“God’s Continent” by Phillip Jenkins - A Book Review

by Olli Raade Olli Raade is the Editor of this site 16.06.2008

Jenkins writes about Islam in Europe and Islam's impact on Europe, Christianity, and about Islam itself. He examines a number of undesirable trends generally attributed to Islam. Jenkins, however, argues that phenomena such as high criminality among Europe's Muslims are not connected to Islam, but are a result of poverty and the lack of integration of the Muslim population into mainstream society. Jenkins also points out that living in Europe generally improves Muslims' attitude towards Christians and Jews. Jenkins sees Islam in Europe as influencing Islam itself; Europe's tradition of free speech allows Islamic thinkers to express themselves in a way that would not be possible in their native countries. Islam will also, according to Jenkins, change the secular/Christian population's attitude towards their own Christian heritage. A new, culturally Christian, group will emerge. Finally, Jenkins points out that immigration patterns to Europe and the USA have been different. Over the past forty years, the USA has mostly received Christians, mainly from Mexico. Unlike Europe, there is no such thing as a Muslim vote in the USA. This will create differences between Europe and the USA, especially in questions related to the Middle East.

Nearly 25 million, or 5% of Europe's population, are now Muslim, thanks chiefly to immigration that has taken place since the war. Should Turkey join the European Union, its population of 70 million would take the Muslim share to 16%. Fertility rates have also been higher among Muslim immigrants than in the mainstream population. Together with the fact that immigrants tend to concentrate in particular areas, this has resulted in people of immigrant origin now outnumbering the original population among those under twenty in some old European cities. That for the mainstream population this raises fears of an unwanted shift in the cultural balance is neither surprising nor new. In the 1960s, Charles de Gaulle warned of the risk of Algerian immigration overwhelming Christian France.

There is no such thing as a Muslim birth-rate. Jenkins rejects the notion that higher fertility among European Muslims could have its origins in religion. Muslim birth-rates are generally lower in those regions where society is stable and prosperous. Muslims living in wider Europe or nearby generally have lower birth-rates. In Albania, the birth-rate is 2.0, in Bosnia 1.2 and in Tunisia 1.8, meaning that these populations are actually contracting, whereas a stable population requires a replacement birth-rate of 2.1. The poorer and less stable a society is, the higher its birth-rate tends to be. In Somalia, the birth-rate is 6.8, in Afghanistan 6.7. The Palestinian birth-rate is 5.8 in Gaza Strip and 4.3 in the West Bank. Iran has a birth-rate of 1.8.

Criminality. Few could fail to be taken aback by the statistics Jenkins presents on Muslim criminality in Europe. Muslims today represent the main constituent of criminal underworlds and the prison population in Germany, France, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands. For instance, in Italy Muslims account for 2% of the population, yet 30% of its prison inmates. In France, Islam is said to be "the main prison religion". Jenkins sees this as a result of unemployment and poverty rather than a reflection of Islam, and draws a parallel with the black population in the USA. As a contributory factor, Jenkins points to rigid labour markets in Europe, which limit the supply of entry-level jobs.

There is also nothing inherently violent in Islam according to Jenkins, who writes: "Admittedly, the Quran includes some harsh sayings on moral issues, and passages that might lend themselves to promoting hatred of Jews and infidels. Yet these texts are no more fearsome than the Jewish or Christian scriptures, which a determined reader could take as ordering genocide or prohibiting racial intermarriage on pain of inciting the wrath of God". (For an opposing view, see Robert Spencer: The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion, Regnery Publishing Inc., Washington D.C.)

According to Jenkins, Islamist recruits are typically second-generation immigrants. Their parents came to Europe from third-worldish village environments, and their children, especially their sons, have not integrated into the society where they were born and where they live. Jenkins writes: "For many Muslims, the encounter with Europe produced a sudden and often shocking immersion into modernity and has also created a hothouse atmosphere of controversy … Though intellectual and spiritual turmoil contributes to political extremism, the long-term pressures are likely to create an ever-more-adaptable form of faith that is able to cope with social change without compromising basic beliefs."

Islam in Europe will change Muslims' attitudes. Jenkins cites the Pew Global attitudes survey, according to which in Muslim nations only small minorities held favourable attitudes toward Christians, with views being most negative in Turkey and Pakistan. European Muslims, on the other hand, felt overwhelmingly positive about Christians, at a rate of 91% in France, 82% in Spain, 71% in Britain and 69% in Germany. In Egypt, only 2% of the population had favourable attitudes toward Jews, whereas in France 71%, and in Germany 38%, of Muslims did.

Jenkins also points out that some of the strict and old-fashioned attitudes of the Muslim population are actually not that different from the attitudes of the Christian population in the past. Jenkins calls this "a time-lag in attitudes of a generation or two".

Islam in Europe will change Islam itself. Western liberties allow liberal Islamic thinkers freedoms beyond what would be possible in their native countries. For the Muslim world, Europe plays a role in providing a place where exiles can take refuge, the same way as the Netherlands did for Europe's Christian societies during the Enlightenment. An example is Hamid Abu Zaid, whose innovative Quranic studies led to his life being threatened in Egypt and fleeing to the Netherlands. France is the base for Syrian-born scholar Bassam Tahhan, who seeks a progressive and individualistic "Protestant Islam".

It is worth noting that Islam in Europe is not homogeneous. Instead, Islam in France reflects Islamic tradition in Morocco; in Germany, that of Turkey; and in Britain, Pakistan. Many customs that are popularly seen as Islamic in fact derive from the immigrants' country of origin.

Multiculturalism. It would be, however, wrong to presume that Christian and Muslim segments of the population will in the future easily co-habit Europe in a multicultural system. The whole concept of multiculturalism is Western. It assumes a secular society, where everybody accepts certain common values and where religion is a private thing. This is not possible in full. Europe is not religion-free and neither are its values, which one might mistakenly consider being secular. Michael Nazir-Ali, the Anglican Bishop of Rochester in England, points out: "Almost everything you touch in British culture, whether it's art, literature or the language itself, has been shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition, by the Bible, by the churches' worship and belief". The leftist German philosopher Jürgen Habermas proclaims that "Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights and democracy".

To a modern Christian, the Bible is primarily for guidance, which might leave more to an individual's own judgement than the Quran leaves to a Muslim. According to Jenkins: "A Christian well-wisher might praise the 'Prophet Muhammad' and believe that he was in some sense inspired by God, making the Quran a magnificent spiritual document that spawned one of the world's great faiths. But this is nowhere near good enough for Muslims, who believe Muhammad himself had precisely no input or role in making of the Quran, which was divinely dictated through divine mediation. If you believe Muhammad played any role in composing the text, subject to the constraints of his time and social settings, you are issuing a deadly direct challenge to the whole structure of that religion". This raises the question of how to handle such Islamic issues, which are incompatible with the values of secular/Christian society. An example is the recent decision of a French court annulling a marriage between two Muslims, on the grounds that the bride had lied about being a virgin. The judge's ruling caused consternation among the French, and led to some confusion among Ministers as to whether or not the fundamental principle of the separation of religion and state had been breached.

A cornerstone of European values is the right to free speech. A Christian has to accept attacks on Christian values, such as in the book 'Da Vinci Code', but the same does not apply in Islam. The Anglican Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, put it in the following way: "They can do to us what they dare not do to Muslims. We are fair game because they can get away with it. We don't go down there and say: 'We are going to bomb your place'". It is also, according to Jenkins, an old-established Western tradition to mock your own culture.

Islam in Europe will change Christians' attitudes towards Christianity. The increasingly visible presence of Islam in Europe will lead many Europeans to become clearer among themselves who they really are. Historian Michael Burleigh observes: "In coming years, more and more Europeans will say they are Cultural Christians as a means of self-assertion against reactionary Islam. In other words, while Europe may continue to be godless, it may see a great deal more religion than anyone bargained for".

The strengthening of its Christian identity could also be enhanced by a terror attack against Christian symbols, which Jenkins predicts could happen in the next few years: "What would be the cultural effect of an attack that devastated a cherished building such as Westminster Abbey or Notre Dame, Santiago de Compostela or the Duomo of Florence, or St. Peter's in Rome itself? The immediate response would undoubtedly be grief and fury, and Muslim leaders would be among the first to condemn the attack, and with utter sincerity…. But such an event would also have its religious impact, galvanising old-stock European Christians into a new awareness of their culture and heritage, towards a newly-discovered sense of what they always took for granted".

Bridges between Christianity and Islam. The presence of Muslims in Europe is something with which Christians in Europe will have to come to terms. To cite Jenkins, "The easiest way for Christians to build bridges to Muslims is to take Muslim political grievances seriously, and high on the list would be the abuses attributed to the state of Israel".

Europe and the United States. The attitude toward Islam will, according to Jenkins, become a growing dividing issue between Europe and the United States. This unfortunate prospect is thanks to geographical and historical factors rather than official policy. American immigration over the past forty years, much of it from Mexico, has bolstered Christian numbers. In Europe, the Islamic vote could well become a critical voting bloc, retaining close connections with Arab and other Muslim states for at least the foreseeable future. In America, there is no Arab vote to speak of. The difference between European and American policies is, and will continue to be, seen especially in attitudes toward Israel.

Other parts of the World. Jenkins' book focuses on Islam in Europe, where two competing religions, Islam and Christianity, meet. Islam's changing relationship with other religions and cultures is beyond the scope of this book.

The West has been economically very successful, whereas Muslim states have lagged behind, apart from the oil-rich countries. But then again, it is the West that turned oil into a valuable commodity. Many of the prosperous oil economies were built using mainly Western management and Asian labour. The West's economic success could certainly have been a contributory factor in the schism between Christian and Muslim cultures. In this sense, a new frontier is emerging for the Muslims with the growth of the Chinese and Indian economies. The recent bomb attack by Muslim terrorists against Hindus at Jaipur in India, which killed more than 60 people, might be seen against this background.

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