Saturday

10th Dec 2016

Feature

'Everybody thinks Europe is a Christian continent'

  • Blue Mosque: 'It is not fair to take Iran or Saudi Arabia as the example of all Islam' (Photo: stefanku)

EU institutions do not do God. But for some religious leaders in EU-aspirant countries, member states' Christian origins are still important.

The morning call to prayer at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul means different things to different people.

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For Muslims, it is an invitation to muster spiritual energy for the working day. For some Western visitors it is a sign that they are on the edge of an exotic world.

Given regular news about Islamic extremism - Spain recently charged two terrorism suspects, Denmark charged four Muslims for plotting to murder a cartoonist - it is a world that many see as hostile to the West.

Meanwhile, the voice among the Blue Mosque minarets often belongs to Metin Balci.

When EUobserver spoke to the muezzin and imam at the famous site in a recent interview, he said what some Turkish diplomats privately believe: EU opposition to Turkish membership is based, in part, on Islamophobia.

"What we hear and what they are telling us is that they are not a Christian club. But if you look at their approach to us, then we see and we feel that it is such a club," Balci said.

The imam's view of EU-Turkey relations is of two competing civilisations trying to come together.

He noted that Islamic societies in medieval times led Europe in terms of science, women's rights and personal hygiene.

"The West has the power now. But the history of the world is not 100 years. It is a longer span. Things change ... I believe that Islam in the future can take the lead once again," he said.

He added that EU countries, which lecture Turkey about values, have no moral superiority because colonialists in modern times pillaged Africa and the Middle East.

Quoting South Africa's bishop Desmond Tutu, he said: "When missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land."

Balci's idea of a "Christian club" is anathema to EU policy.

Despite Vatican lobbying, the EU Treaty does not mention the word "Christian" on any of its 403 pages.

It begins by saying the Union "[draws] inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe." Later on, it says that any "European state" can join.

When asked by this website what "European" means, the European Commission said it means respect for "universal" values, such as "democracy, equality and the rule of law."

The EU is already home to 13 million Muslims, over 1 million Jews and 370 million people who tell pollsters they are Christian.

Apart from Turkey, two other majority Muslim places - Albania and Kosovo - are in line to join.

For rabbi David Rosen, a leading Jewish thinker, EU countries really have left the past behind.

Referring to a 17th century accord between Catholic and Protestant countries, he told this website in a written note in July: "The treaty of Westphalia and the adaptation of Christianity to a world in which a particular denomination did not have absolute power, and ultimately its ability to see this as good for its own needs, facilitated acculturation to diversity, individuality."

Clash of civilisations?

Rosen believes there is no clash of civilisations, but that there is a clash between antiquity and modernity.

"It is ... between the enlightened (who embrace the good things of modernity - science, individual autonomy, human rights) and the reactionary (who feel threatened by those things). The enlightened are those who do not claim a monopoly on truth and the reactionary are those that do," he said.

"Muslims from 'Europeanized' (e.g. Balkan) societies, which can even include some Arab societies (e.g. the educated elite in Morocco), are able to be part of European society as well as anyone else," he added.

Balci is not alone in thinking the Union is more Christian than it says, however.

Bishop Hovakim Manukyan, an ecumenical officer at the Armenian Apostolic Church, told EUobserver in an interview in May: "With all due respect to the strong presence of Muslims in Europe, I think every single person in Europe thinks that Europe is a Christian continent, not Muslim."

Contrasting Armenia to Azerbaijan and Turkey, he said: "We are also Christian and we have much more in common [with EU member states]. I would say the same about our Christian neighbour Georgia."

He noted that the old Armenian-Turkish conflict still has religious overtones.

When Armenians last year sang mass in Akdamar, in eastern Turkey, Manukyan said that Turkish Muslims held a ritual "against" them in an old Armenian church-turned-mosque in Ani to show who is boss.

The bishop added that Armenian communities in, say, Belgium or France have "fully assimilated," while Muslims are "a challenge" in terms of integration.

Putting aside terrorism, day-to-day Islamic antipathy toward the West is on show in the heart of the EU - a recent film by a British student in the EU capital documented insults hurled mostly by Arab men at skirt-wearing women in the street.

One EU security expert told this website that the Grand Mosque in the Parc Cinquantenaire in Brussels, next door to the European Commission headquarters, "has some of the most radical preachers you will hear anywhere in Europe."

And just a few hours by plane from Belgium - in Egypt, Iraq and Syria - the clock is turning backward on the EU's post-modern values.

The US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring prompted fresh waves of sectarian violence in the home of the world's oldest Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities.

Up to 1 million Iraqi Christians have fled the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Dozens of Egyptian Copts have been killed since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestine also acts as a "lightning conductor" - in Rosen's phrase - for anti-Western feeling.

'Enlightened' Islam

Going back to Balci in the Blue Mosque, the imam voiced the kind of "enlightened" ideas which Rosen spoke of.

Balci said Turks want to join the EU for the sake of good governance.

"I trust the EU will make decisions about Turkey according to its democratic rules ... We would like to join the Union not because we want its money or its technology, but because we would like to have the same democratic system," he said.

He noted that Muslim societies have their own enlightenment, however.

Contrasting Islam's culture of family values to the EU's economic rat-race, he said: "We have things to take from Europe and things to give to Europe. Europe needs more humanity ... Western technology has put a man on the moon. But nobody goes upstairs to the top floor to visit their sick neighbour, to ask if they're OK."

He challenged people who say Islam breeds terrorism and puts down women.

"Whoever thinks this should read more history ... It is not fair to take Iran or Saudi Arabia as the example of all Islam or of all Arab lands," he said.

On the Danish cartoon controversy, he said newspapers were wrong back in 2005 to insult Muslim sensibility by publishing images of Mohammed.

But he added that Muslims were wrong to react with anger.

He noted that Islam follows the teachings of Jewish and Christian "prophets" - such as Moses, Abraham and Jesus - as well as Mohammed. He quoted Jesus in saying that Muslims should have "turned the other cheek."

When asked by EUobserver what he feels when he sings the morning call to prayer, he showed again his gentle side.

"Mostly, I feel sleepy," Balci said.

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