Fr. Samir Khalil Samir is a renowned Egyptian Jesuit expert in the Islamic world. He recently made an analysis of the “Arab Spring” and its evolution as well as the confusing and dangerous situation in Syria.1 Given its interest, we summarize some of his remarks below.
Egypt: From one Dictatorship to Another
The so-called “Arab Spring” that began in Egypt under the aegis of democracy to overthrow a military dictatorship that had lasted three generations is now becoming a new dictatorship with religious overtones.The fight against Mubarak’s dictatorship was generally supported by the public and especially the youth. But once the military dictator had fallen, power ended up in the hands of those better organized to assume it: the Muslim Brotherhood. And now the new leader, Morsi, briefly seized dictatorial powers, assuming all branches of government: executive, legislative and judiciary.
For the time being, the reaction of the Army has been passive, which seems to indicate that it is willing to support the new government. Though very close to the United States, which has funded and trained them, the Egyptian armed forces are pragmatic, unlike those in Turkey, which defend secularism. If the Muslim Brotherhood continues to ensure its privileges, the military will likely continue to support the new leadership.
The Spread of Islamist Dictatorships
What is happening in Egypt is, in one way or another, the same that is occurring in Tunisia, Iraq and Syria. “My impression,” Father Samir says, “is that the Arab world and perhaps the whole Muslim world must switch from a military dictatorship to a powerful Islamic dictatorship because the Muslim people are very religious and hold this ideal for society in great esteem.”
In Syria, the conflict that divides the country and became a civil war has been internationalized and the Western powers as well as Israel, Turkey and Russia present plans to address the situation.
Divisions Within Islam
In order to better understand the transformations the Middle East is going through, Father Samir says, one must bear in mind the existing divisions within Islam. Taking the two largest groups (which have numerous internal divisions), the Sunnis violently oppose the Shiites. “It can be said,” the specialist added, “that the enemies of Iran, more than Israel, are the Sunnis.” He continues: “This conflict is even harsher than the hatred between Palestinians and Israelis.”
This division among Muslims greatly influences the Syrian conflict. Though having a Sunni majority, the country is dominated by the Alawites, a sort of Shiite branch followed by only 12 to 13% of the population. Ten percent of Syrians are Christian and 7% Druze — Muslims with characteristics of their own.
“The great fear for Sunnis and for most Arab countries,” Father Samir notes, “is that Syria, bound to Iran by religion, increasingly becomes an instrument of Shiite expansion.”
The Position of Syrian Christians
The current government of Syria, the Ba’ath party, makes no distinction between Muslims and Christians, equally considered as citizens. So Christians must choose between a secularist dictatorship which guarantees freedom of religion and an Islamic dictatorship that denies it.
This is not about having sympathy for, or supporting the Assad regime, the Jesuit ponders, but about choosing the lesser evil. Compared with Egypt, for example, the situation of Christians in Syria is much better.
Impact in the West
The West, the Islamologist emphasizes, does not realize that Islam’s growing power in the Middle East and North Africa will reverberate in the ever larger Muslim communities in Europe and the United States.
“To the Muslim fundamentalist world,” he warns, “the West is against God and therefore must be fought; in Islamist discourse, the West is the ‘new Jahiliyyah,’ the new paganism.”
These observations by Father Samir Khalil Samir are very timely in that they run counter to the widespread optimism Western media have spread about the Islamist uprising in the Middle East.