Keys for Coexistence Between Muslims and Christians (Part 1)

Interview With Father Samir Khalil Samir

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ROME, FEB. 16, 2004 ( The integration of Muslims in Europe is necessary and can be a good for Islam and for Europe, says an expert on Islamic topics.

Father Samir Khalil Samir is the subject of «One Hundred Questions on Islam,» a book-length interview by Giorgio Paolocci and Camille Eid.

Father Samir is a professor at Beirut’s St. Joseph University and Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute. In this interview, he suggests possible points of contact with the 12 million Muslims in the European Union.

Q: What is the most important question one must ask about Islam?

Father Samir: The question is simple: What is Islam? Islam is a religion that is both similar to and different from Christianity. Many of the profound values have points in common with Christianity.

Let’s not forget that Islam was born in a geographic, cultural and historical context where Judaism and Christianity already existed. There were many Christians in Mecca, and many Jews in Medina, Islam’s second city.

The context of Bedouin culture, in the Arab environment, makes the way of understanding God and religion different. When I say different I make no judgment on quality; it is simply different.

For Westerners, there is the temptation to try to assimilate Islam in a form of Christianity, or to regard it as something totally different. But no, it’s neither one of these. We must begin by knowing what it is.

Q: Does Islam consider itself «missionary» by definition?

Father Samir: Just as it is essential to Christianity to want to transmit the Gospel to all, so for the Muslim it is also essential to transmit the Koran. Up to here it is justifiable and right.

The problem arises when the manner of proceeding is aggressive. Problems arise when a Christian, in the desire to proclaim Christ and the Gospel to the whole world, does so — even if slightly — in an aggressive way or with contempt for those who do not have the same view of the world.

If I know I have discovered something beautiful, and out of love and friendship want to transmit it, there is no problem, so long as I do so with absolute freedom for all. What is more, it becomes an act of fraternity and love.

Q: Some wish to do it by ways that are far from peace.

Father Samir: Today we often see how some wish to spread Islam through means that are not always peaceful. At one time, it was even by war.

I think that when we speak of war we must not say, «But the Christians undertook Crusades,» because, according to my reading of history, the object of the Crusades was not to convert Muslims; the objective was defense. The objectives were military and social; never to convert Muslims. Rather, they went, instead, to defend Christians and roads used by pilgrimages to the holy places. …

Islam does not accept the principle of «violence for the sake of violence,» nor will it use war to spread the faith.

Muslim faith has spread, above all, through traders — suffice it to think of India or Malaysia — and through the mystics. It has had several methods of diffusion: the desire to want to spread the faith and to share it is a noble act. We would have to see what has to be done to refine this concept of diffusion, which for them is the «dawa» and for Christians the «mission.»

Q: Are violence and nonviolence found in the same measure in the Koran?

Father Samir: Violence is in the Koran and in Mohammed’s life, and whoever says the contrary has not read the Koran or knows Mohammed. His first biographies were called books of conquests; it is how Muslims call them.

But at the same time that I say that violence is in the Koran, I must also say that nonviolence is there and also in Mohammed’s life. I don’t contradict myself; it is the reality.

On one hand, violence was part of nascent Islam. The more profound question we must ask ourselves is how to reconcile violent events that subsist in the Koran and that oblige — yes, I say oblige — almost to kill in some cases.

At the same time, other paragraphs oblige — I repeat, oblige — one to do no harm and to respect diversity. Both views are found, and only by asking ourselves this question and seeking the answer will we begin to understand the Muslim reality as a whole.

[Part 2 of this interview appears Tuesday]

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