Continent in Crisis

New York Sun, May 2007

According to the dust jacket, church historian Philip Jenkins intends God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis ( Oxford University Press, 289 pages, $28) to function as a calming salve, a reassuring counterpoint to “overheated rhetoric” about Christian Europe’s imminent collapse under the weight of secularization and Muslim immigration. This may have been his intention, but it is not his achievement. His achievement — and it is considerable — is to have compiled one of the most patient and comprehensive cases extant for utter pessimism about Europe’s future. To see this, one need only change the dust jacket and cross out his repeated reassurances that what he notes is not really so alarming as it seems. There is no need even to change the title.

Consider, for example, Mr. Jenkins’s appraisal of the health of European Christianity. “In Italy and Spain,” he writes, “church attendance has been in steep decline since the early 1990s, and each new survey depicts the situation in grimmer terms from a year or two previously. … In many [French] villages, the question is whether a church will even survive in a decade or two … the number of seminarians has plunged. … Abundant anecdotal evidence, supported by opinion surveys, suggests the depth of ignorance about even the most basic Christian doctrines. … Art galleries can assume no knowledge of terms like Ascension and Transfiguration, any more than the casual visitor can be expected to understand the rituals of an Amazonian tribe.” After page upon page of observations such as these, Mr. Jenkins delivers the Good News: The number of visitors each year to Lourdes is rising. But one senses that even he is not persuaded that this and others like it are the salient details. “This is not to deny that European Christianity is in deep crisis,” he concludes. Indeed it is not.

If you do not much care whether Christianity survives in Europe, you may nonetheless pray that what replaces it — and something will — be benign. On this score, Mr. Jenkins is no more reassuring. In his discussion of the rise of militant Islam in Europe, he likewise appears to be struggling mightily against the very evidence he marshals. “Radicals [in Europe’s mosques] condemn secular Europe for its vice and immorality,” he observes. “They urge support for jihad in various countries around the world, they condemn Jews and Israel, and even, in some instances, call for armed violence and jihad in Europe itself.” Finding the pot of gold at the end of this multicultural rainbow is a challenge, but he certainly tries his best. “What is striking … is less that such outrageous words are used, but that dissidents within the congregation are willing to report or record them, suggesting the vigor of partisan divisions.” Actually, no. What is striking is that such outrageous words are used.

In places, Mr. Jenkins’s insistence upon seeing the bright side of the forces transfiguring Europe is salutary, a necessary reminder that Europe is a complicated place and the future a difficult thing to predict. In other places, he conveys the impression of a man at pains to stress that while Hell is indeed very hot, come wintertime this will result in a tremendous savings on the electricity bill. Contemplating, for example, the murder of Ilan Halimi, a young Jew living in Paris, who was kidnapped, tortured, stabbed, and burned to death with acid by a Muslim gang who called his family and recited verses from the Koran to them — while forcing them to listen to their son’s screams — Mr. Jenkins concedes that the attackers “definitely decided to target French Jews for abduction or extortion,” but this was because they believed that “French Jews were likely to be richer than non-Jewish whites.” This incident, he concludes, should not be overblown; after all, this may well have been a crime animated by class hatred, not religious hatred. If I fail to find myself relieved, it is not because I am by nature of a gloomy kidney.

If Mr. Jenkins has succumbed to an excess of evenhandedness, David Pryce-Jones suffers no such affliction. Betrayal: France, the Arabs and the Jews(Encounter Books, 152 pages, $23.95) traces the roots of contemporary French policy toward Jews and Arabs to the 19th century. Mr. Pryce-Jones concludes that French diplomats were rotten anti-Semites then, are rotten anti-Semites now, and have been rotten anti-Semites at every critical juncture in between. The French ruling class, he argues, has sought since the Napoleonic era to establish France as une puissance muselmane — a Muslim power.

This was at first a colonial project: Sweeping conquests in the Arab world, French rulers held, would balance Britain’s domination of India. It is now an occult diplomatic project, “imperialism in modern guise,” the goal of which is to secure power, influence, and money through cozy relationships with a series of disgusting Arab dictators (and Persian ones as well, in the case of the Ayatollah Khomenei). If this has meant indifference or outright hostility first to Jewish and then to Israeli national aspirations, tant pis. A brief moment of Franco-Israeli cooperation during the 1950s was an aberration, he observes. By the 1967 war, France had reverted to its historic opposition to Israel, proceeding thereafter to make the courtship of Saddam Hussein and Yasir Arafat the cornerstone of French foreign policy in the Middle East — to obviously disastrous effect.

Mr. Pryce-Jones supports his case with compelling archival evidence from the Quai d’Orsay, evoking a depressing parade of French diplomats who, for example, characterize Jews as “parasitical ethnic elements” or display an unwholesome interest in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. His case is for the most part deftly argued and persuasive. A touch of Mr. Jenkins’s even-handedness, however, would not have gone amiss. It is certainly true that there is a long tradition of anti-Semitism at the Quai d’Orsay, but it is misleading to intimate that this has been a uniquely French perversity or even an especially French perversity.

British diplomatic archives are of a very similar sensibility. To take just one example, Bernard Wasserstein’s ” Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945″ shows us all too clearly that the prejudices animating French diplomacy have had near-perfect analogues in Britain. Similarly, the problems of assimilating a large Muslim immigrant population are hardly unique to France nor attributable to its special, self-appointed role as a Muslim power. Every major European nation encouraged large-scale Muslim immigration in the postwar era; none considered too carefully the consequences; they are all now trying to shove the djinn back in the bottle. As Mr. Jenkins might say, this is not to deny that France has a serious problem on its hands. It’s to say that all of Europe does, and France surely does not deserve all the blame.

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