CAIRO: With last month’s escalation of aggression between Israel and the Palestinians in a blatantly disproportionate conflict, some analysts have described the war in religious terms, portraying the “Jewish assault on “Muslim civilians on what the Jews perceive as part of the “Holy Land as a form of ethnic cleansing dictated by the Torah.
But Dr Aly El Samman begs to differ.
With his Ph.D in Law and Political Science from Paris University, El Samman is currently the President of the Committee for Interfaith Dialogue at the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs of Egypt as well as President of the International Union of Muslim-Christian-Jewish Dialogue and Peace Education (ADIC). He has been a leading and active voice in this field for almost four decades.
El Samman sat down with Daily News Egypt to discuss the role of interfaith dialogue in achieving peace and the challenges adherents of the three monotheistic religions face in this increasingly polarized world.
Daily News Egypt: Do you believe there are fundamental differences between religions?
Dr Aly El Samman: Surely there are fundamental difference but our task in interfaith dialogue is to repeat, and without being pompous, to teach others that these differences, no matter how great or radical, should not be a reason for conflict. Every religion has its historical environment and in spite of all the differences, the points of common values are great. There are differences but there is common ground. Therefore there must be common action.
Differences for me are a confirmation of identity, after it comes how to live together. If I were to address a message to my Muslim brothers, I would say don’t forget that in the terminology of the Holy Quran, God said that it was possible for him to create you identical, but that He created you different so you can have dialogue, to know each other. God created us different intentionally to push people to build this dialogue.
Do you think it’s more difficult for us to as Arab, Muslim Middle Easterners to change our negative attitudes towards the “other than the other way round? Are we too homogenous, with not enough ethnic diversity to accept differences, change mentalities?
The problem is not the change of mentality, it is practically and simply a change of behavior. It starts by a condition which is absolute: Respect for others. This goes beyond text, beyond belief. To respect the beliefs of the other .is to say this is his belief but I have another belief.
You are right to say that in Europe the ethnic diversity is great but they have been able to work together to come to common decisions and overcome prejudice. It is also not so difficult for Muslims to change. When you speak about the Mideast you must never forget the Oriental Christians, because Christians from the East have a very special place in history. The Christians during the Crusades fought beside their native Muslim brethren to protect the land. This means that we have a national common destiny.
So where do the differences come from? The main big enemy is ignorance, which is the father of fanaticism.
In the text of the three religions there’s peace and dialogue, so don’t misread the words of God. Practically, fanatics begin from the premise that their religion is the only valid one, and that goes for all religious fanatics.
But if I say that my religion is the best by isolating a paragraph and taking it out of context, that is a big danger and it happens also in politics.
Who has been your most challenging audience during your public appearances?
Your question is dangerous, but I must answer you frankly. Christians, Jews and non-believers are surprised when they hear a Muslim speaking the language of moderation, dialogue and tolerance, inviting common action, because of the prevalent and unjustified image of Islam.
Despite being criticizing for seeking dialogue with Rabbis in Paris, all my life I preferred presence rather than absence and intellectually I always preferred the confrontation of ideas to silence; to hiding ideas but behaving negatively.
With the Rabbis, I was very frank. I said you succeeded to make the whole world forget the occupation. You speak only about security. But that’s not right because the resistance against the occupation shall continue. You succeeded when we speak in the frame of inter-religious dialogue, to say ‘Don’t speak politics’ which means ‘Don’t speak about the occupation’. But occupation is not only political. It is a value; to create a free man who does not find himself in a humiliating situation; to be deprived of his right to be independent on his own land. That’s not politics.
The reaction was positive and they said, whatever the outcome, Egyptian wisdom will always be useful.
We also have a big hope with Obama. When you speak free and independent language that is frank and honest, people feel it and if they are not foolish, they agree. There are rules of the game and there are ethics. The foremost ethic is never to generalize, never to say “all Muslims are so and so because of Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Also never to say “All Christians are so and so because one day the Pope made an unfortunate choice of words about Islam. And I dared say this in Egypt about the Jews. If there are 1,000 Jews working for real peace, then I have no right to generalize and say “All Jews are so and so.
You mentioned Obama. Do you think he will redress the imbalance created by the neo-cons before him?
To use the terminology of ethics, I say there is a hope, as he always says, to have a ‘just’ position. No one is asking the US to be unjust towards the Israelis and just towards the Palestinians. We want it to say firmly “we cannot accept the occupation, it must end. And that is ethical so we have hope that this will represent a change from Bush’s partisan policy – his own Judeo-Christian lobby.. this does not mean all Christians or all Jews, but represents a highly fanatic minority. That was one of the reasons why Bush appeared completely biased; so it was a joke at the end of his term for him to say he supported the creation of a Palestinian State. He just needed to do it.
So Obama gives reasonable hope. But the US is a great nation with great institutions so what he does is conditioned by the attitude of each of these institutions; yet it seems that the positive change in attitude is more conceivable than the negative.
Do you believe that religion is integral to the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Israel wants to exploit the unjust image of the Muslims today that they are fanatic, dangerous terrorists. But that cannot last. It’s propaganda more than anything else.
How do you respond to accusations citing verses from the Quran to claim that the Muslin Holy book is particularly antagonistic towards the Jews?
In religion there is a mix between thoughts, behavior and history. If there is a reference to an incident in history involving a certain community at a certain time, to have an alliance with Prophet Mohamed but then reneged and changed the rules of the game, this does not mean that all the Jews throughout time will be the same.
If we enter a peace agreement with them, we must underline that this is not in contradiction with our faith and if are obliged to fight, then it is not because of the holy text, but because it is our responsibility to our community, to say that ‘you violated the agreement so I cannot trust you.’
As an international lawyer, how do you think the Muslim world should respond to the war crimes committed in Gaza last month?
We are all badly in need of going back to international legality, if not we shall all be all lost. Security is only one item, but the rights of the other to resist occupation is in just as sacred.
Wise legal authorities must discuss where legitimate resistance to occupation ends and terrorism begins. There must be rigorous legal criteria to define that. When I first hear the word “terrorism , the first thing that comes to my mind is the attack against civilians.
Today legality also means that we must ask the question:
does Israel have the right to wage war against an occupied country, the West Bank? Had they the right to build walls? And if we forget about legal aspects for one moment and go back to the history of walls in the world, there was the Maginot Line during WW II, where is it now? There was the Bar Lev line between Egypt and Israel, where is it now? And what about the Berlin Wall?
Walls are unnatural and succeed only in making the daily lives of people impossible and abnormal. Eventually, they always come down.
Is there a crisis of religious authority in the Muslim world?
Yes. That is one of the organic differences between Islam and Christianity. Especially the Catholic religion where there is the Pope and a council which agrees on fixed interpretations.
But in Islam, from the beginning it stressed the idea of free, independent thinking.
To go back to the question of the crisis of religious authority … anyone can give a fatwa, but the Mufti of Egypt is trying to create a discipline and a single authority, but I’m afraid this will lead to the birth of other authorities like Sheikh Qaradawi who will say yes or no to it.
On the other hand, if we only had one authority, this can lead to autocracy.