THE FUTURE OF EUROPE In Islam’: that was the title of the panel discussion that the Muslim Youth Helpline hosted almost a year ago in London. The controversial nature of the title was likely the point; in the year preceding it, most of the conferences relating to the Muslim community were incredibly depressing, and usually reactionary.
Not that one, where for once the problems regarding in- tegration, radicalism and so forth were not the sole empha- sis when discussing Europe and its Muslim communities. More positive attitudes emerged, with speakers indicating they had high hopes. High hopes for Muslim communities in Europe and high hopes for the contribution of Muslim Europeans to Islam, just as Muslim Arabs, Muslim Africans and Muslim Asians had contributed to Islam in the past. But there was a clearly articulated thread that evening: they also had high hopes for Europe as a whole, as integral parts of it. They did not have any interest in building a Europe that they were not integral parts of.
I use the word “integralization” to describe a process by which communities do not “integrate”, “assimilate” or “segregate” into/from their societies, but go beyond those paradigms. The basic premise is that an integral community is not a separate, distinct community from the mainstream, but is identifiable on the basis of its core principles. It is not so much the “melting pot” principle, but something a little different; instead of becoming another piece of lettuce in the salad bowl of society, the integral community is a vinegar that seasons and invigorates the whole salad in a subtle, yet deeply felt manner.
On Monday 24th September 2006, Pope Benedict XVI met with a delegation of leaders from Muslim countries to discuss his recent comments in Germany that caused a huge uproar when he repeated the words of a medieval Byzantine Emperor that described the Prophet as violent. That saga is now thankfully no longer front-page news; the Pope went to Turkey in November, and essentially “buried the hatchet” with many Muslims by his great deference to the Muslim community during that visit.
Yet, the account of the reactions to the Pope’s speech was surprising in that most did not realize that the most relevant long-term issue to Muslim communities was not this citation. Were the Pope intent on insulting Muslims, he would have chosen another forum to do so, and he certainly would not have retracted such comments. On the contrary, he could have made a harsher statement, and stuck to it, and likely receiving enough support from the European mainstream to make it bearable. (In this sense, Muslims responding with violence in some areas merely proved that they agreed with the violent image they were supposedly protesting about.)
The Pope certainly has a perspective on Islam and Muslims, which is based on five main points, as follows.
In the Vatican’s public policy Islam is not so much a violent threat, as it is an external non-European reality that Europe must engage with. Sometimes that engagement is positive. The Pope’s political stances on the Muslim world are often in its favor: he opposed the war on Iraq; he opposed the Danish cartoons; and supported the people of Lebanon in its recent conflict with Israel. It does not appear he is aligning the Vatican with any existing negative political agenda elsewhere although, like much of the world, he fears radical violent tendencies.
The Pope has decided to focus more on ecumenical activity within Christian groups (Orthodox, in particular) and less on dialogue with Islam than his predecessor; this is clear from his internal restructuring of the Vatican and its staff in this area. Most poignantly, in February of this year, he reassigned the Vatican’s top experts on Islam from his position as the head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue to representing the Vatican to Egypt and the Arab League. This was a move seen by many to be a demotion, and his name was conspicuously missing from the list of appointments to the College of Cardinals revealed a few days before his reassignment. That Council was also merged with the Pontifical Council for Culture, instead of having its own distinct realm of responsibility.
This Pope is a traditionalist who supported the reforms of Vatican II: i.e., he does not consider modernity to be completely beneficial, but accepts that the Church has to update itself in order to properly engage modernity. He may recognize Islam as a possible ally in that engagement, but at present, he separates that from the future of European civilisation.
That qualified recognition is not unconditional; the Pope is cautious about the prospects of Islam being an ally against modernity without it engaging in some sort of re-interpretation process. At a private meeting earlier this year between the Pope and some of his consultants on Islam, he viewed the reconciliation between Islam and modernity to be possible, but difficult. It does not appear the Catholic Church favours a “Reformation”, for itself or Islam. Yet, just as the Church underwent Vatican II in the 1960s, it may positively envisage some sort of internal Muslim “Re-evaluation”.
Beyond Europe, it is clear that the Catholic Church has realised that Muslims provide a serious alternative in Central and West Africa. Catholicism remains a missionary religion, and its sophistication does not (and need not) preclude its competing with Islam for converts.
None of this constitutes a “crusade” against Islam. Even while a re-evaluation idea could easily become quite dangerous, for even while it is clear modernity has wrought changes in the world that have yet to be comprehensively engaged with from within the Muslim world, what is modern-day radical extremism but a re-evaluation of Islam?
No, this very deeply European Pope is waging another crusade, and it is about Europe and Europe’s soul. He has identified Europe as suffering from an internal crisis of identity: on what moral basis does Europe exist? His record, such as those collected in the discourse between him and the President of the Italian Senate in Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity and Islam, indicates he is anxious regarding the moral compass of Europe, for without it, European civilization is unsustainable. In particular, he identifies an ethical void in a continent where moral relativism has taken root, and which should be filled by an emphasis on the Christian roots of European ethical culture. In a continent where so many are struggling with the concept of what a cohesive, healthy society means in the absence of a common meta-narrative, this is a discussion that is slowly gaining support. It has traditionally been the domain of the far right (which explains its success lately), but it is fast becoming an issue of concern for the whole political spectrum.
The Pope’s speech must be read in this light. He wants to save Europe from a moral void that cuts out what European values are based on. Muslim communities, as communities based on absolute moral codes, are appropriate partners in that endeavour. In that sense, his concern about moral relativism is not about Islam.
But actually, it is about Islam. Because in his speech, the Pope makes an implicit argument, which is explicit elsewhere: Islam has not been an integral part of past European civilization except as an external negative element, and the future is not going to be much different. Muslims can and should exist in peace and harmony, but their religion and their community are not indigenous and not an integral, positive part of the European story, past or present.
Somehow, most Muslim commentators inside and outside of Europe missed this, although one or two notable exceptions, such as Tariq Ramadan in the UK, and Habib ‘Ali alJifri in the Emirates, alluded to this.
In reality, this is the element in the Vatican’s present policy that will cause ripples for decades to come, as will similar policies in European states. Multiculturalism is being questioned by the European mainstream on the suspicion of being too relativistic. In the course of their negative response to the lack of an absolute in multiculturalism, many Europeans have decided that they must arrive at a rigid and narrow definition of a moral absolute on which to base their culture. In this mindset, the Muslim presence in Europe is problematic since, as an essentially foreign ingrethent, it interrupts the reinforcement of the fabric of European identity. Inclusiveness is no longer a priority; the inclusion of many communities that do not fit into that pre-conceived mythical fabric is easily sacrificed.
Nor is historical accuracy; the rejection of the Muslim component in the building of European culture and heritage over 1400 years is left by the wayside in this discussion.
As Europe comes to the next phase of its history, there is certainly a discussion that must ensue as to the formation of its future. Europeans have accepted that respect for diversity and inclusion of difference is important (it took us long enough), and they are now at the stage of deciding how much respect and inclusion into what exactly.
If we are truthful about our history, then we will recognize that Islam and Muslims, amongst other elements, have played key roles in our development in the past: not only as limited external challenges as “Other”, but also as integral positive ingredients as “Us”. A European story based on a lie does not make for a good basis for the renewal of European civilization, and will be rejected by communities that do want to be a part of it.
Out of all those communities, it is the Muslim community who has the most to lose if it does not take the challenge of rejuvenating Europe from within seriously. If demographic projections are to be believed, the Muslim population in Europe will continue to be highly significant numerically, and if European society develops in a way that they are perpetually regarded as “the Other” from within, the results could be disastrous. This was, after all, the first phase in the long dehumanization process that led to the Holocaust, and to the destruction of Muslim communities in Spain centuries before.
If we are serious about rejuvenating Europe, we cannot entertain a superficial and shallow definition of what it means to be a European, relativizing it to the point of meaninglessness – it will not work. We also cannot allow ourselves to be cowed into accepting too narrow a demarcation that goes beyond restoring an ethical core. Otherwise, we risk rejecting our real partners in building a better Europe for all Europeans, for tomorrow, and for the world.
Civilizations have always had to balance themselves in finding a mean. The Pope knows this well; that is, after ail, his main argument. Where his argument becomes narrower is how that mean is arrived at. The historian Arnold Toynbee argued that the growth of every civilisation had two elements: a challenge, and a “creative minority” that could respond to that challenge. Who that “creative minority” will be in Europe is certainly not a foregone conclusion. All communities would do well to remember that.