The Rev. Samir Khalil Samir is a respected Egyptian scholar of Islam who often advises the Vatican on the Muslim religion. The Jesuit priest teaches Catholic theology and Islamic studies in Beirut, Lebanon, and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute here in Rome.
During the weekend, I spoke with him about the controversies surrounding the 9/11 memorial this year. For him, the planned mosque near ground zero is unreasonable and will instill fear rather than greater understanding. And although he considers the Rev. Terry Jones’ threats to burn the Koran as “stupid,” he views the reactions of many Muslims to the Florida pastor’s campaign as unreasonable but consistent with Islamic tradition.
Following are my questions and his answers:
Newsmax: What are your views on the controversy over the ground zero mosque, or, as it’s also been described, the Islamic cultural center in New York?
I don’t have all the facts here, but the plan is to build a 15-story center, and this is a Muslim project, even if it’s called a Cordoba center and it’s for everyone and not only for Muslims. It is two blocks from ground zero with a mosque for 2,000 people and so on.
Even if you say this project aims to build a greater understanding and a new dialogue with American Christians and so on, it is evident that any normal person will fear it. Ninety percent of the population will fear this project more than be attracted by it, even if Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam responsible for the project, says it’s not aggressive. But humanly and sociologically speaking, you are putting up something where you destroyed something. You are putting up a Muslim tower and pretending that this will be a tower of peace and so on. It is psychologically wrong.
Some would argue that the 9/11 bombers were not real Muslims, but fundamentalist ideologues and terrorists?
Yes, but this is the wrong position because radical Muslims are true Muslims. I’m not saying that the true Islam is [Osama] bin Laden, this is not my opinion. But I would contend that bin Laden is a true Muslim — a true Muslim.
Pastor Terry Jones cannot say he’s truly representing Christianity because you cannot find anything in the Gospel that says that. But all the positions of radical Muslims you’ll find in the Koran and in the tradition. You’ll find other positions, but this is one, and one that is very strongly presented in the Koran and in the Sunnah. 9/11 was a Muslim action even if, for apologetic reasons, it’s said that this was a terrorist action and terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, that Islam means peace and so on.
Let’s take the small example of this week. The pastor said burn the Koran. I said to a Palestinian imam friend of mine in northern Italy that, in my opinion, he [Jones] is a stupid person. But what’s the reaction in Pakistan? They destroyed three churches yesterday and say they will destroy more. Why do they not respond differently? Why did they not respond to [former Cardinal) Ratzinger’s [now Pope Benedict XVI] speech with a speech? If someone is saying burn the Koran, this is stupid, this is wrong. But to show you it’s wrong, why not say: “OK, I will not burn the Gospel” or “I will burn the Gospel.” These are two legitimate positions. That’s all.
But the reaction is we will kill, destroy, and you hear this is everyday. Almost every week, you have an attack from the Sunni against the Shia, especially against the Shia, or the Shia against the Amadiah. Where do they take this from? They take it from the Muslim tradition. Saudi Arabia is doing the same . . . against all the others.
This reaction is in Islam, it’s not the best of Islam, but it is there. Everyone knows that 9/11 was a Muslim action, not against Christians but against the West. The symbol of the West is America and the symbol of America is economic power, so they destroy this symbol.
Now they come here and say: “We build an Islamic center.” But this is illogical. How can I really believe that this is compensation? This is obviously seen as the final victory of Islam against the United States even if one tries to present it as a symbol of peace. These are words, but the facts are: We have here the trade center, and we will have in almost the same place a Muslim center – also for others – but a Muslim center.
So I think the reaction of [President Barack] Obama was a political one, and not a reasonable, humanist answer even if he tries to present it as that. The answer of the mayor of New York is also a political one to gain for himself Muslim votes but probably it’s bad politics because he will lose maybe more votes among Jews and non-Muslims.
Why? Because it’s unreasonable. If Muslims were to build a church, I’d say Muslims were really changing their attitudes. But they come and they build a super-mosque with 15 stories, it’s incredible. That’s why I say I understand the fear of many people, not only Americans, in saying it’s not reasonable. If you go to the site of a European Arab center in Paris, you’ll see comments from Muslims from all over Europe. Six out of seven say it’s wrong. One comment from an American Muslim was very clear. It’s not a very important site, it’s official but not many people go there, but I read all the answers and they were very clear.
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