Islam and Europe: Polemics or Engagement?

Swiss Islam

Polemics are poison to interfaith relations. Unfortunately the salve of dialogue and cooperation often fails to make as wide an impression, leaving wary religious communities under the assumption of mutual opposition. Polemics reduces ambiguity and nuance, allowing the non-specialist citizen to appreciate his or her own heritage when challenged by ideologies of a foreign ‘other’. Yet this reduction is achieved in a manner often repulsive to the ‘other’, no matter how much it may be reflective of part of the ideology. The specialist in interfaith relations deals with the complexity, but the audience is often limited. By speaking to the street the polemicist simultaneously comforts and infuriates.

This is very much the situation currently governing the Mediterranean world. Arab Muslims widely believe Europe is dominated by ‘Islamophobia’ – a rejectionist attitude which dismisses their faith. For example, Johannes Jansen, whom I wrote about here concerning his book, ‘Religious Roots of Muslim Violence’, writes concerning their prophet:

Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, may have been born around 570 AD in Mecca and if he existed, he died in Medina around 632 (italics mine).

Questions of historicity in the academic world are proper and legitimate, but Jansen, though a scholar, writes popularly. After first undermining the religion of Islam at its source, he reinforces its oppositional nature through irresponsible generalization:

Also printed testimonies from within the Muslim world abundantly illustrate that in general Muslims (with individual exceptions, one hopes) distrust and hate the West. They see the West as an enemy, and it is their religious background that encourages such judgements.

Critique of such ideas may be found elsewhere, but suffice it to say that when attitudes such as these reach the shores of North Africa and the Middle East, let alone communities of Muslims resident in Europe, interfaith coexistence and cooperation receives a setback.

Jan Slomp

Jan Slomp

This is why the example of European Christian leaders necessitates wider dissemination, especially as concerns their response toward the Muslim minorities in their midst. Jan Slomp is a member of the Advisory Editorial Board of the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, and together with Hans Voecking summarized the history of this interaction. This article is a summary of their essay, ‘The Churches and Islam in Europe’, published in Studies in Interreligious Dialogue, vol. 21, 2011.

Worthy to note is that Christian leaders did not consider the wave of Muslim immigration to be a religious issue at all, in the beginning. Instead, it was a socio-economic challenge, and churches organized to assist. In 1964 Protestant and Orthodox churches founded the Committee for Migrant Workers in Europe, while Roman Catholics formed the International Catholic Migration Committee shortly thereafter. Though these services had a religious subsection, the churches deliberately put priority on service and love before issues of doctrine and belief. They believed the Gospel called them to do so.

It soon became clear to both groups, however, that the presence of Muslim immigrants in particular placed challenges in front of local Christian congregations. In 1976 Christian leaders organized a conference to directly consider the needs of Muslim communities in Europe along with those of traditional Christians vis-à-vis their new neighbors. Ali Merad, an Algerian professor resident in France detailed the Muslim position. They needed in particular:

  • Proper housing
  • Job security
  • Children’s schooling
  • Religious education in public schools
  • Facilities to worship and practice Islamic festivals

Merad argued that by fulfilling these needs the Muslim world would receive a positive view of Christianity and promote reconciliation between Christian Europe and the Muslim Third World. Indigenous Arab Christians, especially, would be indispensable mediators between East and West.

Slomp relates that thirty-five years later, to a large degree, these needs have been largely addressed. Yet the conference also spelled out principles to be implemented in the churches, including:

  • Respect for Muslims requires greater knowledge of their religion
  • Islam and Christianity to be presented correctly
  • Churches establish offices to meet with Muslim representatives

In 1978 Christian leaders recognized many churches were still slow to relate to their Muslim neighbors in witness and service, and thus another conference was held. It tasked three committees to produce reports through which to guide Christian response. The first concerned working together with Muslims to protect and further their basic human rights as a minority community. The second envisioned positive cooperation between the two faiths in confronting secularism as a dominant ideology. The third, however, dealt with theological questions, and failed to reach consensus.

The difficulty in theology led Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox leaders to establish a new organization in 1979, the Consultative Committee on Islam in Europe. A conference held was again motivated to encourage witness and service to Muslim neighbors, but emphasized this was especially in light of their religious freedom and the necessity of social integration. Work was established to create literature for local churches to educate properly about Islam, as well as to highlight instances in which Muslims suffered discrimination. Issues of theology, however, continued to be contentious.

Most Christian leaders in these meetings were challenging themselves to respond positively to the message of Islam as a partner in monotheism. Though keen not to water down the distinctives of Christian theology, many urged Muhammad to be accepted as a prophet within the continuing Old Testament tradition. Leaders emphasized common positions on ethics and urged cooperation in promoting spirituality. Hope was expressed that Muslims might continue to honor Jesus and be attracted to him, within an eschatological position where God would ‘restore all things (also all things Islamic transformed by him) in heaven and on earth into a unity in Christ’.

Such positions made many local churches uncomfortable, as they felt Islam was being made too akin to Christianity, which might lower the barriers for conversion away from the faith. No firm positions were taken, but in 1987 the Islam in Europe Committee was formed between Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants to improve Islamic studies in all seminaries and theological faculties in Europe for the benefit of ordinary congregations, among others, by inviting Muslim teachers. In particular they wished to move beyond studies of comparative religion by allowing space for Quranic studies into the curriculum for Biblical studies, by which Islam might integrate into every aspect of theological inquiry.

However much the committee influenced local congregations, it was disbanded in 2009 in light of two encouraging developments. First, it was noticed that many churches by this time had incorporated an Islam desk to engage their congregants and communities. Second, the formal work of local churches in regional conferences was honored, as local leaders gathered to consult and exchange experiences. Across the continent churches had become aware of the peculiarities of these now Muslim citizens, and were engaging with them for the common good.

The differences in approach are apparent. Polemicists begin by viewing these newcomers to Europe as a religious other, make generalizations about their faith, emphasize points of departure, and establish a foundation of fear and opposition. While undoubtedly Christian people have engaged in such polemics, the Christian leadership of Europe has taken a different approach. They began by serving the humanity of these immigrants, subsequently recognizing the implications of their religious differences. Yet instead of opposition they sought understanding, integration, support for human rights, and even pushed the boundaries of Christian theology to find common ground.

In brief evaluation, if there were faults in the efforts of Christian leaders, it lies in the level of popular engagement. Polemicists have enough academic study to be accredited as experts, but their strength lies in simplification and mass appeal. Their message is also easily translatable through the media. European Christian leaders, on the other hand, hosted conferences, formed committees, and issued recommendations. These are not the avenues to reach the common man. Furthermore, in accepting the challenge to engage theology with Islam, they threatened the simple faith of the local believer. This can well aid the polemicist who reinforces popular belief through fear, now also of ‘compromising’ leadership.

Yet these Christian leaders are no ivory tower theoreticians. Each and every step was calculated to form wide councils of all denominational leadership, with an eye toward speaking toward the common man. Such broad consultation and engagement is done to build a network that can withstand media-driven and politicized polemicists. They printed literature and nurtured regional networks of pastors and priests. They assured the predominant message from the pulpit was one of engagement and respect. This is slow work which does not command attention. Yet despite the popularity of polemicists, it was noted that nearly all Muslim essential needs as a minority community have been met. Where this is lacking, especially as regards full integration, there may be indication the Christian message has fallen on the deaf ears of a secular population still Christian in heritage. This is a fertile ground for polemicism.

Unfortunately, there are polemicists in the Muslim world also. Despite the successes of Christian leaders in welcoming the Muslim ‘other’, many are quick to highlight Jansen or others as typical of a dominant European rejectionism. Yet the reasoned attitude in the Muslim world regards Europe as a place of freedom and equality, where Muslims have largely shared in a better life. Economics above all determine voting by the feet – immigrants continue to pour into Europe – but without the foundation of welcome labored for by Christian leaders over many decades, they might not be so eager to come.

Yet it is France’s niqab ban or Switzerland’s forbiddance of minarets that pervades common Muslim perception of Europe, aided by local polemicists. Has Murad’s prediction failed, that European attention to Muslim immigrant needs would reflect positively on Christianity and foster reconciliation? Slomp demurs that over this same time period the position of indigenous Christians in the Middle East has not improved. He takes no position on Muslim world reciprocity towards Europe, at least in this essay.

Yet this question highlights the seductive danger of polemics. ‘We’ are better than ‘they’ is the lens through which it is asked. The superiority of self and kin is inherent to human nature; Christian leaders have demonstrated the spirit of their faith is to overcome it.

Service, welcome, equality, and love – this is what the Europe Christian leaders have sought to build. In dialogue with Muslims, they may just find the ‘other’ intends the same. Jansen may doubt, but it is only through engagement that truth is discovered. Faith demands such risk; it is the salve that undoes the poison.

This essay was first published in Arab West Report in February 2012.

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