Columnists > Voices

Empty religion

In France it's what adherents don't have that ties them together

Issue: "Riots in France," Nov. 19, 2005

So much for the illusion. Just when modern Europe thought itself to have been successfully secularized, along comes a crew of scruffy Muslims to spoil the picture. ("Scruffy" was one of the nicer words used by French leaders last week to describe the rioters.) Both the French people and their overweeningly self-confident government are discovering that religion remains a crucial part of modern life after all.

Historic Christianity, of course, had already become all but irrelevant to many, at least in the big cities and centers of European culture. Most cathedrals have long since been reduced to drafty museums of past superstitions. Serious religious commitments by Christians have been measured recently in single-digit proportions of the population.

But no observers of the European scene last week could deny the strong religious component of what was driving one of the scarier uprisings in the recent history of the continent. Religion wasn't the whole issue, to be sure; class and culture and economics played important roles. Yet the strong Islamic theme was too dominant to be ignored.

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But who could explain it accurately? If most politicians and most media people are ignorant of the fine nuances in their own religious traditions, how much more so with reference to Islam? If the differences in explaining evangelical Christianity range from Pat Robertson to Jimmy Carter, isn't it reasonable to expect that differences in explaining Islam are just as broad-and just as ambiguous and confusing?

At first, both European and American media soft-pedaled the religious aspects of the costly unrest. So The Washington Post headlined with discreet political correctness: "Rage of French Youth Is a Fight for Recognition." But, as Canadian columnist Mark Steyn pointed out (Canadians might be a little scared themselves), it wasn't "Pierre and Jacques and Marcel and Alphonse" who were causing the trouble. It was Mohammed and his friends-who admittedly may have been poor and unemployed members of drug gangs-but who first and foremost found their identity in their relationship to Islam.

So in a front-page story last week, John Carryrou finally wrote bluntly in The Wall Street Journal: "The past year is proving to be a watershed in modern Europe's encounter with Islam. As a number of events have shown-including last year's assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical and the home-grown terrorists who bombed the London tube this summer-Europe has failed to deal with the Muslims within its borders."

In his article, Mr. Carryrou shows how even purported efforts by so-called moderate Muslim groups to restrain violence by young devotees of Islam have tended-inadvertently or otherwise-to highlight and perhaps even encourage ever more violent behavior. Concerning the Tabligh group, he says that while it publicly preaches a peaceful brand of Islam, French intelligence officials claim that up to 80 percent of Islamic extremists in France were once members of Tabligh. French officials call it the "antechamber of fundamentalism."

Indeed, the record shows that the very efforts of groups like Tabligh to work with young people have tended often to heighten their sense of identification with Islam rather than to meld them into the broader society of which they are a part. When unemployment, resulting from a variety of influences, ranges as high as 40 percent among some immigrant groups, such patterns quickly prompt the jobless folk to see their plight as a deliberate effort by society to victimize them because they are Islamic. The fact that Tabligh works out of a mosque all but guarantees that the young people it reaches out to learn instinctively to see the struggle as a religious one.

So it's not so much any specific content that they've been taught. It's not a particularly charismatic brand of teachers who have gripped them with a vision. Nor is it that the Quran has proven so convincing. Instead, it's a grim and empty life experience they've inherited that prompts them to claim a religious adherence whose meaning has primarily to do with what they don't have in life. And now, both oddly and frighteningly, that's how the secularists of Europe see them as well.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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