VATICAN CITY — The terrorist attack by Islamist militants on the offices of the irreligious French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Jan. 7 brought widespread condemnation. Twelve civilians, including two policemen, one of whom was Muslim, were killed by two masked gunmen, and several others were wounded. The atrocity was just the latest in increasingly common attacks by Islamic fundamentalists around the world. On Jan. 10, international media reported that up to 2,000 civilians in and around the town of Baga, Nigeria, were slaughtered by the Islamist group Boko Haram.
In an extensive interview with the Register on Jan. 8, Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, a native Egyptian, explains the connection between Islam and the attacks, the need for control over what imams preach and the importance of a recent call from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi for Islam to undergo a reformation. This is Part II of the interview.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi made a recent speech, accusing Muslims of being hostile to the entire world and urging Islam to be reformed or revolutionized. What is your reaction to this speech?
This is the opinion of most Muslims. I cannot give a percentage, but, certainly, 80% of people don’t want this pressure [exerted by Islamists]. They say: “Please let us live as we want.” We also have, in Egypt, rules and principles, and you cannot beat someone simply because you are angry. If you do that, you go to prison, as we have norms. So they say: “Why do you want to impose over me something else?”
El-Sissi is saying what many people are saying, a wish for a kind of secular city, but not secular in the meaning that there is no God or religious tradition: secular that means distinguishing between my faith and belief and my way of life.
What effect do you think his speech might have on the Muslim world?
I didn’t hear his speech, but if it’s as you say, then this is a positive step. Now, he is not so perfect. He put in prison journalists who were against him. This is unjust. I’m not defending him in all that he’s doing, but in Egypt, we are far from democracy, for hundreds of years, even in the last decades; forever, this has been the case. But we are trying in some ways to have more democracy. People, unfortunately, are not educated for democracy.
In Egypt and in other Arab countries, there is a 40% illiteracy rate. Some people cannot even sign their names. This means it’s difficult for them to judge, to say that el-Sissi is right on that point but wrong on another. They cannot do it, so how can they vote? They follow what they consider a “good voice,” namely imams. And that’s the big responsibility of Muslims.
I was invited Jan. 7 to the French embassy in Rome because a Muslim delegation from Paris was visiting — four imams came with a priest responsible for Christian-Muslim relations. I knew two of the imams, they’re very open-minded, and the other one as well. They were shocked by what happened in Paris. One of them lives in Paris and has just started creating a center to educate imams in France, because the problem is that the imams are sent by their countries — Morocco, Egypt, Turkey — with a different vision. They are also very often paid by their country, or by Saudi Arabia, and so are dependent on whoever pays them. They follow their paymasters.
In Al-Azhar [the world’s most prestigious Islamic university, based in Egypt], they teach whatever the governor wants, because they are paid and even nominated by the government.
So this French imam told me: There are more than 1,000 imams, not always, coming to this center. It’s a very good step. The teaching is in French with Arabic, and, normally, the preaching should be in the language of the country.
To take, as a good example, from my own country: All the imams are severely controlled, not only by the police, but by other imams and people who know Islam. If they say something aggressive or extremist, they stop [him] and forbid him to preach. In other countries, they ask to see the text [of speeches] before, because we know in Muslim countries how the mosque can influence people, and if it’s in a bad way, the government is also responsible. It would be good for Muslims and the nation to have some control. You will not be able to do this for everyone, but if there’s one imam pushing for war or aggression, you could say: "Please control him."
But if Islam doesn’t have a central authority to enforce this kind of control, that presents a problem?
Yes, this is a problem. But even if there’s no separate authority, if the preaching I’m giving is against the general norms, I should go back to the traditional norms of the country.
If it’s against those, then you’re not building up your people to be good citizens and to be happy. The goal is to make these people happy and good, and so on.
Here in Rome, we have many Chinese shops that sell everything. No one is doing anything against the law. This is education, and this is the first ethical education: You do what you have to do, and you respect the laws. Muslims in Europe are from another culture and are not prepared to accept a different culture. They see this difference as negative.
But it’s argued that, for Muslims to really get out of their situation, they need to convert to Christ and become Christians. What do you say to this view?
I disagree with that. Experience tells me it’s not so, because I know, in my school in Cairo, a Jesuit school, a third of the classroom was Muslim. Today, it’s more than half.
I meet all my old friends, whether they are Muslims or Christians: They think as I think, and they are Muslims. It could be that, through a Christian education, they discovered some positive aspects, and they give a greater emphasis to this aspect to their faith. But I’m not issuing any propaganda. If someone wants to be Christian, he’s welcome — if he really wants to be, really.
The problem of Islam (and other religions) is that they put everything together under the name of Islam. When you say Islam, it means you eat like that; you dress like that; you walk with this one and not that one. Everything comes from God, they think.
We have something like that in the Old Testament, but most Jews — not all of them — would say, "This was normal at that time, at the time of Moses 3,000 years ago or more. It was normal to be like that. But, today, I’m not going against God if I say this is a cultural question not a religious one."
Returning to the recent attacks in Paris and Africa, can we expect more acts of violence like this in the future?
With ISIS, anything is possible. They have their aim, which is to destroy those who don’t think like them, even if they are Muslims.
If we go back to the Middle East, the war is not between Muslims and non-Muslims; it’s between Muslims and Muslims. Essentially, it’s between the Sunna, who are the majority, and the Shia, who are maybe 15% in the area. The other are 85%. And the Sunna consider the Shia to be heretical, and some would say unbelievers, while the Shia are usually more open-minded. This is my experience.
So, the fact is that the war is internal, within Islam. Occasionally, they attack Christians, Yazidi and others. The West is not the first aim; the West will come later. They start with their own area. We see what is happening with the Kurds, who are Sunna. They attack them because they have their own system, and they are not really observing the sharia [Islamic law] as the other would like.
Again, the problem is fanaticism. If everything is seen as dictated by God through the imams, that everything must be done this way or that, that even the veil is a way to distinguish one group from another, then this is no more life [with freedom].
Do you see this not changing?
In my short life, I’ll be 77 in two days, I am seeing it changing. We [Arabs] were much more open in my youth, much more than we are today. I hope that we will go back to this openness, but it will not happen with this fundamentalist mentality.
The question is to be able to say: “Follow your belief, but leave others to freely live theirs as they want, even if you think they are sinners by doing that.” It means distinguishing between ethics and law.
Personally, as with the majority of people in the world, I believe homosexuality is not a normal thing, that we are created for heterosexuality. This is my conviction. But it does not mean that homosexuality is a crime — a delictus — and that it is against the law. If so, there is no more liberty. We have to defend the liberty even of doing something wrong.
To conclude, we have to help Muslims to integrate themselves when they live in the West, and every step that could be done by the governments or groups to help them is a positive step for everyone. They are our brothers, they come from a difficult context, and we have to help them, without saying they are different and can do whatever they want. I have, at the same time, to say: “Look, this and that are our norms here. I will help you to know what are our norms and laws; if you can’t accept them, then go back somewhere else, where you will find your life, your freedom, your respect. But here, you have to observe the common law of this country.”
Clarity helps people to make the right choice, freely!