The Gates of Vienna

December 4, 2006

When an invitation came recently to address an ecumenical gathering in Vienna on how to respond to radical Islam, a huge painting I had seen this summer in the Vatican came to mind. The canvas showed the Polish King Sobieski arriving with his troops in Vienna to rescue the besieged city from the encircling turkish troops in 1683.

For many today see the Gates of Vienna under siege once again. Europe risks losing the last remnants of her Christian identity by the growing presence of millions of Muslims within her gates, we are warned; Islam is poised to succeed where she failed in the seventeenth century.

“We are in a new phase of a very old war,” declares the home page of a website called ‘GatesofVienna’. The only restraint (Islam) will recognise is overwhelming force and the obvious willingness to use it, we are told by the site’s makers. This sentiment would resonate among increasing numbers of Europeans, and especially Americans, today.

Of course, there is no one geographical battlefield today as in 1683. Some, like Theo van Gogh, the film-maker slaughtered on the streets of Amsterdam, have spoken of the ‘fifth column’ of Muslims living in our towns and cities for decades, breeding large families and patiently persevering with the goal of spreading sharia law across Europe.

Although no expert on this subject, I agreed to the invitation. Firstly,I was glad to be sharing the platform with my friend and colleague, Lynn Green, YWAM’s international chairman. For over the past decade, Lynn has engaged with many Muslim communities across Europe and in the Middle East. In 1996, on the 900th anniversary of the ill-conceived Crusades, he initiated a Reconciliation Walk down the old Crusader trails to apologise to Jew, Muslim and Orthodox Christian alike for the killing and plunder committed in the name of the Prince of Peace.

Secondly, a deadline would force me to gather some thoughts on one of the most challenging and urgent issues confronting us today. Few Christian voices in Europe seem to be speaking out with clarity on the subject, pastorally or prophetically.

Judging from the large audience awaiting to hear what we may have had to say this past week, the subject was a hot issue. Guidance and answers were obviously felt needs.

For Europe’s political leaders are far from agreed on how to respond to a threat that has become acute since 9/11, the bombings in Madrid and London, the butchery of Van Gogh, the Danish cartoon riots, and the violent reactions to the Pope’s ‘audacious’ insinuation of a link between Islam and violence.

Many are confused by the resurgence of religion as a major political factor at the start of this century. This was not in the script! After the fall of communism, the triumph of liberal, secular democracy had meant ‘the end of history’! Modernity was supposed to push religion to the margins of society.

But now, suddenly and literally, out of the blue, religion was back-with a vengeance. Yet for those who had been watching closely, this was neither sudden nor out of the blue. Today’s radical Islam has a long pedigree dating back to the early centuries of the emerging religion.

One of the fathers of the radical, ‘puritan’ stream was Ibn Hanbal, a ninth century Baghdad scholar, contemporary to Charlemagne. Teaching an idealised model of the Prophet’s city of Medina, he demanded a return to the purity of the letter, a literal reading of the Koran.

Radical Islam, or Islamism, tended to resurge when Islam was under major threat. In the 13th and 14th centuries, after the challenges of the Mongols and the Crusaders, the Syrian Ibn Taymiyya revived Hanbal’s emphases, making drastic corporal punishment the very criterion of the law.

Later, in the 18th century, an exact contemporary of John Wesley named Mohamed Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, appeared in the deserts of Arabian peninsular preaching an extreme Islam called Wahhabism. The infidel world must be opposed; unfaithful Muslims punished. After embracing this ideology, the Saudi tribes conquered Arabia in the 1930’s.

From this stream late in the 20th century emerged a Saudi billionaire named Osama bin Laden. How this led to our current crisis, and what our response should be, will be the subject of coming Weekly Words.

Till then,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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