Jihad and the Roots of Europe’s Religious Identity

by Richard L. Rubenstein (Jan. 2009)



In a 2004 interview, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, asserted that “Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one” whose roots are Christian. Recalling the wars of religion between Christianity and Islam, the Pope argued that Turkey belonged to another cultural continent and ought not to be admitted to the European Union.[1]  What was left unsaid was the Vatican’s attitude toward the place of the more than 23,000,000 Muslims currently residing in Europe. [2]


If, as the Pope has argued, Europe is “a cultural continent” with Christian roots, when did this concept take hold and what can the idea of Europe as Christian mean in the twenty-first century, given the growing presence of so many Muslims within Europe and the declining birth-rate of Europeans of Christian background if not belief?[3]  Could, as some observers suggest, the civilization and culture of Europe be in danger of an unprecedented religio-cultural transformation as Europe’s Muslim population continues to increase?[4]


One of the most influential theories concerning the origins of Europe as “a cultural continent” was formulated in the nineteen-twenties by the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne (1862-1935).[5] Arguing that the so-called “fall of Rome” did not take place in 476 C.E., as Gibbon had maintained, Pirenne contended that the Germanic invaders of the fifth century were not interested in destroying Roman civilization but in becoming Romanized.[6] He further held that a unified Roman Christian civilization, “Romania,” survived on both shores of the Mediterranean until the unprecedented Muslim assaults against the wholly unprepared Empire. Pirenne’s thesis has been subject to critical scrutiny. Nevertheless, there is a scholarly consensus that he revolutionized the study of the transition from the ancient to the medieval world and with it our understanding of the religious roots of European identity.[7] Moreover, the Pope appears to accept the basic outlines of Pirenne’s thesis in his important essay, “Europe and Its Discontents.”[8]


According to Pirenne, Europe as a “cultural continent” came into being over the years as a result of the assault of another “cultural continent,” Islam. Pirenne succinctly described the role of Islam in the creation of Christian Europe: “Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would have probably never existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable.”[9] What we today regard as Europe did not begin its existence as a distinct cultural entity until the late seventh century. As the Roman-Christian world lost North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and the Iberian peninsula to Islam, the emperor in Constantinople could no longer protect the popes in Rome who began to look northward to the Franks for protection.. Shortly after Pepin the Short, Charlemagne’s father, was anointed king of the Franks ca. 751 by the Papal Legate Boniface, Pope Stephen II requested that Rome be placed under Pepin’s protection. The request was granted and the Pontiff journeyed from Rome to St. Denis, outside of Paris, to anoint the king yet again on July 28, 754. The alliance of the Frankish rulers with the papacy culminated in the consecration of Charlemagne as Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas day 800 with the title, Romanorum gubernans imperium.[10] This was a watershed event in the formation of the religio-cultural unity of Western Christendom whose geographic range and population were greatly enhanced by Charlemagne’s fifty-three military campaigns against his pagan adversaries.[11]


Although the Islamic invaders incorporated elements of Greco-Roman civilization into their own empire, theirs was a radically new civilization that speedily became Christianity’s most powerful and resourceful competitor. Christianity and Islam both claimed the exclusive truth of their respective, officially sanctioned religious narratives and severely punished dissent or deviation. In effect, each civilization “constructed” a social “world” that in time became objectively and subjectively real to its inhabitants.[12]


Nevertheless, the credibility of their respective narratives depended in turn upon the creation and maintenance of an enforceable cognitive monopoly in matters religious, that is, the exclusive power to define “true” religious belief within a given territory. Inevitably, wars of religion became a normal part of the order of things for the frontier between Christian and Muslim domains was fluid and each side claimed the other was grievously in error. The military frontier became a cognitive frontier. Islam’s dichotomous division of the world into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-harb can be understood as a formulation in a religious vocabulary of the distinction between the domain in which Islam was more or less capable of enforcing its cognitive monopoly and the rest of the world in which Islam had yet to gain that power. From a radical Islamist perspective, all of Islam remains under an unconditional obligation to seek the universal expansion of Islamic dominance through dawa (preaching and persuasion)and jihad.  


Within their respective domains, both Christianity and Islam sought to utilize the technical knowledge and the practical skills of religious and, hence, cognitive minorities without compromising the credibility of their respective, official religious narrative. In Islam, this was accomplished through the system of dhimmitude, the humiliating conditions of subordination and segregation imposed upon the “People of the Book.”[13] Within Christendom, the Jews were the most enduring, publicly acknowledged minority. Because of Christianity’s claims to be the successor and fulfillment of what God had meant Judaism to be, the Church had a theological motive in permitting Jewish survival under strictly circumscribed conditions. The Jews were permitted to survive but not thrive. Sooner or later, the Church expected a remnant of Israel to see the “Light.” It was, however, necessary for the Church to impugn the credibility of the Jewish religious narrative and the integrity of those committed to it. This was achieved through vocational and residential segregation, a variety of defamatory strategies, as well as expulsion and, on occasion, outright slaughter. Nor were Jews the only targets. One recalls, for example, the merciless treatment meted out to the Cathars by the newly-created Inquisition during the Albigensien Crusade of the thirteenth century and the methods used by the Inquisition to defend Christendom against unbelief and heresy.


In the West, the Christian cognitive monopoly began to crack with the Reformation and the Catholic-Protestant wars of religion. The breakdown was largely complete with the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. The philosophic rationale for the breakdown can be found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social. Rousseau regarded what has been called the “social-contract state” as the only legitimate political constitution.[14] Such a state is one in which “all individuals, regardless of differences of nature and history that divide them, renounce these differences, so that ‘all become equal through convention’ under a state that obliges all equally on behalf of all.” (emphasis added)[15] That principle became the implicit basis for the Enlightenment emancipation of the Jews during the Revolution.  Nevertheless, it is hardly possible for most human beings to abandon “differences of nature and history” in order to become “equal through convention.” In the twentieth century, genocide rather than “convention” proved to be the great equalizer.


The emancipation of the Jews constituted an especially difficult problem for the Christian Church which sought to undo it well into the twentieth century. It was one thing for Jews to be petty traders, money changers, men of commerce, and even bankers. It was quite another for Jews to become journalists, writers, intellectuals, scientists, and eventually university professors whose ideas might lead the faithful astray. One cannot discount as an important motive for this hostility the need to discredit this challenge to the churches’ faltering cognitive monopoly. The churches had yet to find ways to cope with pluralism and diversity.


In one respect Judaism was a greater challenge to Christianity than Islam. Jews could make the claim that they were more familiar (Latin: familiaris, “belonging to the household,”) with the Christian Savior than was the Church. In another, Islam proved to be far more dangerous.  In spite of the persistence and durability of accusations to the contrary, such as the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Jewish lay and religious leaders have had neither the motive nor the power to transform the larger Christian society into a Jewish one.[16]  By contrast, Muslims have had both the motive and the power.


As long as the frontiers of Christendom and Islam were relatively well defined, each tradition could defend the integrity of its religious institutions and their legitimating narratives from a position of relative cognitive security.  That situation no longer holds. We can no longer speak of Islam and the West but of Islam massively present in the West.[17] Moreover, the birthrate differential between Muslims and non-Muslims indicates that Bernard Lewis was not far off the mark when he declared in a 2004 interview that Europe will be Muslim by the end of the twenty-first century.[18] 


The roots of Europe’s identity may be Christian; its future identity may not be. In the Western world, Muslims are free to practice and propagate their religion, often with state support. By contrast, Islam’s cognitive monopoly remains intact in almost all countries of Muslim inheritance. There is little reciprocity between the religious freedom Muslims enjoy in the West and the severe constraints on such freedom imposed on Christians in Muslim lands. In countries like Saudi Arabia, for example, public Christian worship is prohibited although, at least in theory, private worship is permitted. Christian missionary activity is absolutely forbidden and conversion to Christianity is considered apostasy, a capital offense unless recanted.[19]


The controversy surrounding the question of whether the constitution of the European Union, rejected by the voters of France and Holland in 2004, ought to include some acknowledgement of Europe’s Christian heritage is indicative of the complexity of the reciprocity issue. One former French parliamentarian, Socialist Olivier Duhamel, spoke for many Europeans when he warned that any mention of God or Christianity in the European constitution would be tantamount to excluding Muslims, other non-Christians, and atheists from the new European political community. Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France who served as president of the constitutional convention, expressed his opposition as follows: “Europeans live in a purely secular political system, where religion does not play an important role.”[20]


Apparently, the issue of reciprocity does not trouble politicians like Giscard d’Estaing and Duhamel in spite of the fact that some very important European Muslim religious leaders have publicly stated that that they have no intention of integrating their communities into European civilization or even in creating a parallel civilization. Instead, they intend to use the European Union’s religious freedom eventually to replace Europe’s secular political and cultural institutions with those defined by Islamic tradition and law. Other Muslim leaders are less candid when they speak in European languages, but when they speak Arabic or Farsi there is little difference between their views and those of their less discrete colleagues.  In reality, by their own admission, radical Muslims are waging an asymmetric war of religion, a jihad, for universal Muslim dominance that secular Western leaders appear unwilling or unable to recognize.


Moreover, radical Muslim leaders regard such an objective as a divinely ordained imperative whereby the true religion of justice and peace must, for the sake of all humanity, replace a corrupt Western tradition already in the advanced stages of decay. This writer shall never forget standing one day in front of Britain’s National Gallery [of Art] above London’s Trafalgar Square and looking down upon thousands of Muslims gathered below, many of whom carried signs proclaiming “Communism has failed; capitalism has failed; Islam is the answer.” They were not quite ready publicly to add, “Christianity has failed,” but that time will very likely come.


Many diaspora Muslims who hold such views reject the use of terror. They are, however, honestly convinced that both Judaism and Christianity are partial, distorted understandings of Divine Revelation which is only found in its full truth in Islam. In working for a world in which their understanding of Divine Revelation is universally authoritative, they do not see themselves as violent but as apostles of truth and righteousness. The humiliating subordination as dhimmis into which they would cast Christian infidels is regarded as a strategy of tolerance for permitting Christians to survive in their untruth while extracting the fruits of their labor for the benefit of the ummah, the “nation” of Islam..


Apart from the potentially mortal danger to Europe’s surviving Jews, such a transformation hardly bodes well for the future of European Christendom. Already Bat Ye’or and other scholars speak of Eurabia rather than Europe, a designation seconded by Harvard’s Niall Ferguson in a New York Times essay and by Roman Catholic Scholar George Weigel.[21]  


Since rereading Pirenne’s observation that an important reason for the extraordinary success of the Muslim conquests in the seventh century was Roman ignorance and incomprehension concerning the nature and objectives of their Muslim adversaries, I have often asked myself whether the West today is equally ignorant of the intentions, methods, and objectives of those Islamists committed to jihad against its civilization. 


It would indeed be ironic if the ultimate result of the secular “social contract” state in which “all become equal through convention” were not the liberty, equality and fraternity promised by the French Revolution but a European Muslim caliphate in which the fate of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and St. Paul’s in London recapitulates that of Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral built on the orders of the Emperor Justinian between 532 and 537 C.E. and transformed into a mosque in 1453 on the orders of Sultan Mehmed II, the Muslim conqueror of Constantinople/Istanbul. It was jihad that led to the creation of Europe in Charlemagne’s time.  Could it be that jihad might lead to the end of Europe as we know it in the twenty-first century?



[1] Sophie De Ravinel, “Identifier La Turquie à l’Europe serait une erreur,” Le Figaro, August 13, 2004.

[2]According to the U.S. Department of State’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom 2003, excluding Turkey, 23.2 million Muslims reside in Europe. See Timothy J. Savage, “Europe and Islam: Crescent Waxing, Cultures Clashing,” The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2004, p. 26.

[3]For a further elaboration of Pope Benedict XVI’s understanding of Europe, see his essay”Europe and Its Discontents,” First Things, 159, January 2006, http://print.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0601/articles/benedict.html.

[4]The most influential exponent of this view is Bat Ye’or, a Jewish scholar born in Egypt and a British subject currently domiciled in Switzerland. Her most recent book on the issue is Eurabia:The Euro-Arab Axis (Madison, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005). Her views have been challenged by the editors of The Economist (June 24-30, 2006). The cover story was “Eurabia: The Myth and Reality of Islam in Europe.” In a lead dialogue box on the Contents page entitled “On the cover,” the editors offered a succinct expression of their position on the issue: “Contrary to fears on both sides of the Atlantic, integrating Europe’s Muslims can be done.”

[5]Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne, trans. Bernard Miall (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1939); see also Pirenne, Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, trans. Frank D. Halsey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1925).

[6] Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne, p. 17.

[7]According to historian Norman Davies, Pirenne’s account of the origins of Europe “shattered earlier conceptions as surely as Islam shattered the ancient world.” Davies, Europe: A History (New York: Harper Perennial, 1996), pp. 257.

[8]Pope Benedict XVI,”Europe and Its Discontents,” First Things, 159, January 2006, http://print.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0601/articles/benedict.html. The essay also appears in Pope Benedict XVI, Without Roots, The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, trans. Michael F. Moore(New York: Basic Books, 2006).

[9]Pirenne, Medieval Cities, p. 27.

[10] See Heinrich Fichtenbau, The Carolingian Empire: The Age of Charlemagne, trans. Peter Munz (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964), pp. 74-75. After his coronation Karl referred to himself as “Carolus Augustus Imperator Romanorum gubernans Imperium” (Charles Augustus, Emperor governing the Domains of the Romans).

[11]As H.A.L. Fisher observed shortly before World War II: “The purpose of the wars of Charlemagne, of his fifty-three campaigns fought upon every front, Danish, Slav, Saxon, Avar, Dalmatian, Lombard, Spanish, was not to give lessons in the Latin spirit, but to defend the orthodox Christians of the west against the enemies who assailed them on every side…In that struggle Charlemagne emerged the victor. He made central Europe safe for the Roman Church.” Fisher, A History of Europe (London: Collins, 1970), Vol. I, pp. 175-76.

[12] See Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1990), pp. 45 ff.

[13] The concept of “dhimmitude” was developed with greatest authority by Bat Ye’or, Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide (Madison, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002).

[14] For this terminology, I am indebted to Yoram Hazony, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul (New York: Basic Books, 2001), pp. 87-88.

[15] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract: With Geneva Manuscript and Political Economy, Rogers D. Masters, ed., Judith R. Masters, trans. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978) pp. 58, 130-131).

[16]The rabbinic principle, dina de malkhuta dina, (the law of the land is the law”) incorporates into the Halakhah, the corpus of rabbinic law, the actual law of the land and makes its observance a religious obligation for Jews.The primary rabbinic discussion of this principle appears in Baba Kama 113a, Nedarim 28a, Baba Batra 54b-55a and Gittin 10b. In Gittin 10b dina de-malchuta dina is applied to explain why, in almost all cases, non-Jewish contracts are valid under Jewish law.

[17] See John Kelsay, Islam and War: The Gulf War and Beyond (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), p. 118.

[18] See Wolfgang Schwanitz, “Europa wird am Ende des Jahrhunderts islamisch sein,” Die Welt, July 28, 2004, http://www.welt.de/data/2004/07/28/310913.html. Lewis’s projection has been challenged by the editors of The Economist, “Tales from Eurabia,” The Economist, June 26-30, 2006, p. 11. Among those supporting Lewis are Niall Ferguson and Bruce Bawer. XXX

[19]United States Department of State: International Religious Freedom Report, 2005, Saudi Arabia,

http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2005/51609.htm .

[20]For these citations, I am indebted to George Weigel, “The Cathedral and the Cube: Reflections on European Morale,” Commentary, Vol. 117, June 2004.

[21] Niall Ferguson, “The Way We Live Now: 4-4-04, Eurabia?” New York Times Magazine, April 4, 2004; George Weigel, “Is Europe Dying? Notes on a Crisis in Civilizational Morale,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, Vol. 6, No. 2, June 2005.

(This essay was originally presented at a Conference on “The Religious Roots of Contemporary European Identity” at Cambridge University, July 10-12, 2006.)

Richard L. Rubenstein is President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Bridgeport and Lawton Distinguished Professor of Religion Emeritus at Florida State University. He is the author of numerous books and articles on Jewish theology, the Holocaust and other issues including After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism, The Cunning of History, My Brother Paul and Dissolving Alliance: The United States and the Future of Europe.


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