When did the concept of ‘the West’ emerge? How is it related to what (until recently) was referred to as the ‘Orient’? And what has ‘the West’ come to connote in the twentieth century? It is important to have analytical clarity on these questions if we are to shed some light on the foundations of ‘western’ identity, understand the role Islam played in its formation, and appreciate how some of the present misperceptions between ‘the West’ and the ‘Muslim world’ can be avoided.

Reconstructing how the modern notion of the West came into being and what it has come to mean, it is necessary to distinguish between its two separate conceptual origins. Before the twentieth century, the notion of the Occident and Western Civilisation had developed distinct connotations. The ‘Occident’ – referring to a cultural community of Western and Central Europe – is a concept that developed at the advent of the early modern period at the turn of the sixteenth century and found its imaginary Other in the (Muslim) ‘Orient’. ‘Western Civilisation’, by contrast, is a concept that emerged only in the nineteenth century in an intra-European context, mentally dividing the continent (and later the Euro-Atlantic world) into two political-ideological spheres: a liberal ‘West’ and an autocratic ‘East’. It was only in the twentieth century that both notions merged and that ‘Western Civilisation’ consequently referred to a political community of liberal democracies and a cultural community based on a common history and religion. Recognising that ‘the West’ has come to connote both a political and cultural community might help to clear up some misunderstandings about what constitutes ‘the West’ and allow us to better understand the sometimes paradoxical attitudes of ‘western’ publics towards developments in the ‘Muslim world’.

The Concept of the Occident

A mental East-West divide had already existed in antiquity and the Middle Ages but its foundation was fundamentally different to the Occident-Orient dichotomy that became prevalent in the early modern period. In antiquity, Islam, the most significant imagined Other for the modern ‘Occident’, had not yet formed. The most meaningful cultural division within the Mediterranean world was between a ‘Latin West’ (the coastlines from the Atlantic to the middle of what today is Libya in the south and the centre of the Western Balkans in the north) and a ‘Greek East’ (the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula, modern-day Turkey, and eastern North Africa). After the split of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, this partition became institutionalised in the resultant Western and Eastern Empire.

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