Islam in Europe and Islamophobia
Meeting of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE)
The meeting of the Council of the European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE) for relations with Muslims in Europe was held in Turin on 31 May to 2 June this year and involved some thirty participants coming from around twenty European countries as well as Tunisia and Turkey, who were all welcomed by Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia and Fr. Dr Andrea Pacini, Secretary of the Piedmont-Val d’Aoste Committee on inter-religious dialogue.
Further to the wave of insurgencies in Arab countries; relations between Christians and Muslims in these countries; and with the hope that in the process, which is underway Arab Christians will benefit from a full acquisition of the right to religious freedom and a true egalitarian citizenship as rightly mentioned by Mgr Maroun Lahham, the Archbishop of Tunis; two key topics figured on the agenda in connection with the issue of incorporating Muslim communities into European society: European Islam as seen from the perspective of Church-State relations in Europe, together with the rise of Islamophobia in Christian communities and in society as a whole.
Just how closely the topics of this meeting were linked to current events was brought home by the deadly attacks that would be perpetrated six weeks later in Oslo and on Utoya Island by the Norwegian Anders Breivik in the name of the fight against a so-called ‘Islamisation’ of his country and, more generally, of Europe, which he saw as due to the laxity of the prevailing policies of multiculturalism and immigration.
Islam becoming institutionalised in Europe
The Muslim faith exists as a minority religion in Europe. On this point Alessandro Ferrari, professor of law at the University of Insubria, commented that, in comparison with the religions traditionally rooted in Europe, these believers are put at a disadvantage with regard to the reasonable limits, which can be placed on the exercise of the right to religious freedom (e.g. the wearing of the veil, opposition to the building of mosques and minarets …). Quite at odds with the organisational autonomy of religions is the current obsession with trying to force a one-size-fits-all notion of Islam in its relationship with public authorities.
At the same time, as we have already observed (see Europeinfos, no. 124), what we are witnessing in sociological terms is precisely a progressive Europeanisation of Islam in its new context (and not a so-called ‘Islamisation of Europe’, as is sometimes ideologically claimed in the current political debate). In this regard the conference welcomed the gradual enculturation of Islam in Europe: “Cultural and theological initiatives, which are an expression of what is described as the “theology of enculturation”, are followed with great interest since they open and strengthen the processes of positive participation in European social and cultural life, in a pluralist context, open to inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue”.
Some challenges have yet to be taken on. One of the issues at stake was tackled by Fr. José-Luis Sanchez Nogales (University of Grenada), who dealt with the training of imams in Europe for European Muslims: too many imams coming from outside Europe know nothing about European contexts or their languages, yet they are still carrying out a pastoral role amongst third-generation - sometimes even fourth-generation - immigrant families. Hence the relevance of developing civic training courses for this target audience such as the one run by the Catholic Institute of Paris.
The conference also supported Islamic religious education in primary and secondary state schools where other faith traditions are taught. In order to improve the quality of the whole education system in this field, the conference also supported the establishment of chairs of Islamic studies at public universities – an issue that was tackled by Helmut Wiesmann, of the German Bishops’ Conference.
Islamophobia is growing
Those who spoke on Islamophobia made the distinction between the fear of Islam and of Muslims, on the one hand, and feelings of animosity, hostility and even hate held against Islam and Muslims, on the other. On this subject (see Europeinfos, no. 124) we have already noted the difference between primary Islamophobia (well-founded or baseless fears experienced by the ‘ordinary citizen’, sometimes provoked by the media hyping up local or isolated events) and political Islamophobia (which manipulates these fears in an ideological rejection of people who are different, who are foreign, particularly by generalising from local or isolated events in order to convert them into issues of national or even European importance), as promoted especially by populist parties and the far-right; but worryingly it is also more and more to be found - as Fr. Christophe Roucou, director of the French Catholic Service for Islamic Relations observed, - in some Catholic circles of ‘ordinary’ (not nationalist or extreme right) people, against those persons engaged in Christian-Muslim dialogue.
As well as populism and media hype as mentioned earlier, a number of other causes have been identified. They come from recorded history, or its political manipulation, of Christian-Muslim conflicts associated with different national contexts (Iberian peninsula, the Balkans). We also see certain behavioural characteristics as ‘annoying’ or possibly even ‘shocking’, like the fact that some Muslims refuse to shake hands with a person of the opposite sex, and again the radical fundamentalism of some groups and individuals causes concern. As Dr Erwin Tanner, of the Swiss Bishops Conference, said: “the cultural and religious plurality experienced in everyday living does not inevitably radiate feelings of joy” and, quoting the first ever Muslim mayor of Rotterdam Ahmed Aboutaleb, “the fact of only seeing cultural differences as a matter of enrichment sidelines the feelings of a large section of society”. The same is true when the physical appearance of cities and countryside is said to be ‘disturbed’ by the presence of mosques, which are introducing new symbols to traditional skylines. We should also bear in mind the fear of explosive growth in the numbers of Muslims in Europe which, some people say, could in the end develop into a Muslim majority. (However, such a phenomenon is refuted by demographic research projections such as those produced by the Pew Research Forum. While it is clear that certain towns and city districts in Europe are already experiencing this demographic change, or are about to, thus feeding the “feeling of being invaded” (Fr. Roucou), demographic forecasts for Western Europe predict that only two countries in the whole continent, namely Belgium and France, will just about cross the threshold of Muslims forming 10% of their entire populations by the year 2030.) At an international level, the image of Islam is tarnished by Islamic terrorism, especially the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States and those in Madrid (2004) and London (2005), not forgetting the situation of Christians in a number of Muslim-majority countries. This notion of what Islam is about is often reduced to and incorporated into a political ideology of Islamic fundamentalism.
What pastoral action should the Church take?
As summarised by CCEE Vice-President Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, it is clear that “we have to welcome the people, [and] listen to their fears” while at the same time being “fully aware of the political mechanisms which exploit these fears, manipulate them and tip them from fear over into hate.” We have already described the current tendency of a certain uninhibited Islamophobia, in denial that it is really racism. In this regard, Fr. Christian Troll of the Faculty of Theology at Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt, in his article ‘The Church and racism – Towards a more fraternal society’ recalled the position adopted by the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace: “If, in fact, race defines a human group in terms of immutable and hereditary physical traits, racist prejudice, which dictates racist behaviour, can be applied by extension, with equally negative effects, to all persons whose ethnic origin, language, religion or customs make them appear different.”
There is no lack of authoritative sources in the Church, from the ‘Nostra Aetate’ declaration adopted by the Vatican Council II to the positions expressed in the Papal Magisterium. These declarations should be disseminated via the Church’s teaching at all levels. Fr Chr. Troll and Fr Chr. Roucou highlighted the importance of training and information on Islam and interreligious dialogue, at both theological and pastoral levels, for the faithful and for future priests, deacons, catechists and pastoral assistants, by means of the development of teaching tools and their dissemination, especially using current electronic media. Also, ‘Christian-Muslim relations’ should be an essential element of Parish Practice and Catholics should be encouraged to meet Muslims as their fellows. “Inter-faith dialogue is not an optional subject”, said CCEE Vice-President Cardinal Ricard: “It cannot be elective. Where dialogue is not present, mutual ignorance and prejudice take root. Violence is only around the corner, and we are condemned to a clash of civilisations!”
Summing up, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the President of the Pontifical Council for interreligious dialogue, issued three challenges to be taken up in the Christian-Muslim dialogue taking place in Europe: “the challenge of identity (to know and accept who and what we are); the challenge of otherness (our differences must not lead to hatred, but should be considered a source of mutual enrichment); the challenge of sincerity, which implies manifesting one’s own faith without imposing it in a pluralist context and in a perspective of dialogue”. When the discussions were over, the participants all departed with the encouragement and blessing of Cardinal Tauran, “May the fear of the other become fear for the other!”
Prof. Dr Vincent Legrand
Université catholique de Louvain (UCL)
Fr. Dr Joe Vella Gauci
Translated from the Original French