Arabic Caligraphy. Creative Commons CC0

The Challenge for the Road to Peace

“Reason is the most noble gift given to man by God,” insists Fr. Samir Kahlil Samir, who recently met a packed auditorium at the John Paul II Cultural Center in DC to continue an ongoing discussion on Islam–Christian relations. Here is what happened.
Stephen Sanchez

In 1996, Dom Christian de Cherge, Prior of the Trappist Monastery of Notre Dame of Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria, penned as his final words a moving account of the imminent martyrdom he and his compatriots would suffer. With a burning desire to “immerse [his] gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with Him His children of Islam just as He sees them,” Dom Christian prepared himself to “become a victim of the terrorism which now seem[ed] ready to engulf all the foreigners” in his beloved Algeria.

With these words on December 1st began a meeting hosted by Crossroads Cultural Center in Washington, DC, with Fr. Samir Kahlil Samir, the renowned Jesuit expert on Islam and the Middle East. The event, entitled, “Islam and West: The Inevitable Encounter and the Possibility for Coexistence,” would prove to challenge any facile interpretation of the delicate cultural and political dialogue between East and West that is often seen as hopeless and destined toward violence. This dynamic of a true human challenge–encounter and dialogue–surfaced also in Crossroads’ three previous events on this topic, starting three years ago with the publication in Arabic of Fr. Giussani’s seminal work, The Religious Sense. On that occasion, Crossroads sponsored a meeting entitled, “Faith and Reason in Christianity and Islam: A Road-Map to Peace,” followed up in December 2008 with “Iraq: The Tragedy of the Christian Minority,” and in April 2009 with “The Purpose of Dialogue is to Discover the Truth.”

Cultural Disconnect
“The lack we have today, not always, but today in the Muslim world is that reason is forgotten. And in the West, it is faith that is forgotten. This is why we have such difficulty in dialogue,” began Samir. “The Muslim is shocked by a Western culture where men do not believe in Providence, they do not have children because they believe only in themselves. Because of this, some extremist Muslims see Western culture as a pagan civilization.” Similarly, argues Samir, “The West is frightened by a fundamentalist Islam that rejects dialogue and resorts to violence. In Muslim countries, life is governed in a way that the West understands as violating basic human rights.” For the West, the risk of Islam is totalitarianism, which justifies violence and dominates those who are not Muslim.

It is for these reasons that Pope Benedict XVI has repeated, in his various encounters with the Muslim world, the role of faith in broadening reason. Quoting Pope Benedict’s speech at the Mount Nebo mosque in Jordan, Samir emphasizes, “Genuine religion widens the horizon of human understanding and stands at the base of any authentic human culture. It rejects all forms of violence and totalitarianism not only on principals of faith but also on right reason. Indeed, faith and reason mutually reinforce one another since faith is purified and structured by reason and reason’s full potential is released by faith.”

A Historical Precedent
And it is this method of reason’s role in faith, believes Samir, which is the “only path to a true and lasting peace” in the relationship between the West and Islam. This path is one that “must rescue Islam from the very vocal minority” that reduces the Koran to a fundamentalist interpretation.

Born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1938, Fr. Samir has had first-hand experience of both a moderate Islam, which “placed the emphasis on the individual to live Islam” and the more modern experience where questions about Islam can be answered by telephone according to whether a “fatwa,” a religious opinion offered by a mufti, has been issued on the question. “In this way, man’s reason is not valued, and living Islam is reduced to following rules,” offers Samir. “It was not always this way in Islam,” explains Samir. “Averroes emphasized interpretation in reading the Koran. When asked if one should prefer Sharia [the laws that govern daily life in Islam] or reason, Averroes offers that both are given by God, but if one must be preferred, his answer was reason, because reason is governed by precise laws of logic and if they are followed they cannot be wrong. But this way has been partially rejected by Islam... This makes clear that the problematic issue was the same in Islam as in Christianity with respect to reason, but it has decidedly come down on a different side,” says Samir. “But this gives a path to a way to dialogue.” What is needed, explained Samir, is another viewpoint, a way in which another mode of understanding reason can be explored.

A Pivotal Role

Samir emphasizes the role of Arab Christians in the dialogue and encounter with Islam.” Arab Christians are important because they offer a different way of doing things, of looking at things,” asserts Samir. They have been important in the development of science and philosophy in the Arab world, and in the 19th and 20th centuries it was Arab Christians that sparked the revival of Arabic art and culture. “Islam needs Arab Christians because they offer another way to worship, to praise God; they enrich each other in the dialogue.” Though the population of Christians in the Middle East continues to dwindle, Samir still holds out hope that in countries like Jordan and Lebanon, where Christian minorities are thriving, there can be a positive effect on the relationship with Islam. “It is in those countries like Lebanon where Islam is most concerned with human rights, where the society is the most democratic and open to other ideas,” Samir claims. It is precisely where Islam and Christianity coexist in a mutual dialogue that Arab society is most at peace and flourishing.

“It is not useful to look at Islam only as a political movement,” suggests Samir, “because it is also a religion. Mohammed was not only a general, but also a man who prayed five times a day, a man who was aware of the Mystery of God in all of life. And this for them is the main point, and for Christians it is the same point.” For this reason, in the dialogue with Islam, the West benefits from the deep spiritual tradition of Christianity. “We have the experience of dialogue among the Eastern and Latin churches. There are seven Christian traditions in the Middle East: Coptic, Maronite, Syriac, Assyrian, Chaldean, Armenian, and Latin. They have different languages and cultures, but have enriched each other.”

“The image we have from what is happening in the world is that Muslims are violent, and violence certainly exists,” says Samir, “but only a minority of Islam is violent; the majority wants to live in peace.”

Reduction of the religious sense. Samir believes that what is needed are those who will help guide them. “We have to deal with them as brothers–and I speak here as a Christian–and we have, at the same time, to be convinced of our faith. There is no dialogue when one is weak and one is strong.” The challenge to dialogue is the lack of a clear religious identity among Christians, which always gives way to Islam. “The West–Europe and America–has a tradition that, until recent decades, represented the ideal for many Arabs.” Democracy and freedom in a pluralistic society were hugely attractive to Arabs. Now, “there is a strong tendency in a small strain of Islam to become radical, which does more harm than the vast majority which is always silent,” believes Samir. “The biggest problem is not between Islam and the West; it is within Islam itself. Mohammed was a man of deep religious conviction but, yes, he was also a man with a certain political project, and this often has the tendency of becoming confused and risks totalitarianism–this is true of all religious experiences.”
Samir suggests that Christ offers a true exception to this reduction of religious experience: “It is Christianity that is the exception to this totalizing way of culture, of eating, dressing, speaking; of everything. Christ places the problem on man; He does not resolve the problem for man. Man has to seek justice, he has to decide. Christ proposes a religious experience that is not bound up in a particular culture. Christianity reaches the totality through the Spirit, which universalizes the experience, and does not limit it.”

“It is not that Islam does not have this same possibility or capacity to use reason. It is that today a part of Islam is not employing that capacity,” according to Samir, “and it is reducing the life of Muslims to children who must ask for everything before they do it. Instead, the Christian tradition of the West has something to offer Islam, precisely in the way that reason gives faith a structure, a way to conceive of life that is not just asking the priest if this or that is a sin or not. It is faith and reason that we offer to help Islam.” Ultimately, Samir believes, the greatest hope will come from Western Islam.“If European Muslims can rethink their faith with a critical approach encompassing their Westernism, we’ll have a new Islam that may boomerang into traditional Islamic countries.” And the call for Christians? “Authenticity. Be yourself and speak to them as brothers, with truth and love, as Christ loved us. This is the key to growth together!”