Now that everyone is talking about Europe’s demographic death, it is time to point out that there exists a way out: convert European Muslims to Christianity. The reported front-runner at the Vatican conclave that began on Monday, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is one of the few Church leaders unafraid to raise the subject. [1] Hedonistic dissipation well may have condemned the existing Europeans to infecundity and extinction, but that does not prevent Europe from getting new ones. It has been done before.

Europe in the 8th century was a depopulated ruin. The loss of half the Roman Empire’s population by the 7th century left vast territories open to Islam, which rapidly absorbed the formerly Christian Levant, North Africa and Spain. By converting successive waves of invading pagans – Lombards, Magyars, Vikings, Celts, Saxons, Slavs – Christianity reinvented Europe, and held Islam at bay.

Now that John Paul II has been buried, Catholic voices are sounding the alarm about the coming Islamicization of Europe. In the future imagined by John Paul II’s biographer George Weigel, “The muezzin summons the faithful to prayer from the central loggia of St. Peter’s in Rome, while Notre-Dame has been transformed into Hagia Sophia on the Seine – a great Christian church become an Islamic museum.” [2]

Misjudging the impact of Islamic immigration upon Europe may have been the signal error of John Paul II’s reign. Against the bitter opposition of Catholic traditionalists, John Paul II visited mosques, kissed the Koran for the news cameras, and held more than 50 audiences with Muslim representatives. The late pontiff saw Muslims as prospective allies against secularism, and believed that the popular piety of Islam offered something of a bulwark against the soulless direction of the modern world. [3] In particular, John Paul II seemed impressed by the fact that the Koran acknowledges the Virgin Mary, a point emphasized in the Second Vatican Council’s ecumenical statement, Nostra Aetate. No pope in recent history identified more with the popular folk-religion of Catholicism. He canonized more saints than any of his predecessors, and lent papal authority to the Cult of Fatimah.

Not just sympathy, but also fear, guided the Vatican’s caution with respect to radical Islam. As Father Richard John Neuhaus observes, “L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, regularly reports on terrorist acts around the world but assiduously avoids mentioning that they are almost all associated with radical Islam. There are several reasons for this: the Holy See wants to resist any suggestion that we are engaged in a war of religions; as the chief institutional representative of world Christianity, it has a unique role in developing any future dialogue with Islam; and it is keenly aware of the precarious position of Christians in Muslim countries.” [4]

In that respect, John Paul II recalled the sad position of Pius XII, afraid to denounce publicly the murder of Polish priests by Nazi occupiers – let alone the murder of Polish Jews – for fear that the Nazis would react by killing even more. It is hard to second-guess the actions of Pius XII given his terrible predicament, but at some point one must ask when the Gates of Hell can be said to have prevailed over St. Peter.

Islam surrounds traditional society with a spear-wall, and proposes to extend the realm of traditional society, the ummah, by dominating the world around it through jihad (see Islam: Religion or political ideology?, August 10, 2004). Christian missionaries will get nowhere in Muslim countries except into trouble. But Muslims in Europe no longer live in traditional society, much as they might attempt to re-create it on European soil. As long as they are strangers on European soil, they are vulnerable to Christian proselytizing, if there exist a Christian agency with the temerity to attempt it.

The last public discussion of the Church’s stance toward Islam took place at an October 1999 bishops’ synod in Rome. Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels enunciated the dominant view: “We have much to learn” from Muslims, such as “the transcendence of God, prayer and fasting, and the impact of religion on social life.” Danneels is a leading “liberal” candidate for the papacy.

Dissident voices such as Professor Alain Besancon became persona non grata at the Holy See. Besancon still writes on Islam, although his views are known to English-language readers principally through a 2004 article in the neo-conservative monthly Commentary (see Has Islam become the issue?, May 4, 2004).

So impassioned was John Paul II’s commitment to ecumenical embrace of Islam that one finds dissenting opinion only on the reactionary right of the Church. The closest thing to an anti-Islamic manifesto to emerge from Catholic circles during the past decade came from a supporter of the heretical Archbishop Lefevre, who refused to accept the Vatican II reforms. He is Hans-Peter Raddatz, a German scholar and co-author of the Encyclopedia of Islam. [5] Like Besancon, Raddatz presents the classical Catholic view, formulated in the 13th century by St Thomas Aquinas, that Allah is a different entity altogether from the Christian God.

Raddatz’ work is not available in English, although its tone is not much different from that of Ibn Warraq, a widely read secularizer. [6] It contains an exhaustive survey of Church politics with respect to Islam. The villains of Raddatz’ drama are “the founding pair in the recreation of faith identity after Vatican II, Wojtyla, pope since 1978, and Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith since 1981.”

As the late pope’s adviser, Cardinal Ratzinger shares responsibility for past Vatican policies, but his tone has changed during the past six months. He opposed Turkey’s entry into the European Union. Last week he published a tract titled Werte in Zeiten des Umbruchs (“Values in Times of Upheaval”), calling for Europe to return to its core Christian values. He denounced Europe’s “incomprehensible self-hatred,” adding that if Europe wants to survive, “it must consciously seek to rediscover its own soul.” He wrote, “Multiculturalism cannot survive without common constants, without taking one’s own culture as a point of departure.”

Ratzinger deplored the exclusion of Christianity from the proposed European Constitution. Unlike the United States, where politicians of both parties agree that revelation is the source of virtue, secular Europe insists upon an entirely secular approach to ethics. In this regard I sympathize with Ratzinger, and refer readers to an extensive debate on the subject of Kant’s Categorical Imperative in the Asia Times Online Forum. Kant initiated the modern attempt to derive ethics from reason. His approach (oversimplified) is to ask, “What if everybody did?” You are not supposed to do something to which you would object were someone else to do it. This approach has some obvious weaknesses. Bertrand Russell observed in his History of Western Philosophy that a depressive very well might wish for everyone to commit suicide, and thus commit suicide himself with perfect justification. Just that attitude describes the mindset of today’s Europeans, who naturally prefer a Kantian approach to a religious one.

Precisely how the Church might go about proselytizing Muslims is a different matter, and a dangerous one, considering that Islam decrees the death penalty for apostates (see Muslim anguish and Western hypocrisy, November 23, 2004).

It is clear that Cardinal Ratzinger has been thinking about this for some time. “Islam has no magisterium,” that is, official teaching authority, Ratzinger observed in a 2001 newspaper interview. [7] But the Catholic world can count on the services of scholars such as Alain Besancon, Hans-Peter Raddatz, and perhaps the pseudonymous Cristoph Luxenberg, who showed that the sloe-eyed virgins promised to Islamic martyrs actually were raisins. [8] If the Church were to devote its shrunken but still formidable intellectual apparatus to such matters as Koranic criticism, all heaven would break loose, if I mix my metaphors right.

Years ago I argued that Koranic criticism “yet may turn out to be the worm in the foundation of radical Islam” (You say you want a reformation?, August 5, 2003). Unlike the Christian and Jewish scriptures, revealed to men who heard the revelation in their own voices, the Archangel Gabriel dictated every word of the Holy Koran to the Prophet Mohammed. As Toby Lester reported in the January 1999 edition of The Atlantic Monthly:

“To historicize the Koran would in effect delegitimize the whole historical experience of the Muslim community,” says R. Stephen Humphreys, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “The Koran is the charter for the community, the document that called it into existence. And ideally – though obviously not always in reality – Islamic history has been the effort to pursue and work out the commandments of the Koran in human life. If the Koran is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of 14 centuries is effectively meaningless.”

Koranic criticism has disappeared from the radar screen. No news outlet has so much as mentioned the name of Professor “Luxenberg” in recent months. That simply might indicate that the entire establishment of the West, from the democracy-obsessed administration of US President George W. Bush to the timid mandarins of the Vatican, do not want to tread upon Islam’s sore toe. Or it might mean that such weapons are being held in reserve. One wants to exclaim, like an Italian taxi driver, “Cosa sperate? La morte dal prossimo papa?”

1. Ian Fisher, “Issue for Cardinals: Islam as Rival or Partner in Talks,” April 12, 2005.
2. George Weigel, The Cube and the Cathedral (Basic Books: New York 2005).
3. See Recognize the Spiritual Bonds which Unite Us: 16 Years of Christian-Muslim Dialogue; Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, Rome 1994.
4. In First Things, February 2005.
5. Hans-Peter Raddatz, Von Gott zu Allah? (Herbig: Munich 2001).
6. Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not a Muslim (Prometheus: New York 2005).
7. Le Figaro, November 17, 2001.
8. Christoph Luxenberg (ps), Die syro-aramaeische Lesart des Koran; Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Qur’ansprache. Berlin, Germany: Das Arabische Buch, First Edition, 2000.

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