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Middle East and Africa

What is at stake after the Arab springs

I would first of all like to express my thanks to Oasis not only for the journal, but above all for the relationships that it has established at international level among the various ecclesiastic and academic institutions and figures of the Islamic world, not only the Middle Eastern ones but those coming from the whole of Asia, the American world, and especially North Africa. The alternation of its scientific committee’s meetings between Italy – Venice or Milan – and abroad – Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia – has created precious opportunities for an exchange of experiences between Christians and Muslims, an outstanding wealth which makes it possible to meet, get to know, try to understand one another and explain. The last number of ‘Oasis’ which we present today is the result of a reflection that began last June in Tunis, on the occasion of the meeting of the scientific committee. The meeting was on hold right up to the last moment owing to the curfew and the clashes caused by the Salafites, but Oasis met all the same and it was a gripping experience. With Oasis an attempt has been made to overcome the prejudice and scepticism of the West towards the Arab spring, considered a manipulation of the Muslims, a strategy devised to bring Islamism and fundamentalism to power, resulting in bringing war to the doorstep of Europe. Instead Oasis, like AsiaNews too, has tried to interpret these phenomena with the contribution of people experiencing this historic phase in first person and that is, through the eyes of the Christians and the Muslims. This was important and made it possible to discover that the springs were not manipulations by Saudi Arabia, attempts by Iran to take possession of the Islamic world, attempts by the CIA to redesign the face of the Middle East, but endogenous phenomena born from the people and the expression of the desire for dignity of these very people. From this viewpoint I consider that the springs somehow represent the maximum success of a vision that could be defined as ‘enlightening’ of the concept matured in the West on man’s dignity. These people, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, rose up in the name of the dignity of the person, driven by the desire to eat, to have greater justice, more say in society, to be able to get married, to build a society together, Christians and Muslims. Instead the West was afraid and shut itself off, showing concern only in two revolutions: the ones in Libya and Syria. For the others disinterest prevailed. While the West maintained that the springs were useless, the local churches claimed the opposite. The revolutions were internal movements of collaboration among various forces, an extremely difficult gestation in which a society suffocated by dictatorship began to open its eyes, to move its hands and feet, to begin to build a world that is a little bit more free. This interpretation by the Christian minorities brings to mind a verse by Thomas Eliot: ‘the Church is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft’. The temptation is to do in Syria what has been done in Libya, but the local church holds back, invites people to be cautious, to assess the prospects and the way in which to guarantee freedoms. There is this counterpoint between the rather superficial public opinion and that of the people who experience and suffer in these situations. This is the important fil rouge to let oneself be led in the interpretation of the phenomena. It is the very Church and the Christians of these places that contribute to creating a dialogue with the Islamic world, trying to find ways for coexistence.

 

The Arab spring also created a new situation in the East. Initially it was a common construction between Christians and Muslims. Devoid of any political meaning in the strict sense, the spring did not unite the Arabs amid struggles of the claims of the Palestinians against Israel, or against the Americans, as instead happened in the past. It has on the other hand been the attempt to construct a coexistence in which religious belonging undoubtedly has a value, is respected, recognised, but in which everyone is equal as citizens: this was the project.

 

Nevertheless, the spring is also the failure of the West which showed its disinterest or, even worse, continued in the search for its own economic and strategic interests. This was seen with the French intervention in Libya: from humanitarian intervention it transformed into the project to eliminate Gaddafi who, even though no saint, guaranteed economic development and a controlled coexistence among the tribes. With Gaddafi out of the way, Libya is struggling in a direction in which the fundamentalist element is creating problems for Islam, particularly Sufi Islam which is very strong in Libya, destroying cemeteries, mausoleums, monuments and mosques. This is also at the expense of the Christians living in Libya. For the most part they are foreigners who went there from Egypt and Africa to work, missionaries and nuns from the Philippines.

 

With regard to Syria, the local Church has put a stop to the desire to eliminate Assad to some extent, even though not defending him, since it recognises that under his government the Christians enjoyed a certain freedom even if extremely controlled. In fact Assad kept the fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood at bay. Now after the first shake-ups in the name of democracy and freedom, Syria has become a chess-board on which all the international powers compete and where a polarisation has been created between the United States, France and Great Britain against Russia and Iran for the control of the Middle East. Iran aims to control the Islamic world on a par with Saudi Arabia and Qatar and they all use the Syrian pawns to wage their own wars. Some analysts say that there is a struggle going on among the three for the construction of two gas and oil pipelines. One should go to Turkey starting from Qatar and Saudi Arabia; the other should follow a ‘Shi’ite’ line: Iran, Iraq, Syria and end in the European Mediterranean. It is sad that nobody is concerned any longer about the Syrian people, the towns divided between the rebels and the army, the queues for bread and petrol and the refugees. The fear is that Syria becomes a sort of Iraq, in which small confessional statelets could be born with problems of coexistence.

 

When the Arab spring protests began, in my editorial office we were astonished at how these young people were risking their lives for freedom and we asked ourselves whether in the West people would be willing to risk their own lives for a great ideal. The answer raises an element of fear since in the West to risk one’s life for an ideal is somewhat outdated, unfashionable.

 

In his speech during his visit to Lebanon Benedict XVI offered some reflections on how the Islamic-Christian coexistence might be. These ideas can be summarised in the peaceful coexistence among the different religious communities, which eliminates fundamentalism and in a state that fosters a laicity open to religion, not a secularism which is the enemy of every faith. In this speech the same vision stands out as in the much criticised Regensburg speech. Considered by many a speech against Islam and deemed responsible for having ruined the relations with this religion, in fact that speech was in favour of the dialogue with Islam, and was above all a plea to the West to open up reason to include the religious dimension too. Here lies the failure of the West: in reducing reason to the material aspect, to mathematics, to the mercantilist economy. The Pope’s speeches in Lebanon suggest a way of transition that can be of help to the Middle East, but also to the West. As the Pope suggested, the Lebanon could be not only a model of Islamic-Christian coexistence for the Middle East but also a model for the life for the international community.

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