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Engaging Islam: A challenge to European Christians

Hartwig Bouillon

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The rise of Islam in traditionally Christian Europe coincides with a rise in Germans searching for their cultural roots.

MÜNSTER (WESTPHALIA): The anger of militant Muslims in recent weeks has stirred Europe from its slumber. Two questions must be asked in the wake of the furore over the cartoons of Mohammed in European newspapers. What, if anything, do Westerners hold holy? And, with the demographic bomb ticking away, what is the cultural and spiritual identity of Europe?

Finally, the practical consequences of a declining population are troubling Europeans. What neither rational demographers nor intellectual heavyweights have managed to achieve is now obvious to everyone in Denmark, Germany, the UK, Italy, Russia, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. Between five and ten percent of Germany's population is already Muslim. The inner cities of the largest German cities, Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne will have a predominantly Muslim population within only 14 years. Germans will be a minority in their inner cities in the imminent future. At present there are 48 mosques in Germany, with more than 100 under construction.

And there are not just signs on the wall that many of the Muslim immigrants into Europe do not want to integrate in their new countries. Last autumn 400 burning cars in one night in France was regarded as a good development. Frustrated, unemployed youths from the Arab Maghreb States had burnt double that amount the nights before in the banlieues, the French suburbs outside the big industrial towns.

In Germany billions of Euros have been poured into work and education programs for immigrants -- without much success. The daughters of the 4 million Turks are often prevented from taking advantage of the free higher education that the German state still lavishes on its citizens. Even if the parents grew up in Germany, they still speak Turkish at home. Their children often have difficulties in school as many do not know sufficient German to follow the lessons. More than one-third leave school without even the lowest certificate. With a 10 per cent unemployment rate in Germany you do not need a lot of imagination to foresee the dangers. Even in sheltered and peaceful Austria 53 per cent in a recent survey declared that they expected a clash between the Christian world and Islam.

The good news is that Europeans, at least some Europeans, are waking up. The bad news is: most haven't the foggiest idea of what is to be done. The problem is that most Europeans do not know who they are. The flame of the Enlightenment is flickering and dim. The materialistic shop-til-you-drop and party-hearty society is washed up. So what comes next?

But as good as Europeans are at self-diagnosis, they seem hopeless at prescribing remedies. Let me give one simple example: Not long ago political analyst Manfred Spieker asked the dean of demographic research in Germany, Herwig Birg, during a symposium whether it was a sign of intellectual honesty to include in the demographic discussion the 8 million children aborted since abortion was legalised in 1974. Birg dryly said yes, but the topic is still taboo in political discussion.

As an example, the prize-winning young novelist Karin Struck was abandoned by her left-wing friends after she wrote an account of her own abortion, I See My Child In My Dreams (Ich sehe mein Kind im Traum). Struck quietly died a few weeks ago. She had converted to Catholicism in 1996.

In fact the cultural desolation of contemporary Europe is leading a number of intellectuals to take another look at Christianity, the religion which used to be the very heart of European culture. The head of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School , Jürgen Habermas, has reminded Europeans that they cannot exclude religion from cultural life, although he declared himself to be "religiös unmusikalisch" ie, he has a tin ear for religion. Habermas's conversation with then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval became a best-seller, and not just in Germany. More recently, one of the three non-fiction best-sellers is Schluss mit lustig! Das Ende der Spassgesellschaft (The fun is over: the end of the good-time society), by the prominent Protestant TV anchorman Peter Hahnes.

So the question remains: where are the roots on which to build a society that says Yes to children? With 1.27 children per couple Germany has one of the lowest birthrates in the world (2.1 are needed just to replace the population). A prominent jurist, E. Wolfgang Böckenförde, is continuously quoted: "The free secular state builds itself on a foundation that it cannot guarantee itself." But who lays this foundation?

Even German think-tanks and talk shows are turning their eyes towards religion. In May the big industrial foundation Bosch-Stiftung is sponsoring a symposium on demography in Berlin. This year's topic is: "Are children a matter of faith?" The panel includes Germany's leading female Protestant bishop and the German head of the Catholic personal prelature Opus Dei. The discussion is to be broadcast on public television.

At world youth day in Cologne last August you could see the big names in German journalism rubbing their eyes. "Who are these 1.2 million joyful young people who sing, dance and pray to the God of the Christians?" They simply didn't have them on their agenda. The navel-gazing journalists had moved in their own liberal circles, quoted themselves and their own prejudices time and again.

German media critic Wolfgang Stock has called for a stronger self-confidence amongst Christians. In a country where soccer runs in the blood, he regards it as significant that seven times more Germans go to Church each Sunday than to a Bundesliga match. Five million, most of them Catholics, out of 82 million is not much. But it is a hefty minority. Stock asks why the media is ignoring them.

Curiously enough, an Orthodox Jew from the United States may have made the most insightful analysis of the situation. Joseph Weiler, a professor of International Law at the New York Law School and director of the Jean Monnet Center for International and Regional Economic Law and Justice, attributes a certain "liberal Christophobia" in Europe to a lack of Christian backbone. His recent book Un'Europa Cristiana (not yet published in English) concludes with the simple sentence: "The important thing is not to be afraid." (1)

The young and the middle-aged people are discovering or rediscovering the Christian faith in Germany. On Easter night this year several hundred people will be baptised in the services all around the country. Several thousands have formally re-entered the Church they had left a few years or decades ago. Benedict XVI's first encyclical has sold more than a million copies in Italy and in Germany demand was so high that the one Euro booklet is out of print. In many places one can hear of small Ratzinger study circles or of youngsters who enter chatrooms with real priests in several Christian sites. These are only small developments and signs. But maybe it's just a question of Weiler's advice: "The important thing is not to be afraid".

Hartwig Bouillon has worked as news editor and foreign correspondent in German and Asian radio stations. At present he is in charge of media relations for Opus Dei in Germany.

Notes

(1) For an explanation of Weiler's ideas in English, see his article "Invocatio Dei and the European Constitution".

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Posted: 04-Apr-06



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