The Changing Face of Islam in Europe

Muslims are now part of the West, so the discussion is not between ‘them’ and ‘us’, but between ‘us’ and ‘us’, among ourselves, with our common humanity. Talk of ‘clash of civilisations’ in this context is not only dangerous and irresponsible (for the false line it perpetuates), it is also foolish. –Dilwar Hussein


This article looks historically at factors in Europe that affected Christian interaction with Muslims before 9/11. It then considers what has happened since, with the greatly increased profile of Islam caused by several factors outlined. It considers changes within Christian and Muslim communities, and to Christian responses to Islam. An extensive section considers contemporary approaches to mission with Muslims theologically and practically, in ten areas. The conclusion provides evidence for why Europe in general, and Britain in particular, are pivotal for the development of a constructive approach to Muslim-Christian relations, and a sensitive approach to mission.

Twentieth-Century Changes in Europe

The European context has changed drastically since the Edinburgh Conference of 1910. At that point, engagement with Islam was something happening elsewhere, within the old “mission field.” This meant, in the main, the Middle East, parts of Africa, and the Asian subcontinent.

Feelings about Islam or about Muslims were not to the fore as the previous millennium developed. There were few Muslims living in Western Europe, and issues within Europe were focused upon the Ottoman Empire, as it came to an end in the aftermath of the Second World

War. The secularization of Turkey under Ataturk was aggressive in its impact, with Islamic practice officially removed from public life. In other parts of Southeast Europe, Orthodox Christians lived alongside Muslims in peace, provided each left the other alone.

This is largely how things remained through the ideological conflicts of the Fascist period and World War Two, and then through the confrontation between East and West during the Cold War. Questions related to Islam hardly met the public eye, either in media or political circles. Exceptions included the turmoil caused by the partition of India in 1947, and the breakup of Pakistan in 1973. Amongst other significant events were the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and consequent expulsion of the Palestinian majority into neighbouring Muslim countries; and the seemingly endless wars and violent incidents over the next 60 years, which have disturbed all attempts to broker any sort of permanent or even temporary peace in the so-called Holy Land. Also, led by the Middle East, there came the oil crisis of the early 1970s, with the formation of OPEC, and the realization of the economic power that part of the world could hold over the West. But this was not yet seen as a Muslim-Christian confrontation. Equally dramatic was the Islamic revolution in Shiite Iran in 1979, an event that casts its shadow over Europe and the U.S. until today.

It was likewise with other post-colonial conflicts in Malaysia, Indonesia, and several parts of Africa, where the rhetoric of Islam has been used within the power struggles of these areas. That dynamic can be seen in the radicalization of Muslims in Afghanistan and surrounding areas due to the Soviet invasion, and the simultaneous emergence of a Taliban ideology with an emphasis on Jihad to expel the Soviet invader, facilitated by weapons supplied by the U.S. Islam was brought directly onto the agenda by Pakistan, where its success in becoming a nuclear weapon state was abundantly heralded.

Mention should also be made of the breakup of Yugoslavia. This brought to the fore, for the first time in Europe in recent times, deadly examples of ethnic cleansing based upon religious labels, as Serbian Orthodox and Muslim groups confronted each other across new frontiers. The consequence was that large numbers of Muslims moved to Western Europe as refugees, and governments were forced to take into account religious divides as a basis for state-making in modern Europe.

Another major event was the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, and the subsequent Fatwa issued from Iran pronouncing the death penalty upon Salman Rushdie. This had a dramatic effect in Britain, where he is a citizen and is in residence, and more widely in Europe. One significant effect was the mobilization of Muslims as communities, focused around the burning of books in Bradford streets. There was a polarization amongst liberal opinion: between those who championed freedom of expression, and those who wanted to defend the vulnerabilities of a minority community. The most prominent Muslim leader of the time, the Egyptian Zaki Bedawi, said he might hate the book, but would invite Salman Rushdie to stay in his own house for protection. The long-term effects were considerable—was there an inevitable clash of values between Islam and those of liberal democracy? Crucially, the conscientization of British Muslims as a force to be reckoned with had begun. And had an external power any right to pronounce against a British citizen?

These are some of the external events that had a profound effect upon Europe during the century preceding what became known as 9/11.

Contemporary British and European Contexts

Equally significant to the changing European landscape in the twentieth century is the issue of migration. Millions of Muslims moved from Turkey to Germany, from North Africa to France, from Indonesia to Holland, and from the Asian subcontinent to Britain. More recently large numbers of Muslim refugees have come to more open societies, such as Scandinavia, from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere. Estimates of population figures give up to 30 million Muslims within Western Europe. The expansion of the European Union (EU) has brought in more Muslims from Eastern Europe. The question of Turkey’s application to the EU is seen not just as a political or economic question but as a religious challenge, affecting the demography of Europe radically, as 70 million Muslims would potentially have access to the EU in terms of movement of population. Another significant migration is that of Somalis, who have come in vast numbers because of its civil war, to Holland and Scandinavia. Many of these have then made a second migration, as EU citizens, to Britain, to cities such as London, Birmingham, and Leicester. For example, around 12,000 have come to Leicester, a city of 300,000, in the last few years, seeking an easier place to practice their faith and to learn English.

Since 1990, however, and even more since 2001, there has come the challenge of living together permanently. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, has written a number of key prophetic books, the first being The Dignity of Difference in 2003. Faced with the challenge of living together as different faiths, religions can be either part of the problem, he suggests, or part of the solution of the problem. They can become the second only if they recognize the dignity of difference—that difference is not something to be feared, but to be welcomed.2

Sacks’s more recent book, entitled The Home We Build Together (Continuum, 2007), outlines three models of living in a religiously pluralistic society. In his first model, Britain or Europe is like a country house. There is a host and owner. Guests come for a weekend or so, and are treated well, but are then expected to go. The second model is that of a five-star hotel. Each culture or faith has a room. They are independent of each other, and are not expected to communicate with those in the next room. They may not speak each other’s language, and there is no incentive to learn the language of the other. This is multiculturalism in its least attractive guise.

The third model is that of the “home.” All who are part of a home contribute to the whole; each is valued for their own sake, and each needs the other. No one possesses the home; all possess it together. There is a common narrative which all own, and they suffer or rejoice together. But each person in the home is valued for his or her own sake. In terms of society, this model is of integration without assimilation.

Applying this model historically to the multireligious context, Jews have spent centuries in Europe being accepted as a community who are integrated, but were not required to assimilate. There were deep traumas on the way. But, for example, in Britain, they became valued for what they contribute to the whole (society), and much of this comes from the nature of their community of faith.

Muslim communities are faced with similar challenges, and it is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of responses to the Muslim-Christian statement A Common Word (see below) have come from a range of sources in Europe.3 The Mechelen Statement (2008) reflects the challenges of navigating religious identities in contemporary Europe:

“Identity has many strands, of which religion is one. Strength in a rope comes from many strands being intertwined, including our identity as Europeans, as citizens of particular countries, and our ethnic background. We are challenged to build bridges across cultures and faiths. Europe is called to be a laboratory of learning for both Muslims and Christians.

As Christians and Muslims we believe in the principle of integration. This does not and must never carry with it the demand to forsake our religious identities. For example this may happen through prohibiting the wearing or display of religious symbols in public places or neutralizing religious festivities with the pretext that their being allowed would harm the  sensitivities of other believers or that they would go against the principles of the secular state.”

Muslims in Europe are on a journey, and one of the mission challenges for churches is how far they can provide them a helping hand on this journey. The journey is a different one in each country, and full of possibilities but also of pitfalls. How can the churches become advocates for such a model of integration without assimilation, rather than one of the major obstacles to this?

To take the example of Britain, the Muslim communities (note the plural communities, not community, since they are extremely varied) comprise about 2.5 million people4 out of a population of 55 million. More than half were born in Britain—if you ask them to go “home,” they would remain where they are since home is Britain. But incidents like 9/11, and 7/7 (the London bombing), and riots in northern cities in 2001 involving poor Muslims and poor whites, have led to negative stereotyping in the media and amongst the general public. The challenge for churches is how far they follow such negatives, or how far they can become advocates for a new way of thinking and behaving.

In my educational work with Christians, I have found that the kind of words used by many congregations mirror those of society. For example, the words Muslim” or “Islam” are often synonymous with those of confrontation, fear, suspicion, rivalry, exclusivity, terrorist, and fundamentalist. Understandable. The key question, however, is to what extent is it the church’s role to speak prophetically against these attitudes of society and not simply mirror them? And how can the church enable (and not sideline) widespread Muslim integration and participation in British and European life as fellow citizens? Ethically, the church needs to take responsibility in not disseminating existing negative stereotypes of Muslims. In 2009, for example, Europol reported that there were 294 terrorist incidents in Europe, of which only one was suspected to be Islamic in origin.

The Changing Face of Islam in Europe?

Before exploring these questions, I outline here some pan-European realities and factors within which we need to consider mission with Muslims.5 An important assumption for this article is what Dilwar Hussein, a young Muslim leader and colleague from Leicester, articulates in the modern Muslim journal EMEL (July/Aug 2004):

“Muslims are now part of the West, so the discussion is not between “them” and “us,” but between “us” and “us,” among ourselves, with our common humanity. Talk of “clash of civilizations” in this context is not only dangerous and irresponsible (for the false line it perpetuates), it is also foolish… Muslims living in the West may not agree with certain material motivations in the West or the way the family is being neglected, and on these issues they may stand together with many of their fellow citizens of Christian and other faiths and non-faith backgrounds. Muslims living in the West may take issue with the current state of social and international justice, and they would again stand with the majority of their fellow citizens. On concerns about the environment, again Muslims would stand with the people.”

Islamic issues. The following issues have become politicized in many European countries, including questions of the Hijab, style of marriage, call to prayer, faith schools, minarets, and Halal meat. The European Union has had to reflect, not least through the constitution debate, on the place of religion within the European Union and the Council of Europe. The place of modified sharia personal law within one legal system has also begun to be discussed and is highly controversial. So too is the building of mosques which has taken place in varying speeds in different countries; for example, there are many in Britain and France while fewer in Germany or Sweden.

International incidents. Events such as 9/11, the Madrid and London bombings, Mumbai, and Gaza are dramatic examples of how Islam has been profiled on an international stage. Closely linked is the response to what is commonly seen as Islamic terrorism, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and now potentially Iran. The continuing impasse in Israel/Palestine, increasing radicalization in Pakistan, and a range of issues involving Muslims across the continent of Africa are also contributing factors. These incidents have given rise to arguments like political scientist Samuel Huntington’s that posit that the Cold War has been replaced by a clash of civilizations between colliding Christian and Islamic worlds. But it is clear that most of these conflicts are about political power and economic resources, whatever the religious rhetoric might be.

The media. Some sections of the media have become somewhat obsessed with Islam, generating endless programs, books, films, and press articles about Muslims. But while these can be well produced, informative, and positive, they often have a negative spin. Furthermore, these media outlets are often also negative to churches and to Christians. The cartoon controversy begun in Denmark was a sign of both the sensitivity and the subsequent polarization between those for and those against publication. Clearly this becomes a confrontation between the right of freedom of expression and artistic license, as well as the need to consider religious feelings. Of course, the media ensure that what happens in one  particular country is immediately internationalized. Well aware of this phenomenon, the BBC has recently appointed a Muslim as its Director of Religious Affairs for TV. What this will mean remains to be seen.

Islamophobia. All of the above have contributed to the documented growth in “Islamophobia” in some countries across Europe, as Muslims are demonized as a threat to European, Christian, or national ways of life. The entry of right-wing, explicitly anti-Muslim parties into parliament, and in some cases providing support to governments, has been seen in Holland, Denmark, Norway,  and Sweden—all traditionally tolerant countries. Some countries also report a phenomenon they name as “Christianophobia,” where Christians are mocked and denigrated.

The Internet. Positively, the Internet enabe dialogue and education: for example, the use of Facebook enables cross-religious conversation, and so do international programs through BBC, Doha Talks, and the Al Jazeera English channel. These programs often consist of challenging films of a social or documentary kind, though they are not marketed widely. At the same time there is a danger that Muslims in Europe (and, indeed, Christian immigrants from Africa and elsewhere) watch only or mainly satellite TV programs from their countries of origin. Doing this may be harmless, but it discourages integration and may create a linguistic and generational gap. Some programs also may not be fair about political developments in Europe. Worse, they can fire up radical movements, particularly amongst the young.

Schools and education. In some countries, schools now provide routine teaching about Muslims and Islam along with Christianity and other faiths. In other countries the school system divides religious teaching, or includes it in history or art or literature (e.g. France). In some countries there are government-financed Muslim schools (e.g. England, Sweden, Holland). In a range of countries in Europe there are private Muslim schools, some residential.

Changes within Muslim Communities

A number of important changes have taken place within Muslim communities across Europe over the last century. The following five areas are key to understanding these shifts.

  1. Some have a growing self awareness and wish to identify with being European, French, British, Norwegian, etc., and to take part in local and national politics. They have been working at what it means to live as a minority Muslim community within a plural society. In general, and at differing speeds in various countries, Muslims have become more organized. This is partly their own wish, and partly responding to government needs for partners to work with. At the same time they remain diversified in culture, ethnic background, language, educational proficiency, Islamic tradition, and degree of identity with modern society. At times these can lead to significant divisions. A minority wish to have nothing to do with European life and values, though benefiting economically from living in Europe.
  2. Probably the largest group of Muslims have adjusted to life in Europe, and are making their way as workers, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, etc. Their children are rising in the educational field, and the local language is now their first language. In some countries, such as

Germany, France, Britain, there are a growing number of Muslim entrepreneurs, professionals, and attorneys. Also, financial capital from Muslim entrepreneurs does much to undergird the investment markets. They are beginning to be elected as members of local, regional, or national parliaments in Germany, France, Holland, Britain, and Denmark, and have taken up ministerial responsibilities in some cases.

  1. Other Muslims feel marginalized, economically depressed, and disaffected, as seen in the riots in France and in the North of England. Factors include failure in education, unemployment, and poor housing. For some this leads to drugs, violence, or crime; while for others increasing radicalization, particularly of young people.
  2. Migrants often maintain strong links with their countries of origin. Ease of travel and information technology keep such engagement going. This is particularly the case in Germany, where the Turkish state has strong influence on the large Turkish population, especially through the Diyanet network of mosques whereby Turkish culture is deliberately maintained. Influence of other economic, social, and political links with Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, and with groups in Pakistan, is found in several European countries, and is seen as a source of radicalization of young people.
  3. There are major debates about the position of Muslim women. These have increased as women have become more educated, and in many cases now, more educated than men. Are they oppressed by social and cultural traditions, or free to choose their own path and identity?

Changes within Christian Communities

Twentieth-century changes are not limited to Muslim communities. Christian communities across Europe have also undergone significant shifts. It is important to understand both religious communities if we are to properly grasp the religious landscape in Europe today.

  1. Increasing secularization in Western Europe has led to some marginalization of churches in public dialogue and reduction in Sunday attendance. At the same time, vast attendance at the German Kirchentag, the immense appeal of ecumenical centers such as Taize, and pilgrimage journeys to places such as Santiago di Compestella show continuing interest in spirituality in Europe.
  2. There has been a growth in the relative importance of Eastern Orthodox churches. This is not only because of this church’s revival in Eastern Europe and conversions in the West, but also because of the migration of Orthodox Church members to such Western countries as Spain, Italy, and Sweden. Some of these, for example in Sweden, are often anti-Islamic.
  3. Migration of Poles and others within the EU, and immigration from Africa, South America, and parts of Asia such as the Philippines, have increased the size of the Roman Catholic church in many countries. So also has there been a large increase of Protestant migrants from Africa, providing significant increases in church attendance within mainline churches, and the formation of many independent African churches.
  4. Theological polarization between so-called liberals and conservative Evangelicals has increased in some churches, such as the Anglican Communion, and attitudes to other faiths is often one of the places of divide. The ecumenical movement has receded in some places, with the weakening of churches leading to a withdrawal within themselves, and mission and ecumenism taking a secondary place.

Developments in Christian Response and Muslim-Christian Engagement

In the midst of these changes, however, we can see signs of hope and growth in the ways Muslim and Christian communities in Europe relate to and interact with one another.

Response to secularism. Secularism has become a central reality in most countries, and in some, such as France, it is enshrined in legislation. It is one of several influences affecting attendance at all religious places of worship, especially amongst the young. More aggressive attacks on religion and religious values have led to a coming together of some Muslims and Christians, in defense of the appropriate place of religion in public life. Various approaches to religious experience have found a following across a range of people, not all of them young, and some of these are linked with Sufism or spirit movements in Christianity.

Response to violent extremism. Fear of Islamic extremism has penetrated many Christian individuals and groups, and also affected moderate Muslims’ confidence in dealing with the issue.

Solidarity with the persecuted. Those working to highlight persecution of Christians in Muslim lands have gained a higher profile. Stories of persecution influence Christian congregations, whether through media coverage or because of the presence of refugees. This can lead to polarization, but also to joint statements by Muslims and Christians condemning such extremist actions.

Statements. Positively, there has been a wide range of statements by Christian churches in response to a number of issues and conflicts that have arisen. Lively intra-Christian debate has been taking place within churches in most countries, with the presence of Islam being an energizing factor in such discussions. More Christians are willing to engage with Muslims at all kinds of levels. There are events and demonstrations for peace, an increase in Muslim-Christian women’s interactions, and more individuals working together on issues in “the dialogue of life.”

Exchange programs. These have become more frequent. Examples are those between EKD (the German Evangelical church), Germany, and Iran, and between the Church of England and Iran. There are a range of joint programs related to Israel/Palestine. The Anglican Church has a joint program with Al-Azhar University in Egypt. Many groups have traveled to Turkey to visit holy sites, such as a Muslim-Christian group from Leicester. Indonesia has also been involved in such programs, and there have been student exchanges with Algeria. There are also university faculty contacts between countries.

Local and national forums. In some countries, Christian-Muslim forums have been established at a national or city level—for example, in Britain with the Christian- Muslim Forum, of which the Archbishop is president; in France with GAIC (Groupe d’Amitie Islamo-Chretien); and in Norway and Denmark. In Germany, the Christian-Muslim Working Group (ICA) was established on a national level as early as 1976. Also notable in Germany is the Christian/Jewish/Muslim initiative “Invite Your Neighbor” (1999-2003), followed by “Do you know where I am?” (since 2004). This has encouraged and supported hundreds of local initiatives. There are also many city level or local district initiatives such as those in Paris, Gothenburg, Leicester, Drammen, Aarhus, and in a number of German cities. Individual church leaders have been appointed with responsibility for Muslim-Christian relations in several countries.

Academic study. There has been a growth in academic interest in Islam and in Muslims in Europe—not primarily in textual work, but over a wide range of areas. “Scriptural reasoning” dialogue groups such as A Common Word (2007) have had a significant response. A Common

Word was the remarkable letter of 138 Muslim scholars and religious leaders addressed to the Pope and other Christian leaders. The number of participants has since risen to around 400, with numerous Christian leader responses, and the initiative’s website can be read with great profit as an example of a major Muslim initiative in dialogue.

Christian Mission and Muslim Communities: Possibilities and Challenges

It should be remembered that Christianity, as Islam, was born into contexts where multiple religions existed. We need, therefore, to go back to our roots in reflecting theologically on how to relate to the Islamic presence in Europe. Change is not uniform, and there is enormous diversity across Europe. Attitudes need to be encouraged that are prepared to embrace change positively, and to trust in God to guide us to a way forward. For God embraces all humanity in the biblical creation stories, and we need not be afraid of working together with Muslim brothers and sisters.

Evangelism as two-way street. Pluralist, exclusivist, and inclusivist approaches to interfaith dialogue all have distinct implications in relating to Muslims, and Christians need to face the challenge of reflecting on these possibilities. For example, how should a church respond when a Muslim desires baptism? Is this what we seek? Conversely, Christians must also be prepared to be “evangelized” by Muslims (da’wa). The right to share one’s faith and the right to convert are part of human rights as they are enshrined in the United Nations (UN) Charter, and guaranteed in Europe by the Convention on Human Rights of the Council of Europe. This right is not fully accepted by all Muslims living in Europe. But we can see acceptance agreed to in the final declaration of the EU-sponsored Christian Muslim Conference in Mechelen, Belgium, in October 2008. The conference was attended by 25 Muslims and 20 Christians from across Europe, organized by the Churches Committee for Relations with Muslims in Europe (CRME).6

Mission and interfaith dialogue. There are various ways of analyzing dialogue between faiths. Two examples follow here. The Roman Catholic Church has distinguished between four levels of dialogue (Dialogue and Proclamation, 1991): dialogue of life, dialogue of engagement, dialogue of theology, and dialogue of the spirit/heart. These are simple and self-explanatory, and provide a basis for a holistic approach to Muslim-Christian interaction. It is made clear in this model that dialogue is not opposed to proclamation. A parallel model, based upon the World Council of Churches (WCC) guidelines, also puts forth four principles: (a) dialogue begins when people meet people; (b) dialogue depends upon understanding and trust; (c) dialogue leads to common action; (d) dialogue is the means of authentic witness. It should be noted that witness is likely to be two-way, listening to the other as well as proclaiming Christ. We must be ready to be transformed by the encounter. Dialogue with the unexpected and radically different other leads to “surprise and joy,” as we talk about what matters most—holiness, being at peace, and what truly is (Rowan Williams).

The Orthodox Church’s theology of dialogue centers upon its wide understanding of the place of the Holy Spirit in creation and redemption. It is assumed that the Muslim will fully understand the centrality of the search for holiness, peace, and truth in the dialogical encounter. Christians in Europe have usually made the first steps, which is not surprising, as they hold the historically powerful position and remain the main faith in Europe. Also, dialogue for a Christian is following in the steps of Jesus in his ministry, reaching out to others. The Trinity emphasizes dialogue within the heart of God (intra), and this flows outward (ad extra) (missio Dei). A significant minority of Muslims are now responding to the challenge of dialogue.

Mission and the Scriptures. There are differences in the approach to interpretation of Scripture found within the Christian world. However, we should recognize that there is a growth in conservatism within some European churches, increased through the immigration of Africans to many European countries. Many of them have had difficulties with Muslims in their own country. There has also been a growth in Pentecostalism, with similar effects. Because of the rather tense religious circumstances in their home countries, most of these groups are very wary of those who make relationships with Muslims a priority. At the same time, others are finding a new excitement about reading the Bible in a multifaith world. For some this is found in a fresh discovery of the Old Testament and its commonalities with parts of the Qur’an. Reflection on a commonality between the values of the Kingdom of God and the ethics found in the Qur’an has proved fruitful. Comparison can be found between the stories of the Gospels and some of the traditions related to Mohammed in the Hadith. Christians have also been challenged to justify and indeed to rejoice in the diversity of our Gospels and the writing of Paul, in terms of their witness to Jesus Christ. Another layer of complexity is seen when we realize that Muslims will of course also vary in how they use the Qur’an in today’s European world.

Mission and sharing of basic Christian convictions. By questioning from Muslims, Christians are challenged to explain how they can believe in Christ as more than a prophet. They are led to understand why Muslims reject the sonship of Christ through dialogue with Muslims. This forces Christians to explain in understandable terms what we mean by “Son of God.” The same applies to the explanation of the Cross and Resurrection as being at the center of the Christian story, and the place of the suffering God (as per Bonhoeffer). God coming in the flesh is a deeply disturbing concept for Muslims but is the heart of Christian faith. The “second coming of Christ” is also a rather different concept in Islam, and Christians are led to think about their own understanding of this difficult but credal concept.

The paradox of the Trinity stems from the early Church as a picture or symbol of how Christians experience God. Muslims need to be reassured that affirmation of the Trinity does not mean we are dividing God, or believe in three gods. Christians are absolutely committed to the oneness of God, but this does not limit the language of how that oneness is experienced. Within the Trinity, the place of the Spirit needs to be emphasized, and the breadth of God’s presence through history and in the wider world beyond the Church. The contribution of Eastern European and Syrian Orthodox churches, and of theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann, from Germany, and J. V. Taylor, from England, can be noted here. Here the concept of logos spermatikos (“without him was not anything made that was made”) can be introduced as a potentially inclusive concept.

Mission and apologetics. Christians can learn from Muslims about the importance of defending their faith. Many Muslims know about Christian beliefs only as taught by fellow Muslims, and the information they pass on is what Christians would view as misinformation or misinterpretation. Understanding the “other” is a vital challenge. But dialogue can no longer proceed with any benefit when it appears to be a dialogue of the deaf. Christians should be prepared to explain their faith or, as St. Paul puts it, to “confess the faith of Christ crucified,” which was “foolishness to the Greeks and a scandal to Jews.” They should be prepared for their words being radically unacceptable to Muslims. But they should also be prepared to listen to the Muslim and hear how they define themselves. Defending the faith does not mean defending everything that has happened in Church history or in the actions of the contemporary church, even less of so-called “Christian nations.” This will help Muslims to feel they do not have to defend everything done in the name of Islam—“not in our name”!

Mission, ethics and social engagement. Both religions are concerned about how to live a good life under God. There is more than a human referent for ethical standards. There are important commonalities between Muslims and Christians. So also the general command to “love our neighbor as ourself,” as highlighted in A Common Word. Both also have universal ethical norms, though with contextual working out of those norms in a given situation. In decision making, both involve reflection on scripture, tradition and reason. Christianity, however, should not revert to “proof texts” or simply referring to “God’s law.” Nor should Christians adopt an attitude that is confrontational to the secular or be overready to dismiss the “the enlightenment,” which for all its problems has helped foster universal human rights, as is spelled out in UN Declaration on Human Rights.

Sensitive areas in ethical discussion are likely to include the relationship between the individual and society, the place of democracy and freedom of the individual, the ethics of conversion, and gender issues. Perhaps most sensitive will be the approach to questions of human sexuality, including marriage and divorce, homosexuality, cohabitation, polygamy, sex education, etc. Included also will be questions of the role of gender as it relates to the upbringing of children and care of the elderly. All of these issues are seen by Muslims (and Christians) as being religious questions, even if the two faiths sometimes come to different conclusions.

Common approaches can be developed toward ecology and the environment, reverence for life, and preventing the breakdown of law and order. So also there can be common approaches to the evil of racism and the rise of the far right in several European countries. Responsibility for the use of money and God’s gifts on the earth can center around the common concept of stewardship given to human beings. Consideration of waste, litter, and conservation can be approached together to “save the earth.” There needs to be reflection upon the place of personal responsibility and conscience in ethical decision making.

Mission and spirituality. Spirituality is at the heart of both Muslim and Christian faiths. Both enter upon public times of worship (salat for a Muslim), the daily offices, and the eucharist (e.g. mass, divine liturgy, Holy Communion). These can be observed but are not normally participated in by the other faith, which can lead to confusion. But the intention behind both is the praise of God, the acknowledgement of our dependence upon Almighty God, our prayers for others, the expression of solidarity with our fellow believers, and the sense of being protected by others. Alongside these times, through dialogue, there can arise times of mutual spirituality. These may be controversial, and not acceptable to all for theological reasons. No one should be forced to join anything they are not comfortable with. Examples of prayer alongside each other include famous public occasions such as prayers for peace at Assisi (1986), attended by Pope John Paul II, and the regular prayers held by the Christian community Sant‘Egidio ever since; the Commonwealth service held every year in Westminster Abbey, attended by the Queen of England; prayers held in many places after disasters such as the tsunami in 2005; or prayers before the Iraq war. In Holland there have been Assisi-style prayers for the opening of parliament since 1986 and annual prayers in Leeuwarden. Some such prayer events are civic, some are within churches. But all include many faiths, and prayer is alongside, and not mixed together.

Leadership structures. Muslims have often gone through major challenges in coming to Europe. In some contexts they are used to tribal or family leadership, in others to the dominance of the state authorities, as in Turkey or Iran. Leadership in religion and within the state are not separate in various places. Muslims in Europe are faced with the challenge of being a Muslim

in a state without an “all embracing” Islamic framework. The Imam is traditionally a teacher and leader of prayer. In Europe, there is a pressure for him to become like a Christian priest or pastor. Christian clergy can assist Imams in their development to a wider role, but should not impose their own models. The movement toward chaplaincy has also led to some Imams, as well as laypeople (including women), becoming facilitators of pastoral care within a range of institutions and communities. This role requires training that is different from the old purely scholarly schools of training, and Christians can assist in this.

Mission as pastoral care. Muslims often come with structures of family that include a community of care. They have not had the experience of pastoral care in Western society, where life tends to be individualistic and the young see themselves as independent and autonomous. Where the family structures hold together the problems may be lessened, though those who opt out of this can be very lonely. Another area of challenge is the nature of marriage, particularly for societies that are used to arranged marriages. Bringing brides from home countries leads to significant problems if they are not educated and do not know the European languages—factor that may contribute to increased divorce rates.

How are Christian and Muslim care structures responding? One way is clearly through the role of chaplains in institutions, whether clergy or lay. Christian chaplains and pastors find themselves responding to a range of these problems—in prisons, hospitals, and universities. For example, in the Netherlands (as also in Britain) there are official army, hospital, and prison Imams paid for by the government. Christian care of immigrants is a major calling in many countries. How to provide relevant advice and counsel in cases of interfaith marriage, particularly when children come, is a delicate ministry. The convert coming from Islam needs special care not just from the priest but from the congregation, which becomes his or her new “family.” The convert away from Christianity needs to know that he or she is still loved, and his or her family must be reassured that they are not “responsible” for what they see as apostasy. Still another challenge for a Christian pastor is how to pray with the bereaved or sick from another faith. How do Christians offer new hope to those without hope through alcohol or drug addiction, or through long years of imprisonment? Likewise, how to show love in a way that “sets people free”? This may include affirming them as Muslims and introducing them to appropriate pastoral or community care; it may on occasions be to respond to their request to know more about the Christian faith. These situations must never be exploited in the quest for converts.

Mission and the education of children and young people. The situation of education varies from country to country. Secularism has led to ignorance in understanding religious facts and cultures throughout Western Europe and in several East European countries. Some countries such as France include the teaching of religious facts in various disciplines, such as history, literature, or art. The purpose is to understand the cultural heritage of Europe as well as of France, of the world as well as the local. In France, confessional teaching is given in private schools or in chaplaincy within public schools. In Norway, about 50 percent of the emphasis is placed on Christianity, while the other half is on other faiths, philosophies, and ethics. In Britain, the government is encouraging the opening of many more faith schools, whether Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Jewish or Sikh. However, there is a clear distinction between Anglican schools, which cater for the whole community, and Muslim, Catholic, or Jewish schools, which are largely or completely confessional. Religious education is broad, as in Norway, and is required in all schools. Confessional teaching has been compulsory in Romania since 1990. There are significant developments in Germany, where the partnership between religious organizations and state religious education has a firm place in the public educational system. Efforts are being made to include Islam within this system, and there are now established professional training programs for future Muslim religious teachers at several German universities. The syllabus in Madrassas is under scrutiny in several places, with an encouragement or requirement to include citizenship education as well as traditional subjects.


Europe has become a key area for Muslim-Christian relations and, within Europe, Britain is at the forefront of most issues, with its variety of communities, and British Commonwealth connections focused upon the vast number of Muslims living in the Indian subcontinent. For Holland the connections with Indonesia are central; for Germany, Turkey; and for France the Magrib. Recent asylum movements have brought the whole world to Europe, with Scandinavia at the fore in receiving Muslim refugees. Freedom of movement within the EU has led to migration across the EU, regardless of the original point of entry. Europe is also the continent where Muslim scholars, as mentioned above, are struggling toward new European interpretations of Islam, which work at making it compatible with liberal democracy and with living as a minority within a multifaith society where Christianity is main partner or protagonist. The challenge for Christians is which of these they are to be. An Indian Christian I met on a train in South India not long ago wished me well on my return to Britain, saying, “You are going back to the most important country in the most important continent for the future of the world. If religions and cultures cannot live together there, they cannot do this anywhere.”

A last word from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, about dialogue:

“The Christian is struck and challenged by the fact that outside the visible fellowship of faith, lives are lived which look as though they are in harmony with the Christian Universe . . . We have to see how very “other” our universes are; and only then do we find dialogue a surprise and joy as we also discover where and how we can still talk about what matters most—holiness, being at peace, and what truly is.”

A joint commitment to holiness, peace, and truth: Where better to end this study of mission amongst Muslims in the contemporary British and European context. And how central this is in light of the economic and political uncertainties we live under in Europe.


1This paper is published with permission from Regnum Books International.

2See my own book, Celebrating Difference, Staying Faithful—How to Live in a Multifaith World (DLT, 2005).

3For the full text of the letter and subsequent responses to it, see

4Estimate of 2010, census figure of 2001 is 1.6 million.

5Here I am drawing on a document for which I was chief editor: Embracing a New Reality: Muslims in Europe and Training of Clergy and Lay People (prepared for the Committee for Relations with Muslims in Europe, of the Conference of European Churches and Catholic Bishop’s Conferences).

6A key statement emerging from the CRME meeting: “As Christians and Muslims (of Europe) we acknowledge the right of freedom of conscience, of changing one’s religion or deciding to live without a religion, the right to demonstrate publicly and to voice one’s religious convictions without being ridiculed or intimidated into silence by prejudice or stereotyping intentionally or through lack of knowledge.”