The raging debate continued

April 11, 2005

THESE ARE WORRYING TIMES FOR SECULARISTS. And for Muslims. And for Christians. And for Europeans in general.

There’s talk of a crisis of secularism. There’s a struggle for the soul of Islam. Churches have been losing their flocks for decades. And Europe is still in search of her soul.

All these trends have merged into a turbulent confluence at the start of this new century. England’s Rushdie affair was perhaps an early warning of things to come. A chain of more recent events-including the train bombing in Madrid, Chirac’s ban on Muslim headwear in public places, the political murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh in Holland, the debate over Turkey’s place in Europe and the rejection of conservative Christian Rocco Buttliglione as European commissioner for justice-have all contributed to a polarised, splintered and uncertain social climate in Europe.

‘The bottom has fallen out of the public morale,’ ran a recent article in a Dutch newspaper. In 2005, pluralism was no longer seen as the solution but as the problem, it continued.

Last month (ww 7 mar 05) we looked at the debate raging in Holland over the assimilation of Europe’s growing Muslim communities. We recognised it’s relevance for Europe as a whole. I invited contributions on how we should respond as Christians. Few readers took up the challenge, perhaps an indication of how tough the issues are.

Rick, a believer living in an Islam-dominated culture, was candidly sceptical about immediate solutions. “When it comes to Islam, after 14 centuries, umpteen wars, crusades, inquisitions, colonialisations, jihads, etc., who do we think we are to think we can sort things out now? I’m afraid we will see much more bloodshed in the near future. I don’t see empathy increasing, only stereotyping (of both the West and the Muslim world). The road doesn’t look like it’s going to get any easier.”

Birgit, from Austria, helpfully summarised the problem as the triangle trying to communicate with the ladder: a ‘trinitarian’ perspective versus a ‘hierarchical’ view. “As far as I can see, unity in diversity, pluralism, the open society all stem from the fertile soil of belief in the trinity. This is a point that Islam vehemently has rejected from the very beginning.” Birgit sympathises with Mohammed’s reaction to all the factions and scholasticism paralysing Christian theology of the day, and can understand why the Islamic armies were often welcomed as liberators in the Eastern Christian world, coming to bring correction. “I wonder if this is not still strong in the genes of the Islamist movements. A sense of ‘we are the ones who need to bring the long needed correction for this Christian depravity. As Mohammed was successful (and therefore God-sent) in doing it, so we have to do the same and we will succeed.’

Further, she suggests, Mohammed’s successors took on board a lot of Neo-platonism, Plotinus and Aristotle, perceiving reality as a ladder, a hierarchy of all that exists. In this model there is no place for diversity, no co-existence, only submission and superiority. “How can the triangle then communicate with the ladder? Or the other way around? To be honest – I don’t know! … My guess is that co-existence in Europe can work if Muslims lean toward the triangle side and accept at least some of its basics.”

But she adds, we Christians need to lean towards Muslims too. “We need to:
· Build relationship with them. Show Muslims that there is a genuine Christianity which is distinct from the general culture. They will like our values if they just knew about them.
· Apologise for the poor picture of what is Christian many of our Eastern Christian brothers in the first centuries must have given to the world and to Mohammed.
· Appreciate their zeal for good standards and values also in the public arena. Much of what they see is deeply embarrassing to them.
· Show them which of their values would be appreciated by the Christians and which would be perhaps a good contribution to Western society: their hospitality, the value placed on human life, emphasis on the family-cohesion (though here we as Christians must be alert that we have a very different concept of family) and caring for family members, the value of chastity (though we need to gently try to show them their idea is lop-sided: ‘men don’t need to be as chaste as women’), the zeal for mission (for what they perceive is truth and fighting for it), their willingness to sacrifice for something higher than themselves: Allah in this case – versus the widespread selfishness and consumerism they see in the West.

Lastly, writes Birgit, we must not come under the spirit of intimidation and fear that Islam exudes. “We need to stand our ground and do whatever we do firmly yet humbly and we will reap at least respect and an ear for what we have to say.”

Well, we’ve just started to take the lid off this box of Pandora, and there’s much more to be addressed than we have room for in this w e e k l y w o r d. We must wake up as believers to the enormity of the issues unfolding right now across Europe. These are historical days. What does it mean to live as people of hope in such times? The answers are not easy or straightforward. They will come as we prayerfully wrestle with the issues together, and open our eyes to see what the Spirit of God is already doing.

So we will return to this raging debate in coming weeks, to look more closely at the crisis of secularism and the struggle for the soul of Islam. And, in contrast to the popular perception of the church, we will look at the most multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual community that exists in Theo van Gogh’s own city, Amsterdam, and discover encouraging signs of hope and models to follow.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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