The Paris attack and the shootings in San Bernardino have caused an outburst of anti-Muslim sentiment in both Europe and the USA, respectively. Both have been reflected in mainstream rightist political gains, with the former showing in the unprecedented success of the Front National in the French regional polls, and the latter behind the call of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for a ban on the entry of Muslims to the USA. There are signs that the response of the West to one of the worst refugee crises in the last century is the further solidification, in the words of the British historian Arnold Toynbee, of the limines into the limites.

According to Toynbee, whose massive Study of History represents the acme of the attempts by metahistorians to make sense of what all of that data meant, and who wrote between the two World War, propounded that the basic unit of historical study was not the nation, but the civilisation. It is interesting, macabrely because of the Paris attack, that the example he gave was that of France, which he said was not always a separate state, but once was a province of the Roman Empire. He observed how the ancient Classical civilisation had a limines, or a boundary, which was broad and permeable, and defined by how far the people practiced the civilisation. He wrote at a time when that was how European civilisation functioned. Upto World War II, the main constraint on travel to the centres of European civilisation was economic, and visas were not a problem. However, Toynbee described how that limines became a limites, a boundary, with free movement restricted. The civilisation established, in short, border controls. In particular, the Roman Empire stopped German barbarians from moving from the savage north of the Rhine to the civilised South. How the Greeks, and then the Italians, resisted the barbarians, is one of the themes of Classical history. And the Germans were very persistent. In the end, they won: Rome was sacked in 410 AD by the Goths, a Germanic tribe. The barbarians broke through the limites.

Modern Europe has seen a lot of wars, and that has meant the drawing of boundaries, as well as the setting up of checkpoints. After World War II, there was also an Iron Curtain across the Continent. That meant that the Schengen idea, in which the EU members who opted in, as well as the non-EU members who joined in, have all abolished mutual passport controls, was a reversion to the 19th century. However, there are now signs that the Schengen Agreement, first made in 1995, is beginning to fray, as under the pressure of the refugee influx, states are beginning to restore border controls. The whole idea of the Schengen agreement was to create a zone where there were no passport controls, thus enabling a free flow of people, including both labour and investors, throughout Europe.

However, even before the Front National’s recent success in the regional elections, things were moving in the Schengen area, and against the refugees, without benefit of any massacres. The measures introduced are supposed to be temporary, just as the ban Trump proposes on Muslims, but they have come into force. It should be noted that even before the refugee crisis or the Paris attacks, the entry of Muslims to the West was increasingly restricted. This was done by a visa regime, and agreements with the countries of origin to accept back deportees. If the home countries refuse to accept back their citizens, problems could ensue, as shown by the recent Pakistani refusal to accept deportees.

However, in the murky underworld of ‘illegal aliens’, once one is past border controls, one has arrived. The West, as a road to prosperity, has a strong pull for citizens of Muslim countries, suppressed, brutalized, and treated as second-class citizens. Even if one is treated as a second-class citizen in a foreign country, the hope that one’s children will get better chances is powerful as an incentive. However, the whole of Europe is now acting to tighten intra-Schengen border controls. Germany introduced border controls on September 13, and has extended them to mid-February. So have the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as has Austria on the border with Hungary. It has also announced it will build a fence on the border with Slovenia. The Netherlands has introduced selective checks, while Sweden introduced border checks from November 12, as did France on November 30. Schengen countries on the borders of the area have increased their controls there recently, especially Hungary and Slovenia.

This restriction on movement is a result of the Westphalian concept of the sovereign state. Before the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, states existed under the Almighty. The Treaty was between sovereign entities, and because of the Catholic-Protestant divide, the Almighty was out of it. Those entities, at that time limited to Europe, went global by imperialist expansion involving both the setting up of colonies and the conquest of existing states. When they gave those colonies independence, they did so to Westphalian sovereign states. Though the Westphalian state only dated back to 1648, it had taken over the world. All the concepts of isolated independence, including food autarky and a positive trade balance, were based on this model of the state, even though there were previous models, which continue to be influential today.

Toynbee evolved his idea in the context of a creative minority successfully meeting the challenges that confront a civilization, and of a ‘Time of Troubles’ occurring within the history of a civilization. The ‘Time of Troubles’ occurs because the creative minority’ fails to meet some challenge or the other. One aspect of the ‘Time of Troubles’ afflicting Western civilization were the two world wars, but another is the desire of people beyond the limites to get in and enjoy the benefits of civilization (remember why the Great Wall of China was built?). One solution would be to extend the benefits of civilization so that there is either none or much less pressure to get into the desired civilization centre. As Donald Trump has shown, it is not just Muslims who want to get into the USA, but also Mexicans. (They were a previous target: he wanted to build a wall to keep them out.) In fact, everyone wants to enjoy the perceived benefits of Western civilization. If a revival of Islam was to create a dynamic where Muslims would not want to go to the West, the Trumps would complain that the USA was no longer ‘Number One’, but not only would much fewer people would want to go to the West. Trump’s posturing against Mexicans won him attention, but his anti- Muslim position is widely supported, as shown by popular reaction to the recent Republican debate.

The benefits of civilization need not be restricted to a particular kind. It can be achieved by the return of a civilization which has greater roots in the people, and thus is more likely to produce the desired result: a better life. The Trumps of the world should not take too much out of their conversion of limines into limites. After all, if Rome could be sacked, can the West not fall too? Before the other side crows too loud, it is worth remarking that the conversion of the frontier into an impermeable one means that the fall is centuries away. But when that fall happens, all that will remain will be ruins. Even now, the Roman ruins remain to remind the 21st century that a civilization might be mighty, but will still collapse.

 The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.