Europe, Asia, and Africa are the three continents into which, by ancient tradition, the world was divided. A clear and simple description is provided by the Roman writer Pliny in his Natural History:

The whole circuit of the earth is divided into three parts, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The starting point is in the West, at the Straits of Gibraltar, where the Atlantic Ocean bursts in and spreads out into the inland sea. On the right as you enter from the ocean is Africa, and on the left Europe, with Asia between them; the boundaries are the river Don and the river Nile.

This description clearly comes from a society whose world was defined by the Mediterranean, its shores, and its hinterland. It derives, like most Roman science and philosophy, from Greek writings, many of which are still extant.1 Indeed, all the ancient texts in which the three names of Europe, Asia, and Africa occur are, without exception, Latin or Greek—that is to say, European. In the by-now considerable body of writings that have come down to us from the ancient civilizations of Asia and Africa, there is not so far a single occurrence of these names.

Europe was what the Greeks—and later the Romans and others—called their own homeland. Asia and Africa were what they called the lands of their neighbors. Europe was itself, self-defined in the successive phases of Hellenismos, Romanitas, and Christianity. Asia and Africa were designations of the Other—geographically-expressed equivalents of such ethnic, cultural, and religious designations as “barbarian” and “Gentile.” (The barbarians did not of course call themselves barbarians, nor did the Gentiles call themselves Gentiles, until they were converted to Christianity and taught to see themselves as such.)

In this, European, perspective, Asia simply meant not-Europe East, while Africa or Libya meant not-Europe South. Some ancient philosophers, among them Aristotle, went a step farther, and equated Europe with freedom, independence, and the rule of law, and its neighbors with arbitrary tyranny and slavish submission. This view is still sometimes expressed in the councils of the European Union.

Needless to say, the inhabitants of Asia and Africa did not share this perception, and as far as the evidence goes, they were as unaware of being Asians and Africans as the inhabitants of pre-Columbian America were unaware of being Americans. They first became aware of this classification when it was brought to them—and at some times and in some places imposed on them—by Europeans.

It is therefore not surprising that while Europe, despite its many nations and languages, is today a single coherent entity—a genuine community of culture, values, religion, institutions, science, arts, even music—and is, or was until recently, inhabited by people of a single race, Africa and still more Asia show an immense diversity. The differences between Sicilians and Swedes, between Poles and Portuguese may loom large in Europe, but they are insignificant compared with the differences between India and Japan, between Iran and China, between Egypt and Zimbabwe.

Europe became Europe. Europe discovered and in a sense created America, since every polity in the western hemisphere, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, was founded on a European model and expresses itself in a European language. But Europe neither created nor discovered Asia and Africa. It invented them, and it is a supreme irony of our own time that in a wave of revolt against Eurocentrism, so many non-Europeans have adopted this ultimately Eurocentric view of the world, and defined themselves by the identity which Europeans imposed on them.

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Historically, culturally, even racially, there was no real barrier or dividing-line between Europe and its eastern and southern neighbors. Indeed, those parts of Asia and Africa which the Greeks and Romans knew and named had far more in common with Europe than with the remoter regions of the two continents. The Mediterranean was always far less of a barrier than the Sahara or than the mountains and steppes that mark the northern and eastern limits of Iran.

Compared with the great religions of India and China, Islam and Christianity are twin offspring of the same progenitors. Compared with the races of southern and eastern Asia and of central and southern Africa, the peoples of all the shores of the Mediterranean clearly share a common heritage. There is in fact no clear racial dividing line between white and nonwhite at any of the extremities of Europe—rather a series of gradations, as for example, from north to south, from blond to brunet to dark to swarthy to brown to black.

For the Greeks, Asia originally meant the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea, of which the western shore was Europe. Then, as a vaster, remoter Asia loomed on their horizon, it was renamed Microasia, Asia Minor, to distinguish it from the more distant realms of the Persians, the Indians, and the Chinese. In much the same way, the familiar East, which gave us the Eastern Question, became the Near and then the Middle East when the problems of a Far East attracted Western attention.

Under Roman and then Byzantine rule, Asia was the name of a province. It remained in use until the Islamic conquest, after which it disappeared from local usage. Neither the Arabs who conquered Syria nor the Turks who conquered Asia Minor retained the use of this name.

As for Africa, it was, for the Romans, the name of the Mediterranean shore that faced them in the South: home of Carthage, the one enemy power that seriously threatened the might and for a while even the survival of Rome. Scipio, the Roman who was most acutely and vocally aware of this danger, was known as Africanus, the African, not because he came from Africa, but because he conquered it. In the Roman empire, Africa became an imperial province corresponding roughly with present-day Tunisia plus parts of eastern Algeria and western Libya.

Unlike Asia, the name Africa survived the Arab conquest of the 7th and 8th centuries, and was retained by the new masters as a geographical and, for a while, administrative expression to designate the same area. It did not include Egypt or Morocco, still less the countries to the south, which were known in Arabic as Bilad al-Sudan, the lands of the blacks.

How then did the Muslims divide the world? They did so in two ways, one geographical, the other at once religious and political. In the geographical literature in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other Muslim languages, the world is divided into “climates,” in Arabic iqlim. The classical Muslim authors did not commit our modern error of ascribing racial or cultural or even historical attributes to these divisions. Their “climates” are purely geographical.

For Muslims, the important and operative division of the world was between the lands where Islam prevailed and those which had not yet been brought into the fold. In their advance in the Asian and African continents, the Muslims encountered no major military power and no serious religious rival. In Europe, they met both, and it is therefore not surprising that the theory as well as the practice of the jihad, the holy war for Islam, should have been mainly concerned with the struggle against Christendom in its various European theaters.

There is a curious parallelism in the mutual perceptions of the two. Each saw the other as a major rival, yet was unwilling to admit this. Christians, rather than speak of their enemies as Muslims, preferred to use ethnic terms and referred to them in different parts of Europe as Moors or Saracens, Turks or Tatars. In the same way, when Muslims spoke of the inhabitants of Europe, or even of the Crusaders who had come from Europe, they named them as Greeks or Romans or Franks or Slavs. When some religious designation was required, both used the same term, infidel. By this, both Christians and Muslims meant the same thing, differing only in its application.

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Europe and its sisters Asia and Africa reappear in European writings at the time of the Renaissance and the consequent revival of Greek learning. Rediscovered ancient classical texts gave Europeans a new way of looking not only at the past, but also at the major events of their own time. Once again, as in antiquity, Greece was being invaded by the vast armies of a great king (the Ottoman Sultan) in the East. In the fresh perspective of the new learning, this was no longer seen primarily as a continuation of the old struggle between Islam and Christendom, but as a renewal of a more ancient struggle—the defense of free European Hellas against an Asiatic tyrant and his barbaric hordes.

This equation, however inappropriate, continued to affect European perceptions of events in the eastern Mediterranean for a long time to come. There was no comparable threat from Africa, but here too the old name was given new meanings derived from ancient texts and recent explorations.

But it was above all the discovery of America, as part of the European discovery of the world, that ensured the triumph of Europe over its rivals, and especially Islam, and the consequent universal acceptance of European notions and categories.

After some initial curiosity, Muslim interest in what Muslims called the “New World”—the name “America” rarely occurs—was minimal. The most remarkable document was a map prepared in 1513 by the great Turkish navigator and cartographer Piri Reis, including information drawn from Columbus’s own lost map and apparently supplied by a Spanish slave in the Turkish service. In 1517, Piri Reis presented the map in Cairo to Sultan Selim I, the conqueror of Egypt. It was deposited in the Topkapi palace and forgotten until it was noticed by a German scholar in 1929.

The earliest, and for a long time the only, Muslim work on America was the Tarih-i Hind-i Garbi, a Turkish account of the West Indies, written in the mid-16th century and printed in 1729 at the first Ottoman Turkish printing press. In this work, the unnamed author speaks in some detail of the discovery and conquest of the New World, describes its flora, fauna, and inhabitants, and—naturally—expresses the hope that this well-favored land would in due course be illuminated by the rites of Islam and added to the Ottoman realms.

Arabic and Turkish writings in the 17th and 18th centuries show some slight awareness of the American colonies of their European neighbors, and a late 18th-century Turkish book on the women of the world even includes a fanciful description in verse of the (native) American woman, with a picture. A Chaldean (Uniate) Christian priest from Mosul traveled in Spanish America between 1675 and 1683 and wrote an account, in Arabic, of his travels.

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I do not know at what stage or by what processes the descendants of the Aztecs and the Incas came to understand and accept their identity as Americans. In Asia and Africa, however, the parallel processes can be dated with fair precision. They began with the advent of European domination, or at least influence, when Asians and Africans studied the hitherto despised languages of the Western infidels and barbarians, and began to learn geography from European textbooks.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Turks—for hundreds of years the front line of Islam against Christendom—still spoke of the countries beyond their western frontier as the lands of the Franks, of the Christians, or of the infidels, but not as Europe. But during the first half of the 19th century, the continental classification and the nomenclature that went with it gradually entered into local usage. The name Europe, in the form “Arufa,” had made a fleeting appearance in early Arabic geographical works based on Greek originals and had quickly disappeared and been forgotten. In the 19th century it reappeared, and Arabic “Urubba,” Turkish “Avrupa,” Persian “Urupa” passed into common use. In countries under direct European rule, like Russian Central Asia, French North Africa, British India, the Dutch East Indies, and most of Africa, the impact of European geographical knowledge and instruction was more direct and more immediate.

The adoption of this European scheme of things naturally entailed the recognition of Asia and Africa as continents, though it did not, for some time at least, involve their acceptance as identities comparable with that of Europe. The notion of Asianism did not emerge until late in the 19th century, and it developed in the 20th, principally as an anti-Western movement, sometimes to promote anti-imperialism, sometimes a rival Asian imperialism. Apparently by mutual consent, the term Asian in this political context did not include the Muslim peoples of the southwest. It still does not include them in current American usage.

In Africa, the notion of a common African identity embracing the different religions, languages, cultures, and races of the continent from the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope was a much later development and did not really become significant until after the ending of European rule. If Africanism survives, this form of revolt against a Eurocentric universe will mark a final triumph of Eurocentrism in Africa.

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The oceanic voyages of the European explorers around Africa to Asia, across the Atlantic to the Americas, created, for the first time in history, a new unity among all the continents, bringing all of them into contact with one another and preparing the way for a global interchange of foodstuffs and commodities, plants and domestic animals, knowledge and ideas.

There was also a negative side. These new intercontinental lines of communication made possible an interchange of diseases between the eastern and western hemispheres, sometimes leading to the emergence of virulent new strains, calling for new diagnoses and remedies. These could be social as well as medical, such as, for example, the new strain of slavery added to the numerous and widespread slave institutions of both the Old and the New Worlds.

Although it was known in medieval Europe, slavery was of minor importance there, far less significant in the social and economic life of Europe than it was in pre-Columbian America or in Muslim and non-Muslim Africa. The meeting of all these different cultures gave rise to a new variant—that known as colonial slavery. The inventiveness and cupidity of Europe, learning from and drawing on the plantation systems and the slave trade of Africa and the Islamic world, developed this variant. Colonial slavery and the seaborne slave trade became major factors in the crisscrossing interchanges among the four shores of the Atlantic—Western Europe, Western Africa, North America, South America.

But it was Europe and its daughters, too, that first decided to set the slaves free—at home, then in the colonies, finally in all the world. Western technology made slavery unnecessary; Western ideas made it intolerable. There have been many slaveries; there was only one abolition, which eventually shattered even the rooted and ramified slave systems of the Old World.

In all this, as in much else, the discovery of America, for better or for worse, was a turning point in human history, and an essential part of the transition to a modernity that began in Europe and was carried all over the world by European discoverers, conquerors, missionaries, colonists, and, let us not forget, refugees. Far more than the final Christian reconquest of Muslim Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, the contemporary discovery of America ensured, in the long run, the triumph of Europe over its enemies.

The mines of the New World gave European Christendom gold and silver to finance its trade, its wars, and its inventions. The fields and plantations of the Americas gave it new resources and commodities, and enabled Europeans, for the first time, to trade with the Muslims and others as equals, and, ultimately, as superiors. And the very encounter with strange lands and peoples, unknown to history and scripture alike, contributed mightily to the breaking of intellectual molds, and the freeing of the human mind and spirit.

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Why then did the peoples of Europe embark on this vast expansion and, by conquest, conversion, and colonization, attempt to create a Eurocentric world? Was it, as some believe, because of some deep-seated, perhaps hereditary vice—some profound moral flaw?

The question is unanswerable because it is wrongly posed. In setting out to conquer, subjugate, and despoil other peoples, the Europeans were merely following the example set them by their neighbors and predecessors, and indeed conforming to the common practice of mankind. In particular, their attack on the neighboring lands of Islam in Africa and Asia was a clear case of be-done-by-as-you-did. The interesting questions are not why they tried, but why they succeeded—and then why, having succeeded, they repented of their success as of a sin. The success was unique in modern times; the repentance, in all of recorded history.

The attempt was due to their common humanity; their success to some special qualities inherent in the civilization of Europe and its daughters and deficient or lacking in others. No doubt the Europeans had the mixture of appetite, ferocity, smugness, and sense of mission which are essential to the imperial mood, and which they shared with their various imperial predecessors. But they also had something else, which today both the former conquerors, and those whom they conquered and then relinquished, might find it useful to examine.

It has now become customary to designate the larger civilization of which Europe is the source and America the leader as “the West.” In addition to its obvious geographical denotation, this word originally had two overlapping but somewhat different meanings. In its first meaning, the word denoted a military alliance against the Soviet Union, an alliance that included some countries sharing few or none of the basic values of the West and linked to it only by strategic necessity; in its second, the word denoted a comity of like-minded nations sharing certain basic values concerning freedom and decency and human rights, and including neutrals who wished no part of the anti-Soviet alliance.

Today, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, a new, larger, and perhaps even greater Europe may emerge. The West, no longer hemmed in by military needs and constraints, may also aspire to yet greater achievements. But for the moment, among the Europeans and among their children and disciples, especially in North America, the mood of greed and self-confidence has given way to one of satiety, guilt, and doubt.

Doubt is good and, indeed, is one of the mainsprings of Western civilization. It undermines the certitudes that in other civilizations and in earlier stages of our own have fettered thought, weakened or ended tolerance, and prevented the emergence of that cooperation of opponents that we call democracy. It leads to questioning and thus to discoveries, and to new achievements and new knowledge, including the knowledge of other civilizations.

On the other hand, guilt in the modern sense—not a legal decision, but a mental condition—is corrosive and destructive, and is an extreme form of that arrogant self-indulgence that is the deepest and most characteristic flaw of our Western civilization. To claim responsibility for all the ills of the world is a new version of the “white man’s burden,” no less flattering to ourselves, no less condescending to others, than that of our imperial predecessors, who with equal vanity and absurdity claimed to be the source of all that was good.

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A word that is much heard nowadays is “multiculturalism.” Indeed, all cultures have their achievements—their art and music, philosophy and science, literature and styles of life, and other contributions to the advancement of humankind—and there can be no doubt that knowledge of these would benefit us and enrich our lives. The recognition of this infinite human variety, and of the need to study and learn from it, is indeed one of the West’s most creative innovations. For it is only the West that has developed this curiosity about other cultures, this willingness to learn their languages and study their ways, to appreciate and to respect their achievements.

The other great civilizations known to history have all, without exception, seen themselves as self-sufficient, and regarded the outsider, and even the subculture or low-status insider, with contempt, as barbarians, Gentiles, untouchables, unbelievers, foreign devils, and other more intimate, less formal terms of opprobrium. Only under the pressure of conquest and domination did they make the effort to learn the languages of other civilizations and, in self-defense, try to understand the ideas and the ways of the current rulers of their world. They would learn, in other words, from those whom they were constrained to recognize as their masters, in either sense or both, as rulers or as teachers. By contrast, the special combination of unconstrained curiosity concerning the Other, and unforced respect for his otherness, remains a distinctive feature of Western and Westernized cultures, and is still regarded with bafflement and anger by those who neither share nor understand it.

We of the West have often failed catastrophically in respect for those who differ from us, as our dismal record of wars and persecutions may attest. But such respect is something for which we have striven as an ideal, and in which we have achieved some success, both in practicing it ourselves and in imparting it to others. It is surely significant that in the late 1970’s and 1980’s refugees fleeing from Vietnam made for the crowded island of Hong Kong—the one spot in all East Asia where a Western government still ruled, and where they could therefore count on the certainty of public scrutiny and concern, and the consequent hope, however slight, of help.

Imperialism, sexism, and racism are words of Western coinage—not because the West invented these evils, which are, alas, universal, but because the West recognized and named and condemned them as evils and struggled mightily, and not entirely in vain, to weaken their hold and to help their victims. If, to borrow a phrase, Western culture does indeed “go,” imperialism, sexism, and racism will not go with it. More likely casualties will be the freedom to denounce them and the effort to end them.

It may be that Western culture will indeed go: the lack of conviction of many of those who should be its defenders, the passionate intensity of its accusers, may well join to complete its destruction. But if it does go, the men and women of all the continents will thereby be impoverished and endangered.

1 In these, the southern continent is called Libya, not Africa; the other two names are the same.

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