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 Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi for Islam to undergo a reformation. This is Part I of the interview.

 

Father Samir, what was your reaction to the attack? Were you in any way surprised?

It was a shock. How, in the heart of Paris, could they do something like that? It is all really incredible. So it was, really, a shock for everyone, and the reaction was very clear: Thousands of people in every city protested, and so on.

Also, the fact that it was two French people of Algerian origin who did it means that integration has not been achieved. This is a major point: the problem of integration of Muslims in Western culture. There’s a kind of rejection, not by all people, but some Muslims today — and I stress today — to reject Western culture. They consider it bad, anti-Muslim or not religious. It wasn’t like that in the past.

I remember when I studied in the early 1960s in France, all the [other students] were Muslims, because it was an Islamic-studies class at university. I was the only Christian, and there was absolutely no difference in behavior. They were French but had the Muslim religion. I wasn’t French, but I was a Christian. They were Muslims. That was all.

 

So what has changed since then?

In the 1970s, we saw that, in the Middle East — I was in upper Egypt in 1971, 1972 — Saudi Arabia started introducing the veil in girls’ schools. … It started like that. Then, we have seen this movement spreading to other Arab countries, to other Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, which was the model of a kind of secular city and certainly open to all religions. Slowly, they became fanatics more and more. In Malaysia, too, and in other parts of Asia, and now in Europe, there’s that same movement.

 

What has fueled that fanaticism over the past 40 years?

We could say the Palestinian conflict with Israel was one factor, but this was long ago. What has changed is that Europe, and the West in general, has become viewed as irreligious, and this perception has grown more and more, especially through new legislation and matters concerning sexuality, which are seen as totally unacceptable.

But another reason is that the rise of this fundamentalist movement has been helped by the money of oil-producing countries — they could buy anybody — nations and groups.

The Muslim Brotherhood started in Egypt in 1928, but under [Egyptian President] Abdel Nasser and his revolution in 1954 until his death [in 1970], he tried to work with them because the Muslim Brotherhood was more popular. They helped the poor in the suburbs of Cairo. So he tried, but then the Brotherhood became more and more fanatical. They said that women should not work but stay at home, that they should wear the veil, and so on. Nasser finally said: “We cannot work together. We are a normal society. We just want the development of Egypt.” So he then put them in prison, because they started to get aggressive; and many of them went to Saudi Arabia, where they started their propaganda and also absorbed the ideas of the Wahhabi Islamic movement, which is very fundamentalist. This is how the movement developed.

Back in Europe, what is happening? Charlie Hebdo published the caricatures, which were first published in Denmark. You remember, at that time, there was a strong reaction. I was in Beirut then, and they attacked the Christian quarters there, even if Christians had nothing to do with it. But they protested in that way because they considered the West as Christian — “A Western publication committed a blasphemy, so we avenge any Christian.”

Now, Charlie Hebdo, which is well known as a satirical journal with caricatures, did with Muhammed what they do with other religious leaders.

 

As with similar atrocities carried out by Islamists, many blame Islam and see such attacks as making a mockery of it being described as a “religion of peace.” What’s your view of this?

It must be clear that what they [fundamentalist Islamists] do, what they’ve done and what they did yesterday is in the name of Islam. To deny this is a lie. Why? Because every fundamentalist group had an imam or two issuing a fatwa [authorizing acts of violence] that gave them the permission. It’s not automatic. Someone who has authority — a religious person who has studied it — has the right to decide whether it’s permitted, is allowed to attack or not.

In Islam, you cannot attack simply anyone in the name of Islam. There must be a reason for that. The mufti — which means the one who gives the fatwa — has the right and task to say now it’s halal [permitted by Islamic law] or the opposite, that it’s haram [prohibited]. So they don’t do this in the name of Islam, but in the name of the Quran and Islam.

To go back to Charlie Hebdo and the Danish cartoon: They depicted Muhammed with a turban, and in the turban, there was a bomb. I asked my Muslim friend: How does Islam depict Muhammed? Usually with his sword. And we know there are two swords attributed to him, each one with a name, preserved in museums, one in Istanbul and the other somewhere else. And what is the symbol in Saudi Arabia? Two swords.

And how was Saudi Arabia born? It came about through an alliance in 1745 between Muhammed ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), a very rigorist Islamic preacher, and Muhammed Ibn Saud, a tribal chief, as Hamadi Redissi explains in his book. They fought against other Arab tribes and succeeded in dominating the whole of Arabia and in creating the Saudi Arabian state.

That means the development of Islam, in the beginning with the Prophet Muhammed and today with other countries, is continuing through violence, through the sword. Why do they criticize others for such images when they depict their religion as they do?

But, more deeply, this is a question of liberty of conscience, and this is something totally unknown. I can understand their wish to react, certainly. If someone is depicting Christ, St. Paul or any saint or pope in a bad way, I will react. But react how? In the same way? That’s the problem. We don’t have in the Arab and Muslim world the concept of liberty of conscience, that is, religious liberty. If you want to protest, do so, but according to the law. What happened on Wednesday was something very, very important, and it’s very dangerous. It means that these people, especially the two who did it, are two French people who didn’t integrate into the French system or vision. Instead of reacting against Charlie Hebdo by writing a rebuttal, they killed all journalists they could find!

 

Could you say that, on the contrary, the culture they lived in radicalized them?

Yes. And here is my question to Europe, whether it might be England, Belgium or France (I’m more careful to speak about the U.S., as I’m not used to it).

In Europe, the tendency is to speak of tolerance, and I find this word awful, really, because if I were a Muslim, I would not want to be “tolerated,” because I would not want to be “tolerated” as a Christian in my own country, Egypt. I am a citizen, full stop.

Whatever my religion, either I am a citizen or I am not. If I am a citizen, I agree and adopt the constitution, norms and culture of my country, whether I was born here or I chose it; but it’s my own choice, and I have to respect it.

But the problem is that, on one side, Muslims have difficulty accepting this vision. For them, Islam can only have the best law, because they think it’s coming from God. We know historically that it’s very human and that there is no law coming from God, but they pretend. They pretend that it’s the best one, that it surpasses any constitution. But I say, “No, it does not.”

On the other side, the West often has a problem with Islam. Westerners fear what they call today “Islamophobia.” I’m against this word because, etymologically, it means fear of Islam, not the aggression of Islam. Most people fear Islam when we see what is happening. But there are a lot of people in the West who are against Islam, and so governments are trying to reverse the situation, but in the wrong way.

The only way to solve the question is to say: “Here, we have certain norms. If you want to live here, whoever you are, whether you were born here or not, if you want to live here, you have to observe them; and not only the laws, but also what is considered normal.”

 

How much of what happened in Paris is evidence of what Pope Benedict XVI alluded to in his Regensburg address: Anti-religious, postmodern sentiment based on positivism and reason without faith is clashing with fundamentalists who have faith, but without reason?

Yes, and the question here is: Can we distinguish between faith and society?

The problem here not only involves Muslims, but, also, I see this in India, with Hindus, and elsewhere with other religions. They identify religion as a totality, and for that reason, it could become a totalitarianism, which is obviously a bad thing. This is happening with Islam, and it once happened with Christianity. It meant that to be Christian one had to act in certain ways in everything.

I am free to choose my culture and my way of life and free to sin every day if I want. This is my problem. If I pretend to be Christian, I am supposed to follow some norms, but nobody can oblige me to do so. If a person pretends to be Muslim, then he should follow his laws. He follows his fasting, tithing — that is his problem.

But Muslims don’t have this liberty, even today in the 21st century. If someone is eating during Ramadan and others see him, then he goes to prison. I’m not speaking here of the Middle Ages, I’m talking of 2015 — in Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and so on.

The distinction is between religion and faith: Religion is a totalitarian system; faith is a spiritual one. I’m free to do what I want, to write what I want, as long as I am not doing anything against the common law.

If someone writes a book to show that God is a man’s invention, I have the right to write another book against him. But I cannot say that I have the right to kill him or to hurt him because he is an atheist.