An Evangelical case for hope about Muslim immigration in Europe

New York

Rising Muslim immigration in Europe is viewed in many circles these days, including senior levels of the Vatican, as a threat to the continent’s Christian identity. Some Christian leaders, however, take another view: that Europe hasn’t been Christian for quite some time, and as the losing side in today’s culture wars, Christians need all the friends they can get.

From that point of view, a growing Muslim population may not be so much a threat as an opportunity, according to the Very Rev. Johan Candelin, head of the Religious Liberty Commission for the World Evangelical Alliance, a body which represents 420 million evangelical Christians in 128 nations.

Candelin spoke in an August 17 interview with NCR from his home in Finland.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, Candelin predicts that over time, as they acquire citizenship and basic economic stability, many European Muslims may come to think of themselves as Christian Democrats, joining Christians in struggles against liberal social policies on issues such as marriage, the family, and the role of religion in public life.

“Secularism in Europe is very anti-religious, while both Christians and Muslims are obviously pro-religious,” said Candelin, who serves as a senior pastor in the Swedish Lutheran Church.

Figures such as Candelin argue that medieval Christendom, when Christianity shaped the culture in Europe, is long gone. Today secularization and pluralism are the name of the game, with Christianity reduced to one option on the post-modern smorgasbord of lifestyles.

That reality, they say, changes the calculus. If Christianity is an embattled minority, it needs to think like one, looking for allies to help advance its cultural concerns, even if deep differences endure on other fronts.

Partially in an attempt to promote such partnerships, Candelin will lead a fact-finding mission in October to Greece, where the World Evangelical Alliance hopes to promote the religious freedom of Muslim Turkish immigrants. Candelin said that Muslims in Greece have difficulties in naming their own muftis and in providing enough teachers for their schools. In addition, he said, their freedom to assemble and to form organizations is restricted by the Greek government.

“It’s totally new that Evangelicals would promote the religious freedom of Muslims, especially in a Christian country,” Candelin said. “But this will help us when we ask for greater religious freedom for Christians in Turkey. If there’s not religious freedom for all,” he said, “then there’s not religious freedom at all.”

Moreover, Candelin said, such experiences of mutual support could bring Christians and Muslims closer together, forging a basis for future collaboration.

According to the U.S. National Intelligence Council, the Muslim population in the European Union rose from 5 million in 1985 to 15 million today, a growth rate of 200 percent cumulatively, or around 10 percent per year for the last 20 years. By 2025, the council projects a Muslim population in the EU of somewhere between 24 million and 38 million; the latter, high-end total would bring the Muslim share of Europe’s population close to 15 percent, roughly the same as the Hispanic share of the American population today.

In some nations, the Muslim share will likely be higher. Many experts believe it’s not unreasonable to expect that by mid-century, Muslims could be 25 percent of the population in France and Germany, again roughly the same as projections for the Hispanic share of the overall population in the United States.

Some experts believe that Muslim totals in Europe may not rise much over the 15 percent threshold, in part because fertility rates today in the Middle East and North Africa are falling rapidly, suggesting an eventual decline in the pool of potential young migrants. Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University says that the best parallel may be the Catholic population in the United States, which rose to 25 percent of the country quite quickly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and has remained basically level ever since.

In European politics at the moment, Muslim immigration is generally regarded as a net gain for the political left, since left-leaning parties are usually the most pro-immigrant, on the basis of a commitment to multiculturalism and pluralism. In European parlance, this is sometimes known as a “black-red alliance."

Yet there’s also a rising chorus on the European left critical of accommodation of Muslim immigrants, on the grounds of their intense religious commitment. In 2006, twelve secular European intellectuals, including Salman Rushdie and Benard-Henri Levy, put out a manifesto describing what they see as a “global struggle between democrats and theocrats.”

Many analysts believe the natural home of a Muslim middle class, composed of faithful Muslims who nonetheless accept the democratic rules of the game, will ultimately be center-right parties. That this is not mere fantasy is suggested by the experience of the Philippines, where the current ruling party is known as the “Christian Muslim Democrats,” after a fusion of center-right parties of Christian and Muslim inspiration in the late 1990s.

Candelin said it’s not a stretch to imagine a future in which European Muslims gravitate to political parties and movements of Christian inspiration. He pointed to recent trends towards Muslim affiliation with Christian Democratic parties in Germany, Holland, and Sweden, predicting that over time these parties “will have many Muslim members.”

“There are issues today where conservative Christians are closer to Muslims than to liberal Christians, to say nothing of the real secularists,” Candelin said, pointing to “the family, marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and abortion.”

Whether Christians and Muslims learn to think of themselves as allies, Candelin said, depends on which way things go on both sides. Muslims in Europe will need to rein in the radicals and make their peace with pluralism, but Christians will also need to be “open-minded.”

“Far from all Christians,” he conceded, “are open-minded.”

In the meantime, Candelin said, he’s quite sure who Christians concerned with traditional values should not rely upon: Protestant denominations such as his own.

“Many of the churches in Europe are national churches based on a very close relationship with the population, which in principle is good,” he said. Yet today, Candelin argued, those churches are “infected with the disease of trying to please public opinion.”

In language that would have been almost unthinkable for a Protestant Evangelical in earlier generations, Candelin said that he believes the strongest voice in the Christian world these days “belongs to the Catholic Church,” which he said has been “brave enough” to challenge Europe’s secular consensus.

Candelin offered an example that can only seem surreal to anyone who knows a smattering of Christian history. The strongest public challenge to ultra-secularization in Sweden today, he said, comes from a small but vocal coalition of Catholics and Pentecostals.

If these lions and lambs can lie down together, he argued, it’s not so difficult to imagine a future in which the circle has been widened to include another odd bedfellow – Muslim Christian Democrats.

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