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An Arab Springtime? (Part 2)

Egyptian Jesuit Analyzes Revolution Wave

By Inma Álvarez

ROME, FEB. 25, 2011 ( Though the so-called Jasmine Revolution has unsettled the future of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and perhaps the whole Arab world, there’s a feeling that it’s all the beginning of a springtime.

Jesuit Father Samir Khalil, a native of Egypt and a leading expert on Christian-Muslim dialogue, is one person who is optimistic about the revolution wave.

He told ZENIT that all of this could be “a real springtime that is being proclaimed in the Arab world and that we hope will end in something positive.”

For the Jesuit, one of the most interesting aspects about the revolution is the unity being experienced between Muslims and Christians. In this second part of his interview, he proposes that youth are ready to leave behind the interreligious tensions that plagued their parents’ generation.

Part 1 of his interview was published Thursday.

ZENIT: One of the “surprises” of this civil movement has been the participation both of Muslims and Christians. How do you assess this?

Father Samir: It’s something that has surprised me, above all in Egypt. In Egypt, Christians are 10% of the population and in early January that tragedy took place in which 23 Christians died in a church. And yet, three weeks later we see Christians and Muslims together, hand in hand, who raise the cross and the Quran, or who carry symbols, for example a flag with a large cross and a large crescent, or also a Muslim praying on the ground covered with an Egyptian flag, laying in front of him his sunglasses marked with the cross and the crescent. Or also when on Friday, Muslims knelt down to pray in front of the tanks, while Christians, the Copts, surrounded them to protect them, making a chain with their hands. These are all gestures of solidarity. The posters said: “Muslim and Christian, Only One Hand,” or also “Muslims and Christians United Against the Government.”

I think this also comes from the fact that it is a movement of young people. Young people no longer wish to live in hatred. They are also fed up with these conflicts of their parents, of the older generation, and they say: “Leave us in peace!” They don’t want to drag these struggles around in their lives. I think this is the background; people want to live in peace, to build their own family, their village, to have a more open, more developed nation.

ZENIT: In your opinion, is separation between religion and state possible in these countries, or is more time needed to form consciences?

Father Samir: Some time will be necessary, but it progresses, it goes forward. For example, I was reading another article of a Saudi woman, based on an event in history, which is that Aisha, Mohammed’s young wife, in one of the famous wars, was riding on a camel on her own, to encourage the men of her tribe in the war. And then the Saudi journalist wrote saying: “Young Aisha rode the camel on her own and did not need men, and we, the women of today, after 14 centuries, cannot drive a car. Where are we?”

There are imams who reply: “She wants to reinterpret the whole religion,” and they criticize her, and others who respond: “How is she mistaken? If you’re not in agreement, explain why not.” Already through the Internet, through these continuous debates that are open to all, a path is being made in the Muslim world. People are asking, “Why do we have to accept this? The foundation of everything is equality. God has created everyone equal. Why can’t we go forward with this idea,” etc.

The Internet is changing mentalities, bringing people closer together. Real globalization is not through the economy, but through the Internet. It is there where the young people of America and of Yemen can approach one another, and have opinions that are not identical, but close.

ZENIT: In fact one of the challenges, along with the issue of minorities, is the role of women in Muslim countries. What points of view are there right now?

Father Samir: There are two currents that are in conflict. There is a current of women, supported also by men, who say that they are neither superior nor inferior to men, but equal, and they don’t accept that a woman can’t do this or that, as they see women of other countries in all sectors of life, and they ask: Why not among us? This current is increasingly strong.

Against it is the rather religious current, which states that between men and women God established a difference of quality, because as the Quran states, men are a degree higher than women (wa-fima baynahuma daragah) because God preferred men to women. And the women answer yes, but the preference in this verse is motivated by the fact that the man is the one who maintains the family. But today this is no longer true, because there are women who maintain their families. Hence, it isn’t a fact in the nature of man or woman, but a sociocultural fact.

And it is along this line that things are changing, though slowly, in some countries. And there is no doubt that we have seen Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, who was head of state, and in other countries many ministers who are notable women, also Nobel Prize recipients, as in Iran. There is greater awareness that if women are given the liberty to act, they can even be superior to men. However, it isn’t easy. It is a struggle that will still last some decades.

ZENIT: What can we expect of this “Muslim version of 1968″ (acknowledging the difference with that movement)? What can Catholics expect? And Christians in general? We’ve seen that Patriarch Antonios Naguib of Alexandria, Egypt, is appealing to Catholics to be involved in public life.

Father Samir: As I said earlier, this is a springtime in the Arab world. It would be absurd for Christians to remain on the outskirts, because truly, without false humility, we already have all these principles, in the letter and the spirit of the Gospel: that of openness to the other, of the quest for justice and peace, and perhaps a Muslim can say the same.

Hence, it is certain that this current proposes a society that corresponds more to evangelical criteria than the preceding societies. Therefore, welcome, Christians! Yes, having such a strong support from their faith, they go together with the Muslims and do not form a movement apart, if they struggle for more justice, more democracy, more liberty, more equality among all; an equality that makes no distinction between the sexes, races or religions, that does not place the believer above the non-believer or the Muslim above the Christian, then they will be welcome!

This is the principle, and given that peace is the foundation of civil society and that peace doesn’t exist without justice, and that justice also implies knowing how to forgive … all these are principles that we hear every day in the Church, and which have also been repeated by the Supreme Pontiffs. All these principles are also valid for Muslims. And I think it is the occasion for the new generation, Christians, Muslims, atheists, it doesn’t matter. It is the occasion to say: We fight for the rights of the human person, and we want to propose, all together, a project for a new society. It seems to me that this revolution, this springtime of the Arab world, is going in this direction.

ZENIT: Hence, on the whole, you see what is happening as something positive?

Father Samir: I am very optimistic, optimistic with realism, in the sense that there is a question: Until there is a clear government, until one knows along what lines it decides to go, while there is no identifiable organization, one cannot be sure. Structures are needed. For the time being we are still in the phase of explosion, of discovery. I hope, however, that it will pass rapidly to a society based on the principles we have enunciated.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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