Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir is a professor of philosophy, theology and Islamic studies based at St. Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon. He also teaches at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.
In an Aug. 27 interview, Father Samir, a native of Cairo, discussed the precarious situation in Syria — where the civil war and the use of chemical weapons on civilians has escalated the conflict to the point that the United States is considering military engagement in the Middle-Eastern country.
What are your main concerns about the current situation in Syria?
The situation is really very bad. We don’t see any solution, and there is none, as far as I can see, because both sides have decided to take this as far as they can.
Why? For [President Bashar] Assad, defeat could mean defeat not only for him or the regime, but for the Alawite community. Today, the problem is not simply internal to Syria. The Syrian people began by reacting against dictatorship and calling for democracy and liberty. In the meantime, and quickly, elements came from outside, from all over the world, and these elements are essentially fundamentalist Sunnis. The problem became a confrontation between the Sunni on the one side and the Shia on the other, represented by Alawites.
So we have two groups: the army, which is geared to fighting and is often brutal, and the other — many groups who have decided to fight in the name of Islam — Sunni Islam. It’s no more a question of democracy and liberty, so that’s the general situation of Syria as we see it.
What do we know about the bigger problem of proxy powers?
Syria is at the center of a larger strategy in the Middle East involving Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan a little bit and the West. As the conflict has evolved, Iran has been supporting Assad, as has Hezbollah. This is one side.
The Arab peninsula is supporting the opposition, as is Turkey and other individuals from abroad. Israel is observing the situation, but I suppose if Iran enters the conflict, Israel will react. If the West enters the conflict, then we have a conflict between Russia on one side and the United States on the other. Europe is not unified, thank goodness.
What is your view of the chemical-weapons attack? How certain can we be that it came from the Syrian army, as the U.S. government says?
It could be from both sides. Personally, I would never decide on such an important point without proof. We have seen what happened with Iraq 10 years ago. And those who will pay the price are not the West, but the Syrians. … The situation in Syria now is very bad, very evil, but how can we be sure that an intervention will result in something better? This is the question. It’s not a kind of game where we succeed or don’t succeed. It is a matter of life or death for tens of thousands of Syrian people.
It’s not clear what the path to achieve peace in Syria is?
It’s not clear at all, and, for me, what makes the situation more unclear is that there are too many interested parties involved who are not unified. Some have a religious interest. For the Sunni, they view the Shia as kuffar [plural of kafir — infidels], worse than Jews and Christians. We hear this from many Sunni leaders. You have small groups terrorizing others.
The only solution is to say: Okay, we have two Syrian positions. We have the government, with people supporting the government, and we have the opposition, with people supporting the opposition. The only people who can decide are the Syrians themselves, but cannot do so without the help of the world community.
Now what is the aim? It’s to come to a common decision, respecting both positions — to find an honest compromise between the two. If one party wins, either Assad or the opposition, we will have war or we will have a prolongation of the war.
So this is the most important point to make clear: There cannot be one winner; there must be a compromise, with both sides placing on the table their criticisms and demands. You cannot put a precondition on it, that this or that group will not take part or this person won’t take part.
Then there must be a neutral arbiter as well, such as the United Nations. It’s not easy, but I don’t see any other possibility.
Pope Francis has called on all parties to meet and dialogue. That is your view, too?
Certainly. There is no other way, and with no condition on who represents each other, each party must decide for themselves. One party cannot exclude Assad, for example, or anything like that.
How much does this violence have to do with Islam itself and that certain Muslims have always believed in the use of force?
There is something of this in Islam. Pope Benedict made the point, in his famous Regensburg lecture on Sept. 12, 2006, when he was speaking generally, that any religion that uses violence to defend its position or pretending to defend God is wrong. We can never, ever use violence for a good reason. Violence is bad in itself, so it cannot be used to convince people and so forth. Everyone would agree with that.
What is happening today is that almost all extremist and fundamentalist groups are using this model — forever. Mohammed was able to unify a great many Arab tribes under the common name of Islam, which was a cultural, social, political and religious reality. This fact, this reality could be understood in two different ways: either to be taken as a model to be applied forever or to be taken as a practical situation valid for that time.
At the moment, violence is, unfortunately, widespread in all fundamentalist Islamic movements. Also, fundamentalism has spread a great deal in the last 50 years in the Muslim world, but this fundamentalist interpretation is not the official Islam. We can see that in Egypt, for instance. Al-Azhar University [Islam’s foremost center of learning in Cairo], which represents the majority of Muslims in Egypt and even perhaps in the world, was against the Muslim Brotherhood and former President Mohammed Morsi, and they still are.
So you cannot say the Brotherhood represent the majority of Muslims — on the contrary. So I say fundamentalist Islam is certainly a part of Islam, as opposed to those who say: "This has nothing to do with Islam. Islam means ‘tolerance’ and so on. This is blah, blah, blah." This [violence] was always a part of Islam as it is understood. It’s not the whole Islam, and the majority of Muslims obviously don’t support terrorism. But those who do support it are doing so not in their name or in the name of politics, but in the name of God and Islam. They always have a mufti giving a fatwa, saying you must fight this group in the name of God, following the Quran.
Why is it, as Maronite Cardinal Bechara Rai said recently, that Christians must always pay the highest price in the Middle East? Why is this when they are the most peaceful of all the people in the region?
First, it’s obviously easy to attack a minority. Second, it’s easier when the minority is peaceful and not armed. You could have a fighting minority, but it’s not the case with Christians.
But these are secondary reasons. The main reason is ideological. Who are fighting Christians, destroying churches and so on? Not my Muslim neighbor, but groups who are excluding the others. If you have Sunni excluding the Shia, they will obviously exclude Jews, Christians and so on. Any exclusivist group is a terrorist in potentia — he becomes one when the occasion rises. We have seen this in Egypt, for instance.
But what we are asking as Christians — actually, I don’t say as Christians, but as citizens — is not to put the word "religion" in the [Egyptian] constitution. We should not put "man" or "woman," "rich" or "poor" or make any distinction. Just put "citizens."
What we are asking is to apply honestly and totally the "Universal Charter of Human Rights," including the liberty of conscience and the right to choose religion and to change it if you want.
So, for these reasons, I think Christians are attacked in Egypt spontaneously. In Syria, under the Assad regime, they were protected no more or no less than Muslims, because the regime adopted the Baath Party ideology, which was considered secular. Religion was a positive thing and seen by the government as helping citizens to do good and so on.
So I think this must be the goal, but on one condition: If we want to reach this point in 10 years, then we have to start today.