Radicalization of Islam; Western Response

Father Khalil Samir on a Solution

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ROME, MAY 11, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir is an author and professor at the St. Joseph University in Lebanon in Catholic theology and Islamic studies and advisor to numerous Church and political leaders. 

Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need interviews Father Samir about the increasing radicalization of Islam and the implications for western policy.

Q: Unfortunately we start to see an increasing radicalization in Islam. Why is this radicalization occurring and where is this leading us?

Father Samir: The radicalization started with the Muslim Brotherhood at the end of the 1920s – specifically with the end of the First World War and the fall of the Caliphate in 1923 -1924 in which the Ottoman Empire, the last Muslim empire, ended after 1,300 years. Additionally there was the secularization of Turkey. The Muslims did not know what to do. They asked themselves who is to be the new Caliph? Saudi Arabia, Egypt? They could not find anyone to take over this empire. A movement started which said: "We have to Islamize the Muslim countries. They are too westernized." And it was true: their juridical system was based on the systems in France, in Switzerland etc., and so they founded and started the Muslim Brotherhood, which was not very powerful then. Their intention was just to change the society toward something more Muslim. They started as a political movement within Egypt. Initially they refused violence absolutely, but with time, violence became part of the struggle against the Socialist revolution of Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood were persecuted, put in prison or killed. Then they started to organize the resistance and the opposition. They became, every year, more violent. 

Q: But it did not remain just an Egyptian issue?
Father Samir: We have to remember that in 1948 the State of Israel was created. The Arab countries waged war against Israel. The war ended with all the Arab countries defeated by this small country. They were humiliated. They then said that this was due to the fact these countries were not Muslim enough; we now have to start the revolution. War after war was waged between Israel and the Arab world and every time it was a defeat for the Arab countries. Things began to change economically in 1973-1974, when there was a boom in the demand for petrol. The price of petrol increased four times and a lot of petrol dollars were suddenly available. What could these oil producing countries like Saudi Arabia do with this money? They built mosques and Islamic centers. In Egypt, they financed the building of thousands of schools and mosques. They are still doing that today.

Q: Is there a religious agenda and if yes, what is the purpose?
Father Samir: Yes. Wahhabism originates from the name of Abdal Wahhab who lived in 1780 who made an agreement with Prince Muhammad ibn Saud. He supported this prince and the prince adopted the religious ideology of Abdal Wahhab. There are four Sunni juridical schools in Islam. The most rigorous one is called Hanbali, which was practiced in Saudi Arabia at that time. Abdal Wahhab found even this Hanbali was not strict enough and so Wahhabism. It is the strictest practice of Islam. When Saudi Arabia was established at the beginning of the 20th century, this kind of Islam became the state religion which everyone was required to follow. With their money they exported this ideology, and so it was introduced in Egypt and in the 1990s in Algeria and Indonesia. 

Q: So in simplistic terms, oil money from the US and Europe is fueling the expansion of radical Islam?
Father Samir: Absolutely and it is going on today; they have plenty of money and a vision, an ideology. 

Q: The inter linking of politics and religion: in the West we experience secularization and a separation of Church and state. Is this possible in the Muslim world and how do we move to peace?
Father Samir: For the Muslim people who have not experienced secularization, almaniyyah means atheism. They cannot imagine a state without religion. Secularization for them means that religion is apart and is therefore atheism. I never use this word in Arabic. I say a “civil state," which does not mean that religion has no part. 

Q: What is the approach then?
Father Samir: I think we must say to the Muslims and the Eastern Christians that religion is a very important part of public life, and this we want to keep. An example is Lebanon, which has more religion than anywhere else, but all religions are recognized and respected. Here is a proposal: We all believe in God. We have different approaches to God, the Muslim approach, the Christian and Jewish as well as other approaches. This is the proposal; we will not touch religion because it is too rooted in us, but we want citizenship. We are all citizens and we want equality.

Q: Is it too late? The Christians are leaving the Middle East. Is this trend reversible?
Father Samir: Yes, that is why we have hope and this is very important. We would like, before it is too late, to say "Stop"; we as Christians have a proposal, not a Christian proposal but a proposal for everyone. The proposal is, please, for all those who are willing to apply this proposal, don’t leave, whether you are Christian, Muslim or Jews, we have to build together a society based on human rights.

Q: …because today the Middle East, tomorrow Europe and the United States.
Father Samir: …because if it is not done today and you don’t help us realize this project, Europe and the US be forewarned that today the radical Muslims are here but tomorrow they will come to you. They will attack you as colonialist and imperialist; these words are often used because it is expedient. You will be labelled as the bad one; you’ve put us in this situation and now we shall take revenge upon you. 

Q: But violence cannot be the answer…

Father Samir: We cannot fight an ideology with bombs. It provokes more anger among the aggrieved people. The more we kill this so called “terrorist” more will come to replace them because they do not perceive it as terrorism. It is an honour. It is the only honour they can achieve because they are often marginalized in their own country. They then say ‘we are martyrs’. We use the word ‘martyr’ Shahid every day.

Q: And the answer?
Father Samir: What we, Christians, are saying; the meaning of our life is to make peace, to have justice for the poor, the women, for everyone. For example, to have an educational system where not only the rich benefit. Egypt has one of the worst educational systems in the world. People after an obligatory nine years come out of the school unable to read or write. I was in charge of the educational system during the Socialist government in Egypt in the 1970s and I discovered during that time, at least half of the young people particularly boys could not read or write. I, as a government representative, even went to a so-called model schools where maybe 10% to 20% of the pupils could learn, and for the others it is too late. The key word is to build together because we know that we alone do not have the power to change the whole of society.

Q: You stated ‘together’…
Father Samir: Together… that is to say that the solution has to be peaceful, it cannot be a violent solution. It has to start with a political project. Firstly, the war has to end between Palestine and Israel. We will support the proposal to create two states. One would be ideal but after 60 years of war, this proposal will be impossible today. So two states with defined borders. We need one generation to transcend this. These borders are not to be walled to allow a free movement of people. The same in Iraq, we need peace between the Sunni and the Shia Muslims. I preach this among Muslims. So together with peace we can build our project – on one of social justice because this precept is in the Koran, the Bible and it is the ideal for Christians, Muslims and Jews. We propose this common project. We start. It cannot be, however, an Islamic one because it could be manipulated. The constitution is religious and will recognize God in different manners and it has to be based on human rights. Lebanon could be a model, not a perfect model but some ideas could come from there. And we will develop … step by step. It will take some generations…

Q: …but it is achievable!
Father Samir: I think it is achievable. Then we invite the richer countries to help us, then we will do the same to help them build a society of mutual co-existence. The king of Arabia would like to change the system. He built and started a university with mixed students; can you imagine this in Saudi Arabia and by the king? He is being criticized by the Mullahs, by the shaykh… but he is taking this step. 

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps," a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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