Defending Europe: Part II

Welcome to Part II of my discussion of wSieci’s “Islamic Rape of Europe,” where I talk a lot about maps.  Part I is all about the racism and white supremacy represented in the cover – check it out before you comment, please!

So aside from being a terrifying expression of the re-emergence of white supremacy in Europe, the wSieci article also brings up one of the major problems with any discussion of protecting Europe from the rest of the world – Europe and European aren’t special categories of people that need to be protected against all other peoples.

To start with, we need to ask, what is Europe?  The obvious answer would be “a continent,” but actually even this isn’t really true.  A continent is defined in geography as “any of the world’s main continuous expanses of land,” by which definition, Asia is a continent of which Europe is a subregion, same as the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent.  

Europe is still considered one of the seven continents, mostly because it was Europeans that designed the maps we all use today.  Indeed, since the 15th century, we’ve been literally inflating Europe in our view of the world.  Even if we want to accept Europe as a distinct subregion, we run into the same problem as with defining where is the Middle East or where is Central America – we can all make a vague gesture to the right region on a map, but defining the precise borders is much harder.  In some ways, it’s ironic that the wSieci cover comes out of Poland, as Eastern and Western Europe have experienced considerably different histories in the last two centuries, and Eastern Europeans actually face considerable zenophobia in Western Europe as not being ‘really’ European.  From my own experience living in Britain, I know plenty of British people who would be horrified by the idea of Poland ‘protecting’ what it is to be Europe.

Even if we can define what “Europe” is, we’re faced with another problem in trying to treat “Europeans” as an endangered species.  The wonderful irony of Western imperialism is that both Europeans and white people genuinely are going extinct.  One of major reasons why Europe should accept the incoming tide of refugees (besides, you know, basic humanity) is that the EU has some of the lowest birth rates in the world, and without either a considerable increase in their birth rate or an intake of new citizens, their population will just continue to decline, dropping by roughly half by 2060.  For centuries, white populations have conquered and intermarried on other continents while trying to maintain strict exclusionism for their own countries, the end result of which is that “being white” is dying out.  

But that doesn’t make white people an endangered species because race is not the same thing as species.  There are plenty of humans in earth, and the distribution of physical characteristics is in constant flux, due in part to their tendency to migrate around the world.  Indeed, Eastern Europe has already gone through several centuries of migration from eastern Asia, particularly from the Mongolian plateau.  The influx of Mongolian tribes accounts for some of the differences in appearance between Eastern and Western Europeans – people who “look Eastern European,” a facial structure made famous by Mila Kunis and Milla Jovovich, look like the result of centuries of intermixing between Scandinavians, Germanic tribes, and Mongolian tribes.

And those tribes didn’t understand themselves as invading some sacred city on the hill by settling in Europe – in fact, for most of the Middle Ages, Scandinavian, Germanic, and Mongolian tribes were all viewed as equally barbaric by the people of the Mediterranean, both in southern Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East, which had remained the center of culture for a millennium.  The idea of Middle Easterners “contaminating” Europe would have made no sense to Europeans in the Middle Ages – although they considered Muslims the enemies of Christianity, they were desperate for the luxury goods and ancient knowledge found in Constantinople and ‘the Orient,’ and parts of what we call Europe today were under Muslim rule throughout the Middle Ages, including Sicily, Cyprus, Spain, Portugal, and at various points, parts of Southern France.

There’s no real scholarly agreement as to when the idea of “Europe” began – there is limited evidence for the use of the term in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it seems to be predominately a post-Napoleonic idea.  To put that in perspective, there’s been a United States longer than there’s been a “Europe” as we use the term today.  While we’re at it, Tiffany & Co. is older than the united Italy we see on a map today, and there’s only been a united Germany for 99 of the last 150 years.  All of this is just to say that while we think of “Europe” as a constant thing that goes back centuries, it really isn’t, and the fact that “European” as an identity is still evolving should not be surprising – it’s always been evolving, and will continue to do so no matter what, either becoming a new hybrid society or dying off and making way for something new, whichever comes first.

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Yet another reminder that we should all be afraid of white supremacy.

Trigger warnings for discussions of racism, sexism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, and rape.

So a Polish ‘far-right’ magazine wSieci published its most recent edition with a picture of a woman, wrapped in the European flag, clearly in pain, being roughly grabbed by several dark-skinned arms, under the title “Islamic Rape of Europe.”

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The cover actually prompted me to want to talk about what the concept of “Europe” even is, and whether it’s still useful today, but I wanted to start off with some caveats that are already proving longer than expected, so I think I’ll break this into two posts.  First, the super depressing discussions of racism and political correctness.  Tune in next week for part two, which will mostly be pictures of maps.

First, the cover is both racist and sexist.  Not open for debate.  Islam is a religion, not a race, and European is not synonymous with white.  That woman could be Muslim and all of the arms grabbing at her both European and non-Muslim.  Also, women are in constant danger of rape and sexual assault, but these attacks are much more likely to come from their own communities or even from direct blood relatives, and non-white women face a higher risk of sexual assault and rape than white women [depressing stats].  Limiting immigration is no more effective for reducing the rates of sexual assault as it is for reducing our carbon footprint or rebalancing the economy – it’s possible it might make some very small difference, but there are definitely better places to start.

Second, the racism and sexism depicted here are part of a much broader tradition in white supremacy – the claim that racism is necessary to protect white women (there’s a good primer on the subject for the American context here).  Again, not open for debate and also complete nonsense.  Firstly, as a white woman, I don’t exist to serve as an baby incubator for my race.  Secondly, again, presenting rape culture as a race issue is just straight up false – rape and sexual assault occur predominantly within existing power structures.  Indeed, the race component of rape runs the other direction – as we’ve seen time and time again in the relationship between ‘fratboy culture’ and the frankly terrifying rates of sexual assault on college campuses, the *more* privileged a group is, the more likely they are to assault someone, probably because they’re not used to having their choices questioned.

Finally, the cover is not just politically incorrect, although a truly shocking number of websites and news outlets have called it just that.  It’s worth pointing out that the term ‘politically correct’ doesn’t even really mean anything – or more to the point, is often used to harken back to a period of ‘forced’ multiculturalism that never actually happened.  As discussed here, the term started out as a literal description of the potential political outcome of personal choices, particular consumer choices, akin to the modern concept of buying free-trade goods or ‘buying local.’  The adoption of the term by mainstream media and the American right more or less parallels the very limited attempts at increasing multiculturalism and reducing public displays of racism and sexism in the late 80s and early 90s – basically the most ‘politically correct’ we ever were as a society was Captain Planet and Sesame Street.  

The use of the term by mainstream media also did much to pollute the distinction between censorship (that is, a government action that serves to silence dissidents) and backlash (ie responses from people or organizations that have no government backing).  People can be offended by racist language and, as a group, decide to ban it from workplaces or educational institutions – that’s still not censorship because the government wasn’t involved.

The problem with labeling something like this magazine cover as ‘just politically incorrect’ is that it both diminishes this image’s connection to the history of white supremacy and *way* raises the bar in terms of what isn’t ‘just politically incorrect.’  So long as we have this middle category of ‘diet racism’ (to steal a term from College Humor), it makes it easier and easier for us to desensitize ourselves to racism.  After all, no one wants to be ‘too P.C.’  By couching the discussion in these terms, white supremacy is able to make itself the victim, that making it seem as though being disgusted by this image and what it represents is a personal choice or a sign of hypersensitivity, or, worst of all, censorship of free speech (which again, it could only be if I were a government and I were banning this image).

The power that white supremacy has in cultivating the narrative in this way is exactly why we should all be scared by its continued strength in North America and its re-emergence in Europe – by its very nature, white supremacy already has considerable social and cultural privilege defending it, and by co-opting language of victimhood and oppression, it cuts off the last remaining outlets to dissent we had to address it.

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Homosexuality in the Medieval world

Carrying on from my last post, I came across this brilliant comic by Humon about definitions of sexuality in Medieval Christian monasticism, which really nails what I was talking about that our terminology just doesn’t make sense when talking about sex in a historical context.  Obviously this is talking about Christianity, but the idea of lust and sexual acts as being points of concern, rather than kinds of sexuality, definitely applies to Islam, as well.  Check it out!

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Homosexuality in Islam

Umar asked:

Hey Jessica,

I was wondering if you could make a post about homosexuality in Islamic history, i.e how open has it been, what were the reactions, etc.

Thanks.

Okay, I guess to start with I should warn everyone that this post will have discussions of sex, including sex between same-gender and non-gender-sex partners.  I don’t intend to go into any particular detail, but if you’re squicked out by sex in general, or by the existence of homosexuality and queer identity, you should probably stop reading.

Also, for the sake of clarity, I’m going to use gender to describe the division between homosexuality and heterosexuality – heterosexual people prefer to have sex with non-same-gender partners, homosexual people prefer to have sex with same-gender people.  It’s not a perfect division, but I strongly dislike the term ‘same-sex,’ as I find it really transphobic.  I use ‘queer’ as a blanket term for all non-straight identities, although for the sake of the current discussion, I’m not really going to talk about asexuality.  Queer studies is the academic field that considers the role of non-straight identity in the humanities and social sciences – it should be point out, it’s not my field, and so I’m coming into this predominantly as a historian whose done a bit of extra reading.

Also, as a historian, I should point out that any discussion of homosexuaily in history needs to come with a couple of caveats.  Firstly, there have been times throughout history and around the world when non-straight behavior was considered a sin, a crime, or a mental illness, and so understandably, non-straight people have often tried hard not to be identified.  Moreover, one of the major periods for believing homosexuality was a sign of mental illness was the 19th century, when many of the standards for editing, translating, and interpreting Medieval texts also date from, so many of the works that come down to us have been re-interpreted through a Victorian mindset.

Secondly, sexual identity and sexual preference are ultimately abstract concepts that only exist inside your head.  No matter what people think, there’s no outward evidence to mark someone as queer (any more than there is for marking people as straight).  The best we can do is interpret what people said about themselves, what they’re reported to have done, and what other people say about them.  The key word here is ‘interpret’ – even in cases where we have reports in historical texts about people who seem to understand each other as the same gender having sex, plenty of people have argued that we’re ‘reading homosexuality into the text,’ and technically they’re right – it could be a literary device, it could be a literary invention, it could be meant as a compliment (during periods when homosexuality was seen as a positive) or as an insult (in times when it was considered a negative).  These problems with interpretation even arise within the queer community and in the field of queer studies – for example, for much of the late twentieth century, it was common to say that figures like Marlon  Brando or Kate Hepburn were gay and in the closet because they were reported to have had sexual relations with both men and women – the claim being that the relations with same-gender partners revealed their homosexuality and relations with non-same-gender partners were them keeping up appearances.  More recently, more and more people have started to argue that we should see them as bi or pansexual, interpreting the relations with both same-gender and non-same-gender partners through the same lens of queer identity.  Ultimately we can’t really know the truth – for living people, we can just ask them and they can tell us, “Oh, actually I identify as pan and aro” (and once they have told us, we should believe them!), but for historical figures, we’re stuck with all of the limitations of interpretation.

That being said, there is significant evidence that non-straight behavior was common in Medieval Islam.  To start with, it’s banned in Islamic law, and in general, you only write laws to ban things that are actually happening.  As outlined in a great article (in Variety of all places?) by Jonathan Brown at Georgetown, non-straight sex legally falls under sex outside of marriage (although potentially would have been legal between two married couples, except in the case of anal penetration, which was specifically prohibited), and so was illegal because all sex acts outside of marriage were illegal.   That there are occasional references specifically to non-straight sex acts in the legal literature, including giving suggested parallels for appropriate punishments, implies that cases involving non-straight sex acts arose often enough for jurists to need a standard and precedence for judging them.

In terms of attitudes towards homosexuality, the best example I can think of is Medieval wine poetry, a genre of Arabic poetry popular in the ninth and tenth centuries, a period which coincides with the emergence of a distinct urban culture, particular around the caliphal court in Baghdad.  Court poets, the best known being Abu Nuwas, would write of the court’s exploits, sneaking into the monasteries in the Christian quarter of the city to drink wine and make love to the young monastic novices.  Again, many people have argued that the imagery in these poems is purely literary, and it is the case that several court poets were executed, in some cases supposedly for heresy, although there is every reason to think court intrigue played a role, as well.  Nevertheless, the popularity of this poetry, including its continued circulation for several centuries after the genre itself died off (along with the Baghdadi court, which started to lose power after the tenth century) all suggest that the imagery of the poems played a genuine cultural role in Muslim society.

There are also several cases of major Muslim leaders who were reportedly queer – for example, ‘Ala ad-Din Muhammad III, one of the Nizari Isma’ili Imams, and al-Hakam II, caliph of the new Umayyad caliphate in Andalusia, but again, since homosexuality is sometimes used as an analogy for positive or negative behavior, it’s hard to judge if these accounts are historically accurate.  ‘Ala ad-Din Muhammad III in particular was a hated ruler who was eventually overthrown, so it’s tempting to see accounts of his homosexuality as part of a broader smear campaign.  Similarly, Western accounts of the Ottoman court include claims of homosexual behavior, going back as far as Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, but again, it’s hard to know if those accounts speak to any reality, or simply represent Western interests in portraying the Ottomans as decadent and corrupt.

I have to admit, as a historian, I’m always struck by the same feeling in researching homosexuality in the past, namely, that people just didn’t care.  There is historical evidence to suggest that queer people have always existed and faced varying levels of resistance or acceptance by society more generally, but I think one of the problems in any discussion of homosexuality in a historical context is that the modern age is way more focused on the individuality and individual behavior than the pre-modern world.  For the most part, the pre-modern world just didn’t care what people did at home or what they thought or felt.  As noted by Professor Brown, “the focus on actions in the Shariah means that desires or inclinations have no legal substance.”  The idea of investigating people’s ‘identities’ just doesn’t really make sense in most times and places historically – leader’s identities were important because they played a special role in major decision-making, including, in the Muslim world, in serving as a representative of God’s Will on earth, but the identity of ordinary people just wasn’t something anyone thought about or wrote about.  That a poet would write about the beauty of a man’s lips and that another man would enjoy that poem just didn’t mean anything to them the way it does to us (or, at least, not in a way that’s been preserved in written sources).

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Abrahamic Monotheism: Do they all worship the same God?

First off, thanks to my mother for flagging these articles for me – I was off sleeping late and playing video games over the winter intercession, and completely missed big news in the world of teaching theology!

So as some of you may have heard, in early December, Larycia Hawkins, a professor of political science at the private, liberal, evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, posted on facebook an idea for what she called “embodied solidarity” between Muslims and Christians, in particular between believing women of both faiths, that for the winter holidays, non-Muslim women should appear in public and travel wearing the hijab, in solidarity with Muslim women who often face harassment and recrimination and, in airports, detainment, simply for wearing a headscarf or veil.

In explaining her “embodied solidarity,” she said of Islam that, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”  

Wheaton College, in response, placed Professor Hawkins on paid administrative leave and, as of last week, has announced that they have begun the termination process (a very lengthy process for tenured faculty that will probably take several months if not a full year).  In their public statement, they said that their decision to suspend Professor Hawkins had nothing to do with her “embodied solidarity” of wearing the hijab, but rather her theological claims, which “seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.”  This has spurred a wave of responses from other scholars in religious studies about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, including a feature piece in the Wall Street Journal by Stephen Prothero at BU, who defended Wheaton’s choice, saying, “no doubt Christians should strive to understand the Islamic faith fully, and vice versa. But pretend pluralism, feigning that all or most religious traditions hinge on the same truth, is no solution for the squabble at Wheaton or anywhere else,” and that while Professor Hawkins was expressing her freedom of religion, “Wheaton shares the same liberty to defend its Christian identity in a nation in which the “Star Wars” saga is more widely known than is the passion of Jesus.”

To start with, I’d really like Professor Prothero to offer a citation on that whole Star Wars claim, as I would have thought most Americans could more accurately paraphrase the Passion story than Star Wars (especially if we’re talking the whole series, since we’ve all collected burned the Prequels from our memory).  But more than possibly misrepresenting how mainstream nerd culture has become, there are several points about both Wheaton’s and the general academy’s responses to this issue that I think are worth pointing out.

The first, and most important, is that in none of these discussions of who worships what God have I seen a single person mention Judaism.  This is important because while Christians are often strongly resistant to the idea that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, they’re often all too ready to cite ‘Judeo-Christian’ traditions or values, concepts that, as I’ve talked about before, do not really exist and which many Jewish communities adamantly reject (for example here and here).

It’s important to recognize the similarities between how Christianity responds to the Muslim idea of People of the Book and how Judaism responds to the Christian idea of Judeo-Christian values because it highlights one of the most significant aspects of how religions that share historical elements relate to one another, namely, that it’s much easier for the newer ones to claim association to the older than vice versa because purifying or correcting what came before is a standard religious claim.  Without it, there would be significantly fewer religions, as many religions start out as offshoots of existing traditions, claiming a new revelation or corrected interpretation that brings the tradition back in line with what the original founders ‘really meant.’  These claims of correction are obviously going to be rejected by the group that doesn’t change, however, as they imply that everything they’re currently doing is wrong.  Nevertheless, these new faiths can only arise because they share a history with the older community – the presence of these points of innovation/correction (depending whose view you want to take) are evidence of a shared past.

Understanding this process of innovation/correction for the establishment of new religious traditions also brings me to the second point that I think is missing from every discussion of Professor Hawkins’ statement – by asking if Christians and Muslims worship the same God, you’re making a really big leap in assuming that all Christians and all Muslims worship the same God.  

For Islam, I would be more inclined to say that yes, all Muslims worship the same God – that’s because most of the major divisions that led to the creation of new sects in Islam had to do with either orthopraxis (debates over how the religion should be practiced) or authority (how the communities should identify leaders), not theousia (how the nature of God is defined).  There are some Sufi traditions that I think you could probably make a case for having their own theousia, but it’s definitely not an issue that arises routinely in Islam.

However, for Christianity, theousia remained the central point of dispute for easily the first 800 years of Christian history, and elements of it even filtered into the debates of the Reformation, counter-Reformation, and the American Great Revivals.  Wheaton has argued that Hawkins’ statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God contradicted its statement of faith, but I can think of at least a half-dozen Christian communities that would take issue with one or more of their definition of Christianity: Catholics could certainly take issue with their description of the Bible as “final authority in all they say” and that the description of Jesus’ intercession make no mention of transubstantiation; none of the churches in the Middle East or India ever accepted that Jesus “was true God and true man,” and a number of churches (Latter day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists, for example) could take issue with their limiting “scripture” to the books of the Old and New Testament.  

If we define “worshipping the same God” as “holding the exact same definition of theousia and practicing the worship of that God in all of the same ways,” then no one worships the same God.  Even two churches who both share the same denomination may hold slightly different services or practices.  There’s no reason to highlight the differences between Christianity and Islam when those same divisions exist between all of the Abrahamic faiths (including Judaism, which isn’t included in these discussions nearly often enough, plus all of the ones no one ever talks about, like the Mandeans, Druze, and Bahai), and debatably between sects of any one of the Abrahamic faiths, as well.

And yet, it is still the case that nearly all of the monotheist traditions that exist in the world today all share a common ancestry.  Monotheism is nearly exclusively a Middle Eastern innovation, with each new iteration growing out of debates within and between its theological forebears.  Whether that’s a good enough reason for members of those faiths to consider each other brothers and sisters isn’t up to me to decide, but it seems like they should at least be prepared to accept the historical reality that they are, at least, theological cousins.

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Authority and Orientalism in the Media

Happy New Gregorian Calendar!  I hope everyone enjoyed a season of merriment, relaxation, and, if you’re anything like me, playing videogames until your fingers hurt.  That’s what the holidays are all about, right?

Not everyone was relaxing for the last two weeks, however – the LA Times apparently spent their downtime recruiting for a new Middle East correspondent, in a job description so overflowing with cliches I’m honestly amazed it doesn’t have the word ‘Orient’ in it anywhere.  The original ad has since been revised and reposted, but thankfully Sarah Moawad preserved the original on Muftah, along with her own fantastic cover letter in response.  Go read it now – it’s definitely worth it!

I agree with Sarah’s analysis that it seems unlikely that the ad is a sign that the LA Times is overrun with Orientalists – it seems far more plausible that the ad is the result of the slow conglomeration of a lot of subconscious prejudice.  It’s also not surprising that so many of the jokes about the posting on social media focus on Aladdin, as it’s easy to imagine that at least one person in HR was humming “Arabian Nights” when they posted this.  However, I think the fact that this ad exists in the twenty-first century – and made it all the way to print and received criticism before it was changed – also signals an important, albeit depressing, reality about authority and expertise in the modern age.

In general, I’d guess that most of us today consider ourselves more savvy and more skeptical about authority than generations past; however, the reality is far more complicated.  All of us have people we treat as authorities, and often those figures receive that position of authority not due to their training or background, but by circumstance.  News media has always been one of the places this plays out – I’d guess that most of us feel more skeptical of the news than our parents or grandparents were, but we probably can all still name one or two news reporters who we tend to believe, and even quote, generally without fact-checking them first.  Whether it’s Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow, we all still have authority figures who we accept as authorities without necessarily thinking a great deal about how much of an expert they could really be.

The LA Times posting demonstrates just how far removed from experts reporters can be, however.  Even the revised version, from which almost all of the Orientalist language has been removed, does little to suggest that the postholder will be an ‘expert’ in any sense of the word.  Fluency in Arabic is still preferred, but not required, and they’ll still be expected to ‘wander back roads,’ which may be a great way to write country songs, but actually is not the best way to learn about geopolitical conflict.  It’s easy to imagine that the postholder of the position could become an expert in the Middle East from wandering the back roads and eventually picking up the language, but how long do we expect that would take?  Five years?  Ten?  In that period of time, this same person could have published hundreds of articles about the Middle East while still being, essentially, a layman.

Despite living in a society that puts more and more emphasis on higher education and training as necessary for any career, we seem to have doubled-down on the idea that ‘expertise’ can be substituted with ‘commitment’ or ‘passion.’  Indeed, this belief has always been part of the American identity – we all grew up knowing that you don’t need to be a big city lawyer or have a bunch of fancy degrees to be successful, you just have to believe in yourself, pull yourself up by bootstraps, put your mind to it, etc.  These cliches are great as motivators, but it’s terrifying to think we’re actually now believing them, and believing that anyone can do anything.  Anyone can, but there needs to be a lot of steps in between, and we need to understand that authority and expertise are the outcome of these steps, not the result of the passion to undertake them.  Without that, we’re left to hear about geopolitical change from someone who spent their days wandering the backstreets of Cairo, asking for directions in broken Arabic because we don’t have any better options.

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Six Things to Know about Mass Conversion

Last week, I had the pleasure of driving out to Rhode Island and back with some of my coworkers for a meeting, and on the way back, they asked to hear a bit more about my research.  Nearly everyone I’m working with at the moment is a research scientist, and so we’ve had lots of conversations about the differences in how research is done in the sciences versus the humanities.  But this conversation struck on a topic that I was surprised to realize I haven’t talked about here – is Europe going to convert to Islam?

In the car, this came up in the context of talking about Islamophobia, and whether fears of mass conversion were a valid defense for apparently-Islamophoic behavior.  In trying to explain why I didn’t think that argument held water, I realized just how many complications there are in talking about mass conversion as a possible future event.  So I thought I’d compile some of those points here (in a list, because who doesn’t love lists?!):

Six things to know about mass conversion:

  1.  Academics tend to assume mass conversion is an organic event.
  1.  It’s important to differentiate between spiritual conversion and social conversion.
  1.  Social conversion rarely involves the complete abolishment of previous traditions; a new, amalgamated culture is more likely.
  1.  Missionizing is actually pretty ineffective (presuming it’s not back by military force).
  1.  That’s because most people convert for pragmatic reasons.
  1.  Exposure to other religious traditions is not the same as conversion, but is actually a requirement of offering freedom of religion.

Starting with the top: we academics tend to assume mass conversion is an organic event.  By that, I mean that when we study mass conversion in a historical context, we tend to look for reasons why it was successful, particular in terms of social adaptation and social advancement, presuming that you can’t actually just will people to change their religion. We do so mostly because historically, that perspective seems the most accurate.  We have plenty of examples of people preserving in their religion despite legal repression (eg. alternating groups of Protestants and Catholics in the UK), social pressure to convert (eg. Christianity in the first two centuries of Muslim rule), or both (eg. Jews in both Europe and, at various points, North America, as well as native communities in North America, Africa, and Australia).  Forced conversion is generally ineffective and, at best, forces people to hide the practice of their religion rather than abandon it entirely.  

By comparison, mass conversions of large populations or regions are relatively rare historically, and in studying them, we often find complex combinations of social pressures, financial benefits, cultural shifts, and political machinations that lead to them.  Even with all of these features, we still don’t really know why they happen, and so we tend to fall back on the explanation of phenomenology – that that tradition fit those people in that moment, for whatever reason. Indeed, that’s exactly why I study what I do, because although we know that at some point the Middle East went from being predominantly Christian to predominantly Muslim, we can’t really pin down exactly when or exactly why.  So when asked if Europe is going to convert to Islam, as a scholar, my answer is just ‘maybe?  If it’s a good fit?’  I don’t see a future in which a mass conversion can take place that doesn’t fit with the general wants and needs of the population, which is clearly what people are afraid of in talking about conversion in Europe.

Indeed, before we can even ask if Europe will convert, it’s important to differentiate between spiritual conversion and social conversion.  This point goes hand-in-hand with how academics study mass conversion.  When we talk about mass conversion, at best we’re expecting mass social conversion, meaning that the majority of the population all come to participate in the practices and rituals of the same, new religion and/or the ruling party enforces a new religion as a new civic religion, which people have to swear public allegiance to in order to maintain their citizenship/identity within that society.  Spiritual conversion is what someone actually believes in their heart about the nature of the divine, and this we, as scholars, know very little about.  People have to write about what they really believe and then somehow preserve that documentation to come back to us, and that just doesn’t happen very often.  When it does, we find examples of people pretending to convert, as I just discussed, hiding their true religion while outwardly appearing to have given in to social conversion.  However, it’s unclear if we should count this kind of multi-layered religious identity as ‘mass conversion,’ if people are performing a religion socially that they don’t really believe spiritually.

It’s probably also worth noting that Europe’s current identity as a ‘Christian’ region is itself an example of this multi-layered identity.  We call Europe Christian mostly because historically its rulers instituted various Christian sects as the national religion.  Europe has never been 100% Christian, as there has always been some non-Christians living in Europe, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others.  And there are plenty of Europeans who call themselves Christians and who may participate in public Christian rituals like Christmas and Easter who, in their hearts, are actually agnostics or atheists.

This multi-layered identity also demonstrates how social conversion rarely involves the complete abolishment of previous traditions; a new, amalgamated culture is more likely.  Even while Europeans may call themselves Christian because they participate in rituals at Christmas or Easter, many of those rituals are actually lifted from the pre-Christian religions and societies of Europe.  There’s nothing in the Bible about Christmas trees, putting out your shoes to get chocolates, or bunnies who carry eggs.  People liked these traditions, so even as they took on a new public religious identity, they kept practicing them, giving them a Christian veneer to explain their relevance.  Perhaps the best example of this in the Christian tradition is the worship of saints – even as Greeks and Romans started to accept Christianity as the new imperial religion, they missed being able to pray to specific deities for specific problems, and so the cult of saints was born, and instead of praying to Apollo for healing, you could pray to a saint for the same.

Even if Islam became large enough, socially-powerful enough, and popular enough for the majority of Europe to accept Islam as the new public or civic religion, it’s very unlikely that Europeans would suddenly adopt Middle Eastern or Asian social practices along with it.  It’s much more likely that Christmas decorations and St. Nick would take on a Muslim persona, so that Europeans could continue to give each other presents in December.  Basically, if Europe did convert, it would be to a European kind of Islam, not a Middle Eastern one, just as they did with Christianity more than a millennium ago.

How that conversion is going to take place, however, will have more to do with demographics and adaptiveness of Islam than with direct missionizing, as missionizing is actually pretty ineffective (presuming it’s not back by military force).  

So missionizing is hard to talk about because so much of the history of modern missionizing is tied up with Western imperialism, which carried with it tremendous legal, military, political, social, and cultural authority.  So while 19th and 20th century missions in Africa and East Asia were often successful, it’s debatable if these successes had anything at all to do with the religion they were trying to spread.

The rise of Muslim missionizing in Europe is much more like the worldwide missionizing of the Church of Latter Day Saints or the American Transcendental Buddhist and Hare Krishna missionaries in North America.  These movements have had some success in increasing the numbers of their own faith, but have had almost no success in swaying the dominate religion in the areas in which they work.  There are, to date, no LDS-identified nations, and although there are a handful of cities in North America that are predominantly American Transcendental Buddhist or Hare Krishna (Fairfield, Iowa and New Vrindaban, West Virginia, for example, respectively), these movements have had relatively little effect on North American culture and society, and are still almost always presented in mainstream culture as exotic or foreign. Given sufficient immigration and missionizing, it’s possible that whole cities in Europe might become primarily Muslim, but there’s a huge difference between that and ‘Europe’ as a whole converting.

Indeed, immigration will probably play a bigger role, as most people convert for pragmatic reasons.  The rise of Islam in Europe in this century is tied in part to increased immigration, not native conversion.  If it were to move to native conversion, based on research into conversion in other communities, we would expect to see practical reasons for that native conversion.  Again, LDS is a useful example here – although LDS has a massive missionary program, people’s reasons for converting often focus on the church’s active social component, that it offers a ready-made community, and often provides family care and recreation activities.  In some cases, the church has even supported their members financial in cases of serious injury or sudden job loss.  Similarly, in his seminal work, Transforming the American Religion, Alan Wolfe discusses pragmatic conversion, noting interviews with individuals who changed denominations due to issues like how far a drive it was to attend, what the preacher was like, or how the services were run.  Although these latter two are sort of religious in nature, they also highlight how practical people can be in how they practice their religion.

Unfortunately, this point actually supports the idea that conversion in Europe might result in increased extremism, as Islamist groups have been very successful in leveraging their roles as social support systems to drive recruitment in the Middle East.  The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was particularly successful in the 20th century in serving as a local support system for communities who lacked government intervention, opening schools and clinics in Egypt and the neighboring region, and even buying Christmas trees for Palestinian Christians.  However, this avenue is also easily prevented if local governments are willing to provide sufficient resources and equal access to their minority communities.  Most European nations are good on the former, providing public housing, healthcare, and education, and so would only need to work at making sure minority communities have equal access to these resources.

However, although European countries should be acting to reduce discrimination, doing so will probably not stop people from becoming Muslims or from missionizing for Islam, and we shouldn’t want it to because exposure to other religious traditions is not the same as conversion, but is actually a requirement of offering freedom of religion.  We’re really good about this when it comes to freedom of speech, and really bad at it when it comes to freedom of religion.  We understand that freedom of speech means public speech, that people have to have the right to go into the park or on TV and make statements we disagree with.  We don’t have to listen to them, but we can’t stop them, either.

Well, the same goes for religion – people have to be able to practice their religion publicly, and that includes missionizing.  You have the right to politely decline and walk away, but you don’t have the right to stop them from trying to missionize to you in the first place.

I’m not sure when we as a society decided that “separation of church and state” means separation of religion from the public sphere, but freedom pretty much only exists in the public sphere.  If we only allow people to practice their religion privately, then we’re back to the social versus spiritual religion problem, except that we’re effectively enforcing atheism as a civic religion.

Don’t get me wrong, being prostelytized to can be annoying, but so can people wanting you to sign a petition or hear their political platform or calling you a jerk, and yet we recognize that these things are annoying but necessary for maintaining a free society.  Furthermore, allowing religion in the public sphere won’t mean people can force you to convert because we already know that freedom needs to be limited by individual safety – that’s why it’s not free speech to shout fire in a crowded theater unless there’s actually a fire, no matter how much you feel the need to celebrate the existence of combustion.  People have to have the right to freely express their beliefs – even extremist beliefs – in order to be free.  That means a sign of a truly religiously free society would be that we’re all a little bit exposed to a whole lot of religions, in the same way that we’re all a little bit exposed to a whole lot of ideas.

So will Europe convert to Islam?  Maybe, if enough people find social or cultural fulfillment in Muslim beliefs, and the movement is wide-sweeping enough to either convert the majority of the population or take hold of the civic religion.  Even then, it seems unlikely we’ll see Europe abandon Father Christmas or wearing candles as hats.  More likely, French haute couture would start producing designer hijabs and Austrians would start making schnitzel with lamb.  

Whether or not Islam continues to expand in Europe, however, hopefully what we will see in the next few decades is European nations ensuring true free access to government resources and true freedom of religion, including the expression of radical or unpopular ideas.  And it’s important for the global community to recognize that those changes won’t be a sign of Europe’s imminent conversion to anything but true liberalism.

So there you have it: mass conversion – a confusing concept, and a generally unlikely historical outcome.  I hope you enjoyed it!  This is also going to be my last post of the year – a couple of people have emailed me with questions, and I’ll answer these first thing in January.  In the meantime, merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, and I’ll see you all in 2016!

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