Philip Jenkins begs to differ. But first a word on the discussion that prompts his dissent. Over the years, First Things has devoted substantial attention to the thesis that Europe is a dying continent. In the fine phrase of David Hart, Europe is dying of “metaphysical boredom.” We were among the first to give a sympathetic hearing to the work of Bat Y’eor, who argues that Europe is, probably irreversibly, on the way to becoming “Eurabia.” Catastrophically low birth rates, combined with a burgeoning Muslim population, led the sage Bernard Lewis to comment in 2004: “Current trends show that Europe will have a Muslim majority by the end of the twenty-first century at the latest . . . . Europe will be part of the Arab West”the Maghreb.”

Then there was George Weigel’s “Europe’s Problem”and Ours” (February 2004), later expanded into his influential book The Cube and the Cathedral , in which he asks us to envision the prospect of a “Europe in which the muezzin summons the faithful to prayer from the central loggia of St. Peter’s in Rome, while Notre Dame has been transformed into Hagia Sophia on the Seine”a great Christian church become an Islamic museum.” Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum writes in National Interest that Europe is faced with three choices, two of them very stark: peaceful integration of its Muslim population; a reversal of immigration policy, joined to a brutal campaign to expel Muslims; or an Islamic takeover of Europe. And then there is Mark Steyn in America Alone , who says the takeover is already unstoppable. Bat Y’eor, Bernard Lewis, George Weigel, Daniel Pipes, Mark Steyn”with varying levels of scholarship and restraint”suggest little or nothing for Europe’s comfort. Other authors could be added to the list. Lawrence Wright in Looming Tower , Melanie Phillips in Londonistan , Bruce Bawer in While Europe Slept , Ian Buruma in Murder in Amsterdam , and, or so it seems, a grim new book-length diagnosis of Europe’s terminal illness almost every other week.

Enter Philip Jenkins with God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis . This is the third volume of his ambitious trilogy examining religion in global perspective. There was The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity , followed by The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South , which was his subject for our 2006 Erasmus Lecture published in our January 2007 issue. In God’s Continent , Jenkins seeks to counter what he views as the excessively dismal, even alarmist, analyses of the future of Europe.

As one has come to expect from Jenkins, God’s Continent is chock-full of information. It seems he has read nearly everything pertinent to his subject. His is an argument of many parts. For instance, “both Christianity and Islam face real difficulties in surviving within Europe’s secular cultural ambience in anything like their familiar historic forms.” Both will have to adapt to what sociologist Peter Berger calls “Eurosecularity,” and, in fact, both are doing just that. Economically, Europe will continue to need large numbers of immigrants, particularly to support its welfare states with aging native populations. Immigrants will mainly be Muslim, and, while their birth rate is high, and much higher in their native countries, the rate among second-and third-generation immigrants in Europe is falling.

But alarm about population change is an old story. Jenkins writes: “A century ago, European thinkers were deeply disturbed about the racial degeneration of their populations, as population decline among the best stock threatened to leave the future to outsiders and lesser breeds. Prophecies that Islam would overwhelm Christian Europe also have a long history, and the predictions carry heavy ideological agendas.” Throughout the book, on population and other worrying developments, Jenkins suggests that we’ve been here before and things did not turn out so badly as many had predicted.

Nations can handle large minorities, he notes. For instance, if we count African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians as minorities, 30 percent of the U.S. population today is minority, and it will probably be 50 percent by 2050. Eight to 10 percent of France today is Muslim, and the figure is about 5 percent if you take Europe as a whole. Moreover, more than a third of the Muslims are not immigrants but long-established populations in countries such as Bulgaria, Albania, and the former Yugoslavia. Then, too, many Muslim young people are as rapidly secularizing as their Christian counterparts.

Jenkins makes frequent comparison with the American experience: “Though in retrospect we regard the assimilation of American Catholics as inevitable, it would have appeared incredible in the 1920s or 1930s, quite as astonishing as any modern suggestion that Europe’s Muslims would within a few decades share many of the values of their old-stock neighbors. The decades-long story of American integration provides a rather different perspective on contemporary laments about Europe’s alleged failure to integrate its own ethnic minorities in a far shorter time span. Let us make a fair comparison: Just how well was the United States doing with assimilation in, say, 1925?”

He admits that it will probably be a “bumpy ride” for Europe. Much depends on whether Muslims continue to identify themselves primarily as Muslims. “If the poor and deprived come to link their condition to their religious identity”if the young, poor, and Muslim overtly confront the old, well-off, and Christian”then Europe would face a quite different, and far grimmer, future, which we could term Lebanese rather than American.” To be sure, Europe has had a very different historical experience with minorities, as witness the fate of the Jews. (He does not mention the millions of radically unassimilated gypsies.) Today Jews are some 0.25 percent of Europe’s population, and they will likely decline further. True, the number of Jews in Germany, now more than 200,000, is growing, but that is a consequence of immigration from Russia.

Jenkins devotes much attention to the putative death of Christianity in Europe, underscoring evidences of renewal here and there, sometimes sparked by new international movements (often Catholic) and even giving birth to a few “megachurches” in Great Britain. Yet there is no doubt about the general and dramatic institutional decline, as well as a widespread sense of alienation from Europe’s Christian history. “But institutional weakness,” he writes, “is not necessarily the same as total religious apathy, and among all the grim statistics, there are some surprising signs of life. European Christians, after all, have the longest experience of living in a secular environment, and some at least attempt quite successfully to evolve religious structures far removed from the older assumptions of Christendom. Contrary to widespread assumptions, then, rising Islam will not be expanding into an ideological or religious vacuum.”

Jenkins is much impressed by the vitality of Catholicism in Poland and by the religious rejuvenation in Western Europe and Great Britain occasioned by immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. “Recognizing the global opportunities, Polish dioceses and seminaries are exporting priests in large numbers, making a special point of teaching them the English language they will need to evangelize Britain or Ireland. Poland in the twenty-first century seems poised to fulfill the role in the global Catholic Church that Ireland did a century ago.”

In general, Europe is not necessarily as secular as it appears to be. Here he draws on the work of Grace Davie and others to the effect that the European phenomenon is one of “believing without belonging.” At the same time, Jenkins knows that not too much comfort is to be drawn from survey research suggesting that Europeans are still residually Christian. “Such evidence for ‘latent faith’ does not necessarily offer comfort for Christians in the longer term, as it is not clear how many decades cultural memories can survive. Residual Christianity may be in reasonable health a generation or so after institutional structures went into free fall, but the situation in thirty or forty years could be very different. We might presently be seeing only a transitional phase in religious decline, on the path from active affiliation to total indifference. Still, the picture of sudden Christian decline is more complex than it initially appears.” At times, Jenkins directly challenges the prophets of the death of Europe; at other times, he simply claims that the situation is more complex than they suggest.

Perspectives are skewed also, he says, by the elitism that marks the leadership of European societies. This is especially true with respect to the perceived decline of Christianity. “To draw a parallel with the official ‘European’ views on religion, we would have to imagine a United States in which all media reflected the socially liberal values of the New York Times , Washington Post , or Boston Globe , and in which most forms of conservative or charismatic religious expression were greeted with puzzlement, if not disdain. The United States has much more active religious practice than does Europe, but with its very diverse media, it also has far better means of seeing the religious life that is actually going on.” Too many American observers take at face value what is said about European secularization by Europeans who are ideological proponents of secularization.

Jenkins offers a fine historical sketch of Christian-Muslim relations, countering the bizarre but widespread notion that Islam has typically been the victim of Christian assertiveness. “Through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Turks dominated most of the southeastern quadrant of Europe, and in 1683, they came very close to capturing Vienna, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire.” At several points, he credits the prescience of Hilaire Belloc, who wrote in the 1930s about the unnatural subservience of Islam to the West and why it could not last. Jenkins writes: “Edward Said’s writings on Orientalism can be criticized on many fronts, but he was most radically off-target when he suggested that ‘the West’ had dominated ‘the East’ consistently for the past 2,000 years.”

But the growth of Islam in Europe today has causes different from an ongoing struggle against Christianity. Jenkins offers an extended discussion under the title “The Empires Come Home.” France, Britain, and the Netherlands ruled empires with large Muslim populations and, with decolonization, the idea that these peoples were citizens of the empire entitled them to a place in “the home country.”

There was also the desperate economic need for workers. “The forces driving Muslim immigration were so overwhelming that there is no reason to imagine the conspiracy theory devised by Bat Y’eor and since popularized by Oriana Fallaci and others, which suggests that European elites collaborated with Arab states to create a Eurabian federation spanning the Mediterranean. Given the economic forces demanding labor and the political factors conditioning supply, it would be difficult to imagine any outcome much different from what actually occurred. In the United States, similarly, any significant relaxation of immigration laws would inevitably have drawn in millions of Mexican workers, regardless of what any government or private cabal planned or desired.” (One notes in passing that the influx of millions of illegal immigrants from Mexico is not a hypothetical about what might have happened but a massive fact on the ground.)

“Nobody can deny,” writes Jenkins, “that European nations in coming decades will have to take account of aspects of Muslim culture, or rather of the north African and Asian cultures brought by Muslim immigrants; but that is quite different from envisioning wholesale Islamization . . . . Yet matters are not so terrifying [as many contend]. While sections of European Islam in recent years have acquired a strongly militant and politicized character, we have to understand this as a response to temporary circumstances; moreover, hard-line [Islamic] approaches still command only minority support. In the longer term, the underlying pressures making for accommodation and tolerance will prove hard to resist.”

That is Jenkins’ somewhat sanguine prognosis. He bases it on many factors. For instance, he says the religious fervor of most Muslims in Europe is greatly exaggerated. Secularization is taking the same toll among Muslims as among Christian young people. In dealing with Muslims, European states make the mistake of treating chiefly with the clergy, who are often in the pay of foreign powers such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and are not representative of most Muslims. In general, he says it is a mistake to treat Muslims as Muslims when, in fact, they are poor and marginalized immigrants who, in most cases, are only incidentally Muslims. He takes heart from “moderate” Muslim scholars who are subjecting the Qur’an to the same critical scholarship employed by Christians in dealing with their sacred texts. He cites approvingly Bassam Tibi, who urges Muslims to accept the terms of the Leitkultur (the guiding culture) of their new home. Bassam writes: “Religion may, of course, be practiced privately, but in public only citizenship counts. Such a concept would unite Muslims with non-Muslims.”

Jenkins is much taken with Tariq Ramadan, the celebrated writer who has said, “In my memories, I’m Egyptian; in my citizenship, I’m Swiss; in my belief, I’m Muslim.” According to Ramadan, Muslims must abandon the ancient division between dar al-Islam and dar-al harb , the world of Islam and the world of war. Rather, the non-Muslim world should be viewed as dar al-da’wa , the world of proclamation in which Muslims spread their teachings by peaceful example. Jenkins observes, “For Muslims to accept these principles in France would mark a milestone; applying them to many Muslim nations would constitute a revolution.” Jenkins returns again to his theme of complexity: “Yet the religious situation is much more complex than it might appear. While radicals and militants flourish, their opponents are numerous and significant, and so are the historical forces working against extremism.”

“Moreover,” he writes, “societies can and do survive with severe underlying tensions: How many Americans would have believed in 1968 that the dreadful wave of urban race riots would soon pass, and that similar events would not become an enduring feature of American life?” Yes, Muslims in Europe are deeply entrenched in the criminal underclass, but that is a feature of being poor and marginal, not of being Muslim. Yes, Muslims engage in suicide bombings, but that, too, is not specifically Muslim. It is a tactic first developed by Hindu Tamil extremists and only later adopted by Muslim extremists. Yes, most Muslims in the world bear a deep prejudice against Jews, but, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 71 percent of French Muslims and 38 percent of German Muslims have favorable attitudes toward Jews.

That a crime is committed by a Muslim does not make it a Muslim crime. Atrocities committed by Muslims are not necessarily religiously motivated. Jenkins notes that “the vast majority of Americans who rioted in the nation’s cities in the 1960s were Christians, but nobody referred to them as ‘Christian’ riots.” So also the riots in France in fall 2005 are more aptly viewed not as a war between Muslims and secular society, never mind Christian society, but as a conflict between rich and poor.

Of course, there are laws that come into conflict with specifically Muslim beliefs and customs. Honor killings, forced marriages, and polygamy pose real problems. “Although France officially prohibited polygamy in 1993, current estimates suggest that anywhere from 150,000 to 400,000 residents, many from Mali and neighboring north African countries, still live in polygamous households.” On the other hand, France and other countries are redefining marriage to include same-sex and other arrangements. “If two men or two women can be married, the logical grounds for prohibiting heterosexual polygamy are eroded.” So long as laws against polygamy are not enforced, there is no need for a clash of cultures.

It is said that Muslims are unacceptably “homophobic,” but Jenkins notes that there are many gay and lesbian Muslims, and societies of north Africa and south Asia “have powerful traditions of same-sex relationships and pederasty,” and such practices are routinely tolerated so long as they are discreet in public. On these and many other scores, says Jenkins, “the modern European encounter with Islam is not as ominous as is often alleged, and perceptions of a naked clash of civilizations are wide of the mark.” In dealing with socially unacceptable practices of some Muslims, “European countries probably have erred too much on the side of tolerance and are now correcting their mistakes, but that does not mean that their strategy was wholly wrong.”

Our perspective should be complexified by a sense of history. Recall the wave of Palestinian terrorism that swept Europe from 1970 to 1976, including the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. These things come and go. It’s not a matter of how many extremists there are who might want to do bad things. During Britain’s long struggle in Northern Ireland, the Provisional IRA never had more than five hundred people engaged in violent actions. British security services say they have their eye on 1,600 Muslim militants who might do real damage. When one considers that so few can wreak so much havoc, “the mystery is not so much why

Europe has been the setting for repeated terrorist violence but why so little of it has occurred to date.” To be sure, the Madrid and London bombings were “horrifying,” but Jenkins underscores that such events are also very rare.

Europeans want Muslims to assimilate, but assimilate to what? A Muslim feminist declares: “Someone once asked me if Germany was my homeland. I could only say that not even Germans consider Germany their homeland. How are we supposed to integrate in a place like that?” Immigrants come to America to be part of “the American dream.” As a French writer in Liberation puts it, “There is no French, Dutch, or other European dream. You emigrate here to escape poverty, and nothing more.” Despite his frequent citing of analogies with the American experience, Jenkins at other points underscores the differences: “America’s strong sense of national identity owes much to what is still a broad underlying consensus about rights and values. In the United States, a person who advocates undemocratic or intolerant views is condemned as un-American and violating the principles of the Constitution to which all swear allegiance . . . . Europe offers nothing comparable and shows no sign of doing so . . . . Arguably, if a ‘mainstream’ set of values can be deduced from the last 150 years or so of European history, they would be authoritarian, military, and hyper-nationalistic, rather than pluralist and liberal.”

That says a great deal about Europe but very little about specifically Muslim extremism. Again, he says, the mistake is to focus on the religion factor. Yet elsewhere Jenkins holds out the possibility that “the contact with Islam could also inspire a rethinking of Christian roots and identity,” thus countering the slide toward total secularism.

This “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” approach can sometimes become annoying, as much as it underscores Jenkins’ determination to be, as they say on television, fair and balanced. Rarely does the author commit a contrary-to-fact gaffe. There is this instance: “A new awareness of Christian claims was evident in 2006, when Pope Benedict offered a fulsome apology to Muslims offended by his perceived insult to Islam. Many Europeans were just as offended by the pope’s apology, and the sense that Muslims had at least an equal obligation to respect the religious traditions of the countries to which they had migrated.” A fulsome apology? Benedict did say that he was sorry Muslims were offended by his September 12, 2006, address at Regensburg, but he did not step back one inch from his argument about the Christian synthesis of faith and reason and his challenge to Muslims to repudiate religious violence. (See my commentary “The Regensburg Moment,” November 2006.)

At the same time, Jenkins recognizes that, “given its dominant position within European Christianity, the attitudes of the Roman Catholic Church are critical for future interactions between the faiths.” But attitudes may be subordinate to events. “What would be the cultural effect of an attack that would devastate a cherished building such as the cathedral of Westminster Abbey or Notre Dame, Santiago de Compostela or the Duomo of Florence, or St. Peter’s in Rome itself?” While Muslim leaders would condemn such an attack “with utter sincerity,” it would also “promote a sense of religious confrontation and even encourage a rhetoric of crusade and jihad.”

But Jenkins tends to shy away from such grim scenarios. He sums up his hopeful perspective: “Putting these various issues together, we can envision a near-future Europe that is anything but uniformly secular. While Muslims engage in critical debate about their relationship with modernity and argue how far their faith can be reconciled with national ideologies, Christians will also be redefining their faith and its public role. Though Christian numbers will decline, Christians will continue to organize in groups and movements that are, if anything, far more committed and activist than [they have been] for many years and will constitute more identifiable interest groups.” There will be difficulties in accommodating to a more public role of religion, both Christian and Islamic, but “‘God’s continent’ still has more life in it than anyone might have thought possible only a few years ago.”

Again and again, Jenkins urges the reader to keep things in historical perspective. Remember 1798, possibly “the worst single moment” in the history of Christianity in Western Europe. The Catholic Church was severely persecuted; deist and other anti-Christian movements were on the clear ascendancy; revolutionary armies seized Pius VI and carried him into exile, signaling to many the end of the papacy and the Catholic Church. But then followed the worldwide missionary movement of the nineteenth century, the second evangelical revival, and the Catholic devotional revolution. “Nothing drives activists and reformers more powerfully than the sense that their faith is about to perish in their homelands and that they urgently need to make up for these losses farther afield, whether overseas or among the previously neglected lost sheep at home . . . . Death and resurrection are not just fundamental doctrines of Christianity; they represent a historical model of the religion’s structure and development.”

God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis is a tour de force that puts the most hopeful possible construction on a set of circumstances that leads others to the edge of despair, or over the edge. Of course, Jenkins may turn out to be right, and we should, guarding against alarmism, keep matters in historical perspective. Recognizing the complexity of a circumstance is always in order, so long as it does not become the complexification that obscures what should be obvious.

There are several points on which Jenkins’ argument is unconvincing. They are overlapping, but I count seven or eight. First, the analogies he persistently draws with the United States are little more than distractions. Our race riots of the 1960s and 1970s did not involve foreigners of a radically different religion and culture. Blacks had been here almost as long as whites; they are as Christian as whites (except for the hybrid Islam of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam); they did not attack the social centers but were terrorizing one another and burning down their own neighborhoods; their celebrity and public standing was dependent on the indulgence of whites who subscribed to what Tom Wolfe aptly described as radical chic; they ended up by being contained in the urban underclass, abandoned by the great majority of blacks who are middle-class and largely ignored by the rest of society. On each point, the black situation in America is so very different from that of Muslims in Europe that it can carry almost none of the weight that Jenkins’ argument wants it to bear.

Similarly, his comparison with immigration in the United States is unpersuasive. Samuel Huntington may be right that, viewed demographically, America has not been and is not “a nation of immigrants” (see my discussion of his Who Are We? in the August/September 2004 issue). But the fact is that, for almost 150 years, we have understood ourselves to be a nation of immigrants. That is emphatically not true of European nations. The “British way of life” is inextricably tied to the particular people who are British; France is a “universal nation” of people who are unmistakably French; and Germany pines for a time when it will have a national identity it can morally affirm. As important, America has never been, and is not now, confronted by a major immigration that challenges its Christian identity based on a Judeo-Christian moral tradition.

Jenkins seriously understates the religio-ideological challenge of Jihadism, the belief that every Muslim has an obligation to employ whatever means necessary to advance the world’s submission to Islam. This belief is analyzed in chilling detail by, among others, Johns Hopkins’ Mary Habeck in her book Knowing the Enemy (see my review in the April 2006 issue). Yes, it is true, as he says, that such hard-liners are in a minority; hard-line fanatics are usually a minority. But, of a billion Muslims in the world and thirty million in Europe, a small minority can do a great deal of damage. For all the horror of the attacks to date, one can agree that it is noteworthy that there have been so few. To which police and intelligence forces will respond that that is in largest part due to their vigilance. I don’t know if that is correct, nor does Philip Jenkins. Neither of us is on the “need to know” list of the respective security services. I think I do know what the Jihadists intend to do if they get the chance.

Jenkins places high hopes in the emergence of “moderate” Muslims. His confidence in Tariq Ramadan and his version of Euro-Islam in a “religiously pluralistic” Europe is not reassuring. Ramadan has a notorious record of taking contradictory positions, ranging from the pacific to the insurrectionary. Moreover, Jenkins’ hope that Muslim scholars can submit sacred texts to critical analysis and still remain credibly Muslim is, to say the least, questionable. As for the possibilities of an Islamic version of the Christian synthesis of faith and reason, see my aforementioned essay “The Regensburg Moment.” We should be supportive of Muslims who want to “put a human face” on Islam”or a democratic face, if you prefer. But it is wrongheaded to compare them with Soviet dissidents of decades past, as some do. The dissidents’ cause contributed to the disappearance of the Soviet Union. For a billion different reasons, Islam is not going to disappear. “Moderates” whose commitment to Islam is in doubt are going to be of very little help.

Jenkins rightly reminds us of the force of historical contingencies that can be neither anticipated nor controlled. He cites 1798 and the supposed demise of Catholicism, and that is a useful reminder. But scholasticism, the papacy, the Enlightenment, the rise of laicism in France, etc., are all part of a European storyline. These are intra-European struggles within an indisputably Christian narrative. Deists, atheists, and skeptics in that narrative are unmistakably Christian deists, atheists, and skeptics. Islam is, and understands itself to be, a militant counternarrative. It is, to use the academic jargon, the “other,” and it is an “other” with no history of multicultural sympathy with the other to which it is “other.”

Jenkins says European Christianity must accommodate itself to being a “creative minority.” In relation to Islam, that sounds an awful lot like dhimmitude , in this case joined to secularism’s toleration of Christians so long as they mind their manners, which means that Christians agree that their faith is a private religious preference without public consequence. But, of course, that need not be the case, and the creative in creative minority could have culture-transforming effects that we cannot now anticipate.

Jenkins operates within a very short time frame. He suggests that by 2050 there will be thirty million Muslims in Europe. Other scholars believe the figure will be much higher. Whatever the more plausible number, 2050 is, in historical perspective, only a few years distant. The life of nations is, in their own self-understanding, very long. The Novus Ordo Seclorum on the Great Seal of the United States may be a self-flattering conceit, as may be France’s belief, stemming from 1789, that it bears the destiny of humanité , but to invest in and sacrifice for the future of a people and its way of life”the most palpable form of which is in having babies”requires a timeline much longer than 2050. People who do not, in continuity with the world they know, hope to have grandchildren who will hope to have grandchildren do not have babies. The sacrifice of the identities of nations and peoples to the deracinated idea of “Europe” as institutionalized in the European Union, combined with the forceful counternarrative of Islam, does not suggest a future in which many will make an intergenerational investment.

But then, and despite his roseate projections, perhaps Philip Jenkins knows all this. Recall his observation that “both Christianity and Islam face real difficulties in surviving within Europe’s secular cultural ambience in anything like their familiar historic forms.” Europe is a historical phenomenon, and Europe without its familiar historic forms is not Europe. To speak of the death of Europe is not to suggest that the continent called Europe will disappear. It is possible that “Eurosecularity” in sustained tension with an Islamo-Christian cultural ambience will flourish, at least economically, for generations to come. But, with the establishment of Eurabia or the Maghreb, Europe “in anything like its familiar historic forms” will be a memory. That is what is meant by the death of Europe.

At a recent dinner party with European intellectuals, I put to an influential French archbishop Daniel Pipes’ projection: Either assimilation or expulsion or Islamic takeover. That, he said, puts the possibilities much too starkly. “We hope for the first,” he said, “while we work at reducing immigration and prepare ourselves for soft Islamization.” Soft Islamization. It is a wan expression. Whether soft or hard, the prospect is that, in the not-so-distant future, someone will publish a book titled Allah’s Continent . In fact, several Muslim authors have already published books with very similar titles, anticipating the future of the Europe that was. Needless to say, and historical contingencies being as contingent as they are, I very much hope that they turn out to be wrong. As I very much wish Philip Jenkins’ God’s Continent provided better reasons for believing they are wrong.


Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things .

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

Loading...