Vienna, December 3 – Until recently, Europeans, including Western Christians, had generally assumed that “the entire world is just as tolerant and indifferent to religion” as they are, an official of the Moscow Patriarchate points out, but for Muslims, Jews, and Eastern Christians, “religion occupies a place of first importance.”
But the Swiss vote to ban new minarets shows, according to Archpriest Andrey Tkachev, an official of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, that the West now feels threatened by people from the East who unlike its own, continue to take their faiths very seriously and do not equate attending religious services with visiting exhibits in a museum (www.rusk.ru/news_rl/2009/12/03/protoierej_andrej_tkachev_sleduet_priobretat_druzej_ne_teryaya_veru/).
There has been a great deal of discussion among Russians about the implications of the Swiss vote on November 28, all the more so because the ruling parties in Denmark and the Netherlands have indicated that they plan to follow the Swiss model in responding to the increasing number of Muslims in their midst.
But most of the commentary in Russia has followed predictable lines, with Muslims expressing outrage, Russian nationalists satisfaction and a desire to copy what Switzerland has done, and Russian Orthodox churchmen expressing understanding for the Swiss measure but saying that it won’t happen in Russia (www.newsru.com/religy/02dec2009/referendum.html).
Father Tkachev’s interview with the Orthodox “Russkaya liniya” Internet portal represents an early effort to go beyond these entirely predictable positions and to explore the roots of a problem which he argues can only be addressed by “acquiring friends, without losing [one’s own] faith.”
“Since out world is poly-cultural and multi-national, and there are almost no homogenous countries anymore,” the archpriest says,”life itself forces us to acquire friends without losing in the process [our own] faiths,” a challenge that people in many countries in Europe and elsewhere now face.
Europe today, Father Tkachev continues, “is encountering problems that were called forth by the collapse of the colonial system after World War II, when as a result of open borders and higher standard of living in France and Germany, migrants from Turkey and people from the former colonies in the Maghreb began to arrive.”
“And to the extent that the bearers of Islamic culture arriving in Europe were more active and more attached to their own culture code, then of course, they represented a danger for Europeans who were showing greater indifferent to their own cultural roots. Intuitively, this [confrontation] gave birth to fear.”
“When someone with a different skin color, a different cultural code and other life priorities and understanding of good and evil appears as your neighbor,” the Orthodox missionary says, “then you cease to be the master of your own country and begin to feel concern for its future [because it appears you will become] a renter in your own country.”
In such a situation, “the very best response,” he argues, “would be the preservation and strengthening of one’s own cultural identity, one’s own religious world and religious live with an understanding and positive attitude toward the bearers of other religious traditions.” Failing to do this really will reduce the status of the titular nations.
“This problem,” Father Tkachev continues, “is important for the entire world,” but he argues that it is perhaps “easier in Russia” because people of different faiths have lived together for so long and because all of them take their religions seriously rather than viewing them as only an artifact of their histories.
“Up to now, Europe had thought that the entire world is just as tolerant and indifferent to religion as it is itself. But Muslims are rejecting this European model of behavior,” he says. “In general, the Eastern man is someone for whom religion occupies a place of primary importance, and if religion is not in the first place, then they consider you don’t have one at all.”
“Muslims, Jews, and Christians of the Eastern rite attempt to follow this ideal. But for the world in which faith is only a nod to cultural tradition, to the historical past, where visiting a church is equated to a trip to a museum, then for it, of course, a civilization for whom faith is very important is dangerous.”
Quite obviously, the Orthodox priest observes, Europeans are now trying to decide just how to “relate to these ethnic and religious” arrivals, who are already embedded in its societies, live “inside European states but have not missed with Europeans in the areas of worldview and culture.”
These “challenges to the new Europe,” he says, should be the occasion for Russians to draw certain conclusions. One of them, Father Tkachev says, is that “it would be good to have Islamic schools in [Russia] in order that those who want to receive Islamic education would not go to the Wahhabi sectarians but study classical Islam in their own motherland.”
That alone, he said, would do a great deal to block the spread of Islamist extremism, because “Islamic norms call for war with the state only if it relates to Islam with hostility. But if relations between Muslims and non-Muslims are friendly, then the Koran and the shariat prohibit hostility toward that state.”
The Swiss vote, Father Tkachev argues, undercuts the claims of the Europeans that they support tolerance, freedom and equal treatment of all religions. “By prohibiting the construction of minarets, they contradict themselves,” and now they will either “be forced to change their treatment of democratic values” or face a future in which Europe will be culturally transformed.
Elena Chudinova’s dystopic novel “The Mosque of Notre Dame de Paris” sketches out one possibility, but that can be avoided, the Moscow Patriarchate official says, if Europeans reaffirm their own faith as central to their lives and then reach out to others for whom religious faith already is in theirs.
At one level, of course, Tkachev’s argument is little more than a restatement of Patriarch Kirill’s call for the revival of traditional religions, but at another, it points to a more fundamental divide in Europe, one not between Christians, on the one hand, and Muslims, on the other, but between those in the East for whom religion matters and those in the West for whom it does not.