Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fr Georges Massouh: We Need a True Islamic Enlightenment

Arabic original here.

Fr Georges Massouh: We Need a True Islamic Enlightenment

by Rahil Dendesh

The priest of the parish of Saint Georges, Fr Georges Massouh, was born in Aley in 1962. He received his doctorate from the Pontifical Institute in 1997 with the thesis "Christian Topics in the Works of Muslim Clerics in Lebanon 1975-1996" and then published a book entitled The Good Things to Come: Views on Christian-Muslim Rapprochement". He regularly publishes articles in various scholarly journals and has a weekly column in an-Nahar. He is director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Studies at Balamand University. We met with him to talk about the Arab revolutions and we had a long discussion that dealt with the necessity of reforming Islamic religious thought as an absolutely necessary prelude to undertaking true Arab revolutions.

The revolutions of the "Arab Spring" were not revolutions in the true since of the word according to Fr Georges Massouh. In his view, revolution means "development and forward progress, but we have not seen this in our societies where uprisings have occurred." Massouh believes that the revolutions have not realized what was hoped of them because they need preparation. Here he touches on the European revolutions, including the French Revolution which "came as the crowning and culmination of intellectual and scientific development, the introduction of critical thinking and the rationalization of religious thought that started with the Protestant movement, with Martin Luther who broke down the walls of the Church."

In his opinion, this has not yet happened in the Arab world, where "we do not have an advanced Arabic philosophy or great scientific, literary or intellectual production. For this reason, we see that the revolutions have raised slogans of returning backward and a revolution cannot succeed on the basis of an old promise."

Shari'a is not the Solution

Massouh summarizes the Arab scene in general in terms of intellectual decline, the reason for which is that religion is in a state of backwardness, where no new experiences have been allowed in, especially the contributions of modern science, particularly the human sciences such as sociology, linguistics, psychology and anthropology... These are some of the things that have had no influence on Islamic thought up to today. Consequently, this prevents the undertaking of any true revolution. As for the Arab Nahda, it was thwarted at the beginning of the twentieth century in terms of both secular and religious thought... "Religious thought has reversed course after Muhammad Abduh, which later  produced the  ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular thought, which had been developing over the course of the nineteenth century, suffered a setback on account of the authoritarian regimes." The causes for this reversal of course go back to various factors. First of all, the arrival of the foreign mandates after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and what is called colonialism. This led to the tyranny of reactionary thinking over Islamic thought, with the support of the Arab regimes. Important is the "infamous promise" to establish the state of Israel in 1917. As for the great reversal that has caused us to recede further and further, it came with the defeat of 1967, when the slogans "Islam is the solution" or "Shari'a is the solution" were brought out. Since then,we started to witness the rise of Islamic fundamentalist movements.

The Necessity of Individualism

The open-minded priest does not believe in the existence of a moderate Islam when it comes to the issue of the state because "All Islamists, moderate and immoderate, call for the establishment of an Islamic state, the application of Islamic law and an Islamic constitution."

He cites document from al-Azhar issued in 2011 which talks about the modern constitutional state while taking into account the goals of Islamic law and the proper understanding of Islam as defined by al-Azhar-- pointing out that in this manner al-Azhar is playing the role taken by the guardianship of the jurisprudent in Shi'ism-- to shows that there is no broader horizon, even for moderates. He very quickly indicates that he does not mean to generalize, but rather to talk about those with influence on the street. There are those who have worked and produced important intellectual advancements, such as Muhammad Arkoun, Nasr Abu Zayd and others, but these efforts have had a limited sphere of influence and so the plan of the Islamic state and the system of dhimmitude and everything connected with them remain live issues. Similiarly, Dr Massouh does not see in the fall of the Islamists' governments signs for hope that these legacies that are now quasi-axiomatic will be re-examined, since Islamic rule in Egypt was topped and the power of the military brought back the regime of Hosni Mubarak in a different guise.

"True revolution can neither be through a military coup or through Islamic law, so the problem we have is that democracy is not a universal culture but merely a tally of votes."

In talking about "the people", he points out that the "unenlightened segment of them" is only able to elect fundamentalists or authoritarians, while what we want is a civil state in every sense of the world. He stressed that we cannot take the term "modern" without taking the culture surrounding it. "For example, there are those who say that they are for a civil state but who reject civil marriage. What kind of civil state are we demanding if there is no legislation for civil marriage?" Also, democracy in Europe is based on the principle that the individual is the basis of society, while "for us, the individual does not exist. We have religious, sectarian, tribal and regional blocs." Fr Massouh puts forward the model of Lebanon, which some regard as a positive model, while in his opinion it is "the worst model that could be followed in the world." When we belong to the state, it must be separate from our belonging to a religion. We find that every sect is a state.

This does not mean that this man is calling to impose on our societies western experiences that have their own historical contexts. In this regard he says, "I am not in favor of cloning western or other models. We are eager to fashion our state as we ourselves want it, but we must start from a specific place. This place is religion, since it is a totalizing ideology that wears many garbs." Fr Massouh stresses that when we talk about the state, it is unacceptable for someone to come and speak to us of a religious state. There are new realities on the ground, most prominent of which is the concept of the civil state, while in Islamic thought there is the concept of the umma, which negates the concept of the state. It is impossible for us to take Islamic jurisprudence that is fourteen centuries old and apply it to our age. As long as the state is based on religious and sectarian thinking, "its condition will in no way hold up." Fr Massouh arrives at the pressing need for boldness in conducting Islamic legal reasoning, especially as regards the modern state. This requires there to be clerics who are reliable in their culture and knowledge to bring new legal reasoning and new thinking. In this context, he moves to Muslim-Christian dialogues, pointing out that the greatest responsibility lies on the majority: "Muslims' responsibility is greater than Christians' responsibility."


The Anti-Gnostic said...

They should convert to Orthodox Christianity, a religious faith far more compatible with the Syrian and Lebanese peoples and their cultures.

Anonymous said...

Culturally speaking you certainly are wright. Maybe the xpctian fragmentation in the Middle East, of old date especially in the Patriarchate of Antioch, readilly can be and are interpreted in the sense of the "errors" of XPctianity by Muslims. Hence conversions to XPCtianity do happen and did happen, but by example of authentically lived christian faith, prompting people to know the reason - and hence the reasons of faith in Christ who transforms xpctian s lifes and persons, especially by the mysteries of the Church. Hence the Churches of the Middle East are challenged in a special way to beginn a way of Conversion from top to the bottom, that Christ may become visible in the Church not only to believers but to the surrounding world as well.