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What’s happening (to us) with Islam?

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Interview with Fernando de Haro on the diverse, too often stereotyped religion.

Samir Khalil Samir is an expert on Islam. Spanish journalist Fernando de Haro spoke with him for a book-long interview, published in Spain by Encuentro. Here, we speak with Haro about Islam in the 21st century, and he warns us that Islam, which is very diverse, is too stereotyped.

Fernando de Haro says: “We cannot continue to see what is different as something negative. To do so is to be superficial.”

What is happening with Islam?

Many things. What is happening to us with Islam? And what is happening to Islam? This is a good starting point. Talking about us: we are too ignorant, and we have too many ideological interpretations of Islam, which either glorify it or demonize it.

People often believe that the world of Islam is compact and uniform, when it’s actually a complex world. In fact, we should be talking about many forms of Islam: the Islam of the people, which is truly religious; the version that has been manipulated by political and power-seeking agendas, which is called Islamism; Shiite Islam; Sunni Islam; Wahhabite movements within Shia, that are spreading throughout the world thanks to money from Saudi Arabia; currents that reject the critical text of the Koran, and that are usually less clear regarding the use of violence; the Sunni school of Al Azhar, the great mosque of Cairo, which is open to religious freedom and the concept of citizenry; the reformist Sunni current that distinguishes between religious and political communities; European Islam, which is confronting the challenges of modernity … We are talking about a universe full of galaxies that are very different from each other. Often, we end up reducing this great complexity to a few slogans or to a simplistic interpretation.

Within the Islamic universe, they are going through a turbulent period very similar to what Europe went through during World War I: cultural, religious, and geostrategic turbulence. Islam is currently facing the challenges that globalization poses to any kind of group membership. In many places, ancient identities are undergoing a severe crisis. Parents have lost the ability to pass on their beliefs to their children, and “substitute identities” appear. We are seeing it in Europe, with the jihadis who have launched attacks. They no longer belonged to the Islamic community; they spent their time on drugs and the internet. And the Islamic State, which is neither a State nor Islamic, has offered them a new violent, nihilistic identity, which uses as a pretext a few passages from the Koran. Islam is facing the challenge of confronting this form of nihilism that claims to act in its name.

There are also interests involved that are less about identity and more about territory.

Yes, the challenge has a great deal to do with territorial disputes. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, sponsors of Sunni Wahhabism, are fighting for hegemony in the Middle East in the face of the fear that Iran and the Shiite minority might gain territory. Without this key, it’s impossible to understand the strength of Daesh. Nor can it be understood without taking into account the mistakes of the West, which continues to think in terms of a clash of civilizations, to sign million-dollar contracts with Riyadh, and which takes for granted the anthropological foundations necessary for developing a democracy like ours.

At the same time as violent Islam—part of the origin of which is easy to find in Western thought—is seeking to become the main protagonist, there are very interesting processes within the Shia and Sunni, largely unrecognized in the West. These processes may open Islam to the provocations of modernity, to the demands of protecting religious freedom in countries with a Muslim majority, and to the rights of minorities…

Of all the things that your interviewee Samir Khalil Samir told you, what impressed you the most?

Many things. He is a wise and good man. He is not a run-of-the-mill intellectual. Besides having studied extensively, he has vast life experience that makes him very open. Samir is an Egyptian who has lived for a long time in Lebanon, and who has also lived for a prolonged period in Europe. He knows the Koran perfectly, as well as Eastern Christianity, and he avidly follows current events. Besides all his knowledge, two things about him impressed me. First, he is a man who has personally experienced the rapid evolution that has taken place in recent decades in Muslim-majority countries. When you listen to Samir, you realize that, not long ago, it would have been impossible to identify Islam with anti-modern Wahhabism.

Samir lived in the socialist Egypt of [President] Nasser, during which people laughed at the possibility of forcing women to wear veils. He lived in the Egypt in which the Muslim Brotherhood was a minority; an Egypt in the very recent past, that was very nearly fully modern. He lived through the 1950s and 60s, when, in Egypt and Lebanon, there was a form of Islam that was opening itself up to modernity. And he witnessed with his own eyes the two great revolutions that took place simultaneously, and which gave rise to Islamism: the political revolution in Iran at the end of the 70s, and the economic revolution during the same period that gave Saudi Arabia, with its oil reserves, hegemony in the Sunni world. This historical perspective makes you realize that fundamentalism and Islamism are two very recent developments. And the the winner has not yet been decided. We are probably still in a period of transition.

The second thing about Samir that impresses me is his faith. There are many issues on which we disagree; for example, I don’t think that the solution is French-style secularism, or that what Al Azhar says is a lie. But the impressive thing about Samir is his interest in the people, in real people; that concern is born from mature Christianity.

The publishing house that has printed the book wants to publish intelligent books with upbeat content, that are not reactionist. Has it been difficult for you to talk about Islam in those terms?

I repeat that, in Spain, the mental picture that necessarily identifies Islam with what is most negative has a lot to do with a group of Spanish intellectuals and writers who went from Trotskyism or progressivism in the 70s to a form of liberalism that, at the very least, is lazy in the face of the complexity of Islam. Some read American neocons in their heyday, and never moved on from their theses. Those are the theses that demonize Islam. Then, we have the theories that idealize it, which are just as unable to accept its complexity, and which speak of an idyllic Islam that doesn’t exist. It is interesting, because sometimes representatives of both currents of thought write in the same periodical.

In Spain alone, there is a community of two million Muslims. They are Spaniards, who happen to have a different way of seeing the world. They are different, and differences are a richness. We cannot continue to see what is different as something negative. To do so is to be superficial.

When you read what people say about Islam here in Spain, then what is written in other countries—in France or in Italy—it’s embarrassing how low our level of discourse is. When we hear a debate like that between French scholars Gilles Keppel (who defends the thesis that Jihadism is Islamic terrorism) and Olivier Roy (who defends the thesis that Jihadism is areligious nihilism), we can see how much work we still have to do. We need to get out in the street, talk to our Muslim neighbors, and try to understand what they think, what they believe, what challenge they present to many of our supposed certainties that have become like cold ashes. We cannot live like an island, without reading, without becoming familiar with all the reflection taking place within Islam and beyond it. We cannot continue living off of stunted prejudices.

Islam has increased its presence in our lives. What is it bringing to your concrete personal and professional life?

I’m going to tell you something very personal. A few years ago, I traveled to the Middle East. And since I usually work very intensely during those trips, I generally sleep very lightly. The first muezzin (person at a mosque who leads the call to prayer) of the morning usually wakes me up. In Cairo, for example, there tend to be many muezzins who compete with each other; it’s a ruckus. In Iraq, as in the Holy Land, the call to prayer is generally more discreet. A few weeks ago, I was in Aleppo during the middle of Ramadan, and the muezzin drew out the name of God more and more. These calls to prayer both annoy me, and make me think a lot; I often think that, in a public space, the call to prayer should be discreet because, even if there were only one non-believer or one believer in another religion—and there always are some—we need to respect other people’s sleep and freedom.

Denominationalism—in this case, of the air or of the sound waves—is always a mistake. All of these reflections are true. But during my last dawn in Aleppo, after the call of the last muezzin, I caught myself praying from memory the beginning of Psalm 62: “O God, you are my God, for you I long!” I assure you that I am not at all tempted to convert to Islam; the God that I was invoking is the God of the Trinity, the one revealed in the flesh by the presence of Jesus of Nazareth. In the previous afternoon, I had had a conversation with a Christian religious who dedicates himself to helping Muslims in difficulties. He told me that, in Aleppo, Christianity taught the value of charity through works—and that Muslims taught him how to rediscover an intense, direct relationship with the Mystery. Can a man from a purebred rationalist Western tradition, like me, still learn something worthwhile? That early morning, in Aleppo, a prayer came to my heart—that is to say, an opening in my reason—which, in other circumstances, I would not have formulated.

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