Courtesy of Father Samir

VATICAN CITY — The terrorist attack by Islamist militants on the offices of the irreligious French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Jan. 7 brought widespread condemnation. Twelve civilians, including two policemen, one of whom was Muslim, were killed by two masked gunmen, and several others were wounded.

The atrocity was just the latest in increasingly common attacks by Islamic fundamentalists around the world. On Jan. 10, international media reported that up to 2,000 civilians in and around the town of Baga, Nigeria, were slaughtered by the Islamist group Boko Haram.

In an extensive interview with the Register on Jan. 8, Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, a native Egyptian, explains the connection between Islam and the attacks, the need for control over what imams preach and the importance of a recent call from Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi for Islam to undergo a reformation. This is Part I of the interview.


Father Samir, what was your reaction to the attack? Were you in any way surprised?

It was a shock. How, in the heart of Paris, could they do something like that? It is all really incredible. So it was, really, a shock for everyone, and the reaction was very clear: Thousands of people in every city protested, and so on.

Also, the fact that it was two French people of Algerian origin who did it means that integration has not been achieved. This is a major point: the problem of integration of Muslims in Western culture. There’s a kind of rejection, not by all people, but some Muslims today — and I stress today — to reject Western culture. They consider it bad, anti-Muslim or not religious. It wasn’t like that in the past.

I remember when I studied in the early 1960s in France, all the [other students] were Muslims, because it was an Islamic-studies class at university. I was the only Christian, and there was absolutely no difference in behavior. They were French but had the Muslim religion. I wasn’t French, but I was a Christian. They were Muslims. That was all.


So what has changed since then?

In the 1970s, we saw that, in the Middle East — I was in upper Egypt in 1971, 1972 — Saudi Arabia started introducing the veil in girls’ schools. … It started like that. Then, we have seen this movement spreading to other Arab countries, to other Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, which was the model of a kind of secular city and certainly open to all religions. Slowly, they became fanatics more and more. In Malaysia, too, and in other parts of Asia, and now in Europe, there’s that same movement.


What has fueled that fanaticism over the past 40 years?

We could say the Palestinian conflict with Israel was one factor, but this was long ago. What has changed is that Europe, and the West in general, has become viewed as irreligious, and this perception has grown more and more, especially through new legislation and matters concerning sexuality, which are seen as totally unacceptable.

But another reason is that the rise of this fundamentalist movement has been helped by the money of oil-producing countries — they could buy anybody — nations and groups.

The Muslim Brotherhood started in Egypt in 1928, but under [Egyptian President] Abdel Nasser and his revolution in 1954 until his death [in 1970], he tried to work with them because the Muslim Brotherhood was more popular. They helped the poor in the suburbs of Cairo. So he tried, but then the Brotherhood became more and more fanatical. They said that women should not work but stay at home, that they should wear the veil, and so on. Nasser finally said: “We cannot work together. We are a normal society. We just want the development of Egypt.” So he then put them in prison, because they started to get aggressive; and many of them went to Saudi Arabia, where they started their propaganda and also absorbed the ideas of the Wahhabi Islamic movement, which is very fundamentalist. This is how the movement developed.

Back in Europe, what is happening? Charlie Hebdo published the caricatures, which were first published in Denmark. You remember, at that time, there was a strong reaction. I was in Beirut then, and they attacked the Christian quarters there, even if Christians had nothing to do with it. But they protested in that way because they considered the West as Christian — “A Western publication committed a blasphemy, so we avenge any Christian.”

Now, Charlie Hebdo, which is well known as a satirical journal with caricatures, did with Muhammed what they do with other religious leaders.


As with similar atrocities carried out by Islamists, many blame Islam and see such attacks as making a mockery of it being described as a “religion of peace.” What’s your view of this?

It must be clear that what they [fundamentalist Islamists] do, what they’ve done and what they did yesterday is in the name of Islam. To deny this is a lie. Why? Because every fundamentalist group had an imam or two issuing a fatwa [authorizing acts of violence] that gave them the permission. It’s not automatic. Someone who has authority — a religious person who has studied it — has the right to decide whether it’s permitted, is allowed to attack or not.

In Islam, you cannot attack simply anyone in the name of Islam. There must be a reason for that. The mufti — which means the one who gives the fatwa — has the right and task to say now it’s halal [permitted by Islamic law] or the opposite, that it’s haram [prohibited]. So they don’t do this in the name of Islam, but in the name of the Quran and Islam.

To go back to Charlie Hebdo and the Danish cartoon: They depicted Muhammed with a turban, and in the turban, there was a bomb. I asked my Muslim friend: How does Islam depict Muhammed? Usually with his sword. And we know there are two swords attributed to him, each one with a name, preserved in museums, one in Istanbul and the other somewhere else. And what is the symbol in Saudi Arabia? Two swords.

And how was Saudi Arabia born? It came about through an alliance in 1745 between Muhammed ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), a very rigorist Islamic preacher, and Muhammed Ibn Saud, a tribal chief, as Hamadi Redissi explains in his book. They fought against other Arab tribes and succeeded in dominating the whole of Arabia and in creating the Saudi Arabian state.

That means the development of Islam, in the beginning with the Prophet Muhammed and today with other countries, is continuing through violence, through the sword. Why do they criticize others for such images when they depict their religion as they do?

But, more deeply, this is a question of liberty of conscience, and this is something totally unknown. I can understand their wish to react, certainly. If someone is depicting Christ, St. Paul or any saint or pope in a bad way, I will react. But react how? In the same way? That’s the problem. We don’t have in the Arab and Muslim world the concept of liberty of conscience, that is, religious liberty. If you want to protest, do so, but according to the law. What happened on Wednesday was something very, very important, and it’s very dangerous. It means that these people, especially the two who did it, are two French people who didn’t integrate into the French system or vision. Instead of reacting against Charlie Hebdo by writing a rebuttal, they killed all journalists they could find!


Could you say that, on the contrary, the culture they lived in radicalized them?

Yes. And here is my question to Europe, whether it might be England, Belgium or France (I’m more careful to speak about the U.S., as I’m not used to it).

In Europe, the tendency is to speak of tolerance, and I find this word awful, really, because if I were a Muslim, I would not want to be “tolerated,” because I would not want to be “tolerated” as a Christian in my own country, Egypt. I am a citizen, full stop.

Whatever my religion, either I am a citizen or I am not. If I am a citizen, I agree and adopt the constitution, norms and culture of my country, whether I was born here or I chose it; but it’s my own choice, and I have to respect it.

But the problem is that, on one side, Muslims have difficulty accepting this vision. For them, Islam can only have the best law, because they think it’s coming from God. We know historically that it’s very human and that there is no law coming from God, but they pretend. They pretend that it’s the best one, that it surpasses any constitution. But I say, “No, it does not.”

On the other side, the West often has a problem with Islam. Westerners fear what they call today “Islamophobia.” I’m against this word because, etymologically, it means fear of Islam, not the aggression of Islam. Most people fear Islam when we see what is happening. But there are a lot of people in the West who are against Islam, and so governments are trying to reverse the situation, but in the wrong way.

The only way to solve the question is to say: “Here, we have certain norms. If you want to live here, whoever you are, whether you were born here or not, if you want to live here, you have to observe them; and not only the laws, but also what is considered normal.”


How much of what happened in Paris is evidence of what Pope Benedict XVI alluded to in his Regensburg address: Anti-religious, postmodern sentiment based on positivism and reason without faith is clashing with fundamentalists who have faith, but without reason?

Yes, and the question here is: Can we distinguish between faith and society?

The problem here not only involves Muslims, but, also, I see this in India, with Hindus, and elsewhere with other religions. They identify religion as a totality, and for that reason, it could become a totalitarianism, which is obviously a bad thing. This is happening with Islam, and it once happened with Christianity. It meant that to be Christian one had to act in certain ways in everything.

I am free to choose my culture and my way of life and free to sin every day if I want. This is my problem. If I pretend to be Christian, I am supposed to follow some norms, but nobody can oblige me to do so. If a person pretends to be Muslim, then he should follow his laws. He follows his fasting, tithing — that is his problem.

But Muslims don’t have this liberty, even today in the 21st century. If someone is eating during Ramadan and others see him, then he goes to prison. I’m not speaking here of the Middle Ages, I’m talking of 2015 — in Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and so on.

The distinction is between religion and faith: Religion is a totalitarian system; faith is a spiritual one. I’m free to do what I want, to write what I want, as long as I am not doing anything against the common law.

If someone writes a book to show that God is a man’s invention, I have the right to write another book against him. But I cannot say that I have the right to kill him or to hurt him because he is an atheist.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi made a recent speech, accusing Muslims of being hostile to the entire world and urging Islam to be reformed or revolutionized. What is your reaction to this speech?

This is the opinion of most Muslims. I cannot give a percentage, but, certainly, 80% of people don’t want this pressure [exerted by Islamists]. They say: “Please let us live as we want.” We also have, in Egypt, rules and principles, and you cannot beat someone simply because you are angry. If you do that, you go to prison, as we have norms. So they say: “Why do you want to impose over me something else?”

El-Sissi is saying what many people are saying, a wish for a kind of secular city, but not secular in the meaning that there is no God or religious tradition: secular that means distinguishing between my faith and belief and my way of life.


What effect do you think his speech might have on the Muslim world?

I didn’t hear his speech, but if it’s as you say, then this is a positive step. Now, he is not so perfect. He put in prison journalists who were against him. This is unjust. I’m not defending him in all that he’s doing, but in Egypt, we are far from democracy, for hundreds of years, even in the last decades; forever, this has been the case. But we are trying in some ways to have more democracy. People, unfortunately, are not educated for democracy.

In Egypt and in other Arab countries, there is a 40% illiteracy rate. Some people cannot even sign their names. This means it’s difficult for them to judge, to say that al-Sisi is right on that point but wrong on another. They cannot do it, so how can they vote? They follow what they consider a “good voice,” namely imams. And that’s the big responsibility of Muslims.

I was invited Jan. 7 to the French embassy in Rome because a Muslim delegation from Paris was visiting — four imams came with a priest responsible for Christian-Muslim relations. I knew two of the imams, they’re very open-minded, and the other one as well. They were shocked by what happened in Paris. One of them lives in Paris and has just started creating a center to educate imams in France, because the problem is that the imams are sent by their countries — Morocco, Egypt, Turkey — with a different vision. They are also very often paid by their country, or by Saudi Arabia, and so are dependent on whoever pays them. They follow their paymasters.

In Al-Azhar [the world’s most prestigious Islamic university, based in Egypt], they teach whatever the governor wants, because they are paid and even nominated by the government.

So this French imam told me: There are more than 1,000 imams, not always, coming to this center. It’s a very good step. The teaching is in French with Arabic, and, normally, the preaching should be in the language of the country.

To take, as a good example, from my own country: All the imams are severely controlled, not only by the police, but by other imams and people who know Islam. If they say something aggressive or extremist, they stop [him] and forbid him to preach. In other countries, they ask to see the text [of speeches] before, because we know in Muslim countries how the mosque can influence people, and if it’s in a bad way, the government is also responsible. It would be good for Muslims and the nation to have some control. You will not be able to do this for everyone, but if there’s one imam pushing for war or aggression, you could say: “Please control him.”


But if Islam doesn’t have a central authority to enforce this kind of control, that presents a problem?

Yes, this is a problem. But even if there’s no separate authority, if the preaching I’m giving is against the general norms, I should go back to the traditional norms of the country.

If it’s against those, then you’re not building up your people to be good citizens and to be happy. The goal is to make these people happy and good, and so on.

Here in Rome, we have many Chinese shops that sell everything. No one is doing anything against the law. This is education, and this is the first ethical education: You do what you have to do, and you respect the laws. Muslims in Europe are from another culture and are not prepared to accept a different culture. They see this difference as negative.


But it’s argued that, for Muslims to really get out of their situation, they need to convert to Christ and become Christians. What do you say to this view?

I disagree with that. Experience tells me it’s not so, because I know, in my school in Cairo, a Jesuit school, a third of the classroom was Muslim. Today, it’s more than half.

I meet all my old friends, whether they are Muslims or Christians: They think exactly as I think, and they are Muslims. It could be that, through a Christian education, they discovered some positive aspects, and they give a greater emphasis to this aspect to their faith. But I’m not issuing any propaganda. If someone wants to be Christian, he’s welcome — if he really wants to be, really.

The problem of Islam (and other religions) is that they put everything together under the name of Islam. When you say Islam, it means you eat like that, you dress like that, you walk with this one and not that one. Everything comes from God, they think.

We have something like that in the Old Testament, but most Jews — not all of them — would say, “This was normal at that time, at the time of Moses 3,000 years ago or more. It was normal to be like that. But, today, I’m not going against God if I say this is a cultural question not a religious one.”


Returning to the recent attacks in Paris and Africa, can we expect more acts of violence like this in the future?

With ISIS, anything is possible. They have their aim, which is to destroy those who don’t think like them, even if they are Muslims.

If we go back to the Middle East, the war is not between Muslims and non-Muslims; it’s between Muslims and Muslims. Essentially, it’s between the Sunna, who are the majority, and the Shia, who are maybe 15% in the area. The other are 85%. And the Sunna consider the Shia to be heretical, and some would say unbelievers, while the Shia are usually more open-minded. This is my experience.

So, the fact is that the war is internal, within Islam. Occasionally, they attack Christians, Yazidi and others. The West is not the first aim; the West will come later. They start with their own area. We see what is happening with the Kurds, who are Sunna. They attack them because they have their own system. and they are not really observing the sharia [Islamic law] as the other would like.

Again, the problem is fanaticism. If everything is seen as dictated by God through the imams, that everything must be done this way or that, that even the veil is a way to distinguish one group from another, then this is no more life [with freedom].


Do you see this not changing?

In my short life, I’ll be 77 in two days, I am seeing it changing. We [Arabs] were much more open in my youth, much more than we are today. I hope that we will go back to this openness, but it will not happen with this fundamentalist mentality.

The question is to be able to say: “Follow your belief, but leave others to freely live theirs as they want, even if you think they are sinners by doing that.” It means distinguishing between ethics and law.

Personally, as with the majority of people in the world, I believe homosexuality is not a normal thing, that we are created for heterosexuality. This is my conviction. But it does not mean that homosexuality is a crime — a delictus — and that it is against the law. If so, there is no more liberty. We have to defend the liberty even of doing something wrong.

To conclude, we have to help Muslims to integrate themselves when they live in the West, and every step that could be done by the governments or groups to help them is a positive step for everyone. They are our brothers, they come from a difficult context, and we have to help them, without saying they are different and can do whatever they want. I have, at the same time, to say: “Look, this and that are our norms here. I will help you to know what are our norms and laws; if you can’t accept them, then go back somewhere else, where you will find your life, your freedom, your respect. But here, you have to observe the common law of this country.”

Clarity helps people to make the right choice, freely!

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

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