The Fiction That It Always Was

Contemporary debate over Europe's identity increasingly refers to the continent's Christian or Judeo-Christian heritage. But a closer look at the history books belies this theory and teaches us that for centuries, Islam and Judaism have played an integral role in shaping European history and that both religions have been regarded with deep hostility down through the centuries. By Stefan Schreiner

By Stefan Schreiner

Whenever discussions centre on how Europe perceives itself and in particular on the continent's values, it is still commonplace – today apparently even more so than in the past – to speak of a "Christian" Europe, or at least to make reference to its Christian roots and to emphasise the Christian character that these roots have produced. But political correctness forbids the exclusive interpretation of the word "Christian" in this context, and particularly well-meaning commentators are quick to define it instead as a Judeo-Christian tradition or Europe's Judeo-Christian heritage, which does little to improve matters.

On the contrary – upon closer inspection, this reference to Europe's Judeo-Christian tradition or its Judeo-Christian heritage is revealed all too smartly as a transparent manoeuvre. After all, those who most vociferously reclaim a Judeo-Christian tradition for Europe generally do this with the sole aim of saying that Islam does not per definitionem belong to the continent.

From a historical point of view, however, the Christianization of Europe was an arduous process that took more than a millennium and followed anything but a straightforward course. In fact it was a process that was repeatedly dogged by "setbacks". Essentially, the Christianization of Europe never really reached a conclusion or was properly completed. This is because at the point when the last Muslim had been driven from the Iberian Peninsula in the West, and the "last heathens of Europe" – the Lithuanians – had been converted to Christianity in the East (in the fourteenth/fifteenth century), Islam had long begun to spread back into Europe from the East and the South-East (the Balkans). Muslim communities would then maintain a long-term presence in central and eastern Europe (Lithuania, Poland, Belarus), just as they did in the Balkans.

Even though it is an irrefutable and unquestioned fact that Europe's population has in the past included and to this day continues to include large numbers of Muslims, the view that Europe is Judeo-Christian asserts that not only does Islam not belong to Europe, it also practically represents a contradiction to it.

Although many claim that Europe's heritage is clearly Judeo-Christian, the Jewish community in Europe has suffered discrimination, expulsion, persecution and displacement at the hands of (Christian) Church and state from the seventh century to modern times, most infamously and most extensively in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s


Hostility towards Jews and Muslims

A perusal of the history books reveals that a Judeo-Christian Europe is, historically speaking, a fiction. It is simply not plausible to speak of a European Judeo-Christian tradition: since the seventh century, church councils have repeatedly declared Jews living in "Christian Europe" to be persona non grata and therefore (no longer) tolerated. Jews have as a result been expelled from many, mostly western European countries since the Middle Ages.

Christian Europe defined itself against the Jews right from the outset. In so doing, it continued to pursue a strategy of segregating and excluding followers of Judaism, a concept that was theologically outlined in the New Testament and early Christian manuscripts and was then translated into applicable law in the form of the Codex Theodosianus (from the year 438) and the Codex Justinianus (from the year 529). These enactments, which form the basis of all laws affecting Jews throughout European legal history, in turn gave shape to the historical events experienced by Jews in Europe.

In his four-volume work Die Christlichen Adversus-Judaeos-Texte und Bilder (The Christian Adver-sus-Judaeos Writings and Images), Heinz Schreckenberg provides a comprehensive documentation of both the theological-philosophical foundations and the artistic expressions of this attitude to Judaism, which show how a thread of hostility towards Jews ran through long periods of European history. Ultimately, the countless examples of persecution, expulsion and displacement experienced by Jews in the Christian nations of Europe since the Middle Ages right through to their exclusion from European societies in modern times, show just how uneasily the concept of a Christian Europe sat with the presence of Jews in Europe. The individual success of Jews making their mark in business, politics or the social sector does nothing to mitigate this state of affairs.

The Jewish/Muslim "conspiracy"

Faced with the swift advance of Muslims in pre-Christian, soon-to-be Islamic North Africa, the 17th Council of Toledo (694) accused Spanish Jews of conspiring and collaborating "with Jews from abroad and other nations (= Muslims)" against Christianity. Incidentally, to this day, one can still find sources claiming that Óāriq ibn Ziyād, the commander of the Arab army that began the conquest of Spain in July 711 and completed it within just three years, had been a Jewish convert to Islam.

It is often forgotten that the Muslims (Moors) ruled large swathes of the Iberian peninsula for over 700 years, influencing language, laws and culture during that time. There have also been major Muslim communities in many European countries such as Lithuania, Belarus and Poland as well as the Balkans for similarly long periods

A later confirmation, as it were, of this conspiracy theory is not least provided by the edict concerning the expulsion of the Jews from Spain of 31 March 1492, which linked the banishment of the Jews to the banishment of the Muslims (Moors): if one group left the country, then the others – in other words their allies – must follow.

Moreover, this idea that Jews and Muslims were conspiring against Christians and Christianity practically became an obsession in the Judeo-Christian dispute, and runs like a thread through the development of the Christian anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic polemic from the Middle Ages right through to modern times.

It is not surprising, therefore, that to this day, not only are the same "arguments" being presented in both the Christian anti-Islamic polemic and the Christian anti-Jewish polemic, but that the terms "Jews" and "Muslims" have become practically interchangeable.

Incidentally this observation has led Allan H. and Helen E. Cutler to conclude that Christian anti-Judaism, the Christian enmity towards Jews in the Middle Ages and (early) Modern Age, is (was) essentially an anti-Islamic stance, or at least ultimately derived from the enmity of the Christians towards Islam and the Muslims, for which – as their allies – the Jews had and have to atone in a deputy capacity.

Muslims: "old Europeans, not immigrants"

According to the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dr. Mustafa Cerić, Islam is not – and should not be portrayed as – an immigrant religion in Europe

​​The fact remains, however, that Europe, and contemporary Europe in particular, does not have Christian heritage alone to thank for its character. Alongside the ancient Greek-Roman legacy – one largely conveyed by Jews, Arabs and Muslims – it has been just as clearly and enduringly influenced and shaped by Islamic civilisation both in the past and to this day. Moreover, in several European nations (in addition to Russia, primarily Lithuania and Poland and the south-western Balkans), Muslims (as well as Jews) have not only been present for centuries, they are also part of the history of these countries and are stakeholders in these nations' societies.

Muslims in Lithuania celebrated their 600th birthday in 1997, or in other words the 600th anniversary of the granting of a charter of privileges by the Grand Duke Vytautas-Witołd, which not only guaranteed them the right to live and work in Lithuania, but also gave them official permission usque ad infinitum to live as Muslims there alongside other religious communities. To this day they have remained Sunni Muslims (of the Hanafi school).

In similar fashion, the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina celebrated their 600th birthday on 28 July 2007, thereby underlining that fact that not only have they been present in Europe for centuries, but that they are also part of Bosnian society and participants in the history of this nation.

In reference to this history, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dr. Mustafa Cerić, rightly emphasises the point that historically, to always perceive Islam in Europe as an immigrant religion is both wrong and politically disastrous. He says this is a way of forgetting or repressing the fact that there has long been an autochthonous European Islam, as represented by these "Balkan Muslims" who are – as Timothy Garton Ash puts it – "old Europeans, not immigrants."

Islam was and is a part of Europe

"The shaping of Europe's future is […] dependent on the coexistence of the three Abrahamic religions," writes Stefan Schreiner

​​This should be emphasised not only to those who continue to peddle the fiction of a "Christian" or at least "Judeo-Christian" Europe, in order to exclude Muslims from it per definitionem, but also to those who regard Islam by its very nature as fundamentally incompatible with the notion and the values of Europe and instead cling to the old perception of Islam as the bogeyman, an image that has of course taken on a new guise in recent times.

As hard as it is to imagine Europe – and that includes "Christian" Europe – without its Jewish and Islamic roots and values alongside those of the classical, Greek-Roman Antiquity, the idea of a Christian Europe in the sense that the term is largely understood and applied today, remains the fiction that it always was.

Just as Europe has essentially been shaped and deeply etched in its past by the reciprocal influence and productive contention between the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions – even the displacement of Jews and Muslims did not spell the end of this Jewish and Islamic influence – so the shaping of Europe's future is to no less an extent dependent on the coexistence of the three Abrahamic religions.

Stefan Schreiner

© 2012

Stefan Schreiner has been a Professor of Religious Studies (specialising in Islam) and Jewish Studies since 1992. He is also Director of the Institutum Judaicum at Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen, and member of the coordinating team at the "Zürcher Lehrhaus", an institute working to promote dialogue between Islam, Christianity and Judaism through education.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/