09/21/2012, 00.00
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Fr. Samir: The taboos of the Muslims, the false freedom of the West

by Samir Khalil Samir
The case of the anti-Islamic film and of the cartoons satirising Mohammed highlights two different cultures: Islamic culture, which hails from dictatorships and complaints, and Western culture, liberal and iconoclastic towards religion. Too much sanctity among Muslims and too much secularism among Westerners. But the Islamic world is changing: there's increasingly more condemnation of the violence. The Pope's proposal in Lebanon to build coexistence in diversity and not in uniformity.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - The scandal due to the anti-Islamic film produced in the U.S.A., to which is added the provocation of some cartoons of Mohammed in France, arises from two cultural settings that fail to integrate: on the one hand, there are the Muslims who have made the figure of Muhammad and the book of the Qur'an "sacred taboos", untouchable. On the other hand, in the West there is a conception of liberty so absolute that it goes to the point of offending religion.

For Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, a great expert on Islam, these are the two ingredients that are unleashing demonstrations and violence across the Muslim world. At the same time, he notes that many Muslim governments and organisations - unlike what happened years ago with the incident of the cartoons about Muhammad - are expressing themselves with far greater clarity and openness against the violence of their coreligionists. There is also a suggestion for the Christians of the West: perhaps they too should be less submissive to the dominant culture, so easy to insult religions. Here's what Fr. Samir told us.

The problem: a comparison between the Western and Islamic cultures

Looking at all these demonstrations, which are often violent, I must say that they come from a real big problem that we have in the Middle East: we don't understand the almost total freedom that exists in the United States. In addition, there isn't the least idea of freedom of expression, due to the fact that we live in countries with a dictatorship. Finally, the freedom of conscience (not of religion) is a concept that does not exist.

In the criticism from the Muslim world and in the attacks in different countries, the target was the United States. I have tried to explain to my Islamic friends that the United States has nothing to do with it; that the film was produced by an American Copt - or by an American Jew, as has been said - but this does not involve the whole country.

This estrangement of the government is incomprehensible to the Arab countries, because here there's censorship and control over the media. I too recently, in Egypt, because of my writing an article, suffered the censorship of the government and of Al Azhar, because I had quoted literally some verses of the Qur'an, and I was told that I shouldn't have done it since I was a Christian.

The second problem is that Muslims have "sacred taboos", that lead to the condemnation of all these so called "sins of blasphemy", particularly in Pakistan. Muslims have sacralized the book of the Qur'an and the figure of Muhammad. But it wasn't always so. This disease has spread only recently and increases with the ignorance and frustration present in the Muslim world.

In India, as you have said at AsiaNews, the imams have condemned the film, but they have asked that the protesters not express themselves with violence. Even in Lebanon, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has launched massive demonstrations against the movie about Muhammad. It must be said, however, that so far the demonstrations have mostly been peaceful, without any violence or destruction. In our regions, holding a demonstration without violence is already an achievement. It seems to me that the Islamic world is learning, and this time there are many voices condemning the violence of the Islamic protests, in a much more open way than at the time of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad (in 2006).

The Vatican Press Office has condemned the violent demonstrations, but also the production of the film (and the publication of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo). I have to say that the movie's trailer on Youtube put together the most vulgar scenes, precisely with intent to provoke, posting it on social networks and translating it into Arabic to ensure maximum dissemination.  In the movie there is truth to the historical background, but there is also a great amount of falsehood. That Muhammad had 18 or 19 women, is a historical fact, which also the Muslim scholars discuss; that he started more than 60 wars (raids = ghazwa) is also a historical fact. But the way these elements are presented, is done to scandalize Muslims and make them feel disgust for the figure of Muhammad.

Violence is not a justifiable response

I find the reactions of Muslims excessive. In the Western world, the provocations against the Catholic religion are much more numerous and sometimes more offensive. This year alone in France there were two offensive plays about Christ; one showed Christ on the cross covered with excrement. And the latter was even funded in part as a work of art by the French government.

Provocations make up part of our Western world unfortunately, though it's not right to provoke people regarding what they believe. On the other hand, you have to learn to accept a certain amount of freedom (and provocation) even concerning holy things.

Sometimes censorship can be useful. In Lebanon recently there has been a ban on the sale of a book - translated into Arabic from German-, Geschichte des Qorans by Theodor Nöldeke ("History of the Qur'an"), published in 1909, a century ago, that Muslims consider offensive to Islam. Shortly thereafter, Christians managed to ban the sale of a book that discredited St. Paul as a forger of the message of Christ and the inventor of Christianity.

Finding a middle way between freedom and respect for people

The problem is when a product comes directly from the outside, from the West, which is a carrier of a different culture. We must try to live together in our diversity, as Pope Benedict suggested this week in Beirut, to create unity in diversity, not in uniformity. In any case I can't blame an entire state - the U.S. or France - just because one of its citizens has done something that I regard as blasphemous.

On the other hand, I also want to say that Islam, beyond the exaggerations, points the finger at something real: under the guise of freedom, in the West we tend to ridicule religion. In the days of his visit in Lebanon, the Pope spoke of violence in words and in deeds. If we want to free the world from violence, we must also free ourselves from the violence of words, from this strong way of offending religion. Unfortunately, the Christians of the West are submissive and unresisting in the face of insults to Christianity.





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