Fr. Michel worked in the Vatican under Pope John Paul II from 1981-1994 as head of the Office for Relations with Muslims. From 2013-2016 he taught religious studies at the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University in Doha, Qatar.
For 2016-2017, Fr. Michel joined the teaching staff at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome, where he gave a lecture Feb. 23.
His lecture on Contemporary Islam, titled "A Christian Encounter with Said Nursi's Risale-i Nur," gave a Christian analysis of the Risale-i Nur Collection, an interpretation on the Qur'an written by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi between the 1910s and 1950s in Turkey.
Summing up the teachings in what is a 6,000 page collection, Fr. Michel told CNA that Nursi "was trying to help Muslims live their faith in a lively way in modern terms."
"He said you don't have to live in the past, you don't have to have nostalgia for earlier times." The idea Nursi tried to convey, Fr. Michel explained, is that modernity is not the enemy of faith, "but a patient in need of the spiritual medicine faith provides."
Nursi said, according to Fr. Michel, that "our enemies aren't this group of people or that group of people." Instead, he said our enemies are ignorance, poverty and disunity. And these are not only the enemies of Muslims, but of everyone.
Fr. Michel said that Nursi taught that to fight these common enemies everyone must work together, using both faith and reason.
According to Fr. Michel, there are somewhere around 5-12 million people who try to live the Qur'an according to the teachings of Nursi, depending on how you measure the level of commitment.
The majority of these Muslims are in Turkey, but some can be found in central Asia, places in Europe and even in the U.S. It isn't a formal movement per se, but some people devote their lives to studying Nursi's teachings and others try to study it in the midst of living their normal lives, he said.
If worried about Islamic extremists or that the Muslim religion will overwhelm Christian values in Western society, Fr. Michel said to try to remember that in the case of refugees, they "want the same things that normal Americans want."
They want "to raise their children to be good God-fearing people, and to have a life, to have a job, to enjoy simple enjoyments. They're no different than we are," he said.
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He said that in his experience, those who have negative attitudes about Muslims have only experienced the religion through TV or the newspaper, but that those "who know Muslims…have a very different attitude."
"I've lived among thousands of Muslims…The people that I've lived with in many different countries, they go from birth to death, and from children to grandchildren, and there's no violence in their lives," he said.
"The average Muslim sees Islam as a religion of peace."