by Camille Eid
Four encounters: the Assistant Editor of Corriere della Sera, a scholar of Islam, a professor of Arab language and literature, and the President of the Association of Moroccan Women in Italy
Is there a moderate Islam? This question has become traditional in any meeting about the dialogue between the West and Islam. Those who had the chance to attend one of the four meetings dedicated to Islam were able to receive a positive answer in the most concrete of terms, in strong testimonies of people who risked their safety to affirm the possibility of reconciling their own Islamic faith with Western values. One of these is the Islam scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, condemned in 1995 for apostasy in Egypt, due to his works applying the procedures of classic hermeneutics to the Koran, and forced to seek refuge in Holland. During the session on “Islam and daily life,” Abu Zayd explained to the people of the Meeting why there is so much opposition: “Recitation of the Koran beats time in the life of the community and the individual Muslim. Muslims fear a critical-literary study. Instinctively, they are afraid of losing this experience of the senses that happens only in the recitation and the rite, and that is based on the fact that every single word of the Koran comes as a direct discourse from God. They fear that the Koran will become like the Bible, that is, an inspired book that speaks of God, no longer the very discourse of God.” Welcomed with particular warmth, the Assistant Editor of Corriere della Sera, Magdi Allam, presented his latest autobiographical book, Overcoming Fear. “Because of the comprehensible conditioning due to Islamic terrorism, we have ended up creating the stereotype of the homus homo Islamicus. Thus, we find it difficult to imagine a human dimension beyond the ideologism that is the fruit of the exploitation of a certain interpretation of religion.”
Just as there is no model Muslim man, so is there no model Arab or Muslim woman. Valentina Colombo, Professor of Arab Language and Literature at the University of Tuscia in Viterbo, sought to bring forth in her anthology Woman’s Word, Woman’s Body some Arab women who speak, since “the word is the principal expression of being free.” “When I set out to gather material for this anthology,” Colombo explained, “I was afraid that I would find very little. Instead, I discovered with joy that there are a great many Arab women who take pen in hand to write about themselves and their own problems.” Also present at the meeting on “Women and Islam” was Souad Sbai, President of the Association of Moroccan Women in Italy, introduced as “the classic demonstration of the other face of Arab women, of women who know how to lead.” Sbai touched upon burning questions, such as that of the Islamic veil. “I’m against it. I admire the women who wear it for faith, but I consider it a political veil, exploited.” She also talked about women’s struggles in many Muslim countries for the conquest of their rights, “so much so that today when the levels of democratization are measured in the Muslim world, the first criterion is precisely the situation of women.”
On a broader level, the Meeting presented the experience of two Muslim countries that are tenaciously seeking freedom, Afghanistan and Iraq. “Some societies take Democracy for granted because they have only known this model,” said the Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. “But we in Iraq know only too well about the alternative to being free.” “Islam,” added Zebari, “is not synonymous with terrorism. The fundamentalists and the Muslim communities are responsible for the diffusion of this ideology of hate. This is why we need a dialogue with moderates to reach an embrace of universal ideals.” He was echoed by Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan Foreign Affairs Minister who presented himself “as a Muslim and as a citizen of the world.” His Islam is “a religion that encourages interaction with all the other faiths” and “abusing Islam through an incorrect interpretation that permits the destruction of historic monuments has nothing to do with this faith.”
The Muslims who battle against this type of Islam obviously tilt against very concrete windmills, but “we cannot give in to fear or pessimism,” as Benedict XVI said to the representatives of the Islamic communities in Germany, because what moves us is a passion for the encounter with people as they are, in the name of the love of freedom that makes us all brothers.