Global Context: Europe, Islam, and Christianity

God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe’s Religious Crisis

Reviewed By: Bruce Riley Ashford

Entire forests have been chopped down in order to promulgate the literature that has been written on the religious crisis in Europe, including especially the secularization of Europeans and influx of Islamic immigrants. Bat Y’eor, in Eurabia (2005), argued that Europe is being subverted by Islamic hostility toward the very virtues, values, and vision of Europe herself. Bruce Bawer, in While Europe Slept (2007) argues that radical Islam is destroying the continent from within. Mary Habeck, George Weigel, Richard John Neuhaus, and others have also written of the threat that Islam poses to Europe.

God’s Continent is Philip Jenkins’ contribution to the debate. He thinks that many of the doom and gloom prophecies about Islam and Europe are “wildly unlikely.” Even though there are millions of Muslim immigrants in Europe, and even though their birth rate is significantly higher than the Europeans’, Jenkins begs to differ. He argues that (1) European nations can assimilate minorities, just as the United States has done; (2) Muslims will likely secularize; (3) when they do secularize, they will stop having so many children; (4) most of the Muslims in Europe are moderates; and (5) what threat Islam does pose will likely invigorate Christianity anyway.

If Philip Jenkins writes a book, it is probably worth the read, and this book is no exception. He is probably correct that many immigrants to Europe (whether Muslim or not) will secularize, have less babies, and assimilate to some extent. However, the book has weaknesses of which the most significant is this: Jenkins seems not to grasp the threat that Islam poses to Europe. With Islam comes a radically different view of the relationship of religion and the state, of religious liberty, of family, etc. Further, he seems not to grasp the threat that contemporary jihadism poses. He too quickly dismisses the arguments made in books such as Bernard Lewis’ The Crisis of Islam (2003) Mary Habeck’s Knowing the Enemy (2007).

It is for this reason that his his analogy with the United States is hardly helpful. He suggests that Europe will be able to assimilate Muslim immigrants in much the same way that the U. S. has been able to assimilate its Mexican immigrants. But Mexican immigrants to the United States (many of whom are Catholic) are a rather different case than the millions of African, Middle Eastern, and Asian Muslim immigrants to Europe. Americans have to adjust to Mexican Catholics who sometimes glue St. Christopher to the dash for traveling safety, while Europeans must adjust to Muslim immigrants whose religion demands nothing less than the religious, social, and political submission of their nations to the Allah of Islam. Hardly a helpful analogy.

God’s Continent is worth the read, even if it is not up to the level of The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity, the first two books of his trilogy. Perhaps the best thing that Jenkins’ book can do is to turn the church’s attention toward Europe, the home of 821 million people, many of whom (whether European or immigrant) are without Christ and without hope in the world.

Book: God’s Continent (2007)

Author: Philip Jenkins

Region: Europe

Genre: Current Affairs

Length: 340 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Reviewed by: Bruce Riley Ashford

If you are interested in a slim little novel that is both informative and inflammatory, you have found your book. Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about one young Pakistani’s initial infatuation with America and his ensuing disillusionment. It is an allegory meant to instruct Americans about the global community’s perceptions of their country.

The hero is Changez, a young Pakistani from Lahore. Hamid frames the story by means of an encounter in Lahore between the hero Changez, and an American stranger. Changez recognizes the “American-ness” of a stranger in his city, invites him to have a cup of hot tea, and proceeds to tell him the story of his life. The conversation occurs a few years after 9/11.

Changez tells how he graduated from Princeton and immediately was hired by Underwood Samson (read “U.S.”), a NY firm of business analysts that specializes in taking over failed businesses. He was quite infatuated with America until 9/11. In the wake of that ugly day, he slowly but surely becomes disillusioned with America.

In addition to the xenophobic paranoia he witnesses, he speaks of the uniquely American sense of superiority. He notes that his fellow students at Princeton were, for the most part, from wealthy American families and that this seemed to give them license to be brusque with, and condescending toward, men and women who were the age of their parents. For him this was unthinkable.

Changez began to view the American elite as a unique class of fundamentalist, belonging to the right wing of the Capitalist religion. It was this religious fundamentalism that, in part, motivated numerous interventions around the globe: “I had always resented,” he writes, “the manner in which America conducted itself in the world; your country’s constant interference in the affairs of others was insufferable. Vietnam, Korea…the Middle East, and now Afghanistan: in each of the major conflicts and standoffs that ringed my mother continent of Asia, America played a central role.” Even “aid” and “sanctions” were sometimes in the service of this fundamentalism: Indeed, “finance was a primary means by which the American empire exercised its power.

The young Pakistani eventually realizes that he has become a janissary. (Janissaries were captured Christian boys who were trained and employed as mercenaries against their own people, in the service of the Ottoman empire.) “I spent that night considering what I had become. There really could be no doubt: I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war. Of course I was struggling! Of course I felt torn! I had thrown in my lot with the men of Underwood Samson, with the officers of the empire, when all along I was predisposed to feel compassion for those…whose lives the empire thought nothing of overturning for its own gain.”

Throughout the story, Changez narrates the twists and turns of his love affair with a young Princeton grad, Erica (think “Am-Erica”). Though she likes Changez, ultimately Erica has not recovered from the death (by lung cancer) of a former boyfriend, Chris. Her mourning becomes obsessive and eventually neurotic. She is submitted to an institution, and eventually disappears. Hamid uses her neurotic obsession with her past to surface America’s own “dangerous nostalgia” for her own past, as well as Changez’ homesickness for Lahore.

At the end of the novel, we find that Changez has returned to Lahore, grown a beard, and otherwise returned to his socio-cultural roots in Pakistan. Ultimately, Hamid is trying to say that America has her own version of fundamentalism (based on a worship of the dollar) and that the United States is in need of some…wink, wink…giggle, giggle…changez.

I will limit my review of the book to a couple of points. The first is that Hamid’s narrative is a quick and enjoyable read that provides insight into the perception many have of the United States of America. Just as Hamid portrayed “Underwood Samson” as a firm that specialized in hostile takeovers of weak and failing companies, there are many who view the United States as a country that specializes in hostile interventions and takeovers of weaker countries. Just as Hamid’s “Underwood Samson” was motivated by the Dollar and did not care if its takeovers ruined the lives of those caught in the middle, so many view the United States as being motivated by the Dollar (rather than by benevolence or the desire to promote freedom), not caring if its interventions and takeovers harm innocent bystanders. While Hamid’s allegory cannot even begin to do justice to the complexities of global politics, and in some ways actually does injustice, it is a decent vehicle for helping his readership understand perceptions of the United States.

Second, Hamid’s novel reminds us that God has brought the nations to our doorstep. The United States is home to hundreds of thousands of fellow image-bearers who are immigrants from such countries as Pakistan, India, or North Africa. We are told that most immigrants are never invited into the home of an American and, in light of this, we have a divine opportunity to rectify the situation.

Third, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one of scores of books dealing with the problems and challenges that confront the global community in the 21st century. We should keep in mind that, as a general rule, these sources deal with the proximate causes of our problems and challenges, but rarely with the ultimate cause. We might keep in mind that the ultimate cause of the problems on our globe is neither Islamic nor Capitalist fundamentalisms. Rather, it is the evil embedded in the human heart. It is a deep and an ugly evil, able to be remedied only by the Creator himself.

Book: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Region: South Asia (Pakistan)
Genre: Fiction
Length: 191 pp.
Difficulty: Easy

Global Context (International): The Crisis of Islam

This series of posts deals with the global context in its historical, social, cultural, political, economic, demographic, and religious dimensions in particular. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in an increasingly complex and hyper-connected world.

Bernard Lewis is the doyen of Middle Eastern studies. In this slim little volume, he provides the reader with a concise, level-headed, and very reasonable overview of the crisis within Islam. He gives a brief history of the rise and development of Islam, the Crusades, and of the conflict between Islam, Christianity, and modern western culture.

Lewis traces the rise and development of Islam, showing how medieval Islamic civilization was the most advanced in the world, as well as one of the most militant. Muslims overthrew Persia, and then in short succession conquered the Christian provinces of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. By the 8th century, they had advanced as far as the Pyrenees. They launched several waves of crusades, conquering the birthplace of Christ and attempting to conquer Europe.

He refuses to lay most (or even much) of the blame for the Crusades at the feet of the Christian world. For him, “The Crusade is a late development in Christian history, and, in a sense, marks a radical departure from basic Christian values as expressed in the gospels. But jihad is a Muslim essential, present from the beginning, in Muhammad himself.” It is for this reason that Lewis finds it ironic that Muslims like to blame the West for the Crusades, particularly for the purpose of making them a prototype of European expansionism.

As Lewis tells it, European countries (“Christian” countries) did expand, as they expelled the Tatars from Russia and the Moors from Spain. Napoleon struck at the heart of the Islamic world as he raided Egypt. Muslims thought it was dandy for Muslims to conquer and rule Europe, but not vice-versa. The same goes for religious conversion. By the early 20th century, nearly all Muslims were ruled by European countries, and even worse, the Jews set up the state of Israel in 1948. This humiliated the Muslim world.

The late 20th century brought a bipolar world, ruled by two mighty powers, the USA and the USSR. Then the USSR collapsed, leaving the US as the lone world power. Muslim “freedom fighters” were central to the overthrow of the USSR in Afghanistan; indeed, Osama bin Ladin repeatedly has pointed out that Muslims defeated the mighty USSR. Bin Laden and others thought that the US would be an easier foe. “In their view,” Lewis writes, “the United States had become morally corrupt, socially degenerate, and in consequence, politically and militarily enfeebled.”

In fact, bin Ladin speaks to this theme in his November 2002 “Letter to America.” He accuses America of being an oppressive, deceitful country, full of debauchery, and without principles or manners. He argues that America should pack her bags and get out of Muslim lands so that he is not forced to send Americans “back as cargo in coffins.” The letter ends with bin Ladin saying that if Americans do not take his advice, “their fate will be that of the Soviets who fled from Afghanistan to deal with their military defeat, political breakup, ideological downfall, and economic bankruptcy.

All of this brings us to the heart of Lewis’ book, which is his answer to the question: What is happening in the world of Islam to bring about the “revolutionary” Islam we have seen in recent years? As Lewis sees it, there are four major components of revolutionary Islam: (1) Humiliation: Muslims see themselves as the sole guardians of God’s truth, and believe that they will subjugate the world for Allah’s sake, but at present they clearly are not able to subdue the infidels; (2) Frustration: Muslims have tried to remedy this humiliation in various ways, but have failed; (3) Confidence: The economic power of oil, and the words of the Qur’an, have given Muslims a new confidence and sense of empowerment; and (4) Contempt: Muslims see the moral decadence, and therefore the weakness, of the Western world.

Perhaps the one thing that Lewis should have included in his discussion of the major components of revolutionary Islam (although mentioned elsewhere in the book) is an extensive discussion of a fifth component which might be called “Mission.” Muhammad made clear to his followers that there are only two ways to live: One can live in submission to Allah, or in the way of ignorance. Those who live in submission to Allah live in Dar al-Islam, meaning “the territory of Islam.” Those who live in ignorance live in Dar al-harb, meaning “the territory of war.” The missionary program of Muhammad and early Muslims was to extend the territory of Islam over the territory of war by any means necessary, including military jihad.

This can be seen in numerous passages in the Qur’an. Take, for example, Surah 2:244: “Then fight in the cause of Allah…” Or Surah 9:5: “Then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them.”Or Surah 47:4: “When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield, strike off their heads and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly.” Furthermore, those who do fight for Allah are rewarded with Paradise. In Surah 9:111, we see that “Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in truth.” But perhaps the most enlightening thing to read is Guillame’s The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Rasul Allah (Oxford University Press, 1995). This translation of the classic biography of Muhammad, written by a pious Muslim, makes clear on every page that Muhammad was not a peaceful man.

In spite of this and other minor issues, The Crisis of Islam is a very helpful book for those who are seeking to understand the complex and significant issues surrounding contemporary Islam.

Book: The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (2003)
Author: Bernard Lewis
Region: The Middle East
Length: 184 pp.
Difficulty: Intermediate