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The “miracle” of Lassana Bathily

by Gabriele Nissim

Lassana Bathily in Vercelli

Lassana Bathily in Vercelli

How can the horizons of people from different walks of life, cultures and faiths merge successfully? This is one of the great themes tackled by Zygmunt Bauman in his book Of God and Man, and the key problem we have to face today in order to achieve dialogue and shared values in the face of the tidal wave of migrants arriving in Europe – and the surge in the Muslim presence in Europe. Two are the key questions. First of all, dialogue cannot be abstract, confronting different theories as if we were taking part in a debate in the cultural columns of the newspapers or in an academic context, to assess who is closer to the truth. For instance, it would be ridiculous to imagine that Muslims, Jews and Christians recognize themselves in a common faith. Every believer will rather keep being convinced that his own faith is the best one.

Instead, it is only through the sharing of a common experience around precise tasks or challenges in the political or social life that people can put their different viewpoints to the test, thus discovering what they have in common and come closer to a unity of purpose.

Secondly, it is important to work to overcome the mental barriers that prevent us from understanding the cultures of others.

“The prejudices of an individual are —much more than that individual's judgments — the historical reality of his being”, noted Hans-Georg Gadamer.

Thus the issue is always to accept the fact that the test that comes from reality and the stimuli of our interlocutors will always compel us to examine ourselves.

Martin Buber distinguishes between two types of encounters, using synonyms that in the German vocabulary express a different viewpoints on these experiences: Begegnungen, leading us to seek a common pathway where everybody is open to get to know the other better and is driven by a sincere spirit of understanding, and Vergegnungen, where instead people view each other as foes and, as it often happens today on Facebook, everybody only wants to impose his own truth. This is what you see for instance in talk shows on tv, where you never see anyone change his or her mind and say his or her counterpart is right.

A lofty example of a successful merging of horizons on the difficult topic of hospitality to the migrants and the issue of fundamentalist terror was accomplished very cleverly in Vercelli by professors Carolina Vergerio and Patrizia Pomati of B. Lanino Comprehensive School.

How in facts can we help overcome the prejudices that lead people to view in Muslims the bringers of a hostile and dangerous religion and thus prevent Muslim migrants from feeling the blame for the actions of terrorists? How can we create a common front in the struggle against terror that is not experienced by Muslims as an imposition and is not used as a pretext for a closure against extra-European peoples?

The school’s teacher had an extraordinary idea. No one in Italy had thought of this before.

She invited to Vercelli Lassana Bathily, the Malian boy who took into safety some Jewish customers of the kosher supermarket attacked in Paris who were about to succumb to the murderous rage of terrorists, and called him to tell about his story, first to the students and parents of the middle school and then, in the evening, in the great hall of the Saint Andrew Basilica before an audience formed by the local population and the Muslim communities.

Lassana’s arrival surprised everybody.

Students welcomed him as If their school hosted a famous singer or a football idol, and dedicated to him a tree in the Garden of the Righteous of the institute. They shot dozens selfies with him with their mobile phones, to proudly show their friends they had been so lucky to spend one morning with the Muslim hero from Paris.

The students’ parents prepared a great cous cous in the school hall to show their wish to offer hospitality, too.

The town’s extra-European migrants participated in the meeting and identified with the clerk of the Paris market.

“We want to be heroes like you”, they told him during the gathering.

His audience looked at all Muslims who were there with different eyes.

Mohamed Hajiib announced that his organization Partecipazione e spiritualità musulmana (Muslim participation and spirituality) would summon a meeting to condemn terrorism in the following days, and invited everybody to join.

How to explain this miracle that created a unity of purpose between the different cultural souls of our country? It sufficed to listen to the simple and clear words of Bathily’s.

“Guys, when I am asked about Islam I answer that God is the same in all religions. Why did I save the Jewish customers? I never have a moment of hesitation when I think we have to do a right thing. In Paris I was lucky, because when I came from Mali and I had neither a job nor an ID card, a policeman who had stopped me in the road indicated me an association that could help me. My greatest joy was when President Hollande called me up and told me I would receive the French citizenship”

The youths in Vercelli have thus understood that Bathily, a Muslim from Mali, was one of them.

Analysis by Gabriele Nissim, Gariwo chairman

7 June 2016

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Fatima Mernissi

writer, lecturer in sociology at the Mohammed V University of Rabat, Morocco