Possibilities, dangers of Islam’s rise in Europe

  • October 12, 2007
{mosimage}God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe’s Religious Crisis by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 340 pages, hardcover $31.95).

They thought he was a cranky crackpot in his time, but Hillaire Belloc’s 1938 prophecy has come back to haunt Europe today: “Anyone with a knowledge of history is bound to ask himself whether we shall not see in the future a revival of Mohammedan political power, and the renewal of the old pressure of Islam upon Christendom.”

For a Europe wracked by Nazism, fascism and communism, the rise of Islam seemed farfetched. Today, not so much.

While Sept. 11, 2001, jolted North Americans awake to terrorism with an Islamic colouration, Europe has been dealing with the issue for some years. Since 9/11 the countries of Western Europe have had their own terror tragedies, including massive bombings in London and Madrid and riots in France. There have been murders by Islamic fanatics, street protests, threats of violence and examples aplenty of mosques where the sermon fare is often laced with exhortations to violence.
{sa 019531395X}The rise of Islamic militancy has fostered a whole library shelf of books over the so-called Islamicization of Europe. Some go so far as to call the continent Eurabia and predict massive upheaval in the years to come.

Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University, has waded into this debate with God’s Continent. It is the third in a series on the future of Christianity, following on studies of the growth of Christianity in the developing world (The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity). In this analysis of the rifts between Europe’s secular culture and its religious adherents, Jenkins steers away from either apocalyptic pronouncements or Pollyanna reassurance. Instead, he offers a well-documented and reasoned discussion of both the dangers and possibilities.

Jenkins carefully documents the rise in the population of Muslims in Europe and their transformation from intimidated new immigrants to a noisy and — at times — threatening underclass. Currently the 29 old and new members of the European Union contain almost 17 million Muslims, comprising about five per cent of the population. At current growth rates, it is conceivable that the EU will be 10 per cent Muslim in the near future. In some countries, and certainly in many larger cities, the Muslim population will constitute much larger and  more politically powerful communities. By comparison, there are more than 600,000 Muslims in Canada — about two per cent of our 33 million.

Such figures, however, shed very little light on what this means for Europe. As Jenkins observes, to lump all Muslims together as having similar cultural and religious outlooks would be like lumping all Christians together and arguing that their behaviour and political attitudes are all the same. The moniker “Eurabia” is highly misleading in that many of Europe’s Muslims come from Turkey and Morocco, not to mention the Balkans where thousands fled the civil war that destroyed Yugoslavia. Though having the same religion as immigrants from the Middle East, they share few cultural traits or preoccupations.

Also, Jenkins notes that many Muslims — particularly second- and third-generation Europeans — are about as attached to the religion of their grandparents’ homelands as are many Christians: that is, not very. Like so many others, they have adopted the cultural habits and preoccupations of their mainstream, largely secular, surroundings.

Finally, it needs to be said that the vast majority of Muslims living in Europe are just as appalled at their violent co-religionists as everyone else.

A little caution: while it is tempting to call such Muslims “moderates,” Jenkins argues that the term really has little meaning. Serious Muslims can reject violent jihad and terrorism, but still be devout practitioners of their faith. And, in fact, they often hold the same moral views on such matters as homosexuality and abortion as many devout Christians. It is too simplistic to think in terms of “moderate = good, devout = bad” in either case.

Europe has now had decades of experience with Muslim immigrants. Earlier expectations were that the immigrants would integrate into secular society, gradually weakening the ties to their faith and adopting the values of mainstream Europe, with its tolerance of diversity, freedom, democracy, open sexuality and consumerism. As they adapted to European culture, their once-high birth rates would also drop to come in line with European norms.

While there is evidence that many Muslims have gone that route, the experience is not universal. In fact, there is alarming evidence of a radicalization of Europe’s Muslims as they find that they cannot easily break into European culture. Alienated from the mainstream, they fall back on the common identity found in their religion. The young, especially,  become more amenable to imams preaching a form of radical Islam that sees European culture as not only dying but actually deadly. Even if only a tiny percentage of Muslims are drawn into such circles and join terrorist cells, their impact can be enormous, Jenkins notes.

On the other side of the ledger, Jenkins sees the potential for a more potent Islam to help rejuvenate Christianity in Europe. In the early part of the book he documents the rise of Christian movements, of devotional practices and of a new assertiveness to defend the faith displayed by such religious leaders as Pope Benedict XVI. While Christian practice has waned considerably, it is far from dead and still wields considerable influence. He sees the potential for a Christianity prodded by Islam not only as a rival, but also as an ally on key moral issues. Faced with a secular culture that seeks to oppress overt displays of religious faith that run counter to mainstream values, Christians and Muslims will likely find themselves on the same team more often as time goes by.

When the objective truth claims of religions collide head-on with a dominant culture which acts as if there is no such thing as truth, things get messy. In Europe, the situation is surely messy as a pluralistic society struggles to meet the legitimate needs and aspirations of all its members, old and new. Jenkins aptly describes this complexity, hiding none of its ugliness, while in the end offering hope.

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