Hilaire Belloc wrote in 1938 that “Islam is apparently unconvertible”. But since the Archdiocese of Vienna reported five to 10 baptismal requests a week last year, half of which were requests by Muslims, and other such occurrences are appearing elsewhere in Europe, we are forced to reevaluate his assessment.
Some news sources have accused Syrian refugees of converting merely for the sake of finding solace in their new countries. This situation, however, may be more complicated than the mere attempt to achieve a better immigration status. Indeed, the refugee’s search for peace in the West may be met with greater violence if he or she leaves her Islamic path.
We must remember that the Christian Gospel speaks of an apolitical relationship of humanity to the Divine and to one another. In contrast, however, Mohammed professed to deliver to the world not only a body of religious doctrines, but also political maxims and civil laws.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the great 19th-century political philosopher, said that this reason “would suffice to prove that [Islam] will never long predominate in a cultivated and democratic age, whilst [Christianity] is destined to retain its sway at these as at all other periods”.
Certainly there is a law within Catholicism, but canon law serves the good order of the Church so that she might better sanctify the world, whereas Sharia law governs every aspect of both religious and civil life. Thus despite the radical geopolitical shifts in the West, Catholicism has thrived as each parish establishes its own cult within a larger political context.
In certain ways we see the West has begun to engender publicly a friendlier and more trusting mentality toward Muslims, particularly now that the people of London have elected Sadiq Khan as mayor and the EU considers adopting the Islamic majority nation of Turkey into her fold.
But particular reactions against the immigration of Muslims in recent decades reveal that some governments have attempted to fight the political spread of Islam. Examples include France’s burka ban, Switzerland’s restrictions on minarets, the UK’s 2015 Education and Adoption Bill, which requires all religious instructors to be on a registrar so that, presumably, Islamic teachers might be monitored, and the proposed HR 4033 in the US Congress that would make it impossible for persecuted people, Christians included, to enter the US even after they’ve been vetted. Thus we find that the Western governments are perplexed as to how they might best handle the immigration of Muslims. This tension, however, has a history that exceeds recent legal action and terrorist activity.
Muslim-Christian interactions began soon after Mohammed’s founding of Islam in the 7th century. St John of Damascus’s Of Heresies provides the first robust extant evaluation of the Islamic faith, in which he declares Islam to be a heresy, for Mohammed did not so much deny Christian doctrines as adapt and mishandle them.
The wider Christian world did not discount his categorisation but, rather, adopted and continued it – most famously in Dante’s Divine Comedy, where he placed Mohammed in the infernal circle of schismatics because he sundered the unity of Christianity, stripping Christendom of Asia and Africa with his Arabian heresy.
As the medieval West wedded politics with religion, battles surged between Europe and the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire threatened Europe close at hand, pressuring even at its heart – Vienna. In the subsequent centuries there was little inter-religious interaction as Islam was rather moribund with a struggling empire, though still spiritually strong.
Eventually Christendom crumbled as the geopolitical air altered in the West, in part due to the development of modernity. The modern movement, expanding with ever more haste at the Reformation, came to dominate our culture as it emphasised a rejection of tradition and a prioritisation of the individual. These principles ran antithetical not only to Catholic thought but also to Islamic thought. The early 20th-century Ottoman intellectual Abdullah Cevdet noted that “Muslims can accept the advancements of civilisation only if they come from a Muslim source.”
As modernity slowly creeps into the Middle East, as seen through the attempt of Tunisia, Egypt and other countries to establish a liberal democracy, so the traditional hierarchy of Islam continues to disintegrate. Such attempts, however, have not fostered serenity. Rather, a radical turn to the left by some has caused a false dichotomy in the minds of many other moderate Muslims: join the West or fight against it. Modernity sneaking into the Middle East, in addition to the slowly collapsing Islamic tradition after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, is not merely unfortunate but also dangerous, because disintegrating traditions often return as reactionary fundamentalism that engenders violence. This puts not only converts in danger but also Western Muslims.
While converting in order to be granted the privilege of remaining in Europe and the West certainly may be true for some immigrants, the year-long catechesis may sift out those who have this motivation – or, better, give them a spiritual motivation to redeem their migrant impetus. But it seems that these immigrants have discovered a religion that transcends every geopolitical landscape and can help them accomplish purposive lives. In fact, their attempt to take refuge in the West might be soiled by their request for conversion: these converts, who turn to Christ in the West for peace, may have to carry a burden greater than the one they previously bore.
Jacob Fareed Imam is a Marshall Scholar studying Islamic Studies and History at the University of Oxford