09/08/2005, 00.00
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Islamic terrorism: a result of what is being taught at madrassas

by Samir Khalil Samir
Part Three of the series "Islam and the West" by Fr Samir Khalil Samir, Egyptian Jesuit and professor of Arab and Islamic studies at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut.

Beirut (AsiaNews) -- Terrorism is not the unexpected result of Islam, but the direct result of what is being taught at madrassas, traditional schools. And not only because many schools give training in terrorism and guerrilla warfare, but mainly because they educate in fundamentalism.  They depict religion as the solution to any problem and look at the world and the West in an intransigent and radical way, through which the only solution is jihad, the destruction of the West and all that seems to conspire against religion. 

Any fight against terrorism must take steps to change the traditionalist educational process which is in the hands of imams and which they are spreading throughout the world. I had the chance to meet the famous imam of Qatar, Yusuf Qaradawi: he is an intelligent and good man, open to dialogue with Christians.  There is a lot, however, about him that is fundamentalistic.  To give just one example, he justifies, without the least bit of concern, terrorist attacks against the people of Israel.  Qaradawi speaks everyday on Qatari television, for over an hour, broadcasting his mentality.  Like him, thousands of imams are teaching without much training and without having assimilated human sciences. 

Islam: no authority, no secularity 

There are two problems in Islamic teaching: in the first place, there is no recognized central authority.  Not even Al Ahzar, Cairo's illustrious university, is recognized by everyone.  Thus imams and muftis (those who declare fatwas, juridical rulings) exist by the thousands.  One has but to study a bit of Koran to claim status as a mufti.  At one time, 30 years ago, this was not the case: each country had at most one mufti recognized by the entire nation.  Instead, today, all imams claim to be muftis and each have their own followers. 

The other problem is the teaching done by the ulemas (scholars, men of learning).  In actual fact, these ulemas are "men of learning" only in one limited field: they have learned the Koran by heart, they have learned the thousands of sayings attributed to Mohammad; they have memorized thousands of the juridical rulings of a large number of imams.  But they have never studied math, sociology, psychology, foreign literature, they are not able to read a book in a Western language.  History is limited to the Islamic world; religions are studied only as a function of how to respond if Islam is criticized.  It is a kind of study which is very restricted and closed in on itself.  Al Ahzar University itself and all others in the world are characterized by this closed quality.  They are therefore unable to analyze Western cultures, unable to understand situations that are different from those where Islam makes up the majority.  And, in the end, they are unable to understand the world of Muslim Europe: their criteria are valid only for an Islamic world where everyone is Muslim.  They are able to understand only this type of medieval situation.  They cannot understand a secular society like Turkey.  They wish therefore to label everything as Islamic: banks, politics, science, medicine etc. 

When these imams arrive in the West, more than 90% of them at work in Western Europe do not speak the local language: they speak only Arabic, or Turkish, etc.  They are detached from the culture of the country in which they actually live.  So what can they possibly say to the young Muslims born in England, France, Germany?  They can only repropose a medieval system, perhaps even updated, but they cannot work toward modernizing Islam, reproposing the split between religion and modern society. 

There is no link between the normal studies done by a young Westerner and the studies done by their imams.  It would be as if Catholic priests wished to evangelize the world studying just the Bible from the perspective of ancient considerations. 

Troubled youth and fundamentalism 

This explains why young people, educated within modernity, carried out terrorist acts in London.  Most of them were and are normal youths, born in Great Britain.  Then, inner troubles took them within range of those who preach fundamentalism.  From Great Britain, they went to Pakistan to be educated in a madrassa (school).  Essentially, they were trained in fundamentalism.  Everyone says: it's their right.  But by analyzing this classical Muslim teaching, one can see that terrorism stems right from the type of education offered by these madrassas. 

I repeat: terrorism stems from the type of education that they give -- traditional Muslim religious teaching, which is the most wide-spread.  In the madrassas, in Islamic teaching, the typical dissatisfaction of every young person finds an immediate and easy answer in religion.  In the face of sociological, cultural, psychological problems, the Islamic world has no other answer but the religious answer.  For example, instead of analyzing a problem from the political point of view, instead of fighting, perhaps even together with Christians and atheists, to bring about justice, they might say: we are fighting in the name of Islam. 

Under such influence, young people, initially accustomed to wearing Western clothes, change their attire and take to wearing a white robe and headcovering, and they let their beard grow.  These correspond to just as many symbols of a changed mentality, of a rejection of the West, a crisis of identity and spiritual distress.  Until 30 years ago, this did not happen -- today it does.  And having taken on these symbols means having entered into a fundamentalist, literalist way of thinking, and being prone to manipulation. 

Pilgrimages to the Mecca are also an occasion for indoctrination in fundamentalism. 

I know several Muslim ladies who were integrated very well into European society: they dressed in a Western manner, wore make-up, went out with their head uncovered.  After a pilgrimage to the Mecca, they returned and took to putting on a veil, wearing a chador, asking for halal meat... 

It is difficult in the Islamic world to get out of the expected bounds of religion, but it's a necessary step. 

The distinction between secular and religious 

An effort is needed so that secularity becomes part of the Islamic world.  This concept is known by, at the most, a few Muslims educated in Western culture.  In general, in the Islamic world, secularity does not exist.  In Arabic, we have the word "secularity", 'almâniyya, a new term coined by Arab Christian, but very often it is confused with "atheism."  Secularity must be, above all, affirmed in the interpretation of the Koran. 

In my teaching at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, I taught various times a course on the Bible and the Koran.  I told my students: let's study these books as historical documents, from the point of view of history, philology etc.  With Christians, this can be done; but with Muslims, it is almost impossible. All this makes it difficult to understand historically the Koran and to grasp the original meaing (at the origin) of the words.  A few examples follow.  We all know that the word "paradise" is of Persian origin, but for Islamic students and imams, this conclusion is unacceptable.  The word "Evangelos (Good News)" derives from Greek, but for Muslim students and their imams, this is unacceptable: for them, the Koran descended directly from God and cannot have human or historical "encrustations."  Therefore, if in the Koran one finds record of the annunciation to Mary, for Muslims it is impossible to deduce some kind of influence of the Christian world on the Koran.  And if the two records contradict each other at some point, the Koran's is without doubt more correct since "it was revealed by God in a complete way." 

The only way out is to affirm that the Koran is a historical document, written by a human being, perhaps even religiously inspired. 

This is why I always say that Muslims need an Enlightenment, in other words a revolution in thought that affirms the value of worldly reality in and of itself, detached from religion, though not in opposition to it.  Scholars in Egypt have been publishing a series of books for some 30 years called al-Tanwîr, enlightenment, but the influence of Al Ahzar and the mullahs is still too strong. 

In speaking of Enlightenment, it is clear that we are speaking of an Enlightenment that does not renounce the religious element.  On the other hand, perhaps the West needed to go through secularism in order to gain a new balance.  By now, the Church in the West is not seen as an enemy, but as an element that contributes to civilization.  And while there is a Christian humanism, recognized even by atheists, Islamic humanism does not exist.  If an Islamic humanism is not developed, the distance between the modern world and the Muslim world will become abysmal. 

There is technological and scientific modernization in the Islamic world, but this does not lead to a modern humanism.  Many terrorists are people of a considerable cultural level; there are doctors, engineers, etc. among them. They have great scientific and technological culture, but they have not built a link between their science and religion.  They take from the West the fruit, the technology, but they do not measure themselves up to the process that generated that fruit.  The Western fruit of technology comes from a secularizing passage, first through Christianity, then by way of rationalism and Enlightenment.  Muslims accept technology, but they do not accept the distinction between secular and religious.  And this is wrong, as it does not generate a movement toward self-criticism and liberation. 

If Muslims discovered this distinction, then they could dialogue with the West, criticize it, discern what is good in it and what is to be rejected.  Instead, the lack of this distinction results in the total rejection of the West and in the plan for its destruction.  Without recuperating secularity and the distinction between secular and religious, Islam is condemned to obscurantism.

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