God's continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe's religious crisis
Posted by Mission Catalyst at 09:58 on 15th December 2011
By Philip Jenkins, Oxford University Press, 2007, £16.99.
ISBN: 978-0-19-531395 6
Many people in Europe feel threatened by the growing Muslim presence in their midst. The histrionics of radical preachers, the acts of terrorism perpetrated by extremists, the battles over the right to wear traditional clothing, and the sheer visibility of Muslims in many towns and cities, has led some people of traditional European ethnic backgrounds to conclude that it can only be a matter of time before the continent becomes “Eurabia”, in which Islam is the dominant force.
In this minutely-researched book, the last of a trilogy examining global Christianity, distinguished Professor Philip Jenkins concludes that, while these fears are genuine, they are fuelled both by an inaccurate understanding of the facts and media hysteria. While Muslim numbers have undeniably increased in recent years, they still form a small proportion of the total European population.
Christians are still far more numerous: the recent expansion of the European Union to include countries such as Poland, together with the immigration of predominantly Christian Africans, arguably means that present-day Europe is proportionately less, rather than more, Muslim than it was in past centuries.
Of course, this is not to deny that a huge rise in Muslim identity has taken place during the last 20 years. Jenkins argues that events such as the publication of The Satanic Verses and a worldwide growth in Muslim self-awareness and confidence have contributed to a sense of solidarity among European Muslims drawn from diverse ethnic background, religious orientation and sectarian movements.
These have often been combined with economic factors which have led to the formation of an urban underclass. But the author is careful to distinguish religious from racial and economic aspects when discussing the reasons behind events such as the 2005 riots in many Paris suburbs.
Today’s secularist Europe plainly finds great difficulty in responding to the Muslim presence. For example, modern thinking has relegated religion to the private realm (a position unthinkable only decades ago); yet Islam inextricably links religion, morality and politics.
A liberal society also prizes freedom of speech and practice; so does this mean it must remain silent when it sees some sections of the Muslim community uttering extremist statements and appearing to give women a marginal status?
It is clear that secular governing elites across the continent are facing hard questions as they decide how to interact with a large minority for whom religion is the predominant influence in their lives.
Jenkins is both hopeful and pessimistic about the future. He feels that birth-rates among recent migrant communities will rapidly fall to match those of the host nations.
He also regards extremism as the inevitable - but temporary - reaction of second-generation European Muslims who feel caught between two cultures while belonging to neither, and pleads for governments not to indulge in heavy-handed tactics that will only confirm the radicals’ fears.
His ultimate conclusion is that Islam will probably adapt to the predominant secular culture far more quickly than we might expect.
Yet this conclusion also leaves Jenkins’ readers with a question as pressing for the Christian Church as it is for Islam itself: how will faith adapt and reinvent itself in order to survive in a climate that is becoming increasingly hostile to all kinds of public religious discourse?
Reviewer: Andrew Kleissner is minister of Christ Church (URC/Baptist), Ipswich.
This review first appeared in The Baptist Times in 2007