01-03-2006 - Traces, n.3

Islam Interview with Samir Khalil Samir

We Need a Renaissance of Education
In the face of Islamic fundamentalism, what can the point of departure be? Here, a response from Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir, Professor of Islamic Studies at Saint Joseph University of Beirut and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome

by Giorgio Paolucci

Islam is aflame, but the fire was ignited long ago. The violent street protests against the cartoons satirizing Muhammad, terrorism, and kamikazes are the outcome of a movement that began long ago and that is poisoning the Muslim world. We must look at least as far back as the 1970s to catch the birth of that long wave called Islamic fundamentalism, which started out in the Arab countries and spread throughout the Islamic world and the West, extending its effects to immigrant communities as well. This long wave was generated by at least two factors: delusion at the failure of the development models adopted, and the illusion that the problems on the table (poverty, technological and cultural backwardness) could be resolved with the magic formula of the “return to Islam.”

Teaching at school
“But a formula will solve nothing. What is needed is a renaissance of education, a reform that influences the formation of a mentality, that puts reason back at the center,” explains Samir Khalil Samir, Jesuit Professor of Islamic Studies at Saint Joseph University of Beirut and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. And instead? “Instead, the prevalent approach is a literal, mechanistic interpretation of the Koran, together with a turtle-like defensive closure against all that is not held to be Islamic. The consequences are devastating: at school, the teaching methods are based on repetition and memorization of concepts at the expense of logical argument. Families impose blind and absolute obedience to orders rather than reason, and society lacks free exchange and democracy.” It is true that these years have also seen the development of liberal positions proposing open comparison with reality and the use of categories of inquiry offered by modern science. But it must be acknowledged that they represent an absolute minority, and often their standard bearers are accused of betraying Islam and subjected to public reproof, even to the accusation of apostasy, of treason, which can mean prison. The West should do more to make their work known and help it influence the people’s mentality.

Formation work
“The Islamic world lives a sentiment that is at once attraction to and repulsion from the West,” continues Samir Khalil. “Among the common people, there is a widespread yearning for freedom, technological and scientific progress, development, and democracy, accompanied by disapproval of the moral decadence of a society that rejects God or considers Him irrelevant, and hostility against the nations held guilty of exploiting Muslim populations. The terrorists and kamikazes are the extreme manifestation of this hostility, but more dangerous than them are their educators, who justify their gestures with verses from the Koran. For this reason, it is increasingly evident that true change requires a new start from the educational dimension, from a work of formation that puts the person at the center.” For this reason, the presence of 15 million Muslim immigrants in the European Union offers a great opportunity, because they can have a concrete experience of the values that are at the foundation of Western civilization and make them their own, beginning with the young generations in the schools.

Precious fruit
“Instead of cherishing the illusion of a multicultural utopia, as I often hear repeated when I come to Italy, you must act decisively for integration. Respect for the person, equality between men and women, freedom of conscience, democracy, and authentic secularism that separates Church and State, but acknowledges the value of the religious experience, are the precious fruit that Muslims can gather from the tree of Europe, even though the roots of this tree have atrophied because of a guilty forgetfulness. For this reason, the presence of Muslims is in a certain sense providential, because the West is forced to rediscover that which constitutes it, if it wants to survive and build new forms of coexistence.”