Sheikh Khaled Bentounes, the President of the International Sufi Association Alawiya, a Muslim NGO promoting interfaith dialogue and cohabitation, sat down with New Europe to discuss interfaith issues both in Europe and society in general.

NEW EUROPE (NE): What do you think Sufism can do for Europe today?

SHEIK BENTOUNES (SB) Since its inception, Sufism, throughout the history of Islam for 14 centuries, and especially in times of crisis, has been an important resource in preserving the spiritual and universal message of Muhammedian Islam. Throughout the debates of ideas and schools of thought that were born during this period, Sufism has constantly impressed through the writings and the teaching of its masters, the heart of the prophetic message, the human fraternity, respect of each other and the sacredness of life. This means that religion is, above all, a means of educating and awakening human consciousness to the relationship and behaviour that characterizes our relationships with one another, to oneself and to the very other, the Divine, and that the quintessence of the religious message is not to blindly follow precepts or dogmas, but to invite man to act to the doing of good. Islam is defined by the state of Ihsan (beauty, perfection, excellence).

Indeed, the Muslim religion rests on three pillars. The first, Islam manages the ritual, the second, faith (Iman) is a personal conviction, deep and inner that cannot be judged by others, the third, the Ihsan, the beautiful act, is the culmination of our behaviour, our actions and the transformation of our  vision of a united world. It thus leads to inner peace for oneself and to the recognition of the other as a creature desired, and desired by the divine. This awakening education to the noble universal values ​​invites us to practice justice, equality, dignity, respect for the person and reconciliation with ourselves and the whole of the human family in its differences. It is summed up in these words of the Prophet: “No one is a believer if he does not love for his brother what he loves for himself”. The brother here is understood as any descendant of Adam because the Prophet says: “You are all of Adam and Adam is of earth”. When asked about which are the best of religions under God, he replied: “The best religion under God is tolerant monotheism”.

In Europe, it is this unknown vision of the Muslim tradition that Sufism would like to be understood and discovered.

N.E. You have participated in many interreligious meetings throughout your life. What role do you attribute to these encounters, and what do you think the interreligious brings to the world today?

S.B. If we reflect on the place of religion today in the world, we find that three quarters of the population, if not more, claim a belief. Religion thus becomes a determining factor in the search for peace and reconciliation of the human family. To undermine or disregard this factor in a global vision of a universal fraternity is to leave the door open to those who, by interest or ideology, manipulate it. This simple observation shows us the need to nurture and promote interreligious dialogue by teaching the culture of peace.

An example is the tragedy of the monks of Tibherine murdered in Algeria during the black decade of the 80s-90s. It is thanks to the fraternal and continuous bond generated through Islamo-Christian relations that have been maintained in this country, that their beatification was held in the city of Oran, on December 8, 2018. This was the first time in an Arab and Moslem country, in the presence of Christian and Muslim religious authorities, political and diplomatic representatives of several countries, their families, their friends and a huge crowd of the general public.

It is an obvious sign to me for the need to persevere, to continue interreligious dialogue and to maintain it because it is through this that we will be able to remove the obstacles between the religious communities and build a society of Living Together in Peace.

N.E. How do you think Muslims in Europe should react to the rise of Islamophobia?

S.B. Today’s world is marked by lines of civilization and religious divides. It experiences destructive conflicts fuelled by old suspicions and persistent mistrust. In addition to causing great human suffering and immense economic losses, these conflicts constitute serious obstacles to the promotion of friendly relations and cooperation between countries, regions and communities. These conflicts are fuelled by, and feed in turn, xenophobia, intolerance, violence, racism and exclusion, as well as ethnic, religious or linguistic discrimination. All of these attitudes are based on rejection and separation from the other.

It is from this perspective that the fight against the evil of Islamophobia and all phobias fuelled by fear and ignorance, cleverly maintained on both sides by all those who, at the extremes, want to take advantage of it politically.

It is the duty of European Muslims and in their interest to promote an Islam of openness, social cohesion and exemplary citizenship. Living in democratic countries that guarantee respect for each other’s rights and beliefs, Muslims should rediscover the richness of Islam’s spiritual heritage and make it known to their children in order to limit their marginalization and suicidal inward-looking practices. Such insular practices only reinforce the stereotypical image of those who see in Islam, at worst, a danger to society and, in any case, an incompatibility with the laws and traditions of the host countries. They must avoid their children falling into the trap of militant jihadism that advocates forcing men to embrace Islam, what a reductive reading of its history seeks to point at. with such a narrow and limited perspective of what Islam is. They must become the links between East and West developed to build the foundations of a world of exchange, peace and prosperity with a respect for differences.

N.E. Europe has seen its religious landscape completely transformed in recent decades. Do you think it’s good or bad?

S.B. We are living in a time of profound change, and are facing major challenges and challenges that have an unfathomable future. This transformation far exceeds the European framework and its religious landscape. Indeed we are witnessing a movement of global migration flows, which unfortunately, with time and in the current state of the inequity of the governance of the world between North and South, is only increasing.

We are all called to a new awareness: Give a soul to this globalized village. Move from the culture of “me-I” to that of “we” by promoting Living Together and see this problem as an opportunity for positive change.

It is through the political will of a democratic Europe, which is based on universal human rights and where each religious component can find civic recognition [[in its citizens] and [find ] a favourable outcome far from sterile and demagogic debates. Because living together has imperatives based on universal values ​​of love, compassion, justice and solidarity so that our actions produce results and constructive human bonds in society.

N.E. What would your message be for young Europeans today and tomorrow?

S.B. I am concerned about the heavy burden that we are passing on to the new generations and the unconsciousness of the political powers regarding the inevitable problems and the multiple challenges they create: global warming, the programmed extinction of species, political instability, economic and financial crises, the explosion of inequality and poverty, the manipulation of information and finally the rise of xenophobia and the trivialization of violence.

How to remedy all these problems that create a climate of uncertainty and despair among our young people, disorient them and obscure the prospects of their futures?

What is being proposed to them today? Should they believe and trust the promises of a Promethean world where everything will be solved by technological solutions?

Or do they have to invest in a world governed by a universal ethic where the sense of noble human values ​​will be the basis of their relations and finally come to build a home of peace and life together through beauty, dignity and wisdom?

“Live and build the future in synergy, one with the other and not one against the other”.

This content is part of the ‘Religious Freedom’ section supported by the Faith and Freedom Summit Coalition