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Europe, Islam and Radical Secularism

April 14, 2016 Post-Enlightenment Europe has replaced its Christian values with secular ones.

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By George Friedman

In traveling to Europe this week, I am going to a place that is experiencing both an influx of Muslim refugees at the same time that it is experiencing terrorist acts by Muslims. In one sense, this is a very old story. Muslims invaded Europe in the 8th century, seizing Spain and penetrating France. Muslims also invaded Europe from the southeast, penetrating as far as Vienna in the 17th century. Europe invaded Muslim lands during the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Europeans again mounted major penetrations in the 19th and 20th centuries. These were accompanied by lesser attacks as well as population movements.
So in this sense, this conflict has been waged for well over a thousand years, with endless friction and occasional major movements. This has been a conflict between two religions, which both see their foundations in the book of the Jews, the Old Testament, but expanded on that with new and in some ways contradictory revelations. Both have many followers, and fairly defined, vast territories. In the struggle between Christians and Muslims, both have lost at some times and won at others, but neither has been able to decisively defeat the other.
This seems to be a rather minor phase of conflict in an ongoing war. But this chapter is different in a fundamental way. All prior conflicts have been between Christians and Muslims. This one is not. Since World War II, Europe has redefined itself. It was once Christian. It is now officially secular, and this is therefore a conflict between Muslim religiosity and European secularism. And that makes the dynamics of the conflict different.
Europe has embraced the principles of the French Enlightenment, which holds that religion is an entirely private matter that ought not become part of public life and that cannot be blamed for what others do in public life. The critique of the idea that Islam, migrants and terrorism are the same thing is rooted in a complex understanding of public and private, and collective and individual responsibility based on the complexities of the European enlightenment.
Europe has become profoundly secular, more so than the United States. That should not surprise anyone since Europe was the center of the Enlightenment. Europe therefore was once a Christian continent, until Christianity became a private matter, seen as one system of belief among many, with the public sphere neutral on all such matters.
Of course, such neutrality is impossible. Public life is impossible without some shared moral principles. European public life is filled with such principles, usually derived from the themes of the French Revolution, such as liberty, equality and fraternity – the right of citizens to live as they chose, to be treated equally under the law and with brotherhood, in which no one is excluded. These are of course complex values and more interesting in the things they exclude than what they include. They exclude any mention of God in general and Christ in particular. In other words, in neutralizing the public sphere, all religions have been rendered equal and made to respect the values of the public sphere.

Religions are also political movements, because in reshaping private things like conscience and obligation, they must reshape how the religious behave in public life. Christian private beliefs – or those of any other religion – ultimately demand public action and empower the leadership of the faith to make political demands. Therefore, today the demand to halt abortion derives from a private Christian belief that cannot be contained simply as a private value. Believing in that requires political action.

That action encounters not merely the moral imperative of public neutrality, but the entire structure of values derived from the Enlightenment. In a sense, Enlightenment values are more extreme than religious ones. They not only object to the religious political agenda, but demand that the religious not express their political will. So on the one hand, all religions are equal, but all must be apolitical, including Christianity, which used to be integral to Europe’s public life.

The complexity of Europe’s stance toward religion is part of the complexity of its most recent encounter with the massive Muslim migration. The Muslim world flirted with secularism during the 20th century, but in the end, the region has remained religious, and has intensified its Islamic stance. Islam, like traditional Christianity, is a political movement for which the Enlightenment’s distinction between public and private life is alien and the distinction between the individual and the community of believers is complex. The level of violence and the military dimension is nothing like what it was in the past. But this encounter between what I would call radical secularism and Islam is in many ways more complex.

From the standpoint of secularism, there is nothing incompatible between Europe and Muslims so long as they accept the distinction between public and private life, and between their private beliefs and participation in the community. For Muslims, those distinctions are alien and untenable. For secularists, the private realm is not only the realm of religion, but the realm of pleasure. There is a hedonism that is part of secularism. For Muslims, private life is the realm of a personal discipline away from hedonism, and that discipline must be found in public life as well.

There was a symmetry between Christianity and Islam. Both saw public and private lives as different aspects of the same existence. Each saw hedonism as the problem to be solved and not an option to be appropriated. And both were evangelical. Of course modern secularism is evangelical as well, in the belief that secular notions of human rights ought to be respected throughout the world. And that is the place where Christianity, Islam and secularism merge. Each is in a struggle for the others’ souls.
The concept of equality – between believers and non-believers, between men and women, between homosexuals and heterosexuals, and so on – is at the heart of political secularism. Secularism bans or seeks to ban public speech that rejects these principles, on the basis of hurtful speech unprotected by the First Amendment. Most important, secularists see the use of force as potentially acceptable to end injustice, which is defined as violations of liberty and equality. It is in this sense that secularism is evangelical. But there is also a deep difference. Traditional Christianity and Islam are unconflicted in their evangelical creed. Secularism cannot be straightforward, as it is continually trying to balance the rights of people to be divergent, against their need to marginalize those who disapprove of that divergence.
Secularism is a young religion in a way, and has not yet learned to carry political power gracefully. This places it on the intellectual defensive against Islam in a way that Christianity wasn’t. Christianity understood Islam in a way that secularism can’t. Christians and Muslims were enemies over the centuries. Secularism is both respectful of Islam and outraged at its values. In fighting a complex enemy, it is best to have elegantly consistent beliefs.
When I go to Europe, I speak for the most part to secularists, many of whom despise the increasing anti-secular sensibility of the European right, its xenophobia and its repressiveness. Having done that, the secularists must find a way to come to grips with Islam, which shares these traits unapologetically with the right. Yet, they do not wish to be seen as xenophobic and repressive. There is no simple solution for the political problem at the core of Europe. Europe is secular. Secularism has many virtues. Being effective in defining an enemy is not one of them. Secularism has not yet mastered its contradictions. Nor, I expect, will I be able to persuade secularists of these contradictions.