Vatican advisor on Islam hails 'springtime' in Arab world

Probably wisely, the Vatican has not officially had much to say about the popular uprisings sweeping across the Arab world. If those movements were perceived as being engineered or supported in the West -- perhaps especially by the leadership of the Catholic church -- it would doubtless be counter-productive.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Vatican and its advisors on Islam aren’t paying close attention.

An essay published today by “Asia News” from Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian-born theologian and expert on Islam based in Lebanon, offers a window into what church leaders are thinking.

Samir, whose views on Islam carry tremendous weight in the Vatican and in the circles around Pope Benedict XVI, argues that what we’re seeing amounts to a genuine “springtime” in the Arab world. He notes that the reform movement is being carried principally by young people, which is hardly surprising given the demographics of the Middle East, where half the population is under 30.

Most importantly, Samir notes that the uprisings to date have had three key characteristics:

  • They’re not focused on international issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or resentments over American foreign policy. Israeli and American flags haven’t been burned, and in general these movements seem far more focused on national and social priorities.

  • The young protestors want religion, Samir writes, but not fanaticism. In general, there’s been a remarkable spirit of Muslim/Christian solidarity, especially in nations such as Egypt and Lebanon where Christianity has a significant presence. In the streets, bearded Muslim conservatives have not formed a separate bloc, but have freely mixed with everyone else.

  • The protests have been almost entirely peaceful, with the only violence usually coming from the security forces of entrenched regimes.

Samir adds that the Arab “springtime” represents an invitation to an examination of conscience by the Western powers, meaning Europe and the United States. In general, Western policy has been to sustain corrupt regimes on the grounds that they were the only alternative to Islamic fundamentalism. (He gives the examples of the French role in Tunisia, Italy in Libya, and the United States in Egypt.) It’s time now, he writes, to chart a new course.

In the short term, Samir argues, the challenge for the West is to help without interfering.

“These riots have led to an economic disaster: long strikes, destruction and misery,” he says. “It would be good to reach out and help solve these problems.”

Though Samir’s essay is not an official statement of Vatican policy, one can be sure that it will be carefully read in Rome.

The full text may be found here.

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