Transforming Faith

Perhaps God is using the Muslims to bang our Christian heads together.

Jobst Schoene

Unless the liberal state is engaged in a continuing dialogue with the religious community, it loses its essential liberalism.

Rowan Williams

Europeans of most political shades would now admit that they face a Muslim Problem, in the sense of deciding how to deal with social, cultural, and political views that seem barely compatible with those of the liberal mainstream. Yet perhaps the issue is not so much a Muslim problem as a religion problem, a systematic failure by European elites to understand religious thought and motivation. In much of the recent discussion about Islam, commentators are understandably anxious to avert the dangers of extremism and terrorism, to persuade Muslims to absorb virtues of tolerance and pluralism. Yet often the underlying assumption is that religion itself is a problem, at least in anything like its historic forms. In the words of one of the best contemporary authorities on European Islam, Jocelyne Cesari, liberal Europeans seem to be asking Muslims, "Why do you need religion? Why can't you live like us?" As Ian Buruma notes, some of the fear of Islam arises from European historical amnesia: Muslim expansion causes considerable anxiety among the non-Muslim majority, not only because Islam is the traditional enemy of Christendom, or because political Islam is espoused by terrorists, but precisely because it runs counter to our newly acquired secularism. Forgetting how recently most Europeans abandoned their own religions, people regard Muslim devotion as deeply

"un-European". Americans, still more attached to their own faiths, have less of a problem with others' devotion to theirs.1

This blinkered secularist perception affects the solutions that European commentators propose to their religion problem. When they imagine an idealized future Euro-Islam, they portray a deeply secularized faith, which has little by way of orthodoxy, preaches no morality that conflicts with secular assumptions, and does not try to impose its views on the "real world." It should also cease teaching its superiority to other religions since, as rational people are assumed to realize, all religions are equally invalid. And God forbid (so to speak) that it should preach any kind of moral standards, social or sexual. This Islam would in short be a variant of the most pallid and shrinking forms of liberal Christianity, and we might well ask why exponents of any religion would want to see their faith develop in this way.

This model is what is implied when writers envisage an Islamic Reformation, a phrase that reveals little knowledge of the passionate, dogmatic, moralistic, and utterly politicized Christianity of the European Reformation. Even Salman Rushdie, who is not historically naive, falls prey to this illusion when he writes, "The Islamic Reformation has to begin here, with an acceptance of the concept that all ideas, even sacred ones, must adapt to altered realities." That sentence reads oddly when we think of the career of John Calvin, a revolutionary who established a repressive theocratic regime in Geneva, with moral and religious orthodoxies enforced by the full force of state power.2

Both Islam and Christianity will change radically in coming decades, through the experience of living in Europe's social and cultural environment but also from the fact of living side by side and having to interact with each other in a multifaith setting. Yet perhaps neither faith will settle down to the happy accommodation with secularism that European commentators seek. Arguably, instead of fading peacefully away, both religions face increasing conflicts with states, as Christians discover the full implications of laws originally designed to accommodate Muslim sentiments. When we take account of new forms of Christianity, especially in the immigrant context, European societies could yet see repeated cultural and political clashes between religious belief and the secularism that has virtually established itself as the official ideology of the united continent.3

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