Most European Bureaucrats are Ignorant of Religion, and That Means Trouble for Europe

Late last year, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group of the European Parliament released a report entitled Network of Networks: The Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. The report, commissioned by the ECR’s vice chairman and Swedish MEP Charlie Weimers, details the funding that has flowed from EU agency coffers into the budgets of organizations with links to the Muslim Brotherhood. The report was commissioned in response to a claim made in 2019 by European Commissioner for Promoting the European Way of Life Margaritis Schinas that the European Commission does not providing funding to organizations associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, accompanied by an invitation for a proffer of proof that it does indeed do so.

In fairness, Commissioner Schinas had just inherited his portfolio when he was questioned on the subject. His response, however, is quite emblematic of the naïve ignorance that has led to the present situation detailed in the report. Like most people in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe, politicians and bureaucrats largely lack basic religious literacy even about their own traditions. Even as religious practice is in decline across the West, the continued relevance of religious identity, heritage, and history cannot be denied. A war with specifically Christian undertones rages in Ukraine. We are less than a decade removed from the violent terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the massacre at the Batalan theater, and the public decapitation of a teacher—all in France. And just this year an assassin in New York came very close to executing the 1989 fatwa pronounced by Ayatollah Khomeini against author Salman Rushdie.

I am not suggesting most Muslims or Christians are violent or support any sort of religious based violence–just the opposite. But religious convictions do inform our most basic beliefs about the world, and differences in conviction lead to differences in perspectives, priorities, and biases. The ECR Group’s report largely focuses on the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy of “peaceful conquest” that will be realized “without resorting to the sword or fighting,” but “by means of da’wa and ideology.” While the Muslim Brotherhood is associated with independent groups that are or have been violent, the official position of the organization is a non-violent, democratically realized imposition of Islamic law. Nevertheless, the organs of the EU are funding organizations that have a stated intention to undermine that which forms the basis of, as the EU describes it, the “European way of life.”

The ECR Report has uncovered a problem in need of a solution. But given the plural nature of European society, the solution will necessarily involve adherents to many different faiths. But interfaith cooperation is severely impoverished by the same lack of religious literacy that has led to the problem. In fact, bad faith actors depend upon a lack of religious literacy to achieve certain ends. Religious literacy, however, is not achievable without honesty, transparency, and respect. As prosaic as that formula my sound, it is irrefutably true.

It may seem counterintuitive, but interfaith dialogue is not productive when it devolves into a focus on that which groups have in common. This approach blurs the lines of distinction between groups and reduces some traditions to sects of other groups or the result of historical and doctrinal aberrations.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik made a similar argument in his important essay, “Confrontation,” presented to a gathering of the Rabbinic Council of America. This led to the Council’s adoption of a statement on interfaith dialogue which reads in part, “Only full appreciation on the part of all of the singular role, inherent worth, and basic prerogatives of each religious community will help promote the spirit of cooperation among faiths.” 

Confronting differences acknowledges their existence and their reality. Those differences can then be appreciated outside of the shadow of majority religions, older religions, or more culturally dominant religions. Confronting the differences respects the dignity of the adherents of all faiths to believe the tenets of their faiths, to order their lives according to those tenets, and to participate in the public square according to the convictions that flow from those tenets.

It is important for all of us in the West to recognize and oppose religious extremism. Only an honest and transparent religious literacy, a willingness to confront our differences, and a good faith effort to cooperate respectfully with those differences in mind will ever lead to cooperative solutions to these problems. If the EU is going to continue to provide material support for religious organizations and interfaith discussions, these are the kinds of initiatives that it should prioritize.