Father Samir on Ground Zero Controversy

Earlier today I spoke about the controversies surrounding the 9/11 memorial this year with Father Samir Khalil Samir, the respected Jesuit and Egyptian scholar of Islam who teaches in Beirut and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute here in Rome. He gave this interesting analysis of the situation:

What are your views on the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque, or as it’s also been described, the Islamic cultural centre in New York?

I don’t have all the facts here, but the plan is to build a 15-storey centre and this is a Muslim project, even if it’s called a Cordoba centre and it’s for everyone and not only for Muslims. It is two blocks from Ground Zero with a mosque for 2,000 people and so on. Even if you say this project aims to build a greater understanding and a new dialogue with American Christians and so on, it is evident that any normal person will fear it. Ninety percent of the population will fear this project more than be attracted by it, even if Feisal Abdul Rauf – the imam responsible for the project – says it’s not aggressive. But humanly and sociologically speaking, you are putting up something where you destroyed something; you are putting up a Muslim tower and pretending that this will be a tower of peace and so on. It is psychologically wrong.

Some would argue that the 9/11 bombers were not real Muslims, but fundamentalist ideologues and terrorists?

Yes but this is the wrong position because radical Muslims are true Muslims. I’m not saying that the true Islam is bin Laden, this is not my opinion. But I would contend that bin Laden is a true Muslim – a true Muslim. Pastor Terry Jones [the evangelical pastor who has threatened to burn the Koran] cannot say he’s truly representing Christianity because you cannot find anything in the Gospel that says that. But all the positions of radical Muslims you’ll find in the Koran and in the tradition. You’ll find other positions, but this is one, and one that is very strongly presented in the Koran and in the Sunnah. Nine-eleven was a Muslim action even if for apologetic reasons, it’s said that this was a terrorist action and terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, that Islam means peace and so on.

Let’s take the small example of this week. The pastor said burn the Koran. I said to a Palestinian imam friend of mine in northern Italy that in my opinion he [Jones] is a stupid person. But what’s the reaction in Pakistan? They destroyed three churches yesterday and say they will destroy more. Why do they not respond differently? Why did they not respond to Ratzinger’s speech with a speech? If someone is saying burn the Koran, this is stupid, this is wrong. But to show you it’s wrong, why not say: ‘OK, I will not burn the Gospel’ or ‘I will burn the Gospel.’ These are two legitimate positions. That’s all.

But the reaction is we will kill, destroy, and you hear this is everyday. Almost every week you have an attack from the Sunni against the Shia, especially against the Shia, or the Shia against the Amadiah. Where do they take this from? They take it from the Muslim tradition. Saudi Arabia is doing the same… This reaction is in Islam, it’s not the best of Islam, but it is there.

So I think the reaction of Obama was a political one, and not a reasonable, humanist answer even if he tries to present it as that. The answer of the mayor of New York is also a political one to gain for himself Muslim votes but probably it’s bad politics because he will lose maybe more votes among Jews and non-Muslims. Why? Because it’s unreasonable…That’s why I say I understand the fear of many people, not only Americans, in saying it’s not reasonable. If you go to the site of a European Arab centre in Paris, you’ll see comments from Muslims from all over Europe. Six out of seven say it’s wrong. One comment from an American Muslim was very clear. It’s not a very important site, it’s official but not many people go there, but I read all the answers and they were very clear.