Are the Muslim hordes at the gates of Vienna again?

Humans are really good at categorisation.  Babies learn pretty quickly how to group different objects into sets depending on a variety of criteria – colour, texture, function, etc.  This ability may actually be ingrained in us and it is believed to play a huge role in language acquisition.

But sometimes our knack for categorising things goes off track.  We tend to extrapolate from small data sets to larger conclusions and not always with accuracy.  Maybe this is tied to our need to understand events and our deferral to easy classification (i.e. black or white) rather than a reflection of reality (i.e. multiple shades of grey).  In any case, the incorrect putting of things in the wrong boxes is not a helpful exercise and can lead to some unwanted future actions.

A prime example of creating a false analogy was the statement by an Austrian Catholic cardinal that Islam is targeting Europe and that Muslims want to eradicate Christianity from the continent.  The underlying premise is that Islam has some kind of dastardly plan to overwhelm us with numbers and surreptitiously take us over under our very noses without us noticing.  The cardinal in question, Christoph Schonborn, who is apparently in the running for Pope one day, asked God to have mercy on Europe, adding that the continent is in danger of forfeiting its Christian heritage.

We could dismiss this as just another stupid thing issued out of the mouth of a high-profile religious leader – there are all too  many of these occasions – but it is worth unpacking to see where it came from and whether there is anything to it.

The good cardinal’s fears may stem from a number of issues. Perhaps the wave of Syrian refugees that brought Europe to a virtual standstill last summer has something to do with it.  Or the spike in Islamist extremist attacks in several countries.  Or the low birthrate among “normal” Europeans.  Or the aggressive da’wah (evangelisation) practiced by some Muslims.  Or the rise of intolerant Salafi Islam in countries like Germany.  Or something else, who knows.

I found it striking that the cardinal chose to warn Europe on the feast of Holy Name of Mary, a day chosen to commemorate the victory over the Ottomans in Vienna in 1683.  The comparison was of course deliberate: just as the Muslim hordes stormed the gates of the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, today’s Muslims are besieging Europe.  If the Saracens (as Muslims were once known) had taken Vienna, the continent may very well have been theirs for the picking.

So, is there any truth to the religious leader’s dread?  Not really.  It is true that Muslim birth rates are higher than those of longer standing Europeans but it is also true throughout history that birthrates among immigrant populations plummet to ambient levels as income rises and as generations multiply.  As for the extremists, any attempt to put them on the same pedestal as the Ottoman army (which had some 100.000 soldiers at the Battle of Vienna) is laughable and grossly over exaggerates the terrorists’ capabilities.  On the da’wah front, guilty as charged: Islam is every bit the missionary religion as is Christianity and unless we want to make one faith’s efforts at expanding the flock illegal we have to accept freedom of worship for all.  Salafists?  Yes, they are expanding but they represent a very, very, very low percentage of European Muslims and are unlikely to gain much more influence largely since they tend to piss off most Muslims.  This leaves us with the humanitarian crunch.  It is certain that there are some bad apples in the bunch but purely humanitarian considerations, which I bet the cardinal would subscribe to, preclude shutting the gates totally.

We are thus left with not much to support the cardinal’s fearmongering.  Surely to God he realises that talking and negotiating is better than accusing and demonising.  After all, is that not what the world’s great religions teach us?

It is often said that history repeats itself and that we ignore our past at our peril.  In this case, however, I don’t think the shoe fits.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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