Special Report

Be Afraid, Be Somewhat Afraid

The Muslim birthrate may be down in Europe -- but what's left of European Christianity won't be spared, a leading scholar predicts.

By 5.17.07

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Philip Jenkins informs me that he's in the Cassandra business. His forthcoming book about the future of Europe, God's Continent, certainly bears that out. The Penn State professor of history and religion ends with a few bold, troubling predictions. The most incendiary premonition (which he coyly insists requires "no gifts of prophecy") is that "unless political circumstances change radically, there will soon be a major attack on an iconic symbol of European Christianity."

The political circumstances that Jenkins refers to are the ongoing conflicts between Muslim immigrants and old stock Europeans. There have already been well-publicized attacks by the former on the latter, such as the gruesome murder of provocateur and filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in November 2004. But most of the European victims so far have been secular, or, at the very least, not singled out for their Christian beliefs. Jenkins sees the conflicts taking on increasing religious significance for Muslims and Christians -- nominal or otherwise. He figures it's only a matter of time before something really horrible happens.

Jenkins points to the pope as one likely target. After all, he writes, "In 1995, an Arab group based in the Philippines [and financed by al Qaeda] planned to assassinate Pope John Paul II on his visit to that nation, as a means of distracting attention from a related plot against U.S. airliners." The plot would have been carried out against a pontiff whose approach to Islam was largely about accommodation and dialogue. John Paul II had other priorities; he did not want to confront Muslims.

THE CURRENT POPE HAS PROVED more willing to tiptoe up to that tripwire, and he's received surprising support from European leaders. After Benedict XVI delivered a controversial address in Regensburg, Germany, in September of last year (he quoted a Byzantine emperor's critical evaluation of Islam without explicitly endorsing the words -- the horror), death threats poured in. The pontiff then traveled to Turkey, a risk which Jenkins tells me "was alarming."

The imams were enraged by the pope's words and their congregations were unquiet. Protests and riots broke out from Cairo to Paris. Two churches in Palestine -- ironically, neither of them Catholic -- were firebombed in protest. An Italian nun working at a children's hospital in Mogadishu was gunned down. Rather than humoring the protesters, several Europeans stood up for the pope. German Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed the message of the speech, saying, "What Benedict XVI emphasized was a decisive and uncompromising renunciation of all forms of violence in the name of religion."

According to Jenkins, far from being offended by Benedict XVI's remarks, many Europeans were put off by his clarifications and half-apologies. The spirited defenses of the leader of the Catholic Church against his spiritual rivals may have marked a turning point, because European elites over the last several decades had adopted a more accommodationist approach to Islam. Large numbers of Muslims -- many of them from former colonies -- were allowed to immigrate, either as full citizens or guest workers who were eventually given a shot at naturalization. In the 1970s, the modern ideology of multiculturalism worked hand in glove with the demands of Realpolitik to make the continent's leaders more solicitous of the concerns of majority Muslim countries, especially those rich in oil.

The thing that's changed is not external pressure but internal strife. The new emigres to Europe are creating economic problems for Europe's unionized, highly regulated, and subsidized economies. More importantly, the newcomers are also sowing social conflicts in their host countries. Nations that had been used to religion bending to society are now encountering a religion that insists it should be the other way around.

HOW INTRACTABLE THESE PROBLEMS are likely to be is the subject of some controversy. Doomsdayers -- even happy doomsdayers like Mark Steyn, whose book about the future of the Western world, America Alone, has become required reading for people who make a habit of singing show tunes into the abyss -- paint a picture of successive waves of poor, fanatical Muslims immigrants outbreeding rich, secular Europeans, and undertaking something like a democratic reconquista. As Steyn might put it, Goodbye Sherwood, hello sharia. It's an idea that Jenkins takes seriously, but he finds the evidence underwhelming.

Jenkins argues that there are at least two problems with the total Islamic deluge scenario. First, it assumes Muslim fertility rates of 10 or 15 years ago have held up, when they haven't. Fertility rates in the most majority Muslim countries are falling just as fast as they once did in Western countries. Between 1986 and 2000, average births per woman in Iran fell from 6 to 2, slightly below the replacement rate of 2.1. The Muslim world is currently more youthful than most developed nations, but it is rapidly graying.

Second, it assumes that native Europeans will not change their behavior in response to an increased Muslim presence. Recent evidence indicates that they might. Jenkins points out that births to natives have inched up in a few European nations. This prompted Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell to write, "In advanced societies, childbirth results only partly from natural drives." Financial incentives also matter to fertility, and civilizational clashes might not hurt. Europeans -- elites and commoners -- are starting to ponder birthrates in a way that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

Joined with the head-scratching about fertility is the grudging reassessment of the role of Christianity by prominent European thinkers. In the very religious United States, the most prominent culture clash is between aggressive secularists, such as Sam Harris, and the allegedly theocratic religious right. In Europe, many intellectuals, such as the late anti-Islamic polemicist and atheist Orianna Fallaci, are starting to acknowledge at least the historical importance of the churches, and using that fact to frame their criticisms of Muslim immigrants.

THE CHARACTER OF EUROPEAN CHRISTIANITY also seems to be changing at the very time when a good dose of mushy Anglicanism (or lukewarm Lutheranism, or cozy Catholicism) might have helped to smooth things over. Since Europeans are no longer expected to go to church, self-selection encourages a more fervent kind of believer. In France, some estimates put attendance at Latin masses performed by the schismatic group the Society of Pious X ahead of attendance at vernacular masses.

This fervency is further encouraged by the immigration of Christians from Africa and other poor regions of the world, and, of course, by the presence of so many Muslims, especially in cultural capitals such as London and Paris. "For two centuries," Jenkins writes, "many of the intellectual debates within European Christianity have been shaped by the encounter with secularism and skepticism." Now, Christianity's new chief rival already assumes "as a given the existence and power of a personal God who intervenes directly in human affairs."

Modern Europe, Jenkins argues, doesn't suffer from a Muslim problem so much as a lingering religion problem -- "a systematic failure by European elites to understand religious thought and motivation." In other words, it's a problem of how to assimilate the religious. He may have a point but this distinction will be cold comfort -- for Muslim, Christian, or Zen Buddhist -- if he is correct about the coming clashes.

Jenkins asks me to imagine the mother of all morning-after scenarios, "the prospect of waking up one day and having lost one of Europe's great buildings, like St. Peter's, quite likely with significant loss of life." He continues, "If you want to understand the mindset of the terrorists and the desired effects of their actions, see how the bombing of the Samarra mosque largely created the near-civil war in Iraq over the past year." It's a horrifying enough scenario that even the secular among us might be tempted to toss off a silent prayer that this Cassandra is mistaken.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.