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What Holds Europe Together?

Krzysztof Michalski


Islam in Europe

Paul Scheffer

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1In my commentary I would like to focus on the passage in the Europe Paper that deals in a very general and non-committal way with Islam in Europe, and the chances and threats connected with it. A subject of the highest urgency is at issue here; above all since the recent Islamist terror attacks on the streets of Madrid and Amsterdam. It is no wonder that attention is currently being directed toward our own societies. But the grand drama is being played out elsewhere, in countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia: it is primarily the Islamic world that is divided to its core.

2Islam is finding itself in a crisis that expresses itself above all in its inability to come to terms with the challenges of modernity. Deep rifts, whose effects we must take seriously, run through the one-and-a-half billion-strong community of Muslims. The uneasiness within Islam has come to us via the migrants, today presenting us with the urgent question of how an open society should react to a community in its midst that closes itself off from the rest.

3What images of the West haunt the imaginations of the more traditionalist and radical Muslims? The rejection of the West as a decadent and corrupt form of society has also characterized a portion of the millions of Muslims that today live in the European Union. This is a problem that needs to be taken seriously, one gratefully utilized by populist politicians when they say that immigration is the Trojan horse of Islam, Islam the Trojan horse of political Islam, and political Islam the Trojan horse of terrorism. Ergo: every Muslim immigrant is a potential terrorist.

4The response to this political seduction was weak because the political and intellectual establishment did not want to grant an audience to Islam’s liberal critics. These dissidents, who do not mince their words when speaking out about the intolerance within Islam— be they Chahdortt Djavann from France, Irshad Manji from Canada, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the Netherlands—are looked upon by many as if they were committing a breach of peace and undermining peaceful co-existence. How this recalls earlier times, when the dissidents in Eastern Europe were accused by the very same social democrats of undermining their policies of rapprochement, and thereby of peace.

5Never before have so many Muslims migrated to Europe, where they now, as the minority in a secular society, must redefine themselves and their religion. This is also a new experience in the history of Islam, one that demands a difficult process of adaptation of this religion, which in its countries of origin has, since time immemorial, belonged to the overwhelming majority. For this reason, many Muslims have the feeling that their religion is being denigrated; they simply cannot believe that their Holy Book is part of a plurality of opinions and beliefs.

6It remains to be seen whether French Islam expert Gilles Kepel will be confirmed in his theory that the struggle for a European Islam will be decisive for the worldwide modernization of Islam. The big question is indeed what will come after the fiasco of political Islam, which already seems to be failing in its worldly ambitions in Iran. But perhaps it is a form of Eurocentrism to believe that the fate of Islam will be decided in the suburbs of Lyon, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or Birmingham.

7The social effects of Islamist terrorism are poisonous: cultural insecurity in relation to the question of whether Islam can be accommodated in our open society combines with a feeling of general insecurity that has been with us for a long time, one which, in many districts in the big cities, has led to a distancing from the Muslim population. This combination stirs up old resentments that are more and more difficult to overcome.

8The fight against Islamist terrorism also presents problems for the Muslim community. What should take priority: loyalty to one’s own confessional community, or loyalty to the state whom one has one’s freedom to thank for? The rifts in society can only be over come when Muslims sense that the European state is committed to them, and that they also bear responsibilities. This includes an invitation to take part in public debate and be open to society’s influences.

9The attacks in the name of Islam are also attacks on Muslims in Europe. They are a warning to liberal Muslims: Look! Your attempts to become part of society will also corrupt your faith. Confronted with this situation, Muslims who live in our society must make a decision. If, as many have assured me, they support this society that allows them to exercise their faith in freedom, they must also engage critically with their own community.

10But how much truth can a person bear? It hurts to have to observe that throughout the centuries the majority of violence has taken place in the name of religion, regardless whether that religion pursued an otherworldly or a worldly utopia. We cannot get around this truth. However, a prerequisite for confronting it is the ability to reflect upon one’s self.

11For many Muslims, accepting that the majority of terrorism today is committed in the name of their religion arouses great difficulties. Above all, they want to protect their religion from all the charges brought against it, while, quite naturally, maintaining that everything good also comes from this religion. As far back as human memory, the house of Islam has been inhabited by violent currents; but this fact is repressed for reasons that, while understandable, have not yet been justified.

12What would these Muslims say if the large majority of Europeans held the view that there was no connection between colonialism and a Christian desire to proselytize? If we were to forget the words of David Livingstone, the famous explorer and missionary, who, upon the outbreak of the Indian revolt against the British administration in December 1857, said: “I think we made a great mistake when we traded with India and at the same time felt ashamed of our Christian tradition. These two messages of civilization—Christianity and commerce—should always be seen as a whole”? What would they say if we bracketed out Hitler and the Holocaust from European history, maintaining, “they had nothing to do with our culture”? What would they think if we said that anti-Semitism had nothing to do with the Christian faith, which, after all, is saturated with the love of one’s neighbor? Was it not of fundamental significance that precisely the Germans posed this question?

13One would gladly hold up this painful discovery of the truth before all Muslims who rigidly deny that today’s terrorism is part of the history of Islam. The French author Paul Valéry, after the catastrophe of World War I, wrote the well-known sentence: “We people of culture now know our own mortality.” It is precisely the strength of the contemporary process of European unification that the entire weight of this civilizational collapse is made known to everyone and re-shaped into an endeavor for “eternal peace,” as it once appeared to Immanuel Kant.

14A crucial difference between European culture and Islam resides in the capacity for self-criticism, in the continuing dialogue that we conduct with one another, and in the consciousness that an open society is vulnerable. Only the insight that people of culture are mortal inspires the search for new forms of integration.

15Translated from the German by Simon Garnett


Paul Scheffer is Associate Professor of Urban Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, and writes regularly for the daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad. Author of The Land of Arrival, 2003.

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