Thursday, September 27, 2007

the future of Islam in Europe

John Wilson in Books and Culture with a book review of sorts-- of Philip Jenkins' God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis. Wilson describes the book as a... in epistemic humility informed by history. Two converging trends are at the heart of Jenkins' book. The first is the decline of Christianity in Europe, for many centuries the heartland of the faith. The second is the growth of Islam in the same region, fueled by immigration and higher birth rates. Again and again Jenkins shows how commentators on these trends are guilty of the bad habits that Taleb excoriates [in his book, The Black Swan]. Christianity is dying in Europe. It's inevitable. Europe will be dominated by Islam a century from now. It's inevitable. And so on...

Wilson connects Taleb to Jenkins' analysis by noting that the obvious is not the way things often play out-- especially when one is forecasting complex social phenomena. As for Jenkins' thoughts...

So, about Christianity in Europe he is judicious, neither downplaying the church's profound loss of cultural authority nor making too much of the modest counter-trends he singles out and yet suggesting that the death notices may be premature:

Viewed over the centuries, perhaps the best indicator that Christianity is about to expand or revive is the widespread conviction that the religion is doomed or in its closing days. Arguably the worst single moment in the history of west European Christianity occurred around 1798, with the Catholic Church under severe persecution in much of Europe, and skeptical, deist, and unitarian movements in the ascendant across the Atlantic world.

And yet, as Jenkins reminds us:

That particular trough in Christian affairs also turned into an excellent foundation, from which various groups built the great missionary movement of the nineteenth century, the second evangelical revival, and the Catholic devotional revolution. Nothing drives activists and reformers more powerfully than the sense that their faith is about to perish in their homelands and that they urgently need to make up these losses further afield, whether overseas or among the previously neglected lost sheep at home.

In addition to the difficulty in forecasting such things, we tend to miss (in a Taleb-like sense) the undercurrents which turn out to be more powerful than the variables on which we have focused. To note, a smaller but more passionate band of disciples of Jesus will be more effective-- in any number of ways-- than a larger crowd of cultural Christians. Likewise, one can look back to America in the 1950s and wonder how Christian the culture really was. Was it "Christian" or more polite, middle-class, and suburban than Christian?

Some readers will complain that Jenkins is far too optimistic about the trajectory of Islam in Europe. That would be true if he were pretending to the kind of certainty the doomsayers radiate. As I read him, he is suggesting alternative possibilities. Yes, there is a real possibility that the "ultras," as he calls them, will flourish, with devastating consequences all around, but it's also possible—and, in Jenkins' view, more probable—that the "Christian-Muslim encounter" in 21st-century Europe will not be so apocalyptic.

A growing population of observant Muslims could reinforce the secularist prejudices already dominant among European elites. In turn, this might foster a degree of rapprochement between Christians and Muslims, who might form a united front in certain contexts. On the other hand, there is evidence of a marked asymmetry in the way European elites treat Islamic demands, Islamic controversies, and so on in comparison to their Christian counterparts, in part motivated by fear. (See Paul Berman's essay, "Who Is Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?", in the June 4 issue of The New Republic.)

Among the doomsayers one of the strongest arguments is demographic. If Europe's indigenous population, characterized by "subreplacement fertility," lacks even the will to reproduce itself, isn't the discussion pretty much over? (See for example Mark Steyn's essay, "It's the Demography, Stupid," in the January 2006 issue of The New Criterion.) Jenkins doesn't devote as much attention to this question as might be expected. He does point out that birth rates among Muslims are dropping steeply in many areas.

On the one hand … . On the other hand. Does this boil down to mere temporizing? No. There's no embarrassment in saying we don't know how the European secularist-Christian-Muslim tensions will play out. We have far too many people running around proclaiming with dogmatic certainty what will or will not happen—often with the implication that if you're not on board with the prediction, you are in denial, you're weak-minded, you just can't face facts.

All of this makes Jenkins seem like an economist-- benefit/cost, trade-offs, exercises in critical and creative thinking, trying to anticipate not just primary and obvious consequences but secondary and subtle implications. Likewise, this sort of even-handed analysis can be frustrating, especially for those who see the world (for better & for worse) as black and white.


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