Keys for Coexistence Between Muslims and Christians (Part 2)

Interview With Father Samir Khalil Samir

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ROME, FEB. 17, 2004 ( A rereading of the Koran is necessary if Islam is to be integrated in Western countries, says Father Samir Khalil Samir.

In Part II of this interview, the author of «One Hundred Questions on Islam,» a book-interview, continues to address possible ways to further understanding between Christians and Muslims. Part 1 appeared Monday.

Q: Christians are increasingly questioning themselves about Islam. Do Muslims also ask themselves questions about Christians?

Father Samir: Yes, Christians are questioning themselves about Islam. Living in a mixed environment such as Beirut, I must say that they question themselves about Islam, and vice versa. Anyway, it is true that in Lebanon they always tell me that we Christians know Islam better than they do Christianity. The fact is we have quite a few difficulties when we organize congresses and we want a Muslim speaker who knows Christianity well.

Q: Is Islam still an unknown for Europe?

Father Samir: Europe should not fault itself for not knowing Islam; it is obvious. But, neither does it know Buddhism or other religions. For me, the question does not lie in not knowing, but in wanting to know.

It is positive to work together, also criticizing what we don’t like about Muslims’ culture, in the same way that they have the right to contest aspects of Western culture that they don’t like.

For example, they think that the concept of laicism seems to have eliminated the religious phenomenon, which, in any case, reappears. This is a valid criticism, and so should be the reverse.

I would like to remind readers that the Muslim presence in Europe is recent; it is absurd to pretend that the European roots are those of all religions.

From my point of view, the presence of Muslims in Europe could be a blessing under certain conditions: for example, if a European Islam could be created, that would be Muslim in faith and European in culture — that is, also Christian.

Then one could arrive at a rereading of the Koran, starting with the equality between man and woman, between believer and atheist, and including the principles of democracy and of Western civilization, especially the distinction between the religious and the political.

Q: Some have criticized your book, alleging that it overlooks very positive aspects of Islam, such as Sufism.

Father Samir: There is truth in this observation; the fact is I do not speak of Sufism. But, it is a reality that Sunni orthodox Islam sees as something private, or even as a deviation. It doesn’t carry much weight.

If we look at the books that are published in the Arab-Muslim world, we will virtually find none on the Sufis. Instead, in the West there are many. Why? Because the West is interested in the other starting with oneself, and there is no desire to understand Islam as it is.

In Islam, what is essential in the teachings and in life is the juridical. This is neither an accusation nor a negative aspect, it is the reality, and one must respect the other as he is.

More than Sufism, to understand the Muslim world we must know its sources. The «haddit,» for example, are the sayings of the Prophet, and they are virtually not translated although they are very important.

Q: Is a rereading of the Koran what is urgent?

Father Samir: What is important now is to clarify how the Koran is to be read and interpreted today. Sadly, there are few Muslims who propose a rereading of the Koran.

Christianity began a critical reading of its sources centuries ago. This critical rereading has not taken place in the Muslim world and it is a necessity.

To rethink the Koran does not mean to change the text, but its reading. Muslim intellectuals want to do so, but they cannot because the weight of the traditional majority is too great.

This would be possible in Europe, as long as these fundamentalist groups paid by rich Gulf countries don’t prevail; what they do is to export an Islam to Europe that is not the Islam that European Muslims want.

They control many mosques. It is not immigrants who have constructed them, but the fundamentalists and their preachers who come from Arabia or some emirates.

Q: Islam is something natural for you, being as you are a Christian Arab. Do you feel you are a bridge?

Father Samir: I have a great liking for Muslims, I belong to that culture. I am a Christian Arab in a Muslim culture, but my faith is Christian, and I am happy with one and the other.

Of course, Islam is not foreign to me. We Christian Arabs have learned to appreciate the positive and negative aspects of coexistence. We can also help Western Christians to understand Islam as a whole and to coexist with it. We are a bridge and we can contribute what our centuries-old experience has given us as a result.

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