Middle-East Scholar: Islam Needs a Renewal of Reason

Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir says the Muslim religion was much more rational in the Middle Ages than it is today.

Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir
Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir (photo: CNA file photo)

The Muslims identified as the perpetrators of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris were from some of the most secular parts of northern Europe, where Christianity, especially Catholicism, is weakest.

So to what extent did secularism and a weak Catholicism possibly play a role in their radicalization? In this Nov. 17 interview, Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, a scholar of Islam and pro-rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, discusses some problems inherent to Islam, as well as secularist trends that have influenced the spread of fundamentalist Muslim violence.

Father Samir, who was born in Cairo, also explains that the Islam of the 12th and 13th centuries was “much more open-minded” than the Islam followed by many Muslims today. “We’ve gone 1,000 years backwards,” he says, because the teaching in the faculties of Islamic theology “is not based on reason,” as it was “in some schools in the Middle Ages.”

Why do you think Paris was a focus of the attack last week?

First, we have to remember France has the highest proportion of Muslims in the West: at least 6 million — almost 10% of the population — and they’re mostly Arab Muslims who are more fanatical than others, say Indonesians or Malaysians.

Another aspect is the pretext of Charlie Hebdo and that secularism in France is really radical. You don’t find this in Italy and Germany. In Germany, you can have your mosque; in Italy, the atmosphere is more Christian. France and Belgium are really heavily secularized, and this makes people think these are the source of evil.

A third reason could be because of what France did in Libya with Gaddafi, which was unacceptable. Also, the error the West is doing, by getting rid of dictators, as the U.S. did with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, is making the situation worse. What France did with Libya means the country is now much worse than previously. What they tried to do with Assad [in Syria] provokes what we see now.

This simplistic vision — that if we remove the dictator, we will have a new society — is absurd. We have to study the situation first. Dictators are everywhere. The question is: How do we guarantee democracy, liberty and security? Unfortunately, the dictators guarantee security first of all, so people say: “Okay, we don’t have liberty of speaking in a dictatorship, but where do we have it in the Middle East? … We defend them because of their money!” This is something we hear daily in our Arab media: that all they [the Western nations] want is our money.

The impression is that the West is materialist and the secularity is more materialist, and there’s something true in it. In October 2010, the United States announced a contract between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia for the supply of warplanes for $60 billion, spread over 10 years. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia bought military material for $6.4 billion and became the largest purchaser of arms in the world. Yesterday, they decided to buy war material, including 13,000 “smart” bombs, for $ 1.29 billion. Meanwhile, 8 million Syrian immigrants are trying to survive!

Is that really innocent? People read these headlines, and say, “Yes, this is the cause of what’s happening in the Arab world.”

Many radical Islamists appear to come from European countries where secularism has taken the most hold. How much does such an environment help fuel Islamist violence?

It seems clear that a good part of the terrorists are coming from Europe. I just read something from Al-Azhar University [Islam’s leading university in Cairo], saying that there are at least 4,000 Muslims coming from Europe. Between them, there are a lot of Christians — and from Belgium, especially — who converted to Islam. In some quarters in Brussels (in particular, Molenbeek) or other places, there is a concentration of jihadists. There are parts there where police cannot even enter. They are defended by jihadists blocking the police.

So the situation is very strange: people who are no longer Christians, who were once Christians and who are attracted by this violent behavior in the name of God. That means a deep religious crisis in the Christian, Catholic Churches — and at the same time hard, fanatical propaganda from Islamic entities. Both [radical secularism and Islamism] are condemned. Most Muslims see this approach of Islam as not the right one, especially in our time. And for Christians, obviously, to think that someone is becoming religious because he is fighting for God is absurd.

So there are a lot of people who are lost, thousands of them, in Europe, Brussels and elsewhere, and the Church has to do something. The Church is doing things here and there, but it’s the beginning of a movement — to give back the true sense of faith, of God, of what our role is today in the world. We can help more by being faithful to the Gospel, rather than adopting feudal solutions taken from some verses of the Quran.

Some say a lack of moral guidance to help steer these fundamentalists away from their violence appears to be a significant problem — that there isn’t an alternative to what they’re hearing in the mosques, and there is no other strong voice of moral reason. How much should this be a central concern?

There is certainly a lack in Christian education. We see that everywhere, in Europe essentially. One notices this lack, first of all, in seminaries. They are not half or even a third what they were 40 years ago — everywhere. Maybe it is not so bad in Poland or Eastern Europe, but certainly in Western Europe, this shortage is very widespread.

In a diocese where I go, in Hildersheim in Germany, you find only one or two [seminarians] each year preparing to be priests, which is obviously very few and does not offset the number of priests dying each year. I’m just coming from France and was in a very strong Catholic diocese, in Toulon; but in Avignon or other dioceses, you need three or four dioceses to have a small seminary. In the church where I was serving in Germany 10 years ago, we had double the number of people coming to church on Sundays [compared with today].

So we have to react, and I notice there is a reaction coming from families, groups who are a little bit traditional. They say, “We have to maintain the faith in our families, as it was when we were young.” They are not “extreme conservatives”; they’re very good Christians, often with many children. I lived this week with a family of six children, and we had a prayer every morning and evening, a short prayer before eating — things which are very simple, which were done some years ago, but which are lost [today oftentimes]. Obviously, on Sunday, the whole family went to Mass together.

Would you, therefore, say there is a correlation between those countries such as Belgium and other northern European countries, where the Church and family are especially weak, in terms of leaving a breeding ground for this kind of violence?

I think so; I think it’s true. I give another example: In France, there are groups trying to have contact with Muslims, and even to have some Muslims who are looking for something else, asking for the Church. I was in Toulon yesterday with a group where there were 12 Muslims who became Christians and were giving their testimonies. They were very enthusiastic and had a deep Christian faith. Two of them weren’t yet baptized, but considered themselves already Christians, in their hearts. These neophytes are very open-minded Muslims. It’s not that this movement is anti-Muslim, but there are people who discovered the Gospel as something liberating them and making them friends of all people.

Unfortunately, this movement is usually considered by our churches, and even by bishops, as unwanted. I went to three conferences before this one, and, each time, the bishop would say: “If you do this, don’t do it in the name of the Church; do it privately.” This time, for the fourth time, [the conference] president was the bishop himself. He’s not known as traditional, but he said: “We have a responsibility for Muslims, the whole population — not only for those coming to Church.” This is our mission: “Go, and announce the Gospel to everyone” (Mark 16:15; see Matthew 28:19). So when we see the violence of some people who convert to Islam, it is often a sign of people having lost all religious feeling and trying to find something new in actions.

How much is this problem inherent to Islam: that Islam perhaps fosters this kind of mentality?

Certainly, there is a big problem in Islam today, and it’s recognized by Muslims themselves. Muslims are in crisis. They say that regularly, but they don’t know how to change or dare to.

For me, the problem is first in the mind. It’s ideological. The problem is how to interpret the Quran, the Mohammedan tradition and the hadith (the sayings of Muhammad):

 If we interpret it as a political approach — to convert the whole world to Islam, because this is the last revealed religion, the best religion, and Muhammad is the best model for everyone — we conclude that we have to do jihad, to fight all the others.

And so you use all means, and you look in the Quran and in the Muslim tradition to the verses and sayings, telling [followers], “You have to fight them until they convert to Islam.” We can find some verses like that. We can find that attitude in Muhammad himself — an aggressive attitude, whether because he had to defend himself or because he wanted to spread his belief in the one God. But as Pope Francis said the day before yesterday: “We cannot serve God with violence. This is against God. We cannot pretend we are doing something positive.”

How much does education play a role?

Education [for jihad] is spread in a lot of mosques, books and schools. I have seen in a book for children — that is an apologia for jihad — saying this is the ultimate step for a good Muslim. This is unacceptable; and if you spread this approach, eliminate an interpretation of the Quran for our time, then we are going backwards. In a way, in the Middle Ages, they were much more open-minded than they are today.

If you go back 1,000 years ago and read a booklet on what Muslims expect in heaven, it’s different to today: The virgins, the fruits and the waters were then not seen as material, because there’s no body. This interpretation is no longer spread; instead, there is a literal interpretation of the Quran. So I think we’ve gone 1,000 years backwards, because the teaching in the faculties of Islamic theology, even in Al-Azhar, is not based on reason. The interpretation of the Quran and Islamic tradition is not based on reason, as it was in some schools in the Middle Ages. For many Muslim theologians, reason is seen as anti-revelation! By the way, this is precisely the criticism of Pope Benedict XVI in his famous lecture at Regensburg’s university on Sept. 12,, 2006, which provoked such a violent Muslim reaction.

Would you also say this challenge is made all the harder due to a West that is the antithesis of its traditional Christian beliefs — what Benedict XVI warned about at Regensburg: that it’s about a clash between essentially a “cold” secularism vs. an “overheated” Islam?

Yes, but Benedict was distinguishing clearly between what we live in the West and the right secularism (“the healthy secularity,” as he says). In his apostolic exhortation after the synod on the Middle East, in Paragraph 29, he said there is a false interpretation of laïcité [a code of secularism] and a good one. You are right when you say Europe often has a bad approach to modernity.

Muslims know that modernity is coming from the West; this is a fact. Now they see the West as having lost its ethics, especially on sexual questions. They’re very shocked by what they see or hear. … So they say this comes from modernity. They want to reject the excesses and abuses of some principles, but end up rejecting the whole thing. The problem is that the West is responsible, without knowing it, of the reaction of the Muslim world.

Could it be said that the West, and particularly Europe, having turned its back on God, is leading the Islamic State (ISIS) to essentially fill the vacuum?

Yes. … The question is: How are we confronted with modernity? When Europe was still Christian in its style and religious and practice, modernity was seen as a plus. Today, it’s seen [by fundamentalist Muslims] as the cause of an unbelieving, secular tradition — and so they reject it, and say: “We will go back to the time of the Prophet.” This is Salafism, from the Arabic salaf, which refers to the companions of Muhammad, or the first generation after him. So the solution to most religious intellectuals today is to go back to the salaf, reproducing exactly what was done by the Prophet, as they call him, even with his beard, even if they don’t know how it was or how he used to eat, etc.

There is a principle in Islam that could be used to liberate people, which is not to look to the sharia [Islamic law] literally, but, rather, the so-called Maqāsid al-Sharia — that is, the aims and objectives of the sharia, using the question “Why?” — asking: Why do we have this decision with law in Islam?

For instance, with the students I’ve had, half are Muslims, and half are Christians. I say the Islamic law says [regarding] whoever is a thief: The Quran says you must cut off his hand, and if he repeats it, then his foot and so on. In Saudi Arabia, they’re doing this and think it’s being faithful to the Quran. Now, if we ask ourselves: “What is the aim of this law? It’s to make him not able to steal.” So I have to focus on the goal.

Today, I ask my students: Are there not other ways to help a thief? Maybe their situation means they’re hungry, not educated, and so will never get a job. So the solution is to educate them so they can get a job, instead of stealing. But this way of thinking is very rare. The predominant model is: You take literally the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet — thousands of sayings, gathered in big volumes — take them literally and then apply them.

Would you say, essentially, what we have is a clash between heresies of Islam, which Hilaire Belloc once called a Christian heresy, and then the heresies of modernity and modernism?

Yes. They are taken to be either applying literally the Quran, or falling into what they see in the West. So they don’t find a middle way, to say: “We refuse this and that from the West, and we also refuse the material application of this and that from the Muslim tradition,” which means they make a discernment. This means the use of reason in theology, in interpreting the Quran, the tafsīr [exegesis], and this is what fails today.

The problem is first ideological, and then it moves to war, terrorism and whatever you want. So the solution for me is the education of moderate imams, open-minded imams, who have studied not only religion, as they do at Al-Azhar and elsewhere, but people who are trained in mathematics, physics, philosophy, history, comparison of cultures and so on; plus the Quran, traditional and hadith studies, to make a bridge between both and to reinterpret Islam according to our daily knowledge of today, modern knowledge. But we are applying the Quran as it was said for people in in the seventh century in the desert. Today, we’re no longer in the desert, and we are 14 centuries later.

How much do you think this violence will continue? To what extent do you see it spreading across the West?

It could take decades. The violence is such that if we don’t do anything, they will win. If we leave Syria to fight alone, they will do it in a military way and destroy the whole country to save their own people, on both sides. The terrorists are not aware of the disaster they are making. But the government is also reacting with all means. And even if it [the response] doesn’t want to kill innocent people, innocents are also killed daily. I read there have been 230,000 deaths in Syria until today. It’s enormous.

What would you like to see the Church do? Perhaps bring back a sense of morality into the West, a rebirth of the Church in Europe, to counteract this force?

Yes, I think we have to make a great renewal in the West in the Christian approach to life. But the secular tendency is so strong, that if you speak as a real Christian, they say, “Oh, you are so old-fashioned.”

Take any example, the freedom of divorce or not to enter marriage and live together, and then when you marry you can separate whenever you want if you want to, etc. They are now teaching there are [different] types of families. I’ve seen this in a French schoolbook: You have a family with one man, one woman; with two men together; two women together; and then a traditional one, with one man and one woman. You are destroying society and ethics. This isn’t something exclusively Christian …

When Muslims see that, they immediately recall that homosexuality is absolutely condemned in the Quran, with reference to the biblical Lot. See chapters 7: 80-81; 11: 77-82; 15: 58-74; 21: 74; 26: 165-166; 27: 54-55; 29: 28-30; 54: 33-34. In some cases, they were burned alive. Then the Muslims say, “Okay, the West is Christian, Christianity allows this, and so Christianity is not the true religion; it’s a false religion. And we want to be true, to stick to the Quran and to the tradition.”

This means we are partly, indirectly responsible for the fanaticism that is spreading more and more in Islam, as a reaction to the West — not only, but this also — and playing a role in the radicalization of Islam.

What else can the Church do?

We have a big responsibility altogether. Whatever has happened, we Christians have a beautiful but heavy responsibility. We have to help Muslims to overcome this reality. We can better help them than Muslims themselves, because we went through all the new interpretations of the Bible, and we are fighting within the Church, for instance, within the Catholic Church, against some tendencies of hard secularism. So we have the same goal, but we have more experience.

We have also the chance to have an enlightened authority with the Pope; and he repeated in these days, but also before that: “Violence can never be a divine solution. I can never fight for God physically. The fight is spiritual.” This was the meaning of Benedict’s Regensburg speech that was misinterpreted.

So an answer is to build real friendship with Muslims, to say we are together against extreme secularism. We agree with you on some issues, will help each other to be more spiritual and to have a more spiritual approach to God and religion.

And to become Catholic eventually?

Yes, certainly. The last sentences of Matthew: “Go, and proclaim the Gospel to the whole world” is an obligation of love for each Christian. It’s not propaganda; it’s allowing the spiritual liberty that the Gospel, that Christ brought to the world. So it’s not simply optional; it’s an order, but an order for freedom, for life and for joy. With Muslims, as well as Christians, we have to re-evangelize Christians, Muslims and atheists and preach the Good News.

If the Gospel is the most beautiful treasure we have, how can we refuse to share it with others, especially if they are in crisis?

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.