only effective weapon against ideology is what they called ideology critique: the demonstration of the ridiculousness of a thesis even within its own premises. Ideology critique recognizes that criticism of a thesis from ‘without’ will always be vulnerable to the counter-charge that a critic doesn’t understand the wider worldview which supports the thesis, and that he/she would agree with the thesis if only they stepped out of their imaginative sphere. In this post I’ll attempt such an ideology critique of Wilders’s judaeo-christian tradition. The hope is that this produces a more robust argument against its use than a plain ‘it doesn’t exist and has never existed’.
How not to argue with a right-radical
Not that I think that there is nothing to be said for that intuitive reaction. The most basic and most popular argument against the existence of a judaeo-christian tradition is that Jews and Christians don’t share a particularly successful history of getting on together. In early-modern Europe one of the few places that generously treated Jewish refugees from Christian violence was the splendid Ottoman Empire, which had Islam as its state religion. From the inception of Christianity, its peaceful cohabitation with Judaism was enforced under the banner of the polytheistic Roman Empire. Contrary to popular belief, persecutions of Christians were not made state policy in the Empire until the third century C.E. Before Diocletian’s persecutions, christianocide occurred sporadically at the caprice of individual emperors (at worst) or from below and with state disapproval (at best). It was only when Roman power declined that gangs of Jews and Christians were able to resort to open violence to pursue their religious differences, such as in Alexandria in the late fourth century C.E. [See the beautifully shot, but rather moralistic, Agora (2009).]
Even today, the only two things that seem to superficially bind Christians and Jews is (1) a shared historical experience (though barely in the same way) of bereavement through the Second World War and (2) a violent and treacherous track record of interaction with Muslims. The first of these is often rather a factor of division and incomprehension between Christians and Jews than a reason to speak of a judaeo-christian tradition. [See Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (2010).] Which leaves only (2) as a ‘pillar’ on which to rest the judaeo-christian tradition. But if we remember that the whole point of asserting this tradition was to justify opposition to Islam, this argument turns out to be hopelessly circular. In other words, I cannot rationally justify my opposition to Islam by pointing up the fact that I am part of a movement that purportedly tends to oppose and be opposed by Islam.
However, this is exactly the point where the champion of the judaeo-christian tradition (let’s imagine he has a bright blonde brush of hair and an anxious look about him) can resort to the kind of argument the Frankfurt School was so wary of:
You just don’t get it because you’re not part of it. If you would properly appreciate the decency, neighbourly attitude, cleanliness, tolerance, etc. of what I mean by the ‘judaeo-christian tradition’, you would instinctively know what I’m on about. When I mention this tradition, I do not mean the narrowly religious stuff consisting of Judaism + Christianity, but a broader cultural complex of ideas, practices and attitudes that have made us what we are today.
It is easy to point out that a word such as ‘etc.’ [see its infamous use in the PVV’s latest one-page political programme] does not inspire much confidence; or that to define the judaeo-christian tradition as ‘what we are today’ is hardly satisfying. But we cannot refute the worldview as such by pointing this out. Hence, if we really want to oppose this argument, we will need to do so while taking on board its (unconvincing) premises.
An alternative approach
Let us therefore assume for the moment that there is such a thing as a ‘judaeo-christian tradition’. Furthermore, we take seriously Wilders’s insistence that the scholarly movement of humanism is part of the deal. We also grant for the moment that there exists in any given society a dominant set of ideas, concepts and attitudes which we can capture in the catchword ‘culture’, and which in the geographical ‘West’ has developed into something directly opposite to Islam.
[In characterising the PVV position, I base myself on this speech by Wilders, delivered in Malmø on 27 October 2012, and another speech delivered in a parliamentary General Discussion on the constitution in April of that same year – both retrieved from the PVV website.]
The central difficulty with sustaining this kind of argument is that it conveniently forgets how this particular tradition came into being in the first place. It wants us to believe that this complex of ideas, concepts and attitudes fell out of the skies and into our laps, presumably somewhere around the sixteenth century. In this view, ideas require no-one to think them up in the first place, concepts require no clarification, and attitudes require no habituation or contest. A superficial knowledge of history teaches that the classical revival of the Renaissance (from which Wilders’s treasured humanism sprang) was only enabled by the transmission of Greek and Roman texts from the Arab world. It was only due to the diligence and learning of Arabian scholars such as Averroes, a figure respected and acknowledged throughout Europe, that Aristotelian texts made it to Western Europe. It were these Arabian transmissions that ultimately laid the foundations for the emergence of a highly critical and newly individualist mentality in early-modern Europe.
Within Europe itself, the Renaissance intellectual giants that would retrospectively be assimilated to the judaeo-christian tradition and its putative individualism (Marsilius, Erasmus, More, Machiavelli, Voltaire, to name just a few) in fact had no difficulties recognizing and sometimes even adoring the achievements of ‘Oriental’ civilizations. But we can go much further back. Recent classical scholarship has proven that Solon’s reforms toward Greek democracy (what could be more distinctively ours than democracy?!) were profoundly inspired by Assyrian law codes. Xenophon, a 4th c. B.C.E. Greek philosopher in the Socratic tradition, wrote his utopian history of Cyrus I, the founder of the Persian Empire, to show his fellow Athenians that the Persian understood the complexities of statecraft far better than they. This position was remarkably popular in Greece at the time. All of this is not to say that there is no prejudice or racism to be found in Europe’s intellectual history. Just that no-one who worships a supposed judaeo-christian-cum-humanist tradition can insist on the categorical and unconditional dismissal of an alternative cultural horizon. It would be un-judaeo-christian to do so.
Again, Wilders’s insistence on the judaeo-christian tradition is logically incompatible with his proposed budget, which affords no money at all to the maintenance of these same humanist ideals. If he truly cared about such a tradition, he would be a generous sponsor of the arts and humanities. Since he plans not to contribute a cent to the universities, one cannot escape the conclusion that he doesn’t in fact care at all, and that he only champions a ‘judaeo-christian tradition’ if that tradition means a sheepish acceptance of whatever Wilders tells us that we want and are.
To conclude: the problem with Wilders’s ‘judaeo-christian tradition’ is not only (or even primarily) that it does not exist, which is hard to prove or disprove, but that it totally misrepresents the way in which any real tradition – but especially this particular tradition, if it exists – springs up and maintains itself. Our tenacious defender of the idea of a judaeo-christian tradition is now left with two alternatives: (1) to admit that an open-minded and generous pursuit of new ideas will be necessary to maintain his cherished tradition (in which case he will probably soon be the last of his kind); or (2) to confess that he actually doesn’t really care about the judaeo-christian tradition as an historically complex cultural phenomenon at all. Rather, he now has to drop the mask of pseudo-rationalism and confess to holding plainly bigoted notions about East-vs-West, Black-vs-White, True Believer-vs-Infidel. But these are beyond the sphere of reason, and don’t merit discussion within this blog post, or anywhere else.
The reader may wonder at this point: ‘why go through all this trouble to establish that?’ The answer is that I personally believe it is extremely important to delegitimise any foothold the extreme right may establish in the sphere of rational discourse or science. There is a reason why even a voice as shrill as Wilders’s still pretends to appeal to terms such as ‘humanism’ and ‘individualism’ and ‘widespread values’. This is because extremist views nevertheless need rational justification if they aim to become dominant. To deny them precisely that is to prevent them from turning mainstream.
[Final note: It has been a while since my last post (‘apologies’ if you dislike this fact; ‘you’re welcome’ if you have enjoyed the quiet); this was primarily because I was caught up in a messy bout of PhD applications. But: I am more than content with the outcome, the storm has passed and I can take up my blog project again.]
- J.H. Blok & J. Krul, ‘Debt and its aftermath: the Near-Eastern background of Solon’s seisachtheia,‘ Hesperia (forthcoming).
- A. Brett, ‘Introduction’ to Marsilius of Padua: Defender of the Peace (2005) – including very interesting reflections on the role of Arabian scholarship in the formation of early humanism.
- F. Meijer, Vreemd Volk (2007) – amusing book about the relations between Classical Greeks, Romans and ‘outsiders’, notably Jews and Christians.
- S. Philipse, ‘Halbe Zijlstra, Geert Wilders en de joods-christelijke traditie‘, on Medium, 5 April 2016 – again in Dutch, I’m afraid.
- Xenophon, Cyropaedia (4th c. BCE).