Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, a professor of philosophy, theology and Islamic studies based at St. Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon, gave a long and very interesting interview to the Register August 27th. Alas I couldn’t include it all, so I reproduce the unedited version here:
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 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 are 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 centre 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 United States 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 goal 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 Kuffār (plural of Kāfir = infidels), worse than Jews and Christians. We hear this from many Sunni leaders. You have small groups terrorizing others.
What is the solution?
The only solution is to say: OK, we have two Syrians 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.
Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronites, recently said he believes there is a plan to destroy the Arab world for political and economic interests, and to achieve this, various groups are stirring up Sunni and Shia conflicts. What is your view on this?
Personally, I think the conflict between Shia and Sunni is something very bad and it’s not good for Islam. It’s not helping Christians either. We are one people in the Middle East. Whether I’m Jew, Christian, Muslim, secular or atheist, is a personal issue, it’s not a political one. We have to move towards a more secular society, not in the negative sense, but one that is open-minded to religion. As Pope Benedict said in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Synod on the Middle East (no. 30), when he spoke of a positive secularism, there must be a distinction, not a separation, between Church and State. Religion gives principles to the State, and at that level, Christians, Muslims and Jews can find a common ethic. But if we go deeper into the more ethical details, then we are divided. So there is nothing positive about the fact that Shia and Sunni are fighting. It is a primitive vision to think that this would be “good” for Christians. Again, we are one people.
How much is this violence 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 12 September 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 the Pope didn’t say, but in fact what we find in the foundation of Islam, is that violence was used. This is a fact. If anyone denies this, they’re not a historian. We know that, thanks to Muslim sources and to the oldest source that has survived, the Kitāb al–Maghāzī written by Al-Wāqidī (745-822) , which means the “The Book of Campaigns (or Battles)”. He is describing around 60 battles (ghazwah) led by Mohammad in the years 623-632 against other groups.
I explain this by saying it’s an historic situation, not a principle to be applied everywhere at every time. This is the point. 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.
We have the same problem with the Jewish Bible, where culture, religion and politics are mixed, and were we read in Exodus how the Jews conquered the Holy Land against the people who were there, following the order of God. But it doesn’t mean that we have to take this as a model and apply it today. It is written in the mentality of that time and reflects their understanding of the prophet. As long as Muslims won’t read their holy Scriptures critically and historically, and as long they will believe it is to be forever applied literally in the world at all times, there will be a problem.
When I look at the history of any religion, I find things which were considered absolutely God’s will, which we consider today as not being so. We have to recognise that humanity – and this is one of the aims of religion – is growing, not only in number but in spirit. And to discover the meaning of a holy document takes time. But we have to do this.
For that reason, I say that 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] 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 Koran.
You are a native Egyptian – what are your current concerns about your homeland?
I must say, as I’ve said elsewhere: what I hear from the West is absolutely wrong. When I hear “Finally, Morsi is the first democratically elected president” – this is a nonsense! If you take it juridically, he was elected democratically, but juridically so was Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak elected. Since the 1952’s revolution, we had an elected president. So to say this statement, that he’s the first democratically elected president, is one only a non-Egyptian can make.
Secondly, we know there are reasons to explain why Mohammad Morsi was elected: because the youth [the main drivers of the 2011 revolution] were not organised as a party, and because those associated with Mubarak and the old system, were excluded. So finally the only group who was organised politically and who had the right to be elected was the Muslim Brotherhood. But where is the democracy?
The democracy means, etymologically, the power (kratos) of the people (demos). When you see that 22 million adults sign a petition to remove Morsi, saying after a year he’s not worthy to be president – 22 million adults! – this is a number we never reached before. Then there were around 30 million people on the streets a week after. This is the voice of the people, this is democracy.
The military, traditionally in the last decades, were always with the people, whether the government or the opposition. During the revolution of January 2011 and the weeks after, the army were supporting the opposition. So why didn’t we speak of a military coup? Because the coup was from the people and the military came and said, “OK, the people don’t want this government, and the Brotherhood refused.” So they said, “OK, we’ll nominate a provisional government,” and they nominated a magistrate, not a military, who was already nominated by Morsi himself! And when they asked all parties to take part in the government, the Brotherhood were the only party who refused, but the Salafists, who are more extreme than the Brotherhood, entered into this provisional government. Nobody said anything.
So this means it’s democratic, and it’s provisional. They didn’t make a joke, and say we create a constitution in one month and in one week people will vote for it [as the Muslim Brotherhood did]. I couldn’t read the constitution in one week – I tried. To write a constitution also takes years. To make a constitution in one month – now, that is a coup d’etat. And all we’ve seen, in the so-called democratic government [of the Muslim Brotherhood], is that they put their own people in all the important ministries of the state. They put their own governors into nine provinces before the end of the government, at once!
What they did was to worsen the economy. There was a shortage of food, they sold the petrol or gave it to Gaza. I was there in April and you’d see queues of one 1km of cars waiting 3, 5, or 8 hours to get provisions. They gave to Hamas and Gaza free access to 40 percent of the Sinai to train their mujāhidīn … and they killed a Coptic priest and some Christians, plus 27 soldiers. So it’s good that people threw them out. The people did their part, they expressed themselves, and the army protected the people and did their part.
What are your hopes going forward. Should the Brotherhood be banned?
Not banned, but we should simply say we need a new government. We will give time to all parties, without excluding anyone, and that means some months. We could apply some conditions, such as no terrorist could be accepted, and similar conditions.
And no to Sharia law?
Yes certainly! And then to give time to prepare a well-studied constitution. When they are approved and recognised, they need to decide on a reasonable time for the election and for it to be observed internationally. This is very important to avoid any criticism afterwards. We start with those who are elected by the people, and the parliament and so on, without excluding anyone, even the Muslim Brotherhood, on the condition that everyone signs and is obliged to follow the rule that violence is absolutely excluded.
Why is it, as Cardinal Rai said recently, that Christians must always pay the highest price in the Middle East? Why is this when they 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 neighbour, 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. Where were the biggest attacks? In two provinces: Minya and Assiut. These two are well known as centres of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood also did a lot of things there which were against the law, for example, taking a large plot of land in Assiut, which was an agrarian area, and building their Islamic university there. So anything illegal must be excluded.
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 constitution. We should not put man or woman, rich or poor, or make any distinction. Just put “citizens”. As a citizen I can build a house of prayer, on condition that the same rules are applied to Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus etc.. This is the only acceptable solution – that we speak only of citizens, and do not distinguish between them. 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 its 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 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 ten years, then we have to start today. But if we say Egypt is not ready for that, and we don’t start making some steps, it’s a joke. We have to start making the necessary steps, like when you start on a construction. If you say it takes a lot of time but never start, you’re not serious. So we have to set rules and put them into practice at this point.
I am sure that Egypt and the Egyptians are willing to start a new stage in their political life. They are willing to have a more democratic government. They are willing to ban discrimination between men and women, Muslims and Christians, rich and poor, etc. This is the true revolution, and I am convinced this is the wish of the people. The army should help people to realize this “dream” until a new government is elected and finally organized. Insha’ Allah!