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Religion and Society

Islam and the West in Europe: Encounter or Clash?

Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan in Turin, MikeDotta /

The growing presence of Muslims in Europe raises the question of compatibility between different views in the public sphere

The latest report by the Pew Research Center offers surprising data on the evolution of religions: Christianity currently represents 31.2 percent of the world’s population and Islam 24.1 percent. It is estimated that by 2060 Christianity will reach 31.8 percentagainst 31.1 percent reached by Islam. The statistics predict that by mid-century the two religions will have roughly the same number of followers as well as that, together, they will comprise nearly 63 percent of the world’s population.

The evolution of each of the two religions and their mutual relationship is therefore of great interest for the social debate in the West. In fact, Islam preaches a form of monotheism that intends to reform and overcome the Jewish-Christian monotheism, besides also claiming to be a universal truth, differently from the religions of the Far East, for instance. For this reason, the growing presence of Muslims in Europe opens once again the question of the compatibility between different worldviews in the public sphere. Is an encounter between the West and Islam truly possible, or are they condemned to clash?

European societies struggle in dealing with this delicate situation, with obvious internal differences that cannot be dealt with here. In general terms, popular culture has undermined universal anthropological claims, especially those of the religion lived out in the West: Christianity. Following the Reformation, the cultural and political unity of the medieval faith broke into parties that fought wars with devastating effects on social life. For this reason, modern philosophy was born – among other things – with the intention of overcoming confessional divisions and maintaining some form of universal reference point that would guarantee coexistence.

At the end of the process, the universal value of Christian faith was challenged, while alternative forms of secularized universality started to appear. Thus, Reason, Science, State, History, Race and Market took God’s place. Nevertheless, there is often talk of “unsatisfied modernity”: the unquestionable technological and scientific progress of Western Europe, its very high level of economic and social development (which many envy) has not been accompanied by a comparable progress as far as questions on the meaning of life and God are concerned. The two atrocious wars of the twentieth century and totalitarianisms spread a dark shadow over Europe.

Even Islamic culture, however, is struggling to be an appropriate interlocutor. Recent years’ “revolutions” rose indeed from the fact that in these societies the need for freedom and other economic and social rights emerged. Uprisings were born in conditions of severe poverty and the lack of opportunities, particularly in terms of jobs. This demand for effective, concrete freedom can be perceived as a threat to religious universality, which is bound to the social order to the point that religion can appear to be a form of belief subordinate to that order. Islam will have to face this demand for freedom, and especially religious freedom, which is asking to thoroughly examine the understanding of human dignity. By claiming greater civil participation, the question raised will be about the kind of man who can be at the center of the third millennium. And this question is crucial in the West as well.

Right now, there are more questions than answers, both in the Western and Islamic world. The Muslim presence in Europe reveals that we do not share an answer about the universal value of anthropology and, in particular, of religion.

Starting from the inalienable social and legal achievements of recent centuries, it is necessary to revise the model that has been in force so far, since it is unable to meet the challenges posed by the growing Muslim presence. And vice versa, the long journey of the West can offer very precious elements to the Muslim world. A kind of Christianity that is alive represents an exceptional opportunity for Islam and, in turn, Islamic universalism forces us to rethink the reasons behind the anthropological and cultural crisis that the West with its Christian tradition is living.

Everyone can see that the coexistence between Christians and Muslims has been very complex and sometimes even extremely violent. Christians and Muslims are still suspicious of each other. Pope Francis’ historic visit to Egypt pushes us to decide whether we want to perpetuate this mutual exclusion or if we are willing to favor a culture of the encounter, supporting the “process of hybridization of civilization and culture” (Angelo Scola), starting with experiences of real relationships, however conflicting they might be, which already exist in Europe and the Near East. 

The challenge goes beyond the essential safety and security measures. It requires personal implication. It is not even enough to simply provide humanitarian assistance; it is necessary to learn how to mutually accompany, listen, and explain, through patient dialogue and education, as the Pope suggests: “Education indeed becomes wisdom for life if it is capable of ‘drawing out’ of men and women the very best of themselves, in contact with the One who transcends them and with the world around them, fostering a sense of identity that is open and not self-enclosed.”1

The Pope’s gesture does not allow us Christians to be disinterested in the present moment. It is up to us to witness to everyone, and in the first place to all Muslims, that universal truth and freedom are bound together. They will either stand or fall together. Their most perfect relationship is that of love: “Nothing conquers except truth; the victory of truth is charity” (St. Augustine). The Pope’s journey calls into question the crystallized aspects of our conventional form of living the faith in our society, and urges us to start a process of encounter and educationEach encounter worthy of this name changes its interlocutors. Will change be possible so that this open identity will contribute to the good life of all? Many of our Christian brothers in the East and the West, and many Muslims, are waiting for this. 

[This article was published on the Spanish newspaper ABC on Monday, June 12, 2017 - page 3].

1His Holiness Pope Francis, Address to the participants in the International Peace Conference, al-Azhar Conference Center, Cairo, 28 April 2017