09/08/2004, 00.00
IRAQ
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Kidnapping women and killing children or how Islamic terrorism is morphing

by Bernardo Cervellera

Interview with Fr Samir Khalil Samir, SJ.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – According to Fr Samir Khalil Samir, the recent abduction of two Italian women and the slaughter of children in Beslan show that there is "a new type of terrorism that claims to act in the name of Islam but no longer subscribes to Islam's ethical norms." These terrorist actions are symptomatic of "chaos, of a crisis in which groups proliferate" without any leadership or under imams "no longer capable of exerting their control." Despite what one hears among pacifist or pro-Islamic circles, "some terrorist actions" are justified according to Islamic ethical norms. However, no one has possibly justified abducting women and children. For Father Samir "we have now entered a new phase in the history of Islamic terrorism".

Father Samir was born in Egypt but now lives in Beirut (Lebanon). He is one of the foremost Christian experts on the Islamic world. In the interview with AsiaNews he speaks among other things of the status of women in the Islamic world and Islam's difficult journey towards modernity.

It is one of the first times terrorists abduct women. It used to be something rare . . .

I was surprised as well because it runs against the traditions of Islamic terrorists. Women can be mujaheddin (freedom fighters) or suicide bombers, they can be combatants or martyrs, they can give their lives for the people, but they are never abducted.

In this particular case, it might be a group seeking money or influence, but I have a gnawing sense that the terrorist mindset is morphing and changing in character. The recent episodes –taking children hostage in Beslan, kidnapping women in Iraq– are unacceptable to Islam. I have the impression that things are drifting into chaos, a crisis in which groups proliferate without any leadership or under imams no longer capable of exerting their control.

Is terrorism governed by any Islamic ethical norms?

It might seem strange but terrorists do follow some ethical guidelines. Islamic fundamentalists are guided by spiritual leaders who tell them what they can and cannot do. Some terrorist actions can be justified under Islamic ethical norms. For instance, Islamic religious authorities often justify violent actions by Palestinians, but no one has justified the Beslan massacre and the abduction of women. It would seem that some groups have no spiritual leadership and are nothing but terrorist gangs. This means we are facing a new type of terrorism, one that claims to act in the name of Islam but one that no longer subscribes to Islam's ethical norms. This means that among those sectors of the population prepared to use violence in the name of Islam things are spinning out of control.

Does this mean we face a nihilistic form of terrorism or does terrorism use certain means for particular ends?

It is possible that some of these people are motivated by material gain alone. Lacking money and weapons they do anything to achieve their goals, like the mafia that kidnaps children for ransom. This is a bad sign, because although organised terrorist groups are, of course, terrorist, at least they have some principles that we can understand. But now, it is hard to figure things out, understand what is behind the actions. Perhaps in the next few days, we shall find out why they did it and who is behind them, but, in the meantime, it is certain that we have left one phase in the history of Islamic terrorism and are now entering another.

It is often said that Islam is a religion of peace, that it opposes violence . . .

It is false to say that Islam does not justify violence. But it is also true that the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject extremist interpretations terrorist groups give to Islam's foundational scriptures. According to Islam, both the Palestinian case and the invasion of Iraq are clear examples of foreign aggression –by Jewish colonists in one case; by Allied forces in the other– which make Muslims more likely to accept violence as a form of self-defence. The more recent cases, such as abducting women and children for money or power, are unacceptable even for Islam.

How does Islam view women?

The Islamic world (and this probably applies to the entire Mediterranean basin) is ambivalent vis-à-vis women. For Muslim men she must be meek and they have a duty to protect her because she is weak. In short, a woman is like a child. Children are told what to do and must obey. In return, they are given protection and care.

In many Islamic countries this mindset is changing but very slowly. In the more traditional countries women must simply put up with their lot because they have no power to transform their society.

Under Saddam Hussein the county was secularised. Were women not emancipated?

Yes, but Iraq is a highly segmented society. There are still large tribal groups that live by traditional rules.

One must understand that faced with modernity and the present mayhem many people are finding refuge in religion. Traditional views about the place of women in society are reasserting themselves. Women are to be protected but also segregated from the outside world.

This is why in Iraq's poorer Shia community, where religion is the only reference point, women lead a more traditional and submissive life. There are social and cultural circumstances in which Islam acts as a break on society or pushes it back.

Could Islam be a modernising force?

Unfortunately, most if not all imams have not been trained in ways to reconcile modernity and tradition. All they know is that tradition is best and back society must go. And the more fundamentalist they are, the more likely they are to consider modernity a form of atheism. It is a bit like 18th century Europe, when the enlightenment was seen as atheistic and anti-Christian.

This does not mean that we must "give Islam more time" to integrate the changes wrought by modernity. We cannot live in a two-tier world. It does however mean that we must try to understand their behaviour. Muslims' only reference is that of their golden age; they have not produced any major modern work for centuries. Only towards the end of the 19th century did modernism start influencing Muslim intellectuals, but its sway has sadly petered out.

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