Looking into the Mirror of Islam

A bishop shows how Islam’s growing presence in Europe is an opportunity for Catholics to rediscover and proclaim the truths of their faith.

As anyone who’s visited Europe in the past 30 years knows, Islam is becoming more visible throughout the Old Continent. That presence isn’t as large as some believe. In 2016, the estimated Muslim population of Europe was a mere 4.9 percent. In particular countries, however, the Muslim populace is larger. Approximately 8.8 percent of France’s inhabitants, for instance, identified as Muslim in 2016.

In many ways, France is a bellwether concerning Islam in Europe. Muslims have lived in France for many decades. In 1926, the Great Mosque of Paris was opened to accommodate Muslims from France’s colonial empire working or studying in Paris. After World War II, labor shortages in mainland France resulted in Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians becoming migrant workers. Though expected to return to North Africa, many never did. Thousands of their grandchildren live in France today.

The distribution of Muslims throughout France is also uneven. Above-average numbers live along the Mediterranean coastline in cities like Marseilles and Toulon. That surely played a role in the decision of the Catholic bishop of Fréjus-Toulon, Dominique Rey, to write a fascinating book about Islam. By Bishop Rey’s reckoning, up to 25 percent of the population in parts of his diocese are Muslim.

The key to understanding Rey’s L’Islam: menace ou défi? [Islam: Menace or Challenge?] is that it is more about Christianity than Islam. Certainly Rey demonstrates deep knowledge of Islam’s varying manifestations, ranging from the jihadist fundamentalism that’s produced no-go areas for French police and multiple terrorist acts, to those Muslims for whom Islam is largely a cultural heritage. To speak about Muslims in monolithic terms, Rey states, is highly misleading.

But Rey is more concerned with how Catholics respond to Islam’s growth throughout Europe. For him, Islam functions as a mirror into which Christians can gaze and discover much about what ails the Church. And central to the response advocated by Rey is the need for Catholics to deepen their knowledge of their faith, be unembarrassed by its truth-claims, and live their lives accordingly.

Know thyself

That knowing and living one’s faith, sans complexe, as the French say, is central to how Rey thinks Catholics should approach Islam won’t surprise those familiar with contemporary French Catholicism. Bishop Rey is a leading representative of the type of dynamic orthodoxy that increasingly characterizes those parts of the Church flourishing in France today.

These developments are detailed in Yann Raison du Cleuziou’s recent analysis of post-1960s French Catholicism, Une contre-révolution catholique (2019). They involve rejecting the progressivist accomodationism that (like everywhere else) proved a spectacular failure in France after Vatican II. But Rey’s style of Catholicism also eschews integralism and fortress mentalities. Instead the Catholicism with which Rey is associated involves people joyfully and unapologetically living their faith in the world and acting upon their beliefs in the public square, without claiming some type of privileged place in French life. In places like Rey’s diocese, it’s produced numerous vocations and vibrant lay communities.

This background shapes Rey’s reflections about Islam’s presence in France, including many native-born Muslims’ turn to aggressively Islamist positions. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” Rey reminds his readers. If Islamism is the only alternative presented to the cynicism and technocratic mindset which dominates much of France’s elites, one shouldn’t be surprised that some French Muslims find Islamism’s totalistic approach to life attractive. Put differently, if Catholics can’t—or won’t—give “a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15) or reduce the Gospel to mere NGOism, evangelization inevitably collapses. Inter-religious discussions between Catholics and Muslims, Rey specifies, can only be meaningful if the Catholic participants are clear about what they believe and why. That means believing what the Church believes—not what people read in Libération or Le Monde over breakfast that morning.

Religion, State, and Immigration

Such knowledge is important for understanding how Catholics and Muslims think about the temporal and spiritual orders. The temporal-spiritual distinction, Rey stresses, is absent from Islam. This raises hard questions about how believing Muslims will adapt to the ways in which Western societies configure the relationship between religion and politics.

But if Catholics want to discuss this topic with Muslims, they need to specify that Catholicism’s distinction between the temporal and spiritual doesn’t require Christians to jettison their faith upon entering the public square. It simply means that Christians don’t see church and state as politically or juridically coterminous, understand that there are both absolute and prudential limits to what the state may do vis-à-vis religious belief and practice, and recognize that public arguments addressed to all citizens should be presented on the basis of reason.

This issue of the state’s relationship to religion invariably features in especially sensitive debates surrounding Islam in Europe. One such topic concerns immigration and its implications for national identity. This isn’t a theoretical matter, not least because many Muslim migrants and some French-born Muslims have shown little interest in integration.

Reflecting on these matters, Rey doesn’t enter into policy-debates. Instead Rey underscores three principles as critical reference-points for discussion. One is that national governments have the primary responsibility for immigration policy (not, sotto voce, some imaginary world government). The second is that governments must make decisions about immigration with an eye to national well-being. This, he specifies, includes a nation’s cultural and religious heritage.

Rey’s third point is that we do have obligations in justice towards migrants, especially genuine refugees. Historically-speaking, Rey observes that there have been significant migrations into France at different points. Many Southern and Eastern Europeans migrated to France in the nineteenth century and successfully integrated. Muslims need to do the same. Granted, that’s easier said than done. Nonetheless, integration must occur. That, Rey reminds his readers, has been underscored many times by Pope Francis.

All this is a long way from the open borders, “Jesus-was-a-refugee” rhetoric articulated by various activists these days. It’s worth noting, however, that Rey’s principles are drawn directly from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and reflect the nuanced treatment of immigration found in Catholic social teaching. The bishop stands on firm ground.

Roots matter

Integration raise the issue of what European-born and migrant Muslims are expected to embrace. This is another way in which Islam’s presence in France is forcing everyone—Catholics, Jews, Protestants, non-believers—to ask themselves what it means to be French.

Rey doesn’t pretend that there aren’t a variety of traditions which have contributed to French identity. He does, however, underscore Catholicism’s unique place in the formation of France’s self-understanding. That’s simply a fact. To suppose otherwise is to be ahistorical. This fact, however, can lead Catholics in two different directions.

The first is to conflate religion with national identity. Throughout Europe, Rey observes, one sees politicians parading Catholic cultural symbols as rallying-points, despite their actual beliefs and lives often being seriously at odds with Catholic doctrine. This produces what Rey calls the instrumentalization of Catholicism.

The second path is to speak plainly and without arrogance about France’s Catholic deep roots and consider what these mean for France today. The objective isn’t to claim a type of preeminence for the Church in French life, let alone political-privileges. It’s simply to say that, without the indelible imprint made upon French culture by Catholics living their faith over the centuries in whatever sphere of life they found themselves, France would be a different place today. That will not only help Muslims understand the society into which they must integrate. It reminds believers and non-believers alike of Catholicism’s powerful contribution to what I think is accurately called France’s civilizational genius.

Threat or Test?

So does Rey see Islam as a menace or challenge? The answer is “it depends.”

Like most Frenchmen, Rey worries about radical jihadism’s spread among young Muslims in France. These expressions of Islam are what ultimately drive some Muslims to do terrible things, including to other Muslims. In the long term, they threaten the liberties that Westerners take for granted and which considerable numbers of Muslims want to enjoy.

At another level, Rey indicates that there are aspects of Islam about which rigorous and clear-eyed conversation is necessary, however awkward it may be. The affirmations of violence in key Islamic sources like the Koran should be discussed, he says. So too must Islam’s heavily juridical nature and its conception of God’s nature. A related issue, Rey says, is reason’s place in Islamic theology and understanding of the Deity. The questions asked by Benedict XVI in his 2006 Regensburg address aren’t going away. To imagine they can be sidelined is not only naïve but dangerous.

There are, Rey maintains, Muslims who want to have these discussions. But that requires rejecting the sentimentalist happy-talk that marks too many interfaith interactions. Assertions that Christianity and Islam are “essentially the same,” Rey comments, are nonsense, as any theologically-informed Muslim will affirm. Catholics and Muslims disagree about some rather fundamental issues and avoiding those topics is ultimately counterproductive. The best Muslim minds that he has encountered, Rey notes, understand this. Indeed, “many Muslims,” Rey says, “do not understand our reserve and think sometimes that Christians are not proud of their faith.”

That is why Rey ultimately sees Islam as a challenge: a challenge, that is, for Catholics in France and elsewhere to learn and love the Catholic faith so that they can tell Muslims what Catholics believe about, in Rey’s words, “God’s uniqueness, Creation, Jesus, Mary, the historicity of Revelation and Scripture, religious liberty, faith and reason,” etc. Pursuit of the truth, Rey states, is the essential raison d’être of dialogue. “There is no dialogue,” he writes, “without knowledge and love of the truth.” Canonizing religious relativism is in the interests of no-one who cares about truth. That is the lesson that Catholics can offer France and Europe in the face of Islam, if they choose to do so.


L’Islam: menace ou défi?
By Dominique Rey
Artège Editions, 2019
Paperback, 200 pages

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About Dr. Samuel Gregg 39 Articles
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. The author of many books—including the prize-winning The Commercial Society (Rowman & Littlefield), Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (Edward Elgar), Becoming Europe (Encounter), the prize-winning Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (Regnery), and over 400 articles and opinion-pieces—he writes regularly on political economy, finance, American conservatism, Western civilization, and natural law theory. He can be followed on Twitter @drsamuelgregg


  1. The world belongs to those cultures and religions that breed (by the virtue of principle of inheritance..unfortunately Christians (particularly in western democracies) have decided to contracept and abort their offspring thereby denying their progeny an inheritance and a voice to proclaim the faith over the lands of their ancestors.
    The biggest challenge is not Islam (per se) but apostate Christian’s who rejected their faith which created a vacuum for other religions to fill.

    • Robert,
      Yes, exactly. Nature abhors a vacuum. If we don’t replace ourselves someone else will.
      That said though, birthrates are dropping in many Muslim regions also. And Christians in Africa are multiplying rapidly.

  2. “Conversation…”

    The bishop has no idea about realpolitik.

    [Rey’s third point is that we do have obligations in justice towards migrants, especially genuine refugees. Historically-speaking, Rey observes that there have been significant migrations into France at different points. Many Southern and Eastern Europeans migrated to France in the nineteenth century and successfully integrated. Muslims need to do the same. Granted, that’s easier said than done. Nonetheless, integration must occur. That, Rey reminds his readers, has been underscored many times by Pope Francis.]

    If he can say this then he has no idea what justice is, either. He is just parroting liberalism or some other erroneous philosophy. Integration will not occur, and if he thinks there is a possibility, then he doesn’t understand identity and social dynamics.

    Bishops should refrain from speaking about political matters when they are fuzzy on the Natural Law and the science of political community.

    • Ha ha, there is a lot of ‘coded’ racism in this response.
      “Bishops shouldn’t speak about politics, only matters of faith! But um, also, faith should play a role in politics, because you can’t make important decisions without a firm grounding of morals and virtue!! Which the bishops clearly don’t have, otherwise they wouldn’t think that Muslims could be integrated! It’s not realpolitik! I have a facebook meme to prove it!”

      Why not just admit you gave up on Christianity a long time ago and just worship Social Darwinism or Jordan Peterson instead?

      • ““Bishops shouldn’t speak about politics, only matters of faith!”

        Sol said that bishops shouldn’t speak about politics *when they are fuzzy on the Natural Law and the science of political community*, not that they shouldn’t ever speak about politics.

        “Ha ha, there is a lot of ‘coded’ racism in this response.”

        Racism against what race?

        “Why not just admit you gave up on Christianity a long time ago and just worship Social Darwinism or Jordan Peterson instead?”

        Sol most emphatically has not given up on Christianity. I disagree with him over various points, but you are doing him a grave injustice.

  3. We read: “To speak about Muslims in monolithic terms, Rey states, is highly misleading.”

    While the Islamic world is NOT monolithic, the Allah of Islam IS monolithic. A monolithic monotheism not unlike non-Trinitarian Deism in the West. The rest is, yes, non-monolithic cultural accretion and syncretism.

    In contrast, there is the non-monolithic and INTERNALLY relational and Triune Oneness of Christian monotheism. And who by divine self-disclosure—-as the simplicity of infinite love all the way through—-creates, freely, not fatalistically. And elevates wo/man into his own divine life (not by nature, but by participation). This—the incarnation of the eternal Second Person, and our Redemption–rather than the allegedly “uncreated” (and un-relational) Koran.

    This rather than the Islamic “let God be God and Man be Man.”

    The core inter-religious (not the recently fashionable and merely political or even intercultural) sticking point is not the Bible versus the Koran, but Christ versus the (“uncreated”) Koran. This correct symmetry and contradiction is deeper than any discussion of nation-states, immigration, or eroding Frenchness, or even some more broadly marketable “pluralism” of religions as such.

    Muhammad rejected (or could not understand) Christianity at least partly because he judged the muddled/heretical versions available to him (Nestorianism, Monophysitism) through the residual Arabian lens of pagan carnality. “How can he have a son when he hath no consort” (Koran 6:101)?

    The Trinity as portrayed in the Koran is, instead, the perceived/rejected “polytheism” of Father, Son and Mary (! not Holy Spirit). But what might be made of the fact that Muhammad himself wondered, near the end of his life: “If the Merciful had a son, I would be the first to adore him” (Koran 43:81)? Thinking soberly in terms of maybe centuries, is Mary as freely submissive “Fiat” the simplifying path to be proposed (not imposed, of course)? As according to Bishop Sheen (witness to immediate conversions in Africa, Appendix 5 in Jomier, The Bible and the Qu’ran, 1964/Ignatius 2002), and as evaluated in detail by Lebanese priest Rev. Nilo Geagaea, Mary of the Koran, 1973, translated by Rev. Lawrence T. Fares, Philosophical Library, 1984).

    Man does not live by politics or “fraternity” alone….

    • Afterthought: In his late mention of a “son” (above: “If the Merciful had a son…”) might Muhammad have been noting his own lack of a surviving son as a possible successor?

      The history of the Sunni-shi’ite divide traces back to the first bloody disputes over succession–whether by blood-line or by broader clan consensus (through the line of Ali, his cousin and his daughter Fatima’s husband, Muhammad was provided two grandsons).

      BUT, then, do any “prophets” ever have successors?

      This fateful and very consequential twist in the earliest history of Islam (a natural religion) gives us today Islam and its 1.4 billion followers, and was due initially to the pivotal decision immediately after his death by his few closest followers (not by Muhammad himself) to carry on, RATHER THAN not.

      It does not appear that “the prophet” Muhammad himself ever made provision for what, if anything, was to follow his own passing. The already-dispersing tribal coalition was first reconquered, and then pointed outward beyond Arabia, lured increasingly by shared booty and the siren call of empire. History is open-ended.

    • “wo/man”

      The generic word for human beings is “man.” It includes women. No need to stick the weird slashed prefix on it.

      • True enough, and I concur….

        But, deeper than the “generic word” are the two different/complementary accounts of creation in Genesis. The non-chronological and differentiated account is noted by JP II: “The original text states: ‘God created man (ha-adam–a collective noun: ‘humanity’?), in his own image: in the image of God he created him: male (zakar–masculine) and female (uneqebah–feminine) he created them'” (Gen. 1:27) (The Original Unity of Man and Woman, 1981, later folded into the Theology of the Body).

        My notion at the keyboard was simply that, perhaps, wo/man suggests the same simultaneity of male and female as does “man”, but also as a conjunction or even as a conjugal term, better reflects the relational nature of the Triune Oneness (the divinely revealed “image of God”).

        Also, wandering yet further afield, this slashed/binary term at least serves better to rule out any spectrum fluidity of today toward a “third option” and worse, a clarity with which, I am sure, we both agree.

        And, further afield still, the Aramaic term for (Adam’s) “rib” is the same term as for “heart/life”, a better translation which captures all of the above and, yes, is contained in the more generic and inclusive term “man” which you champion.

        “The woman belongs to the same species as the man, different from the other living beings created before” (JP II). But also different/complementary to one another… So, thank you. I propose that this digression begins to unpack my/our intended meaning(s).

        • “Also, wandering yet further afield, this slashed/binary term at least serves better to rule out any spectrum fluidity of today toward a “third option” and worse, a clarity with which, I am sure, we both agree.”

          Actually, what it does is sound as if you’re knuckling under to the people who write “(s)he” and “womyn” and make up pronouns that are not actually part of the language. It does not clarify anything.

  4. From what I hear of the koran, it seems to me that Islam is an earthly religion appealing to the fallen nature of man whereas Christianity addresses the spiritual.

  5. Hope books such as these help our brethren to perceive the truth , thus The Truth better , through the light in the eyes and Heart of The Mother .
    The verse that helps us to see how far ahead our Lord has foreseen the effects of what the Holy Father too warns us against , for the deviousness and greed for numbers not becoming the motives to spread The Truth – https://biblehub.com/matthew/23-15.htm
    in the above commentary , how other motives were already there , even in the times of our Lord and such too might have been what set off the bad fruits , similar trees operating also in many other places , as faraway as the Amazon too , persons operating more from similar motives , thus the responsibility for The Church to see to that those trees too do not become giants of bad fruits , thus , the burning desire , for The Spirit to help put out the fires of evil and help bring forth good fruits , in Him .

  6. Having come across rather effeminate looking images of our Lord , esp. in the Baptism related ones ,wondering how such would be viewed by those who do not know Him , Hi oneness with The Father , in The Spirit , how we need to even make reparations for same . These times of ours that need good images to help undo the negativity from the many bad ones ,meant to even crawl into the lives of the little ones , good to also give enough focus to the one image that is said to have been done at the explicit directive of The Lord , the Vilnius Image , that seems to project The Fatherly image the best – https://www.divinemercyart.org/
    As much as it is far away from what our human capacity to portray The Lord , in His glory , the graces our Lord promises through the image ,as well as such devotions as of The Holy Face to help us undo the fears about the Truth of God’s love for us as revealed in The Incarnation , that pervades our times , esp. in the antilife attitudes world over .
    Holy Father , in humility , acknowledging that oneness in the wounds so that our prayers for mercy would be more like that of the publican , accepting our Lord for who He is , The Lord who came to give us the trust , to help us bring those wounds unto Him – the wounds of all , that He can deliver us , from the whispers of the accuser , to know what true mercy is , to accept same .
    Immaculate Heart of Mary , pray for us all , that we honor the Name of Jesus ever more , for the glory to The Father .

  7. “That is why Rey ultimately sees Islam as a challenge: a challenge, that is, for Catholics in France and elsewhere to learn and love the Catholic faith so that they can tell Muslims what Catholics believe about…”. It’s hard to see how (slothful) Catholics who are not moved to learn and love their faith by the beauty of its tradition and its foundation on Jesus Christ will be challenged by Islam to learn more about their Catholic faith so they can tell Muslims what that faith is all about when these same Catholics believe the jury is still out on whether or not Islam is a menace. Lackidaisical Catholics (or lackidaisical any-bodies) are not going to be challenged by something they don’t truly see as challenging.

  8. Islam is of course both a serious menace and challenge as a major heresy that should not be tolerated, but actually destroyed both theologically and philosophically. For now, I will defer to and recommend the many insightful articles by William Kilpatrick published over the years by CWR that provide greater insights into the dangers of Islam in and of itself.

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