Father Samir on ISIS: ‘What They Are Doing Is Diabolical’

A leading Catholic scholar of Islam analyzes why the Islamic militants have been so successful — and how they can be combatted.

Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir
Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir (photo: Aid to the Church in Need)

What are the reasons for the murderous rampage currently being undertaken by the jihadist troops of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? A decline in moral values in the West, coupled with a history of violent conquest within Islam, is behind the “diabolical” atrocities committed in Iraq and Syria by these Islamic militants, many of whom are uneducated and at the mercy of fundamentalist preachers.

This is according to Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, a leading scholar of Islam and a former student under professor Joseph Ratzinger.

In this extensive Aug. 30 interview with the Register via telephone from Beirut, Father Samir, a native Egyptian, discusses how secular and Islamist intolerance are exacerbating a “clash of civilizations,” how education is crucial to eradicating the scourge of extremism and whether ISIS has a future. 


To what extent is the hedonism of the West and a decline in moral values fueling this brand of Islamic extremism?

This is a very important point, and people are not aware of it in the West. If we go back a little bit, the West was, for a long time, associated with modernity and technical innovation. Egypt, for example, entered [its modernistic] period in the middle of the 19th century up until, more or less, the middle of the 20th century. The Egyptians were trying to adapt themselves to Western culture. They viewed it as modernity because everything they used and wanted to have came from the West, which was seen as Christian.

But in recent times, the West has given a very bad image of itself, mainly regarding the questions on sexual liberation. Homosexuality, for example, is considered normal today in the West. It’s considered as a variant of heterosexuality, and sexual relations between men and women are no longer sacred.

When I used to go back to Egypt, I was asked: “Is it true that men and women are having sex in public?” I said: “No, this is not true.” But this was the image they had.

Then came the Gulf and Iraq wars, which were seen as anti-Islamic.


Do you think these wars have often been viewed as defending the increasing immorality in the West?

Yes, it has been seen as the West imposing its superiority; and the wars, whether just or not, are always seen as coming from the hands of the United States and Israel. But the reaction to the immorality of the West is clearer. Everything about modernity is seen as wrong for these people — I mean the Islamists.


Do you believe this trend is also linked to a kind of latent anger within Islamic extremists against the West for not being true to its Christian roots? Would they respect the West more if it was?

The image of the West is combined in the minds of the Islamic extremists with sin and the wrong things and the wrong power. But at the same time, everyone is using Western products, especially technology. You have a kind of aggression because the West is seen as dominating the world, which could be a force for good, but they see it as domination and not progress. So the tendency is to regress to the seventh century, which they feel must be the best thing, because that was the time of the Prophet [Mohammed].

I was looking at some YouTube videos of ISIS, and it’s incredible. They do everything saying, “Allahu Akbar” [God is great] before doing it, putting everything under God and the call of Islam. Even when killing an innocent, they scream, ‟Allahu Akbar.” These Islamists are going back to the seventh century, especially in a radical way and with war.

One video I saw said the caliphate is the only solution and will be achieved by the sword. So it’s a rejection of the West’s moral values and its domination. The absurdity is that they are using violence against themselves, because Islamists call kāfir (infidel) anyone who disagrees with them and are then allowed to kill him.


To what extent is the fanaticism also due to the clarity that extremism provides, both in doctrine and perceived moral strength, in contrast to predominantly secular societies dominated by moral relativism and agnosticism? Is this a clash of contrasts?

The question of relativism is certainly behind this. These groups are radicals; that means they pretend to know exactly what is right and wrong, and they define it. It includes even the smallest things, ways of behaving and also a lot of sexual promises for those who go to paradise. It’s incredible! I’ve seen this morning a YouTube clip showing hundreds of people listening to a preacher in a mosque, who was describing how heaven will be. Every good Muslim will have his wife there for 70 years, but he will also have 72 girls of the highest quality, and each girl will have 72 slave girls that he could use, and so on. The preacher was smiling and saying, “This is our heaven.” It’s incredible to hear. …

Everything is very clear [to them]: “You do it this way.” Anybody who is a little bit outside of this vision is a kāfir.

Some years ago, seven years ago, there was a meeting in Saudi Arabia organized by the king to reform Islam. The main point was, first of all, to stop the takfīr — that is, saying the other is a kāfir, an infidel. The takfīr is used every day in everything. Anybody who is not doing exactly as these people want to do is a kāfir, and they say, “We have the right to kill him.”


Would you say this correlation between growing moral relativism in the West and this fanaticism is, in a sense, what Benedict XVI was warning about in his famous speech in Regensburg in 2006?

Secularity [civil society, religious freedom and liberty of conscience] has been around for maybe two centuries in the West. To understand it, you need to have experienced a little bit of Western culture where religion, state, ethics and politics are distinguished. But the amalgam of these: This is the weakness and the force of Islam. Everything is, and can be, Islam. You eat Islamic, you dress Islamic, so that it gives you a strength, an incredible strength, but also puts up barriers. You cannot understand another approach, and this is the problem.

Secularity, as Pope Benedict also underlined in his famous speech in Regensburg, is something universal, where there is room for everyone and for other faiths or absence of faith. It includes liberty of thinking and freedom of conscience, liberty of changing your faith, etc. This is unknown in Islamic culture and unacceptable. But it is fundamental for living together in a civilized society.

People don’t understand it. They [Muslim extremists] say: “We respect and defend freedom of religion,” but then they oblige a Muslim to remain Muslim, and he cannot convert. But I say: “But then where is the freedom of conscience?” And they say: “Yes, but not the freedom to do something wrong.” So we are speaking two different languages and living in two different worlds. Also, within Islam, you have liberal Muslims, whom the extremists laugh at or react violently towards. The liberal Muslims are only intellectuals and could be about 1 million, but that is nothing in comparison with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.

The other important thing to note is the lack of education. In Egypt, we have 40% who are illiterate, which means around 35 million Egyptians. They cannot write their names. It’s the same in Morocco, and it’s 50% in Yemen. So their only guideline is religion, as expressed by the preachers who are able to quote the Quran and hadith (Mohammad’s sentences), which is regarded as the authentic Islam.

The majority of Muslims are shocked by the actions of these terrorists, but many see them as authentic Muslims, and so few speak clearly against them.


Would you say that growing secular intolerance of religion in the West and anything that doesn’t match secular values, together with a growing lack of respect for conscientious objection, is mirrored in Islamic extremism and that this intolerance and disregard for freedom of conscience on both sides is leading to an inevitable clash?

Yes, both positions are becoming more radical. In France, for instance, the smallest sign of Islamism on the street is seen as a provocation, and they treat it juridically. And this makes these Muslims become more radical. The question of the veil, for example, is used on both sides as a symbol of the true Islam for radical Muslims and as an aggression of Islamism for the French people. So the clash of civilization that has been predicted by Samuel Huntington is growing because those who are reasonable, or moderate, are not reacting.

There’s also something that’s internal to them — that radicals are ready to do anything: fight on the street, go to prison; they do whatever their conscience tells them to do. Moderates say they’re stupid people and that one cannot discuss anything with them. So moderates are not speaking; they’re not writing; a few are reacting in private journals. The radicals, who are few, much fewer, are more aggressive.


Would you say ISIS is in any way representative of true Islam?

We hear, very often, Muslims say: ‟This has nothing to do with Islam.” This is a spontaneous reaction of Muslims on the street. But, in fact, it’s a false reaction. This is a part of Islam, and we can find it in the Quran itself and much more in the life of Mohammed, who had a very strong and violent attitude toward unbelievers.

Mohammed was somewhat tolerant towards Jews and Christians. But he was absolutely intolerant to those who were neither Jews nor Christians. The only solution for them in the Quran and in the life of Mohammed was to convert or die.

So these fanatics are following this line, with one difference: They call ‟unbeliever” (kāfir) anyone who is not like them, even the Shia, the Yazīdi or the Christian. In this case, the fanatics are not following the Quran and the sunnah [a Muslim way of life based on the teachings of Mohammed and the Quran]. But when they say, ‟We have to kill unbelievers, unless they become Muslim,” this is part of the teaching of Islam.

The main thing to note is that violence is an element of Islam. Violence is not an element of Christianity. When Christians were using violence in wars and so on, they were not following the Gospel, nor the life of Christ. When Muslims are using it, they are following the Quran and the sunnah and Mohammed’s model. This is a very important point.

Muslims have to rethink Islam for today’s world. We have a similar problem in Christianity, Judaism and in all religions. In the Old Testament, we have a lot of violence: When Jews entered the so-called Holy Land, they used violence under order of God, not because they were fanatics, but because God ordered it. They had to use it, and when they refused, they were sinners.

This is the Bible, and the Bible is the word of God. But the question is, “How do I understand it for me today?” And this is the main question for every religion and the main problem for Islam. They are not doing any kind of interpretation. In the past, they did it. There’s a principle well known in Islam that we have to look at, the so-called maqāsid al shari'ah, i.e. ‟the intention of the sharia” [Islamic law].

Let us take an example: When the Quran says we have to cut the hand off of a thief, those who say, ‟We have to follow the maqāsid,” they ask: ‟Why?” And they answer: ‟It means: to stop him from doing this again.” So now, the aim (the maqāsid) of the question is this one: the intention is not to cut off the hand, but to forbid him from doing the same thing again. If today we have other means, then we use them, and we should look at the intention of the Quran’s order.

This is what Christ did with adultery, when he said, ‟Whoever is without sin, start stoning the woman caught in adultery.” By so doing, he saved the heart of this woman, so that she could convert to another way of life; and he saved the hearts of the men who wanted to kill her, inviting them to examine first their own consciences: Are they so perfect? This is the true way of interpreting God’s word.


Is this the only way ISIS will be beaten, do you think?

They cannot change the text of the Quran, as we cannot change the text of the Bible. The problem is that they consider the Quran not as inspired by God, but as the literal word of God. That’s the theological problem.

I speak with them very often about this problem, and I tell them: ‟We have had the same problem.” The word of God, when we read it in church, we say: ‟This is the word of God.” But what does it mean? Does it mean that God wrote it literally with his hand? The Bible also says the Ten Commandments were written with the finger of God. It’s a way of speaking, to say that this is divine.

Muslims did this in the Middle Ages: Avicenna, for instance, has a philosophical treatise on the so-called pleasures in heaven to explain that it cannot be physical pleasure. So they reinterpreted the Quran’s words on heaven’s pleasure a millennium ago, but, today, they developed with plenty of details all the so-called physical pleasures the mujahid [a Muslim engaged in the struggle to follow the path of Allah] will enjoy in heaven. It means that, now, they have regressed.

To overcome this problem, the Islamic world needs to overhaul its education system. Islamic education is very, very poor. It’s based on memorizing everything: the Quran, the sunnah, thousands of sentences of Mohammed, and you have to memorize them again and again. It’s wonderful when you hear a good teacher quoting the Quran and sunnah every second sentence. People admire this. They say this is the true Islam, but, in fact, this preacher is choosing only one aspect of the Quran, and the people don’t know it.

So a rethinking of the Quran and its rules, as well as a theological or philosophical or spiritual interpretation, is needed. The present interpretation is nothing more than a simple repetition, without any reflection. Learning to interpret a text should start at school — should start already with small children, as well as at home and in the family.


With all this in mind, do you think ISIS and these extremists have a future?

They will have success for a while, but I hope for not too long. It’s unthinkable what they are doing. It is so inhuman that people don’t know how to react. It will last, and it could be some years. They are operating exactly as the Prophet did at the beginning, with war and conquest. Once you conquer a country, you do what you want with it. This is very, very dangerous, especially if these terrorists still receive money and weapons — then they won’t fear anything. In each case, they are “winners”: If they kill, they win; if they are killed, they win, because they believe they have won paradise. So they are “winning” in both cases, whatever happens. They have no principles or norms or values or standards, other than to literally apply sharia.

The astonishing thing, as you said at the very beginning, is that they are fighting the immorality of the West and Western hedonism. But they are doing many more immoral things in the name of Islam.

I don’t like to say this word, but, in a way, what they are doing is diabolical; it’s something the world has never seen in history. We’ve seen a lot of cruelty, but this is a planned cruelty. This is why I think there’s no future for them in the long term. But in the short term, they will win more and more, and we have to stop them. Now.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.