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In light of the Bastille Day terrorism in Nice, France, it seems right to consider this Vatican Insider interview with Father Giulio Albanese concerning the recent attacks in Dhaka and Baghdad. Fr. Albanese is a missionary, journalist and an expert on Africa, the Middle East and the world’s many “southern regions”. He recently authored a book published in 2016, titled “Vittime e carnefici nel nome di ’Dio’” (Victims and butchers in the name of ‘God’”).
Fr. Albanese, more attacks and more innocent blood and the serious problem of religious fundamentalism continues. But what is the political aim of this violence?
“I believe it is important not to fall into the trap laid by these people whom we might as well call criminals, terrorists, gangsters. Of course it is clear that there is an ideological, “doctrinal” system behind their actions and it grabs people’s attention, we know what an effect it has in people’s consciences: let us think of the second and third generation “foreign fighters” who come from middle to upper class backgrounds. We also know that in the case of Dhaka, the terrorists were all children of the Dhaka upper class. It is clear, therefore, that religion is being used for subversive purposes. I will never tire of repeating it. By telling these stories we run the risk, in one way or another, of playing their game without even realizing it.”
Are we being presented with a false picture?
“Anyone who is familiar with and has studied the Islamic world – I am thinking of westerners but also Islamic scholars – are aware of how important it is to avoid getting sucked into a clash of civilisations mentality. Because their actions are not only heretical in relation to Islam: they have nothing to do with the Islamic tradition, they completely contradict the Quran, not to mention the Sufi tradition, the tradition of Islamic mysticism in other words. And this, in my opinion should be strongly emphasized. Because if we look at the figures relating to the killings carried out by these criminals over the past 4 to 5 years, it is the Muslim world that has paid the highest price. It is therefore a war within the Islamic world, the effects of which have spread and are being felt in the west as well.”
Speaking of which, just as the Dhaka attack was taking place, another terrible one was being witnessed in Baghdad, claiming the lives of 200 people…
“Yes, 20 children died. And how much of a focus did this receive in the European, western press? The fact remains that what is causing dismay and concern at home, is a daily reality in that part of the world – as well as in Sub-Saharan Africa – these killings are an everyday occurrence in some contexts. And this is where Pope Francis is right to denounce arms trafficking and urge Chancelleries to work for peace, because what is going on in the Middle East is the West’s responsibility too: we know there is an open rivalry over the Syrian question, between Iran and Russia on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, US and Qatar on the other. ISIS has obviously found fertile ground in this strong argument, its existence is a by-product of geopolitical interests, no one has had the courage to speak out against deception.”
So war fuels terrorism…
“Violence begets violence. The Pope is right when he says that the only card to play is the peace card because if we go on thinking we can resolve this type of conflict with arms, we lose at the outset. This is the moment for diplomacy to take action because behind every conflict there are huge interests at risk.”
So, is the opening of negotiations between the different parties involved in the Syrian crisis one of the responses that are needed most urgently?
“Of course, because we need to take the oxygen away from these criminals. Otherwise they will go on speculating about geopolitical and global situations, since the induction of certain problems is such that it spreads like wildfire. We need only think of the dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia which is not like the dispute between Shiites and Sunnis: here we are talking about specific components within the Sunni world. I am thinking of Salafists, Wahhabism and the same reasoning can be applied to Shiites. The problem is that the Islamic world has been in a crisis for decades and we have been acting as though nothing has been going on.”
Maybe we are paying for a certain ignorance with regard to this world, which leads us to readily accept oversimplifications…
“The media have the greatest responsibility of all. Because we end up making the conflict seem like a war against “the new crusades of the third millennium”; so I insist that we go and look at the figures – it’s enough to tear one’s hair out: has Boko Haram killed more Christians or more Muslims? And who is al Shabaab in Somalia killing? And that really is an internal war within Islam in the name of a perverse ideology… And it is naturally against the West too, because in the end, what they reproach a particular part of the Muslim world with, is the fact that they show too much tolerance towards a certain capitalism and so on and so on. The problem, however, is far broader…”
But if the clash is within Islam, isn’t the conflict also between a part of the Muslim world that favors reform and that is shedding blood because of these crises and the invasive actions of such brutally violent groups? Isn’t the problem also to do with a culture of human rights?
“I completely agree. There is a purely theological challenge that is to do with the relationship between the political and the religious: the Islamic world needs to look beyond a theocratical approach that has conditioned sovereigns states since the post-colonial era, so it is also a challenge of modernity. This is very true, there is no doubt about that. But it is one thing to say that and quite another to consider ISIS figures and those of other criminal organisations, as religious men and women. We would be playing their game if we fell into a trap like that. After all, what these people are saying has nothing to do with the tradition of the Quran either. Or with those who are part of the conservative front.”
How has the West reacted to this state of affairs?
“We have done nothing, we have let universities end up in the hands of the Salafists but there is more: We haven’t spent a dime on funding Islamic scholars who reflect on these matters and there are quite a few of them. We have sold arms instead.