Fr Samir Khalil: Islam at crossroads between identitarian leanings and integration
by Bernardo Cervellera

There are some, like UCOI, who want to confine Muslims in a ghetto, avoiding all opportunities to participate in the life of the countries hosting them. It is European states that must ask their Muslim counterparts for reciprocity of religious rights.

Rome (AsiaNews) – The calls of Islamic groups like UCOI in Italy that want the State to teach Islam in schools, to  make Friday a holiday, to set up Islamic banks, and so on, tend to delineate and deepen the foreignness of Muslims in Europe, rather than aim for their gradual integration. Fr Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit, describes it as an "identitarian" project, aimed at stressing that "we are different". A lecturer in the history of Arab culture and of Islamology at St Joseph's University in Beirut, Fr Samir is one of the foremost experts on Islam. "The differences with European tradition go so deep that the drive to help Muslims must go in the opposite direction, that is, towards integration and not towards isolation."

And yet in Europe, there are now around 20 million Muslims, it seems.

Europe seems to be the place of integration. But on the one hand, Europe looks upon Islam with a non-judgemental benevolence, relativist; on the other, it lives in nearly complete opposition. These approaches are both mistaken. A third way is needed: we must build a society together because now Muslims are ever more a part of Europe. But they must be a part of Europe also culturally; otherwise we will reach a point where there will be a clash. The youth who prepared the terrorist attack in London were born in Great Britain, but they were not integrated in European culture, they were educated by fanatical imams.

But there are those who, like UCOI in Italy, are asking that Muslims be allowed to have lessons in their religion at school.

If we adopt a system where every religion is considered as a group whose juridical specificities are also recognized, we are paving the way for a community system which, in the case of Islam, is a dangerous project. This would be precisely the identitarian type of Islamic project which emphasizes: we are different. The UCOI project is of a denominational type and reflects separate development. It is one thing to try to help a community to integrate into European society; it is another to demand that the State defends and upholds denominational closure. This means wanting the Italian or European state to behave like an Islamic state, where there is no distinction between state and religion. If tomorrow, another group, even on the grounds of ethnicity, had to ask that their tribal structure be preserved, it would lead to total confusion. The idea of ghettos, like Chinatown, Little Italy, and so on, helps newly migrated groups to counter the impact with the new society. But later they risk becoming an impediment rather than a help in the search for employment, integration and so on. If one considers the good of the immigrant, the policy should be to set up all that will help the minority to integrate in the majority culture. Creating a Muslim school would not help anyone to be more active in the society he has chosen to live in.

You speak of integration, but those who arrive in Europe often don't want to be integrated.

The Muslims who arrive in Europe want to live in peace, in a society different from the one they were born in. They integrate spontaneously, unless there is a tendency to the contrary from their parents or imams, and they are treated like citizens, if they want to be. If however, they refuse to integrate and remain like strangers, I will treat them as such. The choice, in reality, is between looking behind and looking ahead. Behind, there is the identitarian culture and the group. Ahead is the individual, the person and the freedom for him to change even his religion. All that allows for personal, free and responsible choice is upheld. And there is departure from the trend of separate development, of an identitarian ghetto, which leads me to fight instead of proposing elements for development. Muslims could give pointers about the family, abortion, PACS and so on, which would be important for all society. But the UCOI wants to make proposals only for the Muslim group. And this is mistaken: it would be a state structure of the Ottoman type, with a rule for each clan.

But this, at the end of the day, is still part of the Muslim culture, even in Europe.

The presence of Muslims in Europe is a very significant opportunity. For example, I dream that some Muslim who studied in Europe will commit himself to helping the Muslim community, setting up schools for imams where Islamic and secular cultures are studied and integrated. These things don't exist in Muslim theology faculties. In Beirut, a Catholic institute of theology forms a priest to be open to history, culture, science. A Muslim institute of theology – which I know because I used to teach there – is closed on itself: only Muslim philosophy, no sciences, anthropology and so on. This forms imams as people opposed to modern culture, exclusive, and therefore into people who do not think with their own mind. This is above all because teaching is based on memorization: of the Koran, of the hadith, of juridical decisions, and so on. They are not taught to reflect. And they are not taught sciences. A dualist culture emerges, that leaves modernity out. This problem was underlined by Wafa' Sultan, a Syrian psychoanalyst who emigrated to America. During a broadcast on Al Jazeera, she said: "The clash we are seeing in the world is not one of religions or civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras: between a mentality belonging to the Middle Ages and that belonging to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and regression; between civilized and primitive; between barbarians and rationality; between freedom and oppression; democracy and dictatorship; between human rights and violations of human rights; between those who treat women like beasts (baha'im, beast of burden) and those who treat them as human beings. That what we see today is not a clash of civilizations: civilizations don't clash, they compete… it is a clash between the culture represented by the west and the regression represented by Muslims.

In this scenario, what meaning does the request for reciprocity in religious rights made by Benedict XVI to Islamic states have?

The Pope asked the Ambassador of Morocco for reciprocity of religious rights, guaranteeing Christians in the Islamic world the right enjoyed by Muslims in Europe. It would be right, but it must be European states who, in the name of universal human rights, ask for reciprocity for their citizens and for those of Islamic countries. Human rights conventions have been signed by most Muslim countries. But no one boycotts Saudi Arabia because it does not respect human rights. Europe must set up rules to act against those who don't respect human rights.