Does Europe Have a Future?

It’s both a continent and an idea, with an alternately heroic and ignominious past and, until recently, an enviable present. Can the heart of the West survive the 21st century?

A poster of German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a rally on November 4, 2015 in Erfurt, Germany. Jens Schlueter/Getty Images.
A poster of German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a rally on November 4, 2015 in Erfurt, Germany. Jens Schlueter/Getty Images.
Jan. 4 2016
About the author

Daniel Johnson, the founder and editor of the British monthly Standpoint, writes widely on politics, culture, and religion.

Europe is a continent, and an idea, with an alternately heroic and ignominious past and with what seemed, until recently, to be an enviable present. But does it have a future? The November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris marked the culmination—so far—of a concerted campaign directed mainly at Europeans and orchestrated, or inspired, first by al-Qaeda (Madrid 2004, London 2005) and more recently by the self-proclaimed caliphate based in the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq. The latest round of carnage began with the 2014 attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, was stepped up in January of this past year with the Charlie Hebdo and kosher-supermarket massacres in Paris, continued with shootings at a free-speech gathering in Copenhagen and mass assaults on European tourists in Tunisia, followed by explosions in Ankara and Beirut and reaching a crescendo with the multiple attacks in Paris.

Europeans are now faced with questions they have hitherto preferred to dodge. Are Europeans ready to fight for Europe? What is the place of Islam in a post-Christian Europe? Or, to look at it from the jihadist point of view, what is the place of Europe in a fast-expanding and globalized Islam? Is 21st-century Europe still the heart of Western civilization, or is it changing out of all recognition?

However one answers those questions, a brave new world seems to be emerging in which Europe becomes the theater where the clash of civilizations is played out. So far, the signs are that this encounter will be no more peaceful than it has been in the Middle East.


I. How the West Was Hollowed Out


Since the origins of what we now call Western civilization in Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, the patrimony of the ancient world, as embodied particularly in the realms of philosophy, law, and the Jewish and Christian scriptures, has continued to inspire the nations to the north of the Mediterranean. Without that legacy, the West’s political, economic, and intellectual success and dominance could never have been achieved.

Standing on the shoulders of their ancient giants, Europeans created the world we now live in through a long series of intellectual revolutions, each one intended to secure a particular kind of liberty. In the medieval era, it was the libertas ecclesiae, the freedom of the Church from the state. In the Renaissance, it was the liberty of the emerging individual. In the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, at stake was liberty of conscience, while in the scientific revolution it was freedom of the mind; both were made possible by the freedom of the press. In the Enlightenment, people aspired to personal and ultimately political freedom under the law regardless of race, religion, or class. In the industrial revolution, economic liberty made possible a general rise in prosperity that for the first time in history lifted the majority of Europeans out of poverty and gave them access to education and the fruits of civilization. Finally, in the last century, we have witnessed an era in which all the previous upheavals combined to produce not so much a revolution as—literally and metaphorically—an explosion of modernity that has rendered all previous assumptions obsolete.

But the consummation of this long process of emancipation has paradoxically called into question some of our most hard-won liberties. Humanity has bifurcated into “the free world,” where private and public liberties are protected by the rule of law and, in reaction against that realm of freedom, the dominion of despotism: a succession of tyrannies that seek to deny individual freedom and instead seek salvation in submission to the absolute authority of a totalizing ideology. From the political religions of Communism, fascism, and Nazism with their personality cults to the religious politics of Islamism with its own personality cults, we are now living through a period of unprecedented polarization between Western civilization and its enemies.

From the political religions of Communism, fascism, and Nazism to the religious politics of Islamism, we are now living through a period of unprecedented polarization between Western civilization and its enemies.

At just this moment, to complicate the picture, the West, and Europe in particular, has largely abandoned its patrimony. Philosophy no longer offers a defense of Western values against the insidious onslaught of despotism from without and nihilism from within. Law, detached from its moorings in the divinely ordained order of nature, is now seen as the embodiment of human rights of any and all kinds, themselves deduced from a liberal politics that rejects any foundation in biblical morality. The hurricane of relativism has swept all before it, bending to breaking point the mighty tree of Western civilization, hollowed out by self-hatred and weakened by the loss of its religious roots.

Pride of place among those religious roots is the Hebraic idea of freedom under the law: not the only bequest to Europe made by ancient Israel, but one that has borne fruit right up to the present day. Yet Europe has a bad case of amnesia when it comes to the specifically Jewish contribution to Western civilization. The Hebrew Bible, once the most familiar book in Europe, now languishes unread.

Beginning in the Enlightenment, the secular turn taken by Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers under the influence of Benedict Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn yielded untold riches for every branch of science, the humanities, and the arts. But anti-Judaism also took a secular turn, mutating first into a political and racial anti-Semitism that culminated genocidally in the Shoah and now, in its most recent camouflage, into anti-Zionism. Europe, once as eager to appropriate the Jewish past as it had been to reject the Jews who were its carriers, now averts its eyes from the Jewish future.

The post-Shoah diminution of the Jewish presence and spirit in European civilization led in the fullness of time to the diminution of Christianity as well. Since 1945, the established Protestant churches have fallen into desuetude; a generation later, the Catholic Church is now also in long-term decline. The eclipse of Christian Europe, bringing with it the eclipse of the God of Abraham and Isaac, thereby casts the whole history of liberty into shadow. The horizon of European thought has shrunk, as the grand tradition that stretches from the ancient Orient to the modern Occident narrows into a fixation on the immediate and the ephemeral. The God of Israel remains hidden and elusive even as He is denied and denounced by an atheist culture that does not even know who or what it is denying or denouncing.


II. Nationalism, Europe’s “Original Sin”


Up to this point I’ve been considering Europe in general, and from the perspective of the distant past. Yet considered in its present form—as a geographical continent, as a cultural idea, or as the political entity that calls itself the European Union—Europe is, or certainly should be, all about particularity. However much unreconstructed Europhiles may protest that nation-states are irrelevant, in fact “Europe” can exist only as what Charles de Gaulle called l’Europe des patries, the Europe of nations.

Indeed, the influence of the European nation-state, of the European tradition of national patriotism, is still to be felt all over the world. Not least in Israel: Zionism, though very much a uniquely impassioned cry of the dispossessed, stands firmly in that European tradition. Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that Zionism as the animating idea of the Jewish state meets today with such ill-disguised distaste, or worse, in the post-nationalist Europe of the secular Europhiles.

For, to many of today’s Europeans, nationalism is their continent’s original sin. (Their American counterparts say the same thing about their own country.) According to the most sacred tenets of the secular religion of Europe, nationalism today is what for John Milton in Paradise Lost was “the Fruit of that Forbidden Tree whose mortal taste brought Death into the World, and all our woe.” A cluster of large-scale histories of Europe have appeared in recent years by such distinguished authors as Konrad Jarausch, Brendan Simms, Heinrich August Winkler, and Ian Kershaw. All of them accept without question the postwar consensus that, first, the European catastrophes of the last century were caused primarily by the nationalist disease—to which, second, the only antidote is pan-European unity, fostered through centralized institutions created with that explicit aim.

Many Europeans believe that nationalism is their continent’s original sin, which is why Zionism as the animating idea of the Jewish state meets with such distaste, or worse, among post-nationalist Europhiles.

Yet both of these propositions are demonstrably false. Fascism, National Socialism, and Communism were all supra-national ideologies, even global ideologies. Lenin and Stalin saw the class war as transcending boundaries of state or nation, just as Hitler thought race a much more fundamental factor than nation.

Nor has pan-European ideology proved successful in preventing the reemergence of extreme nationalist ideologies of left and right; to the contrary, the imposition of that ideology on the Europe of nations has provoked that reemergence. And the same goes for the reemergence of anti-Semitism, on the rise not only in the so-called New Europe to the East but also in the supposedly “cured” countries of Western Europe. According to a recent study by the University of Bielefeld, around 40 percent of people in most European countries believe that Israel is conducting a “war of extermination” [sic!] against the Palestinians; in Germany, of all places, the figure rises to 48 percent. As many as 70 percent of Hungarians, 50 percent of Poles, and 20 percent of Germans also agree with the statement that Jews have too much influence. Even in some of the very countries where the Shoah took place, and where today only a tiny number of Jews remain, very large proportions of the population hold classical anti-Semitic views.

The recrudescence of such attitudes becomes politically dangerous when extremist parties or demagogues can find a legitimate grievance on which to campaign. In providing such legitimate grievances, the EU, a failure in so many ways, has proved dismally successful.


III. Safety-First Societies


Hitherto, much of Europe has luxuriated in what the French call embourgeoisement and the English call gentrification: a safety-first society where the only real issue is that there are no real issues, and the only question is why nobody ever questions anything. The consequences of this not just for the health but for the very safety of European societies are nowhere so evident as in the showcase nation of Germany.

Germany is a safety-first society par excellence. Curiously enough, the one thing it refuses to spend money on is security: united Germany devotes about the same resources to defense today as did West Germany, with an economy a third its size, in 1975. Or perhaps it’s not so curious after all. Until recently, Germans must have thought themselves very safe indeed; not for nothing is Chancellor Angela Merkel affectionately referred to as Mutti (“Mom”). When she made her grand gesture last summer, declaring that her country’s door was open to the refugees from Syria, an enthusiastic columnist at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s venerable paper of record, went so far as to proclaim that she was now “the mother of Europe.”

It is doubtful that Mrs. Merkel aspires to be a secular Blessed Virgin Mary; more likely, she would happily settle for the Nobel peace prize. In fact, however, she is now a lonely figure: even her physicist husband, Joachim Sauer, confided recently to German students that he has doubts about his wife’s open-door migration policy. As for the German public, it was never convinced by this grandstanding overture on the part of a cautious and pragmatic leader normally inclined to follow rather than to get ahead of public opinion. That opinion has now turned decisively against the chancellor.

Slowly but surely, it is dawning on Germans that they have embarked on a social and demographic experiment that will have very long-term consequences indeed. In 2014, before the migration crisis, Germany had already absorbed well over a million immigrants of all kinds—more that year than the United States, which has four times the population and is heir to a very different history of immigration. Official German figures for 2015 show that some 800,000 asylum seekers had arrived by October, so it is safe to assume that the total number of immigrants for the year will be much higher than for the previous year. Within that total, the overwhelming majority will be Muslims, including from Syria and other war-torn regions.

For Germany, absorbing immigrants on the scale of the recent migration crisis is a challenge of an entirely new order, and there is little reason for optimism.

Integrating non-Germans on this scale is a challenge of an entirely new order. “Wir schaffen das,” says Mrs. Merkel: roughly, “Yes we can.” But studies suggest that Germany has been by some distance the least successful society in Western Europe at integrating its immigrants. German law was only recently reformed to allow the naturalization of non-Germans, and even then it required resident aliens to adopt an undefined “German way of life” as a condition of citizenship. (Five years ago, Mrs. Merkel herself had said of the previous policy, based on a let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom multiculturalism, that “this approach has failed, utterly failed.”) Needless to say, many Muslims have refused to obey the requirement on the grounds that it is contrary to Islamic rulings—and now, instead of remaining resident aliens, they can get citizenship anyway.

Now that millions of Muslims, most of them young men, are settling in German cities, it is easy to see that politicians who reject the governing coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats have at hand have the issue they have always lacked: namely, a genuine grievance. New parties with charismatic leaders can exploit the coming backlash against Mrs. Merkel, and they may not come from the far right but from the liberal, educated middle class that sees its cherished freedoms at risk from radical Islam.

The resultant turmoil has roiled intra-party as well as inter-party politics. This has already happened in one of Germany’s European neighbors. Soon after 9/11, Dutch politics was galvanized by the brief career of Pim Fortuyn, a gay Catholic politician of the left who, describing Islam as “a backward religion” and drawing a sharp contrast between liberal Holland and Muslim-ruled countries, called for an end to Muslim immigration:

In what country could the leader of such a large political movement as mine be openly homosexual? How wonderful that that’s possible. That’s something one can be proud of. And I’d like to keep it that way, thank you very much.

In the run-up to the 2002 Dutch election, in which he was leading the opinion polls, Pim Fortuyn was assassinated by a fellow Dutchman who was also ostensibly of the left. In confessing to the crime, the killer claimed to have been defending Muslims from persecution and likened Fortuyn to Hitler. Released on parole last year, he has never expressed remorse for his crime.

In Germany, the Social Democratic politician and writer Thilo Sarrazin achieved similar notoriety merely for publishing a politically incorrect book, Deutschland schafft sich ab (“Germany Abolishes Itself”), a 2010 bestseller that led to his dismissal from the board of the German central bank and to the curtailing of his political career. Five years later, many Germans now see his dire predictions being fulfilled in the open-door policy of Angela Merkel.

At a recent lecture by Timothy Garton Ash, who strongly defended the chancellor’s actions, I suggested a parallel between the blunder by the East German official Günter Schabowski that in 1989 opened the Berlin Wall and led to the collapse of Communism and Mrs. Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees. In both cases, the miscalculation was based on a failure to think through the consequences, to look several moves ahead. Garton Ash, a staunch admirer of the chancellor, naturally rejected my comparison, but even he admitted that she might well have overreached.


IV. The Implications of Immigration


I’ve focused on Germany because, for obvious historical reasons, it poses a unique political risk. Unlike neighboring countries like Austria or Hungary, the taboo on far-right politics in Germany has lasted for three generations. But today, just as the Holocaust is moving beyond living memory, the nation’s long-term stability has suddenly been thrown in doubt.

Still, for anyone seeking to grasp the demographic implications of Islamic immigration into Europe, the British example may be even more illuminating. Between 2001 and 2011, census figures show an exponential growth in the proportion of Muslims in some British cities: in Manchester, for example, by as much as 122 percent. The growth is even more dramatic when we consider the youngest cohort: in 2011, 35 percent of children under fifteen in Birmingham, the UK’s second- largest city, were Muslim, and that figure can be assumed to have risen much higher since then.

In brief, the “Islamization of Europe” is not a myth or a figment peddled by the far right but will soon become a reality in many European cities. It is against this background that the present migration crisis takes on an ominous significance. Just as the practice of European Christianity seems to be falling off a demographic and spiritual cliff, Islam is advancing by leaps and bounds. It is not only a matter of mass migration and high birthrates; increasingly it will also be a matter of mass cultural, religious, and political influence.

Should Europeans acquiesce in this Islamization of their continent? Or should they rather be attempting something far more ambitious and therefore much riskier—namely, the Europeanization of Islam? This is not the same as the once-prevalent doctrine of see-no-evil multiculturalism; indeed, it is roughly the opposite.

The Europeanization of Muslims is not the same as the Europeanization of Islam. The latter will require European Muslims to decide to be the vanguard of an Islamic reformation.

It is clear that a sizable proportion of Muslims who have grown up in Europe are already assimilated in their values. In their civic lives, they have made a choice to be Europeans first and Muslims second—that is to say, they have chosen democracy over theocracy—and they have done so sometimes in the teeth of hostility from families and communities. They have proved that it is possible, even if not yet easy, for Muslims to be just as Western as non-Muslims.

This is the first step; but the Europeanization of Muslims is not the same as the Europeanization of Islam. The theology, the legal system, the political theory of Islam have remained largely immune to Western influences thus far. It remains for the majority of European Muslims to make up their minds to be the vanguard of an Islamic enlightenment that might just happen. That would mean an Islam minus jihad, minus elements of shariah, minus polygamy; an Islam that treated women not as chattel but as the equals of men; that no longer turned a blind eye to forced marriage, genital mutilation, and slavery; that rejected the politics of Islamism and accepted the separation of mosque and state; that was no longer all about submission but also about freedom. Such an Islam already exists and is practiced by millions of adherents to some of its traditions, particularly the Sufi, Ahmadiyya, and Ismaili. But religious authorities of the two main traditions, the Sunni and Shiite, not to mention the more stringent teaching of the Wahhabi and the Salafi, by and large reject such ideas as incompatible with Islam itself.

An Islamic reformation, renaissance, and enlightenment won’t happen in Europe, let alone in the Muslim heartlands, if Europe continues to abandon belief in its own identity. The collapse of civilizational morale analyzed by such thinkers as George Weigel, Christopher Caldwell, Alain Finkielkraut, and others does not exactly make Europe an attractive role model. Islamists promote their intolerant, triumphalist, aggressive interpretation of Islam in part by contrasting it with European decadence. Faced with such a choice, is it any surprise that many young Muslims become Islamists and more than a few of them jihadists?

If, as is now inevitable, Muslims are to make up a large and growing proportion of the population of Europe, the latter’s survival as we know it will depend on whether the Europeanization of Islam takes place before the Islamization of Europe. It is a race against time.


V. The Struggle for Freedom


Which brings me back in the end to the Jews and to a fundamental yet, in secular culture, often overlooked fact: namely, that the idea of freedom is something embodied in the Hebrew Bible, something that European culture took, in part, from the Jewish experience. The sacred history of ancient Israel is the story of the pursuit of liberty. History as the story of liberty begins with God’s commandment to His people to worship Him in the land of their fathers: the one place on earth ordained by the one God for the one people chosen by Him.

The struggle for freedom of religion never ends, as Jews know better than anyone. But what made the Jewish struggle unique is the fact that the God of Israel, alone among the gods of the ancient world, demands to be worshipped in freedom: by people who have freely chosen to do so, who are not playthings of destiny, but free men and women, free to choose between good and evil, free not only to follow Him but also to reject Him.

The idea of freedom is something embodied in the Hebrew Bible, something that European culture took, in part, from the Jewish experience.

The emergence of the realm of freedom under the law and the eclipse of the realm of fate and arbitrary necessity were made possible by the nature of the God of Israel as manifested in the Hebrew Bible. If man is made in the image of God, man must himself be free. True freedom of religion is only possible for a religion of freedom. No power, no clan or patriarch, no king or pharaoh, no state, whether autocratic, theocratic, or democratic, not even the prophet of God has the right to tell the individual to defy his or her conscience.

But this religion of freedom is only possible under God’s law. The Jewish demand to serve the one, true God as free men and women makes possible all the other freedoms that unfold throughout the history of Europe and America. It is a demand that is taken up gradually but with irresistible force by all who have inherited the law of the Hebrew Bible. None of the other freedoms would have been worth the sacrifice for Jew or Christian if God and His law had been taken out of the equation. Freedom under the rule of law requires divine authority. Politics without such authority would have been literally unthinkable until at least the Enlightenment, and the slow extinction of that authority in the modern age marks the devolution of freedom into self-worship, moral confusion, anarchy—and attraction to every false god on offer.

Finally, the divine authority of Israel is expressed as a covenant: a law that binds God as well as man, a two-way street. The rule of God’s law also enshrines the principle of justice at the heart of creation—the principle that, along with freedom, forms the other bulwark of Western civilization whose undermining by the twin forces of decadence and ruthless tyranny threatens us all.

Note: A somewhat different version of this essay was delivered as a talk at a Tikvah Fund seminar, “God, Politics, and the Future of Europe,” held in Jerusalem in November. 

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