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January 29, 2012, Sunday

Europe: a Christian continent?

I think the biggest challenge for the future of Europe is to develop ways and forms of coexistence among the culturally and religiously diverse populations living on the continent. Instead of declaring multiculturalism dead, Europeans have to reinvent it.

For a start, they should stop imagining Europe as a historically and culturally Christian continent. Such an endeavor will open up cultural space to accommodate a non-Christian social presence in Europe.

In a brilliant article published in the January 2012 issue of Insight Turkey, titled “Myth of a Christian Europe and the Massacre in Norway,” Dr. Şener Aktürk from Koç University challenges the view that Europe is a Christian continent. Many mainstream conservative politicians and intellectuals, as well as extremists in Europe, are of the belief that “Europe exclusively belonged, belongs, and will belong to, Christians, not necessarily to religious, practicing Christians, but to people of Christian origins.”

Dr. Aktürk dismisses the idea of a Christian Europe as a “myth.” He persuasively argues that “Europe has been not only a Christian, but also a Jewish and Muslim continent for many centuries.” Recognition of this “historical fact” is important because imagining Europe as a historically Christian continent is not only inaccurate; it may also justify enmity and aggression towards Muslims living in Europe. It “implies that non-Christians have no place in Europe because they are ‘foreigners'.”

For him, therefore, this is not only a naive historical assertion, which is inaccurate anyway, but it is an idea “employed throughout history in most episodes of ethnic cleansing against non-Christians in Europe, from the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492 to the genocidal campaign against Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s.”

Let us listen to him: “Most people on both sides of the Atlantic, including a large segment of the educated public, would agree that ‘factually' Europe was a Christian continent, to which non-Muslims have only recently arrived. But is that really true? Or is this a historical misrepresentation, a popular lie, which is at the very foundation of an age-old propaganda that produced hatred and violence against non-Christians in Europe for centuries?”

Europe has not been only Christian but also emphatically Jewish and Muslim for more than 1000 years. Muslims ruled parts of Spain and Portugal for almost eight centuries, from 711 until 1492, giving rise to a dazzling Judeo-Christo-Islamic culture in the Iberian peninsula. The completion of the Reconquista in 1492 and the Inquisition that accompanied it wiped out Muslims, Jews, and heterodox Christians, rendering the peninsula completely Catholic by 1500.

Less well known is the Islamic heritage of Sicily, which was a Muslim kingdom from the conquest of Mazara in 827 until 1091. Muslim dynasties following Islamic law provided sufficient guarantees for the island's non-Muslims, including Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Orthodox Greeks, to live side by side, a history of coexistence that is manifested in Sicilian tombstones bearing four alphabets associated with the four main religions: Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Muslims were not a tiny, elite minority, either. The 13th century Muslim geographer Yaqut claimed that “most of [Sicily's] population became Muslim,” and many places in present-day Sicily have names derived from Arabic.

In Palermo, Muslim traveler Ibn Jubair said, “there are so many mosques that they are impossible to count,” whereas Ibn Hawqal, who visited Sicily in 973, claimed that there were three hundred mosques in Palermo alone. Where are the three hundred mosques of Palermo today?"

Moving from Italy to France, perhaps the quintessential “Western” country, one encounters diverse religious groups including Cathars, Waldensians, Muslims, Jews, and Huguenots and a history of their eradication. The Muslim presence in France has a thousand year history. Muslims invaded France and clashed with Charles Martel's armies between Poitiers and Tours in 732, in what Edward Gibbon called “an encounter which would change the history of the world.” Less known is the fact that a sizable Muslim population settled in Fraxinetum in southeast France from 889 onwards, resulting in “Arab/Muslim control of the Alpine passes which connect Italy with the remainder of Western Europe for a number of decades in the 10th century.

Around 1900, Thessalonica was 40 percent Jewish and 35 percent Muslim. A significant proportion of the latter were both, as the descendents of Jews who, following their messiah Rabbi Shabbatai Tzevi, converted to Islam in 1666. Mark Mazower's brilliant book on the city is titled City of Ghosts with good reason: The city's non-Christian communities are virtually non-existent today. A true foreigner, the proverbial “martian,” visiting Thessalonica in 2011 would have no clue that this was an overwhelmingly Judeo-Islamic city in 1911.

Sadly, Auschwitz and Srebrenica are factual proofs of Europe's Jewish and Muslim history and heritage, because one cannot mass murder a people who do not exist. With Freud's house in Bergstrasse 19, Kafka's grave in Prague, the Dohany street synagogue and the Gul Baba tomb in the “mosque street” of Budapest, it seems that non-Christian people existed in Europe for a while and contributed to European civilization.


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