If Muslims believe that Islam is a religion of peace, they need to demand that the people responsible for the attacks on U.S. embassies in Yemen, Egypt and Libya be brought to justice.
So says Islamic scholar Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir. In a Sept. 12 interview with the Register, he stressed that to he stressed that to be aggressive towards Muslims and purposely distort the image of Mohammed is immoral, but that Muslims also must learn to understand the meaning of freedom of speech.
The violence by Islamic militants — perpetrated on the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States — led to the killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three embassy officials in Benghazi. It reportedly came in response to an American-made anti-Islam YouTube video called The Innocence of Muslims.
Father Samir discussed the attacks and the effects, if any, they would have on Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Lebanon, under way through Sept. 16.
What is your reaction to these attacks?
Firstly, the fact that we had an attack on embassies in both Libya and Egypt suggests that there is a connection and that it was not a spontaneous and improvised act.
Secondly, this is a typical reaction of radical Islam. We had a similar thing when the pastor Terry Jones in the United States burned a page from the Quran, and Muslim radicals in Mazar-e-Sharif (northern Afghanistan) killed eight foreign U.N. employees.
But it must be said clearly that because the film was made in America does not mean that America supports this film. It’s essential to make clear what freedom of speech means, which is unknown to most Muslims. I can say things which are wrong, and you will contradict me, but you cannot kill someone or destroy an embassy or anything like that because you disagree with me. If we go this way, there is no possibility of a dialogue of cultures.
In this sense, the reaction of Hillary Clinton was certainly understandable. She said, “The United States deplores any effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”
But I say: “Yes and no.” It’s not the United States, but someone who is denigrating beliefs of others, so it’s his problem. It’s not the nation’s problem. But she was right that there can never be a justification for such violent acts as these.
So the sentence needs to be reworded. The United States has nothing to do with someone who is denigrating another belief.
Have you seen the film?
I have not seen it, and probably no one involved in the attacks saw the film, but simply because there is a film on Muhammad, they react.
In Egypt, some years ago, Youssef Chahine, a great Egyptian director, made a film on The Prophet Joseph. It was banned because you’re not allowed to make films about prophets. But this is intellectual terrorism. [In response to this anti-Muslim film] they needed to protest clearly and at same time tell those who made it to be careful, and so on. It’s one thing to say, “Be careful” and something else to say: “You cannot make it.”
What are the dangers if this unrest continues?
If we go this way, we are going against the so-called Arab Spring. The "Arab Spring" was about freedom, liberty, democracy, equality. But where is the democracy? Where is the liberty in this?
Non-violence is the first step towards democracy. These attacks are against the United States, but also against the Egyptian people, because the image we’re giving to the whole world is that we are a people from the Middle Ages. I also defend myself by saying: “I am an Egyptian, and I am proud to be Egyptian, but I don’t belong to these Egyptians.”
And this is what we also hear from a lot of Muslims. They react, saying this has nothing to do with Islam. We hear it every time.
I say: “Okay, you may be right.” But, in fact, they carry out these attacks using Islamic arguments. This is exactly what is codified in Pakistan with the blasphemy law and crime against blasphemy. Every week we hear of someone put in prison because of blasphemy. But what does it mean, "blasphemy"?
I have the right to say, ‟I don’t believe Muhammad is a prophet.” And you have the right to say: ‟Jesus is not a prophet and not the Son of God.”
This is your right, and there is no blasphemy in saying it. This is for us a main point, because if there is no liberty of belief, there is no liberty at all.
Muslims will often say their religion is one of peace. What do you say to this view when such attacks are carried out?
If they really think Islam is a religion of peace, then they should go on to the street and demand that these people who carried out the attacks are tried. But they ... protest when Muslims are criticized, and when Muslims kill innocent people, they are silent.
If Islam is a religion of peace, then organize a protest against these aggressors, and go to the U.S. Embassy and say: “Please excuse us as Muslims; we don’t consider them as Muslims.” But they don’t do anything.
Why don’t they do anything?
Because they don’t have the courage to confront their brothers in Islam and to say: “Your Islam is harming Islam.”
And, secondly, maybe because they are not so convinced. Perhaps they think, in a way, they [radical Muslims] are right. They think: ‟These Western people, these Christians” — they confuse the two — “should be judged and condemned for making such a film.”
What effect do you think this will have on stability in the region?
If there is no severe punishment for these people, if the governments of Libya and Egypt don’t do anything, then there is no government or democracy. I’m waiting to see what they will do. [Egyptian President Mohammed] Morsi has sent to trial three of his political adversaries in recent days. I’m not against a trial, they may be guilty, but if you do this for someone who is essentially non-violent, then how much more should you do it against people of such violence?
Do you think these attacks further go to show that the "Arab Spring" opened the gates to Islamic fundamentalism?
I think so. I met someone today coming from Damascus, and I told him we don’t have to fear the radicals in Syria because Syria has a long tradition of secularism and so on. He said: “I would like to believe you, but what I’m seeing in Damascus on the street is that every day the [fundamentalist] Islamic movement is growing.”
It is justified to be against [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, but if they are against him for religious reasons, this is unacceptable. If it is because he is carrying out acts of terrorism and violence, this is right, but not because they are Alawites or secular.
What bearing, if any, will these attacks have on the Pope’s visit to Lebanon?
My feeling is that, in Lebanon, we learned something from our civil war (1975-1990) — that religion cannot be used in politics. This is the main question. This is my reaction to what happened in Libya and Egypt. Religion is something spiritual and not sociological, political or cultural. It’s something spiritual and dogmatic.
Defend your faith spiritually, dogmatically, but not with the sword or with fire. This was acceptable in the Middle Ages, but we are now in the 21st century. [Such violence] is against the meaning of the "Arab Spring" revolution. It’s a step backward. I hope we will correct this, recognize that it is not acceptable, and reform ourselves.
Is the situation made harder by the new leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya being largely Islamist?
Yes, in all these countries, we have Islamic parties. I hope this will change. … We have to wait and see. If the new vision is to have a new “dictatorship of religion,” it’s a step backwards.
It was not right for the United States to say, “We apologize.” You don’t have to apologize. If anyone needs to apologize, it’s the director of the film. It’s not the United States. Such distinctions as this are essential — the distinction between culture, politics, economy, religion and so on.
Finally, the director of the film had the right to make it, but if his aim is to be aggressive toward Muslims, and if he has distorted the image of the prophet of Islam, then it is immoral.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.