12/01/2009, 00.00
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Fr. Samir: Islam in paralysis and war; the West without a memory

by Samir Khalil Samir
The situation in the Middle East is stagnant: a crisis of Islam drags everything into a fatal paralysis. The crisis also affects the West, oblivious to its Christian roots. Yet Islam and the West need each other. A study by our expert on Islam, in preparation for the Synod of the Churches of the Middle East.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - Benedict XVI has called a synod of the churches in the Middle East for October 2010. To prepare for it with care we must to try to understand the situation that surrounds this part of the world, and then move on to the problems that churches are suffering there.

In general, the situation in the Middle East appears stagnant and without fruit.  In November last year a Catholic-Muslim symposium was held at the Vatican, that gathered dozens of highly qualified figures from the Muslim and Christian worlds. The result was a declaration containing many valid points for the defence of religious freedom, the condemnation of terrorism, the choice of coexistence. But a year on we have yet to see any results, any follow up.  Last year even Saudi Arabia, had launched a number of important messages, with steps toward dialogue with other religions, but the situation inside the country with regard freedom of religion or cult has remained unchanged.


Islam in paralysis

Our whole world is waiting and the Islamic world is in a state of paralysis. This paralysis is due to division. The Islamic world is divided on the issue of Israel - Palestine. More reasonable states say that dialogue is the only way forward. On the other hand, Israel offers no possibility for dialogue, and other states - that press for a tougher policy - are also paralyzed.

The situation in Iraq has not improved.  There is an ongoing struggle that often takes on the form of war between Sunnis and Shiites. On a broader level this division is reflected in the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the nations that represent the two Islamic currents.

In recent weeks they have even exchanged threats. Iran says that the Iranians need to take advantage of the pilgrimage to Mecca to revive the jihad to liberate Palestine, the very next day Saudi Arabia said that it will not entertain any gathering or gesture that is not spiritual during the pilgrimage. It was a clear threat to Iran, though without naming it. The war on the border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen is also a war between Sunnis and Shiites. Saudi Arabia’s sentencing to death of Ali Hussein Sbat, Lebanese from al-Ain in Beqaa, on charges of witchcraft, was interpreted as Sunni revenge against Shiites.

Palestine is paralyzed by the division between Gaza and the West Bank, Lebanon for more than 4 months has been without a government – an unprecedented phenomenon. It is a general paralysis.

In this stillness, the only one to move is Israel, which continues to build new settlements in the Occupied Territories, to strike at the heart of the Palestinian problem. By the way they are conceived these Jewish settlements in the future will not allow any geographical contiguity between Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, making it difficult for a future Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital. All of this is unfolding in the silence – with some milder forms of criticism - of all Islamic and Western nations including the United States. It is the complete defeat of law.

Even the Iranian issue is very delicate. It is clear that Iran is playing cat and mouse, saying it is willing to talk and then taking steps toward nuclear power, even war.

But then, how can we condemn Iran when other states in the region (including Israel) have the atomic bomb? How can anyone accept that one forbids another to take the steps which they have already taken? The only justification that is given is: "we are good, you are evil”. But who can promise me that after you there will not be some "bad"?

All solutions seem to be stuck with no way out.


Violence is the malaise in Islam

There is also a fundamental problem: the Muslim world feels this paralysis even more severely. In newspapers and on the Internet Muslims ask: What have we produced in all these centuries? What contribution have we made to civilization? The only thing we have is something that we did not create ourselves, namely oil. For others the answer is: we have faith in God but this is a good that is difficult to estimate ...

Thus a feeling of anger against themselves and against anyone is born. Looking at the Islamic world, I have the impression that the only events that make news are those of violence. It happens in the Philippines, the political struggle between the two Muslims leaders;  in Iraq, where bombs are now no longer launched against the Americans, but amongst themselves, in Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, in Iran, where Iranian counters Iranian . The whole Islamic world is suffering a lack of freedom in Iran as in Tunisia.

We only need to think of the outcome of the football match between Algeria and Egypt, which also ended in violence ... In the end it seems that the only thing Islam is capable of producing is killing and violence.

All of this is the result of a deep malaise of Islam in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, etc..

Now we can no longer lay the blame for this on the colonial past. The countries of which we speak have long conquered structures that are more or less solid, more or less democratic. We can no longer hide this crisis in the cultural, social and political life of the Islamic world.

The only thing that progresses is religious radicalism, not only in devotion, but in visible forms: the veil, the beard, the obligations ... Muslims returning to Egypt after many years, say they no longer recognize their country for the rigour with which they live everyday life. It is true that mosques are fuller, also of younger age groups, but the doctrine that is offered is not intellectual or spiritual Islam. It's more a crescendo of hatred against others, against pagans and less radical Muslims.


The crisis of the West

Faced with this crisis of Islam, does the West have a clear conscience and balanced view of its identity? It appears to me to be less and less the case. An event that points to this was the decision by  the European Court of Human Rights that unanimously - something rare in these cases - condemned the display of crucifixes in Italy because it does not respect the neutrality and secularism of Europe.

Even putting religion aside, this symbol is part of Italian culture (which obviously has a religious dimension). How, therefore, can they say that the exposure of the cross violates freedom? One statistic of a few years ago said that 77% of Italians appreciate the exposure of the crucifix. Even the philosopher and politician, from Venice, Massimo Cacciari, an agnostic, spoke of the crucifix as the most important symbol that we have of a love that is gifted to save another.  

The decision of the European Court, in denying the crucifix, denies itself; it is an attack against itself. If you deny the Shoah it is a historical negation, this decision is a denial of European culture. The ominous fact is that at a European level - excluding Italy - nobody reacted.

In the West there is also another approach, equal and opposite, that asserts itself by denying the identity of the other, that of neo-Nazism. These attitudes go hand in hand, one raises the other. But this is because people have less and less self-awareness.

We are therefore faced with two crises: the culture of the Islamic world and that of the Western world, both in paralysis. The only possible relationship between the two stagnant and closed structures and is one of force or exclusion.

The West tends to emerge from this immobility with the idea of tolerance and multiculturalism: my identity - it says - is all cultures. But this is a conceptual attitude: I can appreciate all the cultures only with my own culture as my foundation; if I say that "I am" all cultures, it means that I have nothing. Instead, if I know who I am, then I am peaceful, serene, proud. Only in this way can we talk. But if there is nothing, only those who shout the loudest wins or who have more material power.


Signs of hope in Islam

The only hope that I see in my middle eastern world, is the attitude of those who say "Enough!". People do not want to be teased, used as pawns. This is evident in Iran, with the "green" demonstrations, but also in Egypt, where there is even a party that is called its "Kefâya", i.e Enough! This party was born as a critique of the Mubarak "dynasty", who after 28 years of reign wants to put his son Gamal in his place. The same can be said in Algeria, Senegal ...  

The reaction is also seen in the multiplicity of forums that appear on the Internet, or printed media. Of course, several internet sites claim some new Muslims perspectives; there are Muslims, atheists, reformers, etc. .., but no one supports them. Each of them sends a message, a cry, one, ten times, but then gets tired and falls back  into silence.

A month ago in Berlin there was a conference of "progressive Muslims", the Muslim liberals. It involved Muslim feminists, a group of exegetes of the Qur'an (including Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid), and other politicians. The conference was very clear and lively. But later, when they all returned to their homes, they did nothing because they are only a drop in the ocean. There are one billion 200 million Muslims in the world, these liberal minds who write and think, maybe count for 10 thousand, 20 thousand: less than 1 per thousand.


Imams and the fatwa

The reaction is certainly growing and one day maybe will result in an explosion, as happened in the case of the Soviet Union, but it will take a long time. The difference between Eastern Europe and us is that here there is no Berlin Wall, rather a wall of ignorance. The sad fact is that the leaders of Islam are unable to solve problems, instead they enhance them. Most of them were trained in the world's oldest Islamic university, Al Azhar, where every year up to 150 thousand imams enrole. But in what are they formed? To repeat the old, not to deal with modernity. The only thing they propose is to return to the seventh century. By dint of repeating, they even succeed, but perhaps only 1% of them can discuss modernity with you, evaluating pros and cons, positive and negative values.

What is spreading is recourse to the fatwa, a method that allows no-one to think. If I have a problem I ask the Imam by phone, I pay 1 or 2 euro, and tomorrow I have the answer.

Imams fetter the faithful to what Islam says in the first centuries and lack the moral authority to help me to address my situation today.

A Muslim businessman living in Germany asked if he can have a business lunch with some Christian friends. The responses of his imams muftis were multiple and diverse; one told him that according to the Koran to eat with Christians is "halal”, lawful. Another - the famous Imam Yusuf Qaradawi of Qatar - has forbidden him to do so because the Germans today "are not true Christians". The person who passed these judgments is not a person who has lived together with Westerners to understand and evaluate them: the verdict is taken from a text and enhanced by prejudice.

By itself, the fatwa is a good tool in advancing Islam and allowing for the modernisation of the religion. But it also runs two risks: first, of blocking development because it often refers back to ancient models; secondly of creating infantilism among the faithful, who do not reflect personally, but look for ready made answers from mufti.


Signs of hope in the West


In the West there are signs of hope, which are critical of inaction. There are those who fight for a more liberal ethic (which sometimes borders on permissiveness), but at all levels, there is a debate about values, on issues with different positions.

Take, for example, immigrants in Europe. Among you there are those who struggle to give them the right of residence, to vote, etc, and others who remain cautious. March 1st next  in France, all immigrants go on a general strike, to show how much they weigh in the economy and demand more rights.

But in our middle eastern world, immigrants are treated like animals, without any rights and have no one to defend them. One can say every point the West discusses, it questions itself, it explores  philosophical and spiritual values, in depth. Among us in the Middle East there are only a political discussion, but otherwise there is silence. Last January, during the attack against Gaza, invited to participate in a conference by a Shiite Islamist group, I mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian issue, stressing that dialogue was urgent. I was stopped and told that that theme was not to be touched.


Islam and the West need each other

Dialogue between the Islamic world and the West is almost non existent. Yet it is increasingly clear that we need the each other in cultural and economic terms.

The crisis is thus also an occasion for deeper reflection. But the condition is a clear awareness of self and the perception that whatever must be done, must be done together.

The Muslim world can not stand alone, because it risks being left behind by modernity and engulfed by violence. The West can not do it alone either, because even more educated in intellectual terms, it has no arms to work, because of the fall in population. Here emerges the image of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12: "The eye can not say I'm better than you" and what is the eye without the rest of the body?

The globalization of the world, the mortgage crisis in America, has created a worldwide tidal wave. What happens in the economy, also happens in culture, ideology, faith, we are in the same boat if the boat sinks, we all perish.

Wisdom means listening to what Muslims have to say, what their grievances are, what is good in their proposals and what is not applicable. And vice versa.

Dialogue is fundamental to the current situation in Europe, where increasingly there are Muslim communities. But it is also an opportunity for Muslims to rethink what it means to live in the West, in an environment of acceptance, but also as a minority. And in being a minority they can not behave as if they were in an Islamic nation, where they are the majority.

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