Letter to the Editor: What is Western Civilization?

by The Cowl Editor on March 21, 2019


by Dr. Alexander Moffett

Guest Writer


Last Friday, a heavily armed man burst into a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand and opened fire on the worshippers.  He killed 50 people and injured dozens more. 

One detail that has emerged about this horrific incident is that the shooter inscribed the words “Charles Martel” and “Tours 732” on his weapons.  These are specific historical references.  They refer to the Battle of Tours in 732, in which the army of Charles Martel defeated an army of Muslim raiders from the Umayyad Caliphate.  It is possible that some of you may have learned about this battle in your Development of Western Civilization classes.

It is not the first time that white ethno-nationalists have invoked the tropes of Western civilization in their writings. Many of these groups cite “defending Western civilization” as a justification for their Islamophobic or anti-Semitic or racist views.  Such a justification was publically aired by a United States Congressman earlier this year, when, in an interview with the New York Times, he asked, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?”

As Director of the Development of Western Civilization Program here at Providence College, I utterly condemn the invocation of “Western civilization” by these extremist individuals and groups.  Such invocations are both historically incorrect and morally reprehensible. 

These appeals to “Western civilization” are incorrect because they fail to understand what Western civilization really is.  The West is not some sort of enclosed space, separated from the rest of the world by some sort of metaphorical or literal barrier, and defined by some sort of racial characteristic such as whiteness.  Rather, Western civilization is and has always been an open-ended and diverse construct, a composite of many different peoples and faiths, brought together by a shared intellectual and cultural heritage.

And those invocations are immoral because those who utter it seek to commandeer the term “Western civilization” and associate it with their own hateful ideology.  By doing so, they hope to cause division and strife within Western countries. They also hope to taint the very concept of Western civilization as an object of study.  The Development of Western Civilization Program rejects these efforts, and tries to counter them in each class session that takes place every single day on this campus.

The DWC program will be organizing a roundtable discussion and dialogue about the misuse of the term “Western civilization” by ethno-nationalists and how this misuse can be countered in the DWC classroom.  It will take place sometime in the week of April 1-5.  Everyone in the PC community will be invited to attend.