Fr. Samir, who teaches Islamic studies and the History of Arab culture at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, is the founder of the Centre de Recherche Arabes Chrétiennes and president of the International Association for Christian Arabic Studies. The Jesuit priest sat down with CNA recently to discuss several interconnected issues regarding the Muslim world.
Samir touched on the difficulties experienced by Christians in the Middle East, hopes for the future, the foundations of Islam, and the struggle between fundamentalists and most Muslims.
Christians in the Middle East
Fr. Samir said the reality for Christian communities in the Middle East is “very, very difficult.”
“To be honest there is a very pessimistic vision in most all countries of the Middle East. Christians are feeling its more difficult everyday to remain in the countries where we are. I’m thinking first of Iraq, where a lot of Christians are fleeing, going out of Iraq because they feel they have no place.”
Fr. Samir said that all indications are of an emerging Iraq, which will be divided between Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish Muslims, “and the Christians have no place because there are small communities spread everywhere.”
Iraqi Christians, he noted, are now fleeing to Jordan, Syria, and – to a lesser extent – Lebanon. At the same time, he added, most of them are going to other Middle Eastern countries simply as a first step towards the United States or other countries.
The same, he said, holds true in Israel. The Jesuit pointed to the recent plea by Patriarch Michael Sabbah of the Latin Archdiocese of Jerusalem, asking Christians to remain in the Holy Land. It’s extremely difficult for Christians to remain, he said, because they are “in between…the Islamic fundamentalist movements and the Jewish fundamentalist movements.”
Fr. Samir lamented that the emigration problem is the same in Lebanon, where following the war in July and August, scores of Christians fled, many of them choosing not to return. “The whole situation of the Middle East makes the position of Christians very delicate, very difficult. How to help them stay in there is difficult, to oblige them, to tell them it’s a moral obligation to remain, because every person is thinking of his own family,” he said.
“If we think as a group,” Fr. Samir continued, “it’s a catastrophe because we are going towards - in 50 years [or so] - towards a reduction of the Christianity in the whole area as we have seen in Turkey…or Iran.”
The priest noted that his homeland of Egypt still has strong pockets of Christianity, as does Lebanon. But, he said, if “the proportion of Christians in Lebanon continues to go down, I’m not sure that in 50 years people of Lebanon, the Lebanese, will say, ‘Okay, we are a country built on two religions, one Islam and Christianity,’ As it is the case today.”
“So even the Lebanese project, which is a [model] maybe for many other countries, for the humanity, it’s a message as Pope, the late Pope said, maybe this message will no more be concrete, practical.”
Changes in Lebanon
Fr. Samir, who teaches in the heart of Lebanon, directly addressed the fundamental changes he has seen in the country as it has shifted from being primarily Christian to predominantly Muslim
The changes really began in 1989, the priest pointed out, when the government was even further adjusted to distribute power between the President, the Prime Minister, and the Head of the Legislature.
“The feeling of Muslims today is that they want Christians to remain and they feel how positive it is for Lebanon to have a nation built on two different communities working together. I am personally convinced that this is the orientation of most all Muslims.”
However, Samir said, “the facts are playing against this. It is not that there is a proposal, a plan to make Christians emigrate, it’s the difficulties, the situation. We don’t have the same vision of the Middle East.”
“For instance,” he said, “Hezbollah thinks in terms of the Muslim Ummah.” Through this worldview of a united Muslim people, standing together against the rest of the world, it becomes possible to sway Lebanese Muslims When they prepare to defend Palestine you can agree on that if you are Lebanese. I say Palestine is Palestine. It’s not, there is no question of Arab world, of Muslim world, like Israel is not a question of Jews. “
“So the feeling is that Muslims tend always to think in terms of the Muslim Ummah and what happens in any part of the Muslim Ummah is important to our Muslims in Lebanon, or elsewhere.”
Understanding differences, making changes
“It would be a great help, if really at the international level we make a clear distinction between these two approaches, the religious and the political. And help Muslims to understand that their role in the [international community] is not because they are politically a power as Muslims, but rather that they are spiritual movement and each Muslim country is a single country.”
Another aspect to consider, Fr. Samir said, is the economic one. Traditionally Christians function best in a liberalized economy, he noted. Therefore, when wars are present or situations arise, such as the current one wherein, “Syria is trying to have control over Lebanon, Christians are the first to feel we have no more place in this country. So, it’s the structure of the area which changes the situation of Lebanon.”
“We really need to have a definitive peace,” the priest said. “And peace can only be based on rights and international rights and laws, and not on the power of any country or countries, whether it be Syria, Iran, the United States, Egypt, or Israel, this cannot be the basis of international peace or a regional peace. We need this regional peace to start to develop in our countries.”
Fr. Samir also decried the high level of illiteracy in most Muslim countries. “Even Egypt,” he said, “which is the biggest Arab country, still has around 60% illiteracy.” Even if our government says only 35%, in fact we know that it’s much higher because a lot of people who go to school are not literate, cannot read and write after ten years.”
As a result he continued, those who do not read, follow the leaders who speak the loudest, “who shout more. You follow television and so on.”
Islam: a religion of peace?
Fr. Samir also addressed the connection of Islam and peace. “Islam certainly does not seek for violence,” Fr. Samir said, “but Islam includes, in some cases, violence. The Koran includes stories of violence, as does the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible.”
“Mohammed, the founder of Islam, used violence, though it was the normal thing at that time, in the 7th century in the Arab area - the Arabian Peninsula,” Fr. Samir said.
However, he continued, “if you take the Koran literally, and if you take the life of Mohammed, who is the model of all Muslims, literally, then you say he made wars against the unbelievers, so we have to make wars against the unbelievers. And if you defined that this or that group as unbelievers, then you are allowed to make war. If you say we have to defend the borders of the Islamic Ummah, because the Ummah must always develop geographically - it’s a political vision – then to defend it, we make war…to permit to Islam to expand. “
“This is also the theory of some Muslim theologians based on either the Koran or the life of Mohammed, the Sunnah as we say.”
“So, there is a problem in the sources of Islam, the Koran and the Sunnah. And there will never be a solution, unless we reinterpret the founding texts as a lot of Jews reinterpreted the Hebrew Bible, according to their own spiritual evolution. And this must be done over centuries and more. So,” he said, “this is the main problem.”
“A lot of Muslims, I would say the majority of Muslims, want to live in peace with everybody, with their neighbors, and with the other countries,” Fr. Samir emphasized.
“I came back yesterday evening from a meeting in Tunisia organized by the Muslim faculty of theology in Tunisia the Zitoona, with the collaboration of the German foundation, Komrade Adanauerschiftung and it was clear that the aim of this meeting was to promote a new vision of religions, in accord, in coherence with modern civilization. This was the title: Religions and culture towards a new vision, civilized vision, of religion and culture.”
“This,” he said, “is the aim of most everyone. But you have a minority, which is growing, unfortunately, over the last 30 years, you have a minority of Muslims who are teaching another vision, a political vision of Islam.”
“It is true that Islam was born in Medina as a spiritual movement and a political movement. In Arabic, we say that Islam is religion and politics. And this is the motto, the slogan, for instance, of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1921, which is still very strong in this fundamentalist tendency.”
Islam’s internal struggle
Therefore, the priest continued, “the struggle is not first between Islam and the West. The struggle is between a minority of Muslims who see Islam as a political movement aiming to convert the whole world, politically also, to Islam, and a majority who would like to live according to their personal approach of life, of human groups, of nations, in conformity with their own spiritual vision of religion.”
“But,” he added, “this majority has no leader.”
“There are leaders, you have some thousand leaders, but they’re not Islamically strong enough to be confront the imams.” Most of the Imams, “more than 90% of them,” he said maintain a “traditional, literal, fundamentalist reading of the Koran and of the Sunnah.”
“This is the real problem and terrorism is a consequence.”
“So if we want to fight terrorism, which is an important issue, we have to go to the source of it. That is the teaching given in radio, in television, in the schools, in al-Alzhar school in Saudi Arabia, schools of formation of imams, who are spreading a violent Islam, a conquering Islam, a political Islam based on a literal reading of some passages of the Koran and of the life of Mohammed.”
Therefore, Samir, continued, the main conflict is in the vision of what Islam is, “and the consequence could be violence or peace, terrorism or peace. But it’s a process which cannot be resolved in five or ten years, it’s a long process.”
Some nations, he said, such as Tunisia, Morocco, and some others are moving in the right direction. They are forming imams and schools of theology, which have another vision of their own religion.
Realistic encounters with the west
For Fr. Samir “almost the only hope we have” is for more Muslims to gain a realistic experience of what “the West” really is.
“’The West’ we speak about in the Muslim world,” Fr. Samir said, “is a theoretical West, a West which is either beautiful and wonderful, or awful.”
However, the Jesuit continued, “the Muslims who live in the West know the West better.” Those Muslims who live in the United States, Europe, or other Western countries, Samir said, are able to discover the true meaning of “human rights, democracy, equality between all people, all races, between men and women. You discover that solidarity with other people is not bound by religion or by culture. Really, when there is any problem somewhere in the world, then all people in the West are doing their best to help them. They could be Buddhist or Muslims or even without religion, it makes no difference.”
Those Muslims who live in the West, he continued, “discover that there is also dialogue and a real community of thinking between believers and unbelievers, or atheists, which is, for us in the Muslim world, something difficult to understand. So, all that is a positive aspect.”
The priest admitted that there are, however, some negative aspects of having Muslims experience the Western world first hand.
“Islam is very close to Christianity in its evaluation of the values, the moral values, especially the family, the relation between man and woman in the family, within the family. So, at that point, [Muslims] are shocked by the secular countries - and Europe is mostly a secular area.”
“But,” he said, “their experience, in general, is a positive one. It is certainly much better than their own experience in their own Muslim country.”
This becomes very obvious, Samir said, “by the very fact that almost nobody, after a couple of years, goes back to Egypt or Morocco or Turkey or elsewhere.” This, he said, “proves that they find it’s better in Europe or in the States than in their own country, Pakistan, Bangladesh – not only on the economic level, but also because of the values. This is something sure.”
Western values and western failings
“Now, based on this experience - which is not a theory but an experience - I think Islam is making an evolution. They understand that these are also values, even if they are not written in the Koran because the Koran has another context, sociological and cultural context. So they will find in the Koran what confirms this visions, this democratic vision which is well developed in the West. And [those Muslims who live in the West] could be the model to change the Muslim societies,” Fr. Samir said.
This, however, takes time. “And it could be a better testimony if the West itself reexamined its own positions, especially towards the values of the family and rethinking a little bit the liberty, what should be the limits to liberty.”
Using as an example, the Danish Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, which depicted the most revered figure of Islam and caused massive riots in the Muslim world, Fr. Samir said there must be an examination of where wisdom and prudence should be exercised regarding freedom of speech and the press. “I personally support, absolutely, freedom of the press and thought and so on, I was very critical to the opposition against the caricatures. But, at the same time I wrote and I said, there must be some limits.
The priest said the goal should always be the building up of a pluralistic society in which people are respected. “We have to write to criticize, yes. But, there are limits if really we want to make a country and not simply a joke between groups attacking each other.”
This maintaining of respect for spirituality and religious values was precisely the aim of Pope Benedict’s controversial speech at Regensburg. The Pope, he said, was not proposing that the world go back to before the Enlightenment, but simply realize that there are some “negative consequences” of Enlightenment thinking, “which is the secularization of the society - the separation between rationality and spirituality.”
“And, in fact, what [Pope Benedict] means is a reintegration of the Christian vision of rationality, the relation between both rationality and spirituality, the integration of the moral values, the ethics, the Christian ethics, and so on. And I’m sure, by my experience with the Muslims in the Muslim countries, as well as in the Western countries, that this is exactly what they are looking for.”
Most Muslims, he said, want to be modern, “but not at any price.”
And, Samir continued, “in many ways Christians in the East have the same vision as the Muslims. The want to say yes, of course, we want modernity, we want liberty, but we want also solidarity. If liberty means the richer the stronger can impose his will on the others, this is not what we want. If liberty means we can do whatever we want, they are very much shocked by the sexual liberty in the West. This is what we refuse, and so on.”
Progress between Israel and Palestine
Fr. Samir also briefly discussed current progress between the State of Israel and the Palestinians.
What has happened recently, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert taking steps to agree on a “roadmap” in late February, is “a positive step,” he said.
Samir says the setting of borders for Israel, the cessation of violence, and a lasting agreement would be the minimum first steps. But, he said, “Israel has to recognize the other states, particularly Palestine, in its borders. Unless that is recognized, it’s a fiction.”
While on the other hand, “Palestinians say, ‘We recognize Israel, but we decide what ‘Israel’ means.’ So, the only official recognition is the borders defined by the United Nations, which is certainly not the case in reality, because Israel is still invading other countries. So it must be from both sides.”
“The same with violence,” he said. “There is the violence of Hamas, violence of other countries, like also Hezbollah in Lebanon. But there is also a violence of Israel. And we cannot say, ‘This is only a response to…’ Each side says ‘We are responding to…’ It must be an absolute, non-violence between both sides.”
Fr. Samir said the presence of the United States in talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials is positive, “but it’s not sufficient. It must be international. The United States is not international, not representing the whole world. But without them, certainly Israel will never start a discussion. But, I think we need to have something absolutely official in the United Nations – a definitive agreement- because the last step must be a definitive agreement according to all international decisions, between both states, recognized as official states.
The future of Christians in the Middle East and the creation of a society in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews can peacefully coexist lies in an internal struggle between the peaceful Muslim majority and a minority of fundamentalists. A successful change will require the emergence of leaders in the Muslim world who have the religious importance to promote a different reading of the Koran and the life of Mohammed. So says Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit, who is one of the Church’s leading experts on Islam.