"Europe Is Confusing State and Church"

Article published on Jan. 8, 2003
community published
Article published on Jan. 8, 2003

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An interview with Mahmoud Salem Elsheikh, an Islamic researcher, who explains why it is Europe and not Islam that has forgotten the importance of separating religion and politics.

Professor Elsheikh, what is going on between the State and the Church in Europe at the moment?

It’s obvious. Their respective powers are overlapping. Take Italy for example: during the sermon for the Italians who died in Nassiriya, Monsignor Ruini took the liberty of speaking in the name of the Italian Parliament. Just before, the President of the Republic, Ciampi, referred to the cross as a national symbol. But shouldn’t the cross represent mankind’s salvation? This kind of thing creates confusion. In the Western world there is a lot more confusion than in the Arab world. Just think about the fact that the Queen is still the head of the Anglican Church in England and the monarchy is still the head of the Church in Denmark.

And Islam?

Islam is accused of overlapping the two elements of State and religion. However, it is often forgotten that the Church does not exist in the Muslim religion. And neither does the ecclesiastical hierarchy structure involving holding certain people sacred and culminating in the supreme and “infallible Pope” at the very top who is the overall moderator for the entire ecclesiastical body and ruling authority. In Islam there are no sacraments. Everyone can attend ritual practice as long as he is familiar with the ritual. There are no ministers of worship. During rituals, say for example the Friday prayer, any worshipper can preside over the ritual as long as he knows how to do it. A clergy that is separate from the secular State, as is the case in Christian Churches, simply does not exist.

How does the Muslim religion react to secularism?

There is no secularism. It is often said that there is a secular Islam in opposition to a religious Islam. But, given that there isn’t a distinct religious element, there cannot be any opposition either. What is it meant to oppose? What is mistakenly referred to as the “Islamic clergy” is nothing more than the body of people who are in charge, sometimes permanently, of the administrative management and maintenance of the mosques where they work as employees.

Who then is the Imam of Carmagnola?

The would-be Imam of Carmagnola, who was recently expelled (for causing a public nuisance and being a danger to the State) by the Italian government with the approval of the Opposition, is nothing more than an invention. Given that Islam has no clergy or leaders, it seems to me that it is a wish to create a structure similar to that embodied in Christianity that lies behind the converts desire to nominate themselves as “Imams”. They want to Christianize Islam in order to create a “Sui Generis Islam”, what we call “an Italian Islam”.

How influential is the media’s exploitation of these episodes?

In this period where uncertainty, caused by the disappearance of Communism, surrounds European identity, the West is now brushing up against the old enemy, Islam. The current fear of the threat from Islam has caused the media to come out as the defenders of Christianity, identified as being at the root of Western values. The media doesn’t have a problem inviting made-up and invented people, such as Adel Smith (who asked for the removal of a cross from a school classroom) or the would-be “Imam” of Carmagnola, onto their talk-shows to reveal the fundamentalist face of Islam to the public. It is an image created in order to demonstrate the ridiculous idea that Islam is incompatible with modernity.

Some states like Italy, Spain and Poland would like to refer to Europe’s “Christian-Judaic roots” in the coming Constitution. What are your thoughts on this?

It is mostly Italy that wants to insert this reference. But we must make a distinction between roots and culture because the roots of the three monotheist religions, hard-fought in the European public sphere, lie in the tormented Middle East and not in Europe. Similarly, from a cultural point of view Europe ignores the role of Greek culture in European construction, a culture that also spread thanks to the Arabic-Islamic presence in Europe. Remember, it is thanks to the Arabs that Aristotle is known in Europe.

Professor, a few days ago Turkey was attacked by terrorists. How do you view the situation in the only secular country in the Arab world, and, in particular, do you think Turkey will join the European Union one day?

It seems to me that they don’t want to let Turkey in because they entirely understand Turkey’s strange situation. France, Germany and Sweden have already expressed their thoughts out loud. It is not only for demographic or economic reasons but also because of the organization of the State and society. I am not against Turkey’s entry. Europeans are. Turkey’s secularism is praised but it is forgotten that, because of article 5 of its Constitution, its democratic destiny is under the control of the army. Anyway, it is not the religious element that is an obstacle to Turkey’s entry. There are other difficulties. Banning capital punishment or women wearing the veil, which is not foreseen in any Islamic rule, will not be enough for Turkey to be promoted.

One question that a lot of people would like to ask is can Islam exist alongside democracy?

Islam was created for democracy! That must be remembered. The first political schism in the party run by Ali, who was the son-in-law of the Prophet, was a crucial moment for Islamic democracy. Ali was calling for the continuation of family rule but the majority demanded and eventually obtained the nomination of the Caliph through free elections. It is certainly not Islam’s fault if democracy is unknown in countries with a Muslim majority. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1924 almost all countries with an Islamic majority experienced military occupation by the colonial powers that continued until half a century ago. These colonial powers continue, through their economic, cultural and military strength, to install military dictatorships that ensure their own interests. Islam is not responsible in anyway. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea if Europe examined its conscience and asked itself what it has done in the last fifty years other than create free trade for weapons and other goods, thus preventing any form of development and suffocating any independent attempt to establish real democracy in the countries that lie on the other side of the Mediterranean.