''A closed off Islam is more dangerous for Muslims than for Christians''
You were recently honoured with the German Media Prize in recognition of your humanitarian and cultural work. What moved the jury to award you with this prestigious prize?
Mitri Raheb: The jury awarded me the prize for our 16 years of commitment towards creating a space for hope and dialogue in Palestine. We originally began as a very small organization with a staff of only one person. Over the course of the past 16 years, we have developed into the third largest employer in Bethlehem with more than 100 people now working for the Diyar Consortium. More than 60,000 people have participated in our programmes.
In addition, we established the Dar al-Kalima College, which is the first college in Palestine offering degrees in theatre, music, and film. We also founded the first congress centre in Bethlehem with the aim of making the city a more attractive location for international conference tourism. Furthermore, a theatre, a cinema, a number of schools, and a sport association have since been established.
However, what I find much more significant than these bare facts is that we have succeeded in attracting back home many young Palestinians from abroad, who believe in the development of the country and our society. For these reasons, my co-workers and I were awarded the prize.
Could you speak a bit about the work of the Diyar Consortium?
Raheb: We focus on three main areas. The first is the cultural sphere, as this is directly related to our identity. We want to develop a dynamic Palestinian identity. The same holds true for the area of elementary and secondary school education – we want to develop a young leadership elite. In addition, we operate our own publishing house, which publishes books on civil society, culture, and women's issues.
What is the personal significance of this prize for you?
Raheb: It shows me that there is an ever-increasing interest in the Palestinian problem. What takes place in Palestine is followed intensively and comes under close scrutiny. The prize is therefore an honour not only for me, but for the entire Palestinian people. I have already been the recipient of other prizes, but this prize is especially important, as it is conferred by prominent corporate and financial figures in Germany.
Yet, wasn't there also criticism in Germany at your winning the award?
Raheb: Yes, indeed, there was. On one hand, I was strongly attacked by the pro-Israeli lobby in Germany, which demanded that my award should be revoked.
However, many prominent people from the church and politics in Germany, including prominent representatives of the Jewish community in Germany, raised their voices in defence of my claim to the prize. The reason for this challenge was my criticism of Israeli occupation policies and, of course, the fact that I have made these criticisms as an Arab Christian and that I champion the cause of ensuring the existence of Christians in Palestine.
Your book "The Arab Spring and Christians in the Middle East" has recently appeared in Arabic. What forecasts do you make in the book?
Raheb: The book is an attempt to take stock of events in the Arab world and their consequences for Christians. Many Christians are concerned about the developments in the Arab world, because they fear a descent into chaos and instability as was the case in Iraq. The tenor of the book is characterized, above all, by the assertion that you simply cannot lump together all of the Christians in the Arab world. Many support the Arab Spring while there are those opposed to it and still others who have mixed feelings about the turn of events.
The book also hopes to provide an Arab perspective of the region, in particular, a perspective based in a respect for plurality. What I mean by this is that Christians can only enjoy a future in the region when Muslims also enjoy such a prospect. And conversely, Muslims would face a much bleaker future without Christians. This means that a way has to be found so that all citizens feel that their freedom and dignity is respected.
Many Europeans fear that Islamist groups will seize power in the Arab world. Are such fears justified?
Raheb: I do believe that the Islamic agenda is experiencing a strong upsurge. The truly significant question, however, is what form of political Islam will win the upper hand in the current developments in the Arab world. There are many varieties of political Islam – for instance, the Turkish, Saudi Arabian, Afghan, and Dubai models.
To repeat the question – which form of political Islam will triumph in the Arab Spring countries? Will it be a pluralistic and open Islam or a closed off form of Islam? A hermetically sealed Islam is not only dangerous for Christians, but also for the Muslims themselves. In general, Muslims would find themselves worse off in terms of culture and civilization and far less pluralistic without the influence of Arab Christians. Pluralism is something positive and it is what the Arab world needs.
Do you believe that because of this historical transformation, we are now headed towards a conflict between Islam and Christianity?
Raheb: I am not an adherent of the thesis of an Islamic-Christian conflict. I regard this position as arising from a Western view of events. It is wrong to speak of conflict and coexistence in a polarizing fashion. Our concern is to promote a pluralistic civil society in which freedom is respected, regardless of religious affiliation. We have only one option – to create a common future.
Can religion play a positive role in helping to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Raheb: Regrettably, I regard many of the manifestations of religion in the region, whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, as not being positive. Unfortunately, religiosity has since become a synonym for fanaticism. There is a very interesting citation from the Bible. "Whoever says that he loves God, but hates his brother, is a hypocrite." It is a shame, but religion is increasingly taking on the guise of tribalism and confessionalism.
One hears all the time now – "I am a Christian," "I am a Sunni," or "I am a Shiite." I hold the view that such boundaries are not compatible with true faith. On the contrary, true faith means that one loves God and one's Muslim brother at the same time – and that he loves his Christian brother in turn.
Many phenomena that cloak themselves in the name of religion are actually tribalistic or political in nature. In these cases, religion is merely a means to a political end. If only all the so-called faithful really followed their consciences! True faith, on the other hand, is a real help in securing peace and resolving the conflict.
Bethlehem is generally regarded as a model for Christian and Islamic coexistence. Why?
Raheb: It is based on our common history and good neighbourly relations between Christians and Muslims. Muslims also attend many of our schools. These relationships in everyday life and among classmates form the backbone of our coexistence.
Interview conducted by Muhannad Hamed
© Qantara 2012
Translation by John Bergeron
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de