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How Identity Stole the Debate

Just when its society needs to look to the future, appeal is growing in Europe for a concocted vision of the past that intertwines, and confuses, nostalgia for a Christian Europe, defence of European values, and Islamophobia. The values built into the European Union such as peace and openness (at least internally) risk becoming collateral damage. As part of the Green European Journal’s series on where Europe finds itself as it heads to the polls, Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute and an authority on religion in Europe, examines Europe’s ongoing struggle over social values. Examining the overlapping battles over secularism and religion, and Christianity and Islam, Roy argues that determining the future of Europe means deciding its values and identity. Political forces ignore that at their peril.

A wave of anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim sentiment is currently sweeping Europe, and with it nostalgia for national and ethnic community.

Although immigration is much more diverse nowadays than it was 50 years ago, for many populist movements it is Islam that embodies everything that is not European. Today, the Muslim immigrant is the ‘other’, even when they are second or third generation. The idea that Muslim immigration is relentlessly driving the ‘Islamisation of Europe’ goes well beyond the confines of populist movements.

In recent years, parties with a sole focus on opposition to Muslims and immigrants have multiplied. These movements include Geert Wilders’ People’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, The New Right in Denmark and Alternative for Germany. More traditional far-right parties, such as France’s Front Rally (formerly National Front) or the Freedom Party of Austria, have abandoned their fascist trappings to concentrate on the rejection of immigration and Islam. Italy’s Lega has even moderated its northern regionalist demands to become the anti-immigrant party par excellence. More recently, the conservative Right has joined the populist wave. Even parties on the Left, particularly in France, oppose not so much Muslims as the Islamic faith itself.

Their common refrain is the cultural incompatibility of immigrants – especially Muslims – and Europeans. But specifying how exactly European culture and Islam clash in terms of values is more problematic. The European tradition is made up of two competing sets of values, liberal values and Christian identity, and these two do not match.

The European values seen to clash with Islam are generally liberal and include feminism, LGBT rights, and the right to blaspheme. These are 1960s’ values which were codified in domestic law only very recently. Whereas today same-sex marriage is legal in most of Western Europe, until the early 1960s homosexuality itself was illegal in much of Europe.

The European tradition is made up of two competing sets of values, liberal values and Christian identity, and these two do not match.

Christian identity, on the other hand, is supposed to be based on the norms and values of Christianity, or at least the millenarian tradition, precisely with which the 1960s’ cultural revolution sought to break. With the sexual revolution, secularisation turned into dechristianisation and, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, the dominant culture, more than simply profane, became pagan. In July 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the Humanae Vitae encyclical, which rejected the moral and sexual liberalism that is today said to clash with Islam, and espoused a form of sexuality centred on procreation in a traditional Christian family setting. Since the Catholic Church declared war on abortion and same-sex marriage, it has intervened in political life to back laws against contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and assisted reproductive technology. Alongside these prescriptive positions, the Church (or the Pope at least) has preached openness and charity towards migrants.

But the problem is that most of those claiming to uphold Europe’s Christian identity, particularly the populists, have fully embraced the sexual liberation of the 1960s, which they openly practice in their personal lives. In the north of Europe, they stand up for gay rights. In the south, although they are more conservative and macho, they fail to embody Christian family values. They also reject calls for charity and love towards others: in Christianity, they do not see a religion of universality but a marker of national community.

The paradox is that hostility to Islam accentuates the dechristianisation of Europe. Among the decisions taken by parliaments and courts that have been challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, there are two main types of judgments. The first ban all religious symbols in order to ban Islamic symbols. The 2004 law banning the hijab in French schools is officially a law banning all religious symbols. The effect of these laws is ridding public spaces of Christian symbols too. The second strip Christian symbols of their spiritual meaning in order to authorise their display without extending the same rights to symbols of other religions. Thus the crucifix in Italian schools becomes a cultural marker and Christian symbols are secularised and separated from the faith and values they embody. Far from filling churches, every campaign promoting nativity scenes, crosses on public buildings, and Christian religious celebrations simply turns Christianity into folklore.

The role of religion in Europe needs to be rethought. Yet political parties dodge the question by talking about either identity or secularism.

Europe’s practising Christians are at a crossroads. They have become a minority even in “Catholic” countries such as Ireland, Spain, and Italy. Protestants have largely self-secularised by adopting the liberal values of the 1960s (something which for many justifies their opposition to Islam). Conservative Catholics tend to take a hard line politically, such as the anti-same-sex marriage umbrella group ‘Manif pour tous’ in France, and vote for populists in the hope that defending Christian identity will lead to a return to the faith. They hitch their wagon to the populist locomotive without realising that it leads to further secularisation. Other Christians, on both the Left and Right, try hard to marry their defence of Christian norms with the values of charity and openness towards the other. But this more open kind of Christian (who can nevertheless be very conservative in theological terms) is no longer represented following the virtual disappearance of Christian democracy in Europe (or its transformation into the neoliberal Right).

As for parties of the Left, they are reluctant to appeal to ‘believers’ of any sort and duck the question of religion with vague references to ‘multiculturalism’ that no longer make sense since religion has become detached from traditional cultures.

The role of religion in Europe needs to be rethought. Yet political parties dodge the question by talking about either identity or secularism. Pro-European parties speak in abstract terms about European values and leave Christian identity to populist parties. While the mediaeval Church espoused a supranationalism above kings and princes, today’s Church is strangely silent when it comes to the idea of Europe and prefers to fight for norms rather than values. The European Union was founded by an alliance between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. Where are they today? And where does that leave their project?

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How Identity Stole the Debate

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