1 August 2018 - Problems and possible solutions to foster coexistence between Christians and Muslims, in Arab countries and in Europe: an interview with Jesuit Fr Samir Khalil Samir, a great Islam expert. The separation between politics and religion in Islam is an urgent need. Egypt and Syria are two cases in point. The war in Iraq (and in Syria) is above all an intra-Islamic war. European countries must push Islamic countries to implement equality among all citizens, regardless of religion, and absolute equality between men and women.
Europeans must give migrants arriving in Europe bread and a roof but also the best of our culture. They must see the Christian ideal of brotherhood, starting from school, teaching respect between Europeans and migrants, boys and girls, Christians and non-Christians, this according to Fr Samir Khalil Samir who in the following interview focuses on problems and possible solutions to foster coexistence between Christians and Muslims, in Arab countries and in Europe.
1. Is Islam a religion of peace?
Yes and no! In the Qur'an, as in Muhammad's conduct, we find both peaceful and violent attitudes. When he still had no power, Muhammad entered Makkah peacefully. In the second phase of his life, in Madinah, he made war and organised raids. This was commonplace in Arabia.
It should be noted that the word "razzia" (raid) (which we find in various western languages) comes from the Arabic word "ghazwa", which means "military expedition". The first Muslim biography of Muhammad, written by Abū 'Abdallāh Muḥammad ibn'Umar al-Wāqidī (747-823), is called Kitāb al-maghāzī or ‘Book of military expeditions’.
After his death, Muslims followed his method and successfully conquered other countries, even if they were in a numerical minority.
Since Islam was a global religious, social and political project, in the new conquered societies, essentially populated by Christians, Muslims were eager to impose their Islamic rules, heavily influenced by Bedouin traditions.
2. Critics say that Islam is not only religion but also political ideology. Can there be an apolitical Islam?
Islam is a global social project. At the beginning it was a religious project, launched by Muhammad, who urged his contemporaries to abandon the worship of various deities in favour of a single God, Allah. It is clear that at that time the existence of Jews and Christians in the Arabian Peninsula played a significant role in several areas, facilitating this evolution.
But Islam is also a social and political project: social, to conform to Bedouin customs, with all its traditions and norms; political, to unite the community around a new single project, namely the existence of a single all-powerful God! As a result, the Islamic project includes both religious and political dimensions. This has been the real great problem until the present!
Currently, some Muslim majority states make the distinction between religion and politics. Syria, for example, is a 90 per cent Muslim country, but it has a secular constitution, which was drafted at the request of President Hafez al-Assad, in 1973. The author is an Orthodox Christian, Michel Aflaq, who, with Salah al-Bittar, founded the Baath party in 1947. The president is still a Muslim, but Islam is not the state religion. Every citizen follows his or her religion, but the rules of the Constitution apply to everyone: Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists ... The basic ideology is characterised by socialist pan-Arabism, which claims to be secular and tries to distinguish between religion and politics.
We could also mention Tunisia under Bourguiba, who, although a Muslim, introduced a certain degree of secularism in in 1956, above all an absolute equality between men and women.
In both cases, the influence of the French presence in these two countries played a crucial role.
3. How can Europe’s political and Church leaders in Europe face the Muslim world? How can dialogue work?
In relations with all states, including Muslim countries, two fundamental principles should always be applied: equality among all citizens, regardless of their religion; absolute equality between men and women. These are the foundation of human dignity.
Consequently, it is not possible to distinguish between a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu or a non-believer or an atheist. Everyone has the same rights and the same duties towards the state, before the law. There are no privileges or exceptions. The constitution touches all citizens. Likewise, all the articles of the constitution are valid for men and women, who have the same rights and the same obligations provided for by the law.
In their relations with all Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia, European states should demand that these two principles be put in place and applied. It goes without saying that the countries that dare to do this run the risk of being penalised, compared to other countries. It is therefore important that this decision be taken jointly by all European countries to avoid disparities between them.
This also presupposes that the European Union has a joint committee to monitor the application of this decision, to avoid that these principles are only declared in theory but not applied in practice.
4. In recent years we have witnessed spectacular cases of violence and terror by Islamists against Christians in Islamic countries.
This is an obvious reality. By definition, Islamists are extremist Muslims, who clearly differ from other Muslims because of their fanaticism and simple-minded interpretation of certain traditions. This has led to a blatant injustice towards Christians.
Based on what I have said before, Europe must systematically insist on the absolute equality of treatment between Muslims, Christians and others. Therefore, differences in treatment cannot exist, either because of religion, sex, or other reasons!
Here too, all European states must adopt a common and firm position towards Muslim states.
5. Egypt is your homeland. Is there any discrimination against Christians? What does the government do for the Christian minority?
The differences in treatment are very visible, especially when it comes to building a church, for example, where permission is often denied. This forces Christians to build in secret ... with the risk that their churches will be destroyed one day by fanatics!
President Al-Sisi has made great efforts. He has financed the construction of the largest church in the Middle East, in the future administrative capital of Egypt, east of Cairo. He has celebrated the inauguration of this church (not yet finished) in January 2018 (on Christmas according to the Coptic calendar) ... But the fact remains that more than a thousand churches (among the more than 6,000 that exist in Egypt), are theoretically illegal, because they were built without the necessary permits. So, they are a constant target of attacks by Islamic extremists.
With regard to everyday discrimination, today it is almost impossible for Christians to obtain an important position in an administrative office, despite their qualifications. It was not like that in the past. The situation has worsened due to the growing number of fanatical extremist elements. At this level, the state is absolutely defenceless.
6. In Syria, the long peaceful coexistence of religions has been shaken by years of the civil war. Will the country recover from the conflict, which is also between Muslims and Christians?
The situation in Syria is very different from that in Egypt. In principle, the secular nature of the state has been challenged by a conflict within the Muslim world. Since 1973, the state has been in the hands of the Assad family, who are Alawite, a branch of Shia Islam. The Shias make up about 15 per cent of the Muslim population. Sunni Muslims have launched war against this state. Even in Iraq, the government (after the fall of Saddam Hussein) is in the hands of the Shias. Iraq and Syria are the only Arab states in which the Shias are in power.
The Islamic State (IS) group originated in Iraq. Its full name is "Islamic State for Iraq and Syria" (ISIS). What we have witnessed is an intra-Islamic war between Shias and Sunnis. ISIS is also widely financed by the richest Sunni state, namely Saudi Arabia, which is blindly supported by the United States and, in part, by some European countries.
This explains the American and European coalition against Syria and Russia's support for Syria. The dead are all Syrians, whether they are Sunnis, Alawites or others.
The bombardment of cities, including Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, has also affected many Christians. Many had to flee and seek refuge wherever they could. Europe has made a colossal effort to welcome them, especially Germany. Refugees were often Muslims, Christians were forgotten.
At present, the country is recovering very slowly. The problems are far from being solved and the number of migrants runs in the millions: nobody knows if they can ever return to their country.
Again, religious fanaticism – this time among Muslim sects – has completely destroyed the country. And Islam’s fundamental problem reappears automatically, because Islam is both a political and religious project.
7. What can be done for Christians in the Middle East so that they remain and not emigrate?
Christians are not the cause of their problems. A certain vision in Islam is, one that discriminates between Muslims and others on religious grounds. For this reason, we must work on Muslims. It is about changing the way of thinking, from the religious to the political sphere.
It is a cultural problem, linked to the concept of religion itself. Even Christianity has known this identification between religion and politics and had to slowly get rid of it.
This is more difficult for our Muslim brothers, because the unity of religion and politics is complete from the beginning. Europe could help the Muslim world culturally, setting clear conditions for the use of European aid. Many Muslims would also very appreciate such a contribution.
A similar problem can be found in the State of Israel, where state and religion mingle, to the point of creating injustices for those who are not Jewish (especially Muslims). This Israeli position strengthens the position of extremist Muslims.
Europe does not seriously take these dimensions of the problem.
8. Can Muslims be successfully integrated in European society?
I would say yes and this can happen through education and practice; first of all, in schools. Here, the future can be prepared by treating boys and girls, native Europeans and migrants, Christians and non-Christians, and so on, with the same respect.
In everyday life, everyone should be treated the same way, with more understanding for someone who has just arrived, with all the requirements of the country: not only in visible things but also in private life, in the conduct between men and women, boys and girls, Muslims and non-Muslims, in education as well as social life and laws.
In short, it is about educating the mindset of immigrants, for the better, hoping as well that they will also teach it to those who have remained in their countries of origin, or those who will one day return.
Material aid for migrants - bread, a roof - is not enough. It's a lot but it's not enough! Migrants must also be culturally helped to the spiritual dimension, European and Christian ideals, universal brotherhood. Give onto others, whomever they may be, the best we have, especially true, absolute and universal brotherhood, as the Gospel teaches us!