Recent political turmoil in the Islamic strongholds of Egypt and Tunisia, along with continuing attacks on Christians throughout the Middle East, risk overshadowing a quiet reform movement taking place among moderate Muslim religious leaders and scholars.
Evidence of a change can be seen in a new “document for the renewal of religious discourse,” issued in Arabic Jan. 24 on the website of the Egyptian magazine Yawm al-Sabi (“The Seventh Day”).
Signed by a coalition of 23 traditionalist and more modernist thinkers, the text stakes out new positions on 22 crucial issues in Islam — such as the nature of “jihad” or holy war, what are proper casual relationships between males and females, and the Islamic understanding of women’s rights.
The new document reflects “something much deeper” going on among Islamic leaders, according Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, a respected adviser to the Pope on Christian-Muslim dialogue and one of the world’s foremost authorities on Islam and the Arab world.
Fr. Samir has translated the text and written a commentary on it. He told CNA that it represents a broader modernization effort going on in the Islamic world, a “project to renew Islamic speech, Islamic thinking.”
But he added that initial reaction throughout the Muslim world — the text has been posted on an estimated 12,000 Arab websites — suggests a majority of Muslims oppose elements in this renewal project.
Fr. Samir was born and raised in Egypt and is fluent in five languages, including Arabic. He has for many years played a key behind-the-scenes role in Christian-Muslim dialogue.
He does not see any long-term consequences in the decision earlier this month by Egyptian Muslims to break off talks over Pope Benedict XVI’s critical remarks about the New Year’s Eve killing of Christian worshipers in Alexandria.
“I must say the dialogue with Muslims, like often the dialogue with the Orthodox, is not so easy,” he said. “We often find these kind of reactions.”
Often political perceptions get mixed in with religious, he explained in an interview Jan. 27 at the Pontifical Oriental Institute.
Because Islam does not have a Western-style understanding of the separation of Church and state, Muslims at time read political overtones into statements made by Church officials.
“In their mentality, the West is still seen as Christian nations,” he said. “It is still Christianity against Islam — precisely because they don’t make a distinction between religion and the state.”
He suggested the Pope’s criticisms were misinterpreted as calling for “a new project against Islam.”
Another complicating factor, he added, is that there is no central authority that speaks for all Muslims. As a result, events such as the ongoing attacks on Christians, yield conflicting messages from Muslim leaders.
Fr. Samir said that honest dialogue is the key to true understanding between the religions. And, he said, the Vatican takes a long view.
The key is to be able to disagree without regarding the other as the enemy, he said.
“I think dialogue can make real friends discover that the other is not an enemy. He is opposite but not the enemy and it’s his right” to hold contrary views.
Quoting in Arabic from the Koran, Fr. Samir said, “Dispute with them in the best manner, in the better way.”
A common misperception, he said, is that dialogue means “to be kind to someone” and to smooth over differences. True dialogue means confronting the differences honestly and speaking truthfully about what one believes.
“First, to be true and honest and not to lie,” he said. “It is not to say half of your opinion — the half he could hear — because then you are then misguiding him. He thinks that you are in agreement, and it will be worse afterwards. To be honest, truthful, sincere and to do it in the best way possible.”
He notes that Muslim interviewers often ask him whether he believes that Muhammad is a “prophet.” He says he always responds honestly that he does not. Muslims consider Jesus to be a “prophet” but not the Son of God.
Fr. Samir tells them that he respects their beliefs but that he cannot share them.
“I have to be honest and … logical,” he explained. “I cannot say Christ is God's Word, but that afterwards God sent another 'Word' (the teaching of Muhammad and the Koran) which is in some points contradictory with the previous one, so that Christ is not … God’s last Word on earth, so that nobody can come after him.”
He adds that he expects the same honesty from his Muslim partners in dialogue.
“I understand that they must say that Muhammad is the seal of the prophets, as the Koran says. They must say it, this is their faith,” he said. “They are not saying that to contradict me, they are saying that to be honest with their own faith. The same as I am.”
Fr. Samir said that the dialogue is fruitful when both sides understand that their differences do not make them enemies.
“I find in the Christian faith that there is no enemy,” he explained. “There is a person who has a different vision but he is not my enemy. He can consider himself as my enemy. But that is his problem, not mine. I have no enemy. I have people with whom I agree or agree with partly. I try to tell people that I don’t want to offend them, but that unfortunately I cannot be Muslim and Christian at the same time."
For the future of the dialogue, Fr. Samir believes there needs to be a new recognition in Muslim countries of the need to respect freedom of conscience and the rights of religious minorities. He said few Muslims have yet to see the issue as important in political or religious terms.
“The importance of liberty of conscience, few people feel that or understand it,” he said. “But the Pope is repeating it — and in my experience it is fundamental.”
While he is optimistic about the possibilities of peaceful co-existence, Fr. Samir believes there must be an agreement within Islam that all violence is “anti-religion” and in fact, a work of the devil.
The goal of religion is “to live together, to love each other,” Fr. Samir said. “If religion leads to the opposite, it is an anti-religion.”
“If because I am a Muslim, or because I am a Jew, we have to fight, what religion is that? Or … if because I am a Catholic or an Orthodox we have to fight, this is certainly not the Gospel. And, if Islam means to fight so that Islam will be the only religion then it is led by Satan. I would say the same for the Catholic Church or for any group,” Fr. Samir said.
Love is the meeting point on which all authentic religions agree, Fr. Samir indicated. And love can never be expressed through violence.
“The aim is God and God in my understanding is love,” he explained. “Love means justice, respect. Love cannot mean that I take a part of your land, or I take your money, or your wife or your man. All that is contradictory. True religion would say not to take these things.”