11/29/2013, 00.00
MIDDLE EAST
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No to radicalism, yes to an "enlightened" Islam

by Fady Noun
Saudi Arabia's Wahhabism and Salafism are a "ticking bomb" and "a volcano." It is important to promote a form of Islam that is more open to dialogue with contemporary cultures. Steps for peace in Syria and Iran give hope to Christians.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - At a time when Eastern Christians wonder about their future, a virtuous cycle has started to emerge in the Middle East.

Its first symptom was the decision of the United States and France to abandon "punitive strikes" against Syria, which might have triggered a regional, and who knows, perhaps a world conflict so that, for a few days, the world was on the brink.

This was followed by the decision to eliminate Syria's chemical stockpile under international supervision. Monday's agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme is part of this trend.

Something new is happening and, for some, it cannot be dissociated from the day of prayer and fasting on 7 September and the Pope's call for peace in Syria and the Middle East.

If we consider that a date for the second Geneva peace Conference on Syria has been picked and that the US Secretary of State has been hard at finding a solution to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian dispute, we can only hope these early blossoms may, in turn, herald a new spring.

For a Lebanese political scientist, who asked for his name to be withheld, these developments are not only political, but come with a cultural shift that ought to lead to Islam's renewal. In his view, this partly explains President Obama's "unexpected and surprising" opening to Iran.

"Whether we like it or not, Sunnis, who represent some 75 per cent of the world's Muslims, must engage in self-renewal, the expert said. This is a must, an absolute urgency, in light of the vastness of the Muslim world with its growing importance, not only in Asia and Africa but even in Europe, as well as of the development of globalisation, which is forcing cultures, societies and economies to meet in what is becoming day by day a "global village".

President Barack Obama, the political scientist added, has come to realise that one of the essential conditions for Islam to renew itself is that it should not be attacked frontally and massively, from and by the "outside" world.

Hence, Bush-style "crusades" are unnecessary and harmful, not only for the future of America, but also for that of the world, which depends in part on the peaceful and harmonious interaction between Muslims and others.

What Obama and others are beginning to understand, he explained, is that Wahhabism, and Salafism, are the most rigid currents Islam has ever known. Yet, because of Saudi Arabia, which control Islam's Holy Sites and a huge financial windfall, Wahhabism has gone from being the worldview of a sect of a handful of tribes settled in Nejd from the late 18th century to the early 20th century to one that is now shared by tens of millions of people.

Admittedly, not all of them are taking up arms, but many of them are 'jihadisable' if certain conditions are met, like a fatwa by an influential alim (Islamic religious scholar), and the availability of weapons, materiel and financial resources, etc. Potentially, Salafism has become a ticking bomb, or a volcano that could erupt at any time in the face of the world.

So, if the US and other Western political leaders are really interested in humanity's progress and future and want to see the blossoming of an "enlightened Islam", they should urgently start encouraging other forms of Islam.

This is what they are now doing with Iran, the centre of Shia Islam. However, they know that it is even more important to encourage currents, even in Sunni Islam, that interpret the sacred Islamic texts in ways that are consistent with the harmonious meeting of cultures.

Overall, recent political developments in the region may be the harbinger of a geopolitical and cultural mutation as evinced by the virtuous cycle whose effects we have recently seen.

If we follow this reasoning, these developments should make us cautiously optimistic about the future of the region and reassure Christian communities, despite atrocities committed everywhere, particularly in countries such as Syria, Egypt and Iraq.

At the same time, the various Eastern Churches should take a cue from Pope Francis, who has ' humbly ' called on Muslim countries to respect the religious freedom of Christians (see Evangelii gaudium, n . 253) and give Christianity the right to exist within their borders, as some are already doing.

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