While Europe Slept

[This one was from 2007 and got a number of notable hyperlinks.]

This is a book I am going to try to read this summer. Check out Bruce Bawer, one of the finest essayists of the modern era, discussing Europe and Islam on Bill Moyers’ show. The book is about how tolerant Europe has become too tolerant of intolerant Muslims, and how they, in turn, threaten Europe’s live and let live lifestyle.

Moyers seemed to stress over and over again — but this isn’t the way most Muslims are, right? In my community college classes, I usually have at least one (sometimes more) Muslim in a class of 25+. I also have plenty of traditional Christians, liberal Christians, Jewish students, atheists, agnostics, and so on and so forth. Whenever I criticize the more extreme elements of Islam, I always stress that most Muslims say this doesn’t represent the authentic version of their faith. Now, in truth, I have no idea whether I’m right and may well be engaging in a Straussian lie. But, if Islam, as a faith, isn’t going away — and I don’t think it is — Muslims must be convinced that a more liberal, sober and rational understanding of their faith is the authentic one. This is exactly what Madison tried to do with Christians in his Memorial and Remonstrance.

Indeed, how we deal with intolerant religions reflects a paradox in Founding thought. Rick Garnett discussed it here and I responded with my thoughts. The paradox is, the rights of conscience are so profound government has no business saying what is true or false religion. Yet, government indeed does have an interest in promoting the “right” kind of religion, that is religion compatible with liberal democratic, secular, pluralistic norms.

Our Founders did to Christianity what the modern liberal governments and institutions, are, or ought to be doing to Islam (like telling folks extreme Islam doesn’t represent authentic Islam).

Almost all of the most notable Christian thinkers from the pre-Founding era differed with our Founders on tolerance and the freedom to worship. John Calvin knew the Bible as well as anyone but thought it entirely proper to see see Servetus burned at the stake simply for publicly denying the Trinity. Likewise, Calvinist Samuel Rutherford, who purportedly influenced our revolution, too thought it just for Servetus to be executed in that manner. All of the early colonies except Rhode Island didn’t grant freedom to worship and often imposed brutal punishments sometimes executions, for worshipping the “wrong” way. And they all justified such with textual appeals to the Bible.

To our Founders (the most notable of whom, like Servetus, weren’t even “real Christians” but unitarians) this was not authentic Christianity, or Christianity properly understood. Our Founders had a vested interest in convincing Christians that most notable past Christian thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas to Luther to Calvin to John Winthrop erred on tolerance and religious liberty. And though the government ultimately granted (and still grants) free exercise of religion to any religious thought, no matter how extreme, the Founders still endorsed, mainly through their supplications to God, a version of religion that was kinder and gentler than what came before. As Rick Garnett put it:

Secular, liberal, democratic governments like ours not only take cognizance of, but also and in many ways seek to assimilate—that is, to transform—religion and religious teaching.

The early Presidents did do a lot of “God talk,” and most of it was not even particularly Christian, but spoken in generic or philosophical language, purposefully worded to include religions outside of Christianity. Sometimes though, they did speak of Christianity or revelation and they often used particular adjectives and qualifiers to describe such: “Benevolent”, “benign” and even “liberal” and “enlightened.”

For instance Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address I have emphasized those terms:

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter — with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?

Or George Washington’s Circular to the States:

The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society.

These Founders were not simply “taking” the Christian religion as they found it; they were actively involved in a project to make such kinder, gentler, more sober and rational.

We should do the same with Islam.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to While Europe Slept

  1. tom van dyke says:

    One must resist a “one size fits all” approach to religion when it comes to the unique property of Protestantism. I doubt any other religious approach has 34,000 sects!

    By the time of the Founding, intersectarian tolerance was a fact on the ground, by necessity alone; there was no majority sect, except at the state level. Eventually, even that didn’t hold after the Unitarian-Congregationalist split in Massachusetts, and the last [constitutional, mind you] state-established church was disestablished in 1833, 40+ years after the First Amendment.

    As for Islam, it too has a unique content, offering itself both as a religion and a way of political life [sharia]. “We” may attempt to “moderate” it, but that is from the outside [and I agree we have no choice, it’s not going away anytime soon].

    Christianity was amenable to tolerance by its own tenets, but Islam, perhaps not. The desecularization of Turkey is on the rise. Perhaps Islam itself cannot remain Islam without sharia.

  2. Chris says:

    Islam was practicing religious tolerance before Christians had even given it a thought. Look at what happened in Spain when the Moores conquered it, and then when they were kicked out by the Catholics, and tell me, which time would have been better to be a non-Muslim, non-Catholic in Spain? If you have some doubts, picture yourself living side by side with Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, in relative harmony, and then picture yourself either in an Inquisition cell or being called a Converso and living your real spiritual life in complete secrecy for fear of the Inquisition, while still considered second class relative to the “Old Christians.”

    There’s nothing inherently intolerant of other religions — at least not other Abrahamic religions — in Islam. At the turn of the last century, Muslim scholars wanted to emulate the tolerance and liberalism of Europe. Things are different now in Islam, in general, less for religious reasons than for political ones.

  3. tom van dyke says:

    Or not.


    I don’t have an opinion, but even a scholarly consensus doesn’t appear to exist.

  4. Chris says:

    Tom, not true (perhaps you should have read closer, or something other than Wikipedia). And even with the doubt about some claims), being part of society and economy is still better than exile, forced conversion, imprisonment, and death.

    But even if it didn’t last long, the well established medieval period of tolerance and integration serves as an existence proof.

  5. tom van dyke says:

    The deeper question is whether tolerance fits the particulars of the religion.

    In Spain, the Moors were invaders and never a majority of the population in the first place. Tolerance was a function of prudence. You still had the dhimmi tax for non-Muslims, and the political authority of Islam was not in question.

    On the other hand, Christianity’s theology eventually developed into a demand for tolerance, by its own tenets. That’s what I meant in the first essay.

    Narrowing the analysis to a few hundred years in Spain serves little purpose in the scheme of things, especially if the Moors are romanticized and the Inquisition exaggerated or misunderstood [it was Ferdinand, not the Church, that started it]—which I believe they are.

  6. Chris says:

    Tom, I can never tell if you’re being intentionally disingenuous or if it’s simply a product of your position. For example, if you were being honest, you’d note that the dhimmi tax was levied primarily because non-Muslims didn’t pay the Muslim equivalent of a tithe, as Muslims did. If they hadn’t levied taxis on non-Muslims, the Muslims would have been pretty pissed, and perhaps rightly, as they had to pay an extra tax. You’d also note that, of course, religious tolerance is endemic to Islam, as, whatever the political exigencies, it was based on Islamic scripture (all that stuff about people of the book). And of course, political reasons had a lot to do with the rise of religious tolerance within the Christian world as well, so simply pointing out that there were political/practical considerations involved in Muslim religious tolerance doesn’t get you very far.

    I know your thesis is that religious tolerance is a uniquely Christian position — a thesis which, even if we came to the erroneous conclusion that Muslims weren’t practicing it prior to Christians, and for religious reasons, would not stand long if we looked at, say, Buddhism — but the way it colors your perception, and your rhetoric, on Islam is pretty annoying. The facts are, Muslims were practicing religious tolerance prior to Christians, and were doing so with a scriptural basis (people of the book), though of course in a political context, as was the case with Christians as well, who didn’t decide to be religiously tolerant in a vacuum, but because of the complex political dynamics of the influence of the Church (and its relationship to secular power) and the persecution of and by Protestants; it’s not a coincidence that religious tolerance was often taken to mean tolerance of other Christian sects. Your thesis is false. At some point, you’re going to have to accept that.

  7. tom van dyke says:

    No, your cherry-picking of history and geography leads to a false conclusion, Chris. Your sample is too small and too hagiographic, or in the case of Christianity, too demonizing.

    Islam–by its own tenets—could lead to a reformed theology that demands tolerance, but this is not manifest. I quote James Kugel here not out of authority, but as a labor-saver in what is an unproductive exchange, since you cling to a set of historical facts that are limited and not entirely self-evidently factual.

    Critics of organized religion assert that religion has been a cause, at least ostensibly, of war and division. Indeed, much of the world is involved in a war now that is, in many ways, a religious one. How do you think orthodoxy stands up to this charge?

    It depends whose orthodoxy you mean. I do not think that there are many conflicts currently going on that could be blamed on Christian orthodoxy. Jewish orthodoxy, I am sorry to say, is not an entirely innocent bystander in the current crisis in the Middle East, but I hardly think that it is a main factor.

    By contrast, I would have to say that Islam is indeed an important factor in numerous conflicts – in Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, Israel-Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and no doubt other places I’ve skipped. And of course Islam has been invoked as the motivating factor in terrorist incidents from New York to Madrid, London to Moscow and beyond. I don’t think all this is a coincidence. There are many things that right-thinking Muslims need to work out, and the task will not be easy.

    The distinction between the “House of Islam” and the “House of the Sword” (and the corollary that all “infidels” should be forced to convert to Islam or be killed) is not some extremist doctrine, but dyed in the wool in Islam. So is the assumption that in any conflict between a Muslim and non-Muslim state, the Muslim state is to be supported. Jihad, no matter what apologists may say, has always had violent overtones. People in the West seem to assume that there is a great mass of “moderate Islam” somewhere. The evidence has yet to present itself.

  8. Chris says:

    Tom, again, you’re doing exactly what you accuse me of doing. I’m not engaging in hagiography, I’m not demonizing anything — Christianity was, for much of its history, incredibly violent, incredibly discriminatory, and in some countries at some times, downright genocidal. This applies, as well, to the other two major Abrahamic religions. On the other hand, Christianity, and the other two Abrahamic religions and some Eastern religions, have been a source of tolerance, charity, and a call for freedom, of conscience at least (it’s hard to argue that economic freedom is an offshoot of any religion — it was certainly opposed by the major religions well into the age of “economics”).

    What is certain is this: at a time when religious tolerance was unthinkable in the Christian world — in the early to mid-medieval period in Europe — Islam was practicing a fairly high level of religious tolerance in Europe. There is no scholarly doubt about this, though there is doubt about how long it lasted. There is also no doubt that there were scriptural justifications, which were not minor (the people of the book argument is very important to Islam — don’t forget, Jews fought with their prophet — and has largely been eclipsed for political, ethnic, and economic reasons, which is ironic, given your argument), for this tolerance.

    Has the Christian world produced a more lasting spirit of tolerance and freedom? I suppose that depends in part on how long you think the age of tolerance lasted in Spain, and how long our current age of tolerance will last. There are certainly elements on both end of the political spectrum, but particularly on the right, throughout the western world who seek to undermine it even now. But Christian tolerance was neither the first example of European religious tolerance, nor the most inherent. And your counterargument to this seems to consist of saying, “Nuh uh!”

  9. tom van dyke says:

    Chris, since you reject even the possibility that your “facts” are stilted by Islamic hagiography and secular and Protestant revisionism against Roman Catholicism, I’ll stipulate all your facts for the sake of discussion. But your argument rests on Spain of a few hundred years—Islam at its best and Christianity at its worst, and this small sliver ignores most of the globe and most of the rest of history.

    Looking to the nature of the religions, I ask again whether Islam can be Islam without sharia. That was my core question.

    You really should take this up with Kugel, and indeed Bruce Bawer of the OP, who is far more accusatory than I:


    While Europe Sneered
    Kurt Westergaard and other brave critics of Islamic fanaticism continue to fend for themselves.
    5 January 2010

    Yesterday, a friend sent me a link to an article entitled “Eurabian Follies” on the website of the journal Foreign Policy. The author, Justin Vaïsse, took to task several authors, including me, who have warned in recent years of the Islamization of Europe. Vaïsse countered these authors’ mountains of hard facts with a big helping of the usual supercilious sneering. His thesis: Europe is chugging along just fine; Islam poses no real challenge to the continent’s freedom and prosperity; after all, the “experts” say so. Never mind the draining of European welfare systems by Muslim families, the explosion in rapes and gay-bashings and Jew-baitings, the proliferation of honor killings and forced marriages and no-go zones; never mind the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh by fanatics who objected to those men’s positions on Islam; never mind the threats directed at critics of Islam, such as Geert Wilders, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Robert Redeker, which have obliged them to live in hiding or with round-the-clock bodyguards.

    The timing of Vaïsse’s article was unfortunate—for him, anyway: it appeared around the time of the Christmas Day terrorist attack on Detroit-bound Northwest Flight 253 and the New Year’s Day assassination attempt on Kurt Westergaard, creator of the famous Mohammed-in-a-bomb-turban cartoon published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. (Only a bathroom that had been converted to a panic room in Westergaard’s house saved the artist from an axe-wielding Islamist maniac.) Let’s not even mention the over 1,000 cars torched in French cities on New Year’s Eve, which is becoming an annual tradition among that nation’s Muslim youth.

    As it happened, I received the link to Vaïsse’s article on the same day that I discovered that my dear friend Hege Storhaug had once, like Westergaard, been a target of violence, apparently because of her criticism of Islam. Hege is a former journalist and longtime women’s rights activist in Oslo whose concern about the treatment of women and girls in Muslim communities made her a pioneering critic of Islam in Norway. Time and again she has taken extraordinary personal risks to stand up for females who are confined to their homes, who are denied educations and careers, and who are the victims (or potential victims) of honor killing, genital mutilation, forced marriage, and sundry forms of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

  10. James Hanley says:

    Wow, TvD accuses Chris of having too narrow a time frame, then in support of his position cites someone who’s speaking only of the contemporary world. I’m sure there’s a word for such analytical blindness, but I don’t know what it is.

  11. tom van dyke says:

    Heh. Nice to hear from you, James. It is too narrow a time frame, and unrepresentative both historically and geographically.

    Christianity can be Christianity without political dominance; it’s in its origins and in its history for some centuries now. The question is whether Islam can. The brief window of its Golden Age was also its time of congeniality to Greek philosophy, but that is beyond the depth of this grenade-toss.

    Take it up with Bruce Bawer, although the counterargument so far has followed predictable and rather banal lines, Inquisition, Andalusia.

    Ooops, sorry, al-Andalus.

  12. James Hanley says:

    Why on earth would I take it up with Bruce Bawer? He hasn’t come here to make any claims. You have, so I was taking it up with you. Now you’re running to hide behind Bawer’s skirts?

    You’re behaving as you have in the past. Your very first post on this new blog contained a not-so veiled insult. I had half a mind to just ban you outright then, just to save myself the trouble in the future. Start conducting your arguments with more integrity or be gone.

  13. tom van dyke says:

    I intentionally left your posts alone, James, per our past agreement, with which you have not held up your end. Again. I commented only on Jon’s.

    It’s not as if I’m exactly clogging up the comments sections around here. If I were easy pickins like Collin, people would be lining up for their shot, 200 comments at a time, with you at the forefront. But do what you must, man.

    You remain welcome at American Creation, that other groupblog.

    As for the substance of this post, ah, nevermind. I’ll reply to Chris if he says something off the script.

  14. Chris says:

    TvD, I don’t know enough about Islam today to know if it can be Islam without Sharia. I know that sharia wasn’t codified until the 19th century, that it developed over time, and that in the 19th century, secularists arose and remain dominant in some nations, so it has existed without sharia. But existence proofs don’t sway you, clearly, so I won’t cite that as evidence.

    Also, so long as Christianity was dominated by Rome, and intertwined with national and international (European) politics, it was a pretty horrible system for anyone who wasn’t Christian, and a thoroughly freedom-denying one for those who were, but I don’t think that has a whole lot to do with scripture (it’s not surprising that lay Christians, before the reformation, rarely read scripture, and were actively discouraged from doing so even when they had the education that would have allowed them to do so).

    But since you haven’t been able to actually present an argument against the position that a.) religious tolerance existence in Islam before it existed in Christianity, and b.) there are actual scriptural reasons for this, I’m going to assume you’ve accepted it and are simply worried now that I’m trashing Christianity as a theology, which I’m not; I actually think the fault lies not with Christianity, but with Rome and the European social and political systems after the fall of Rome and prior to the Reformation. Granted, for practical purposes, Christianity as a system was identical with those things, but as a theology, it is very different from its practice.

  15. Chris says:

    By the way, I was Catholic.

  16. James Hanley says:


    I repeat, you’re welcome here as long as you argue with integrity. It’s not just about my posts, but about how you debate with those who comment here.

  17. tom van dyke says:

    Chris, my argument about Christianity isn’t scripture based, only that the development in its theology, pretty much after 1600, is compatible with it. [BTW Queen Isabella c. 1500 and the Spanish “Salamancan School” of Thomists were quite at the forefront of tolerance, but it didn’t take.]

    As for your account of Christian societies in the Roman days, I’m not sure it’s accurate.

    As for Islam, since it presents itself as a politics and a comprehensive way of life, the question of its compatibility with tolerance as we know it in the West is a valid one.

  18. Chris says:

    Tom, you must not have read what I just wrote about Islam (and the divide), while at the same time forgetting much of what you must usually know about Christianity. That, or you’re engaging in sophistic dissembling.

    Oh, and Rome = the Church (and the Vatican). I suppose I could have included Avignon.

    I also think it’s interesting that you chose as an example a sovereign who initiated a major inquisition.

  19. Pingback: How Does Islam “Present” Itself? | The One Best Way

  20. Chris,

    Interesting discussion here. I took up this topic in my World History class two years ago. What I noticed with Islam, as we studied its progression, is that it tended to become more tolerant the further away it got from its center. When they mixed with different cultures it seemed to moderate it. I would also add, depending on which Caliphate you are talking about, that politics at times became more important than religion. This can really be seen in Africa where many local customs were allowed to remain.

    What most people do not know is that most Muslims do not live in the Middle east. they live in Asia. There is very little trouble there with Jihad. In fact, most of the villages I have been in practice a bastardized version of Islam.

    So I would say that the reason they were more tolerant in Spain is that it was away from the power center more than anything esle. Though the influx of Greek thought and the great Universities did help a lot of I would think.

    I would also be careful about saying that Islam practiced tolerance before Christianity. This would have to go all the way back to pre-Constantine. If so, and I do not know the history that well, your case is a tough one. Much like Islam it went from a minority religion to the religion of the Empire. When near its center it tended to be harsh when not more tolerant. I think it was more about politics than anything else in Christianity too. Thus Tom’s comment about Ferdinand.

  21. “Also, so long as Christianity was dominated by Rome, and intertwined with national and international (European) politics, it was a pretty horrible system for anyone who wasn’t Christian, and a thoroughly freedom-denying one for those who were, but I don’t think that has a whole lot to do with scripture (it’s not surprising that lay Christians, before the reformation, rarely read scripture, and were actively discouraged from doing so even when they had the education that would have allowed them to do so).”

    I missed this Chris. It seems we are on the same wave length. Interesting discussion like I said.

  22. Chris,

    I would read about the School of Salamanca. This is almost a lost history. Las Casas was a good guy that few know about.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s