As I am writing these lines at the end of November, the county and city of Passau (where I am from) is putting up more refugees than whole countries in Eastern Europe have agreed to accept. Winter is coming, so things must be done safely and well. I am proud of the charity and hospitality I see among the people, especially on the part of the Church. But the sheer number of refugees coming in through Austria—which seems eager to funnel them along as quickly as possible—has started to create problems. The statistics you get from the media and the stories from my sisters who live in Bavaria form a coherent picture: There are limits, and we are getting close to reaching them. It is very dangerous to drive by groups of people walking along the Autobahn after having been dumped there by their handlers. Finding suitable living quarters and accepting refugee children in schools have been ever more challenging.
Moreover, the recent attacks in Paris (and those which have been averted in Brussels, and probably in Hanover) pose new dimensions to the situation, even if some public and political voices keep denying that. Some of these attackers were “homegrown,” but others came into Europe via refugee gateways. Threatening to blow up international soccer matches makes the thing come as close to Germans as it gets, not to mention the potential fallout of such an attack, which would dwarf the number of losses on 9/11. In this new post-attack condition, even religious superiors (in an open letter to the Bavarian premier) and a group of Catholics engaged in politics (writing to the chancellor) are divided about what needs to be done. This is significant as the two groups generally agree on matters of social policy.
The philanthropy of the Germans and of their chancellor is not the only motive for Germany’s generous acceptance of such a large number of refugees. Economic leaders have long acknowledged that the Federal Republic needs immigration in order to maintain its economic prosperity and social security systems. In this sense, it is slightly unfair to accuse refugees of wanting to immigrate into this prosperity and security, as German prosperity and security will depend on immigration. But political and economic leaders as well as the general population do not want, and also do not need, uncontrolled immigration.
Chancellor Angela Merkel may have been right when she claimed that for the first weeks and months, it was impossible to maintain the high level of border security and control of the territory to which all Germans are accustomed, and which they demand. But a return to a legal and orderly situation is needed for practical reasons of sustainability, and also in order to ward off unreasonable and extremist political movements. Merkel was right in telling her own party and the German people that they needed to face the fact that not allowing the refugees into the country was not only unchristian and inhuman, but unrealistic. In that same vein of realism, however, she and all Germans must acknowledge that it cannot simply continue like this. And finally, still in this realistic spirit, Germans must honestly face the demographic winter that is upon them and upon other European nations. I cannot see a good alternative to a new system of immigration that is able to welcome and process a number of immigrants that is much higher than Germany has seen for a long time. So never mind people getting tired of Merkel’s encouraging “We can do this” (Wir schaffen das!): Germans actually have to realize that “We have to do this,” and they have to do it not (only) in order to show moral superiority, but to meet their own interests.
Demographic decline is no horror scenario but mathematically predictable, and the people have brought it upon themselves. Germans today can take courage from how, after World War II, millions of Germans driven out of their homes have successfully integrated into the state that today receives most of the refugees. Yet another aspect of the desired realism is to see clearly that the people who came in the 1940s were in significant aspects different from today’s refugees, not only because the Germans from the East were not refugees. They were victims of ethnic cleansing. Over and above this fact, refugees today are far more different from the population to which they come seeking refuge and a better future. They are ethnically different and diverse among themselves; they come from other cultural backgrounds; many lack serious professional or educational formation; and they belong to different religious traditions, many of them not Christian, that set them apart from mainstream views and behaviors among central Europeans. If any country wants to face this situation, it should do so with open eyes and a solid self-confidence that is not easily threatened, aware that the world into which these immigrants settle will be changed by their arrival and integration. The question is whether this will be a good change or a bad one.
Politicians talk while real people worry. Everyone knows that many of these refugees will never go back to their home countries. Who could blame them? Gradually Bavarians are finding out more about how deeply divisions between refugee groups can run, and how far many of them are from the sense of society and state that Germans have. In contrast to the young new president of Poland, Germans find it hard even to acknowledge that a great number of refugees are Muslim. Can we raise this issue and ask if it might create some additional problems?
The popular and politically correct answer to this problem is a strict distinction between Islam and Islamism. The distinction makes immediate sense because there is a real difference between the large majority of peaceful Muslims and the small minority of violent extremists. But the distinction ultimately confronts us with an underlying question about reform: What kind of Islam can have—or rather (how) can Islam have—an enlightened, modern future? Or is this another one of the debates that are forbidden?
Forbidden or not, the debate already goes on in families, associations, church gatherings, and among the volunteers in Lower Bavaria and beyond, and it should. The discourse Navid Kermani recently gave after receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt should have attracted international attention. Kermani, himself a Muslim, diagnosed contemporary Islam as suffering from a “loss of cultural memory” and “civilisational amnesia.” He called ISIS a territory of “new religious fascism.” (We all know that it takes something other than appeasement in order to bring down fascism.) At the end of his speech, he said a prayer for persecuted Christians, for the liberation of all hostages, and for freedom in Syria and Iraq.
If this is how respected Muslim intellectuals speak, how can ordinary Germans not ask what (or rather who) Islam is? Not some kind of historic or postulated and idealized Islam, but the really existing Islam they see at work in the world and encounter in the refugees arriving at their doorsteps. Ordinary Germans have to figure out why fights and violence have occurred among the refugees in the temporary accommodations they have set up. They want to prevent attacks, especially on Christians. They will soon find out that Islam is a complex reality, especially among Syrians. As (cultural) Catholics, Germans might be surprised that there is no “pope of Muslims,” no structural or doctrinal unity.
Interreligious theology, however, will not hold their attention for too long. Soon they will fix on the fact that none of the traditionally Muslim countries is a liberal democracy. Even Turkey and Egypt appear less and less as exceptions to this rule, and the extent to which they do is a consequence of their recent secular past rather than of their Muslim heritage. Some countries (like Indonesia, or those in which heirs and successors to the prophet are in charge) seem stable; the Europeans are certainly in big business with them. Iran, openly theocratic as it is, may appear as the most honest option. We see a certain rule of law in place, but it is not the “fundamental law” (Grundgesetz) on which Germany is built. The futures of Syria and Libya, not to mention those of Yemen and Afghanistan, seem altogether cloudy.
We should not dismiss it as irrational (or worse) if people are skeptical or afraid of the long-term influences Islam may have on their society and politics. Instead, we should note carefully that Syrian refugees haven’t headed south to any of the Gulf States, rich, fairly safe, and Muslim as they are. Despite their means, those countries have done very little to help in the present crisis, short of air strikes and offering to pay for the erection of mosques.
A more difficult issue being brought to the table, often by ex-Muslims, is this: The distinction between Islam and Islamism, popular and politically correct as it may be, ultimately does not work. It is too neat, too clear-cut and convenient. The distinction responds to the alleged need of (Western) governments to treat all religions not only as equals (legally), but ultimately as the same. In the secular position that Western governments prefer, all religions are but different expressions of the same reality. They are cultural phenomena not inherently distinct from other types of social organizations, such as trade unions and ethnic enclaves.
Such a concept is reductionist, of course, because it ends up treating religion as something that has no concrete substance. Secular voices may still speak about “religious reality” and “diversity,” but actually they only recognize religious “claims.” Most important, they set Christianity and Islam together as a common human habit, ignoring the differences that Christians and Muslims regard as fundamental to their identity and faith. The secular outlook thus forgets that, in the emergence of Western society, nothing has been even remotely as influential as Christianity—and this includes the very concepts of religion and religious freedom, as well as the evolution of secular states and secular modes of thinking. Thinkers and leaders more attuned to the reality of religion are better disposed to recognize a sober possibility: that liberal democracy will not be exported to (or imposed on) those parts of the world with no Christian tradition. Separation of Church and state only exists in places where previously libertas ecclesiae had been established, or at least aimed for.
In order to prevent violence and to foster peace, we need more honesty and clarity on two issues that may together be the Gretchenfrage put to Western societies. First, can we accept that the world in which there is only one economic and political system, only one social philosophy, and only one (ultimately post-religious) religion is not coming and will never come—and, perhaps, should not? Second, can we accept that there will always be radical disagreement (both inside our nations and globally) on human nature, society, and religion?
The hope for one universal and superior theory is strong, and it comes in many forms. One of them is the “great tradition,” the inheritance of Western civilization, notwithstanding the ethno- and Eurocentric pitfalls that come with it. These pitfalls can be avoided if we look beyond the boundaries of the West, but not to the point of losing the Western perspective. We have to work for that great tradition and synthesis, not only because we want to take transcendence seriously, but also because we are confronted with the global reality as never before. We have to do so by all peaceful means, however, and without denying the serious, irreconcilable differences that de facto exist.
In areas flooded with refugees, fear and anxiety about the future are real. They are not merely irrational and must not be muted by calling them xenophobia. Analogously, the great historic struggles between Christian Europe and Islamic empires cannot be explained only as wars about power and money with a religious coating, just as they must not be reduced to confessional battles. I have no simple answer to the many questions raised by the present situation. But the differences between cultures and civilizations built on (or at least profoundly shaped by) faith in the Trinity, on Christ, the crucified Savior, on the one side, and on faith in Allah, Muhammad, the prophet and leader of the faithful, on the other, are real and substantive.
The challenge is how people coming from one world can be integrated into the other world. The Muslim tradition has a system—dhimmitude—which we certainly cannot adopt. At least to a degree, the refugees chose the nations and societies to which they came; many of them kept going until they reached Germany. It seems to me that, because of their very own choice, they have both a duty and a right to be integrated into societies based on freedom, the rule of law, and social policies as we know them (and which cannot really be explained, and hardly be maintained, apart from their Christian inspiration). Talking about integration makes no sense if we cannot explain—and, more profoundly, if we do not ourselves appreciate—that into which these new arrivers are to be integrated. I can see no way into a good future without reaching back to the treasure of the Christian tradition.
Msgr. Hans Feichtinger is the pastor of St. George’s Parish in Ottawa. He previously worked at the Vatican for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.