Europe at the Crossroads

I find it terrible,” explained a leading Dutch historian to journalist Ian Buruma, “that we should be offering social welfare or subsidies to people who refuse to shake hands with a woman.”

How Europeans understand the millions of Muslims in their midst has emerged as a central question of European politics. Danish cartoons, soccer-fan terrorists from Leeds, Algerian bombers in Madrid, and Tony Blair calling for an end to “one-way multiculturalism” mark the end of one era, defined by the cold war, and the beginning of something new, where actuarial tables and birthrates plot cultural destiny.

Ian Buruma’s examination of this subject is unusually lucid. His essay begins with the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, shot six times while bicycling home from work on November 2, 2004. The shooter, Mohammed Bouyeri, then slashed the throat of the wounded Van Gogh before pinning a note to his body, written in Dutch with snatches of Arabic downloaded from the Internet, that called for a holy war against unbelievers.

In Buruma’s telling, Van Gogh’s media-honed persona was not an attractive one. He had led a drifting, bohemian life until he decided to play the role of enfant terrible in the late 1970s. He likened Jesus to a “rotten fish,” flaunted a disdain for personal hygiene and health (his final newspaper column was titled “The Healthy Smoker”), and courted attention through films and a popular television talk show.

His most explosive attacks were on Muslims. Amsterdam, where almost half of the residents are foreign born, and where well over half of foreign-born residents are Muslim, has been transformed in a generation into a city with neighborhoods marked by halal butchers, women in veils, and satellite dishes allowing televisions to pick up Al Jazeera. Two visions of Dutch society emerged after the 1970s. There was an officially tolerant and multicultural one, which in its disdain for an older prudery accepted pornography, legal prostitution, and drug use. Opposing it were disaffected teenagers such as Bouyeri and his alienated peers in thrall to radical Muslim clerics from the Mideast, as well as a much larger group of Dutch Muslims still not at home in Holland two or three generations after their emigration from Morocco, Surinam, and the far-flung reaches of the Dutch colonial empire.

The electroshock effect of Van Gogh’s murder deepened these differences. Despite Van Gogh’s vulgarity-he enjoyed mocking Muslims for copulating with goats-he posthumously became a sainted figure for Dutch liberals, an icon for a society worried that religious fanaticism threatens acceptance of gays and lesbians, respect for professional women, the legality of abortion and same-sex unions, and the tolerance of multiple family forms. Or as one Dutch politician put it, “I have no desire to go through the emancipation of women and homosexuals all over again. There are many gay high-school teachers who are afraid of revealing their identity because of Turkish and Moroccan boys in their classes. I find that scandalous.”

This tolerant Netherlands has its own history. Only a generation ago, as Buruma stresses, Dutch society remained culturally conservative, with Calvinists, Catholics, and Socialists clustered in their respective schools, neighborhoods, and trade unions. Delicate balancing acts to include members of all groups marked the formation of any cabinet, and the country’s political leadership evinced little enthusiasm for the avant-garde. (Much the same was true in Italy, where for all their dislike of one another, Communists and Catholics shared a disdain for modern consumerism and cultural radicalism.) As late as 1937, a Dutch governmental minister proposed banning married women from the paid labor force, and until 1954 women working for the government resigned on their wedding day. The Dutch versions of Lenny Bruce and other rebels of the 1950s poked fun at the mores of what struck them as a smug, provincial society. Buruma’s own wanderlust as a youth-and an attraction of Murder in Amsterdam is Buruma’s insider grasp of Dutch society-reflected this sense that more excitement existed outside of Amsterdam than inside it.

Only when traditional religious authority became discredited, especially on issues connected to sex and gender, did the “liberated” Holland of the last forty years emerge. (One intriguing detail in the recent five-volume history of the Second Vatican Council published by Orbis is the nervous eye cast on Dutch Catholics by Paul VI and other Vatican officials during the council’s waning days.) Over 60 percent of Dutch Catholics attended weekly Mass in the early 1960s. Only 10 percent did in the 1990s, and the decline in practice among Dutch Calvinists and Lutherans has been even more dramatic.

This European intersection of religion and politics-from a nineteenth century in which Christians contested for power and influence, to a twenty-first century in which a secular populace grapples with Islam as perhaps the most vital European religion-is also the overarching story line of Michael Burleigh’s two-volume history. The first volume, Earthly Powers (published in 2004), galloped from the French Revolution to the First World War, the second, Sacred Causes, from the First World War to the present. Burleigh’s command of the enormous historical literatures on such varied topics as the Soviet attempt to eradicate religion, Franco’s Spain, and Northern Ireland in the 1970s, distinguishes Sacred Causes, as does a specific focus on the complicated ecclesiastical and religious politics of the 1930s and ’40s, where Burleigh draws on his own prior work on the Nazis and German racial ideology.

To Burleigh, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin “metabolized” the religious instinct in the twentieth century, creating ersatz rituals and identifying heretics with a murderous zeal. Pius XII made errors in judgment, but he was far from Hitler’s pope and faced excruciating pressures in attempting to sustain a Catholicism under assault. Christian Democratic leaders such as Konrad Adenauer of Germany, Alcide de Gasperi of Italy, and Robert Schumann of France rebuilt the political and religious institutions shattered by the war, while churchmen on the eastern half of the continent, notably a young John Paul II, led the battle against Communist tyranny.

Unfortunately, Burleigh’s two volumes on religion do little to explain its absence. He admits that Franco’s Spain exhibited a “distasteful ecclesiastical triumphalism,” but his ideological antennae, ready to combat any twitch by “sneering secularists” or militant Islamists, barely register the secularization in Italy, Holland, Sweden, Germany, and France that is surely the dominant religious story of the last half of the twentieth century. (Catholic Poland is perhaps an exception; Catholic Ireland, as proven during the past decade, is not.)

Burleigh does ponder religion’s fate in his native Britain, but his animosity toward the 1960s prevents him from offering more than neoconservative bromides. We get slurs disguised as tough-minded analysis: “a discredited multiculturalism that exists only in the left university”; liturgical reforms as “silly and shambolic”; Jürgen Habermas as a “sinisterly silly guru of revolution”; the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as a “stage” for “Christian and humanist radical eggheads.”

Gestures at serious explanations-including an acknowledgment of internal tensions within the churches, of the reluctance of young people to make lifelong vocational commitments in the manner of their ancestors, of the commodification of sex, and of the struggle of parents to pass on religious beliefs to their children in a more mobile, consumerist society-are submerged beneath this verbal assault.

This is particularly disabling in Burleigh’s discussion of Catholic Europe. In both Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes, for example, he revives from obscurity a little-known figure, Notre Dame professor Waldemar Gurian. Burleigh rightly lauds Gurian, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who fled Germany after 1933, for his prescient criticism of the Nazi attempt to replace Christianity with pagan, Aryan beliefs. What he doesn’t mention is Gurian’s frustration with the inability of Catholic bishops in Europe to rise above the anti-Semitism that so permeated the European Catholic milieu. (Gurian mordantly wondered in 1941 if Thomas Aquinas, the intellectual lodestar for so many Catholics of that era, would support Franco or the authoritarian, anti-Semitic Catholic leaders of Vichy France and Slovakia.)

Within Germany, Catholics were only one (albeit significant) group, and Bur¬leigh also highlights the less publicized capitulations to Nazi racial ideology made by German Protestants and more secular intellectuals. But Burleigh’s fierce defense of Vatican conduct during the 1930s and the war-a tightly argued lawyer’s brief extending one hundred and fifty pages on a now weary subject-neglects a wider context.

He underestimates the dispiriting effect of official Catholic reluctance to challenge-even willingness to support-fascism in such heavily Catholic countries as Spain, Austria, France, Slovakia, and Italy. The sense among European bishops and theologians that the Catholicism of the 1930s and ’40s had profoundly failed, that Catholics used a going-to-church-on-Sunday faith to blockade themselves from the world around them, a world that in the 1940s permitted the extermination of most of European Jewry, eventually spurred intense self-reflection.

These tensions exploded into public view at the first session of the Second Vatican Council, when theologians and bishops revolted against the more-of-the-same proposals of the curia. Perhaps because it rests awkwardly within Bur¬leigh’s polemical grid-is it liberal (bad) or conservative (good)?-Vatican II gets surprisingly cursory treatment in Sacred Causes, five pages for the most important religious event of the twentieth century. (He does get off a characteristic shot against liberation theology, “doubtless exciting at the time” but a “dilettantish borrowing from secular creeds.”) Similarly, Burleigh does not mention Humanae vitae and barely alludes to the general problem of a church paralyzed in its response to rapidly changing roles for women and the family in Western society.

And yet Sacred Causes identifies important issues, even if its belligerent tone does not invite measured responses. For all his bombast, Burleigh’s instinct that Europe renounces its own religious heritage at some risk is persuasive, especially when the meaning of Europe at a moment of demographic pressure is uncertain. (As others have noted, the polarization between Catholics and republicans that marked France since the French revolution has ended not with victory, but with ideological exhaustion.)

Ian Buruma makes the even more sensible recommendation that European societies should respect religious orthodoxy, even Islamic orthodoxy, as one among many modern choices, even while developing mechanisms to ensure the loyalty of new citizens to the nation-state. Easier said than done.

That even the self-consciously cosmopolitan Buruma would describe “religious orthodoxy” as “by definition closed to reasonable argument” is sobering, and a reminder of how even shrewd observers automatically relegate religious voices to the irrational margin. Tariq Ramadan is the European Muslim scholar most associated with the effort to redirect this conversation about Europe’s future, and the assessment of Ramadan by Burleigh and Buruma is revealing. (Ramadan, too, has a Notre Dame connection. He was offered an appointment at the university’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies but could not accept it because of the Bush administration’s refusal to let him enter the United States.)

Burleigh parrots Fox News in a footnote, describing Ramadan as a “known Al Qaeda apologist.” In fact, Ramadan denounced Al Qaeda and the attacks of September 11. Buruma offers a fair-minded profile of Ramadan in the February 4, 2007, New York Times Magazine and urges Americans to engage Ramadan’s ideas, “critically, but without fear.”

Neither author points out that Ramadan’s project of thinking through the relationship between religion and reason within Islam is not dissimilar to the project of Benedict XVI (one of Burleigh’s heroes-for his supposedly “non-negotiable” temperament). As a young theologian in the 1950s, Joseph Ratzinger shared the disillusionment of his peers with the conventional Catholic separation of faith from politics; and as pope, notably in his Regensburg address, he has suggested that religious orthodoxy, indeed religious belief generally, remains compatible with reason rightly understood. This entails criticism of Islam, notably the unwillingness of some Islamic societies to grant religious freedom to Christians, Jews, and unbelievers. But it also marks respect for Islam as a religious tradition that, like Catholicism in the twentieth century, must navigate the shoals of modernity. Facilitating this dialogue, oddly enough, may be the most important contribution Catholics and other European Christians can make to the future prospects of their not quite post-Christian but increasingly Islamic home.

Published in the 2007-04-20 issue: 

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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