Fr. Samir Khalil Samir backstage before "Hoping Against Hope." Photo by Emily Marsolek

Bridge To Dialogue

"In the Middle East, the time of the Person has come." A discussion from the 2014 New York Encounter featuring Fr. Samir Khalil Samir and Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete.
Anthony Daqaq

Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, S.J., a man born and raised in Egypt and living and working for decades in the Middle East, has the gift of immediately transporting his friends and listeners in Western countries to the contemporary Middle East where those longing for “liberty, democracy, and equality” face the persistent headwinds of dictatorship, religious fanaticism, and cultural stagnation. He is a personable “man on the scene,” not an armchair philosopher of ecumenical or intercultural relations. For this reason, his opinions on the ongoing crisis there attract the attention of those who truly want to know how to work for peace. His solution? He posits that Arab Christians should take more seriously than ever their perennial mission “to testify to the Gospel.” One might summarize this conclusion in these words: “In the Middle East, the time of the person has come.”

Fr. Samir, 76, was ordained a Jesuit priest in Egypt. In a panel discussion with Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete on the first night of the New York Encounter in January, he recounted some of his experiences working on community development projects in Upper Egypt (the southern region of the country) in the 1970s, where he said he first encountered the creeping religious conservatism that would come to dominate the Islamic world by the end of the century. While performing his work in these southern villages, he came across a growing number of women wearing the Islamic veil and so-called “Islamic dress”–an unprecedented sight in Egypt at that time, but one taken mostly for granted today. “Islam was not always what we see now,” Fr. Samir wistfully recalls.The 20th-century transformation of Islam from a faith at ease in its coexistence with non-Muslim communities to a politically charged worldview suffused with hostility toward modernity is a central theme of Fr. Samir’s presentations and writings. He is careful to remind his audience that “the vast majority of Muslims are not radical and, instead, are suffering from this same radicalism I describe.” Nevertheless, he laments the salience of radical thought in contemporary Islam, born out of a harshly literalist strain that eschews scriptural hermeneutics and idealizes examples of 8th-century Islamic piety.

To understand why this transformation took place, Fr. Samir insists we must look to a confluence of political, religious, and cultural factors that formed the crucible in which Islamic extremism was forged. He argues that the perceived injustice of the creation of Israel in 1949 without a corresponding and viable Palestinian state, as well as other examples of what some described as Western neo-colonialism in the Arab world, such as the dispute between Western states and Egypt over ownership of the strategically pivotal Suez Canal in 1953, planted seeds of discontent and anger that would eventually take the form of violent resistance. Politically, he says, Arabs felt powerless, trapped between the Western and Soviet poles of the Cold War international system.

On a cultural level, too, a sense of insecurity and marginalization prevailed. “Between the 10th and 13th centuries, the Arab world was a leading cultural power in medicine, physics, philosophy, and more,” Fr. Samir explains, “but now we are the last. We know this. We say it every day–not to you, but to ourselves, when we are among Arabs. What did we produce in the world? Any creation in music, literature, history, science… in anything? Nothing.” What’s more, some Muslims were increasingly critical of what they perceived as, on the one hand, the libertine values of the West and, on the other, the stark atheism of the Soviets.

In the midst of this political and cultural quandary rose a trend of conservative Islamic thought, known as Salafism, that claims to have the key to restoring the erstwhile greatness of Islamic civilization. Drawing its name from salaf, the Arabic word for ancestors, this school pledges to achieve its stated objective by orienting believers toward the fundamentals of the faith: that is, the text of the Qu’ran and the example of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions contained in ancient manuscripts, or hadith, that detail their actions and sayings (together these texts inform the judgments of sharia, or Islamic law). Salafi scholars interpret the vagaries of Islamic history as God alternately rewarding and punishing the obedience and waywardness of His people. Thus, they call contemporary Muslims to unlock God’s bounty again by renewing their piety in the footsteps of their esteemed 8th-century Prophet and forebears.

Fr. Samir describes how Salafism expanded throughout the Arab world in the 1970s and–in subsequent decades–far beyond to Asia and Europe, fueled by petrodollars from wealthy Gulf monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia. In the 18th century, the Saudi royal family allied itself with one of Salafism’s most reactionary exponents, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and served as his patron, spawning a religio-political symbiosis between the nascent Saudi state–in need of religious legitimacy–and Abd al-Wahab–in need of a powerful patron. Rising oil revenues in the middle of the 20th century provided the financial resources needed to feed Wahhabism’s missionary zeal and carry its harshly literalist message across land and sea. Fr. Samir explains how the intersection of political and cultural discontent and ample economic resources in the Arab world during the mid-20th century proved fertile ground for this austere, revivalist religious movement.

FOLLOWING HIS STUDENT. Where Salafism proposes cultural purification as the way to renewed Islamic greatness, however, Fr. Samir counsels its opposite. “If we want to rebuild Muslim thought,” he avers, “we have to open it to other cultures.” At the Encounter, Fr. Samir introduced his audience to the history of the so-called “Arab Renaissance” of the late- 19th and early-20th centuries, which he cites as evidence of the positive impact of cultural openness on Arab-Muslim society. Prompted to flee their homeland in Greater Syria (now Lebanon and Syria) by a wave of religious persecution in the mid-19th century, a surge of Christian migrants arrived in Ottoman-controlled Egypt, carrying with them an inquisitiveness about other cultures and desire to translate foreign texts. This desire for cross-cultural engagement helped them to forge an Arab cultural renewal out of a blend of Mediterranean influences, producing a fruitful period of administrative, literary, and journalistic innovation.

“What mission, then, does a Christian have in a Muslim country?” Fr. Samir’s life testifies to the beginnings of an answer. He recounted the following story on the opening night of the Encounter: While teaching a class of Christians and Muslims a decade or so ago at a Jesuit university in Beirut, Fr. Samir encountered a Shia student who was noticeably struck by Fr. Samir’s way of teaching and being. Sometime after a contentious classroom discussion in which Fr. Samir argued for the use of hermeneutics to understand Islamic scripture–as opposed to literalist readings–the Shia student approached him and asked him to be his “spiritual father,” a term rather foreign to the Islamic faith. Fr. Samir was surprised by the invitation but accepted and began meeting with the student periodically to give him spiritual direction.

Recently, in a seemingly providential coincidence, Fr. Samir ran across his former student in London where he had assumed a role as leader of the Shia community there. Still moved by his encounter with Fr. Samir years earlier, he insisted that Fr. Samir accompany him on a trip to visit the holy places of Shia Islam in Iraq and Iran. Fr. Samir once again accepted his former pupil’s surprise invitation and traveled to Najaf, Iraq, and Qom, Iran, where he met with many prominent Shia religious scholars and discussed points of convergence and divergence between Christian and Islamic views of God. By the end of the trip, Fr. Samir says, the Shia clerics were embracing Fr. Samir as a “brother.”

Fr. Samir’s story highlights the opening that Christian education and Christian witness can create in societies ravaged by sectarian rivalry. That such encounters can beget constructive dialogue and genuine intellectual and spiritual exchanges cannot simply be presumed at the start. But Fr. Samir does not define Christianity’s mission in the Muslim world in terms of its temporal success. His message is much simpler–and more striking: “Live the Gospel; there is no other vocation for a Christian.” He points again and again to the example of Christian schools in the Middle East that often serve majority Muslim student bodies and are widely recognized as providing the best educational opportunities. Endeavors such as these are not for Christians alone. “Caritas,” he stresses, “is not reserved only for other Christians.” The testimony of Fr. Samir affirms that “the time of the person” has come in the Middle East, just as it has in every part of the world, especially the most fractured, where people long to affirm life and the yearnings of their hearts for truth, justice, goodness, and beauty. Christians find their vocation in in this: following the presence of Christ in their circumstances, as He points the way toward a full life.