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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Muslim critic Magdi Allam converts, baptised by Benedict XVI

The Associated Press reports that Italy's most prominent Muslim, an iconoclastic writer who condemned Islamic extremism and defended Israel, converted to Catholicism Saturday in a baptism by the pope at a Vatican Easter service:
An Egyptian-born, non-practicing Muslim who is married to a Catholic, Magdi Allam infuriated some Muslims with his books and columns in the newspaper Corriere della Sera newspaper, where he is a deputy editor. He titled one book "Long Live Israel."

As a choir sang, Pope Benedict XVI poured holy water over Allam's head and said a brief prayer in Latin.

"We no longer stand alongside or in opposition to one another," Benedict said in a homily reflecting on the meaning of baptism. "Thus faith is a force for peace and reconciliation in the world: distances between people are overcome, in the Lord we have become close."

Vatican Television zoomed in on Allam, who sat in the front row of the basilica along with six other candidates for baptism. He later received his first Communion.

Allam, 55, told the newspaper Il Giornale in a December interview that his criticism of Palestinian suicide bombing provoked threats on his life in 2003, prompting the Italian government to provide him with a sizable security detail.

Local Muslim organizations responded thus to the news:
The Union of Islamic Communities in Italy — which Allam has frequently criticized as having links to Hamas — said the baptism was his own decision.

"He is an adult, free to make his personal choice," the Apcom news agency quoted the group's spokesman, Issedin El Zir, as saying.

Yahya Pallavicini, vice president of Coreis, the Islamic religious community in Italy, said he respected Allam's choice but said he was "perplexed" by the symbolic and high-profile way in which he chose to convert.

"If Allam truly was compelled by a strong spiritual inspiration, perhaps it would have been better to do it delicately, maybe with a priest from Viterbo where he lives," the ANSA news agency quoted Pallavicini as saying.

There seems to be some disjuncture between the emphasis on Allam as "Italy's leading Muslim writer" and the following description of the convert as: "An Egyptian-born, non-practicing Muslim who is married to a Catholic."

According to another article, Allam himself "says he has never been a practicing Muslim." And in his own conversion story, he refers to himself as having "occasionally practiced [Islam] at a cultural level." Hardly what I would call "Italy's most prominent MUSLIM".

Were the inverse true: -- were a non-practicing Catholic married to a Muslim to embrace Islam -- would it be proper to describe him as "a prominent Catholic"?

This leads me to wonder if the press is deliberately playing up this aspect of the story, so as to foster Islamic-Christian tensions -- along the same lines as their shoddy reporting of Benedict's Regensburg address (ignoring practically everything else in his address, save that which they saw as newsworthy and potentially inflammatory).

It is possible to perceive Benedict's agreement to baptize Allam as signifying his emphasis on religious freedom (particularly for Christians residing in nations with an Islamic majority). Nonetheless I think it would be improper for Christians to treat this conversion in triumphalistic fashion, as seems to be the case on some blogs.


  • Muslim Baptized by Pope Sought Dialogue, by Frances D'Emilio. Associated Press March 24, 2008:
    The Egyptian-born commentator who renounced Islam and converted to Roman Catholicism with a baptism by Pope Benedict XVI has built his career crusading against what he calls the "inherent" violence in Islam and championing Israel's existence. . . .

    Allam has credited the pope, who himself has been criticized by some Muslims, as being instrumental in his decision to become a Catholic at age 55 and after spending his adult life in predominantly Catholic Italy.

    A frequent commentator on Islamic issues and terrorism on Italian TV, Allam says he is "passionate" about coexistence in the West of "national identity and democracy, immigration and integration, Islam and terrorism" . . .

    The conversion freed him "from the shadows of a preaching where hate and intolerance toward he who is different, toward he who is condemned as an 'enemy,'" he said.

    In an interview on Italian private TV Canale 5 Monday evening, Allam said he felt "stronger" and "great joy" because of his conversion.

    He dismissed the suggestion that Benedict, in baptizing him, might put at risk the lives of Christian minorities in Islamic nations.

    Benedict "wanted to give a signal to the church throughout the world that whoever" wants to join will be accepted, Allam said.

  • A Muslim critic turns Catholic, by Jeff Israeliy. Time March 24, 2008:
    After studying sociology at Rome's La Sapienza University, Allam began writing for the Italian daily La Repubblica, covering the first Gulf War and chronicling everyday life of the country's growing Muslim population. Initially, he wrote favorably about multiculturalism, and warned about the risks of racism against Muslims in this heavily Catholic nation. But after 9/11, now writing for another major newspaper, Corriere della Sera, he became an increasingly harsh critic of Islam, both inside and outside of Italy. He warned against the "Islamization" of Europe, and urged opposition to the building of new mosques in Italy. In his provocatively titled 2007 book Viva Israel: From the ideology of death to the civilization of life, my story, he described his transformation from hating Zionists as a youth to realizing "that hatred easily comes to include all Jews, then all Christians, then all liberal and secular Muslims, and at the end all Muslims who do not want to submit to Islamic radicals' will."
  • Magdi Allam Recounts His Path to Conversion Zenit News Service. March 23, 2008:
    On my first Easter as a Christian I not only discovered Jesus, I discovered for the first time the face of the true and only God, who is the God of faith and reason. My conversion to Catholicism is the touching down of a gradual and profound interior meditation from which I could not pull myself away, given that for five years I have been confined to a life under guard, with permanent surveillance at home and a police escort for my every movement, because of death threats and death sentences from Islamic extremists and terrorists, both those in and outside of Italy.

    I had to ask myself about the attitude of those who publicly declared fatwas, Islamic juridical verdicts, against me -- I who was a Muslim -- as an “enemy of Islam,” “hypocrite because he is a Coptic Christian who pretends to be a Muslim to do damage to Islam,” “liar and vilifier of Islam,” legitimating my death sentence in this way. I asked myself how it was possible that those who, like me, sincerely and boldly called for a “moderate Islam,” assuming the responsibility of exposing themselves in the first person in denouncing Islamic extremism and terrorism, ended up being sentenced to death in the name of Islam on the basis of the Quran. I was forced to see that, beyond the contingency of the phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism that has appeared on a global level, the root of evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictive.

    At the same time providence brought me to meet practicing Catholics of good will who, in virtue of their witness and friendship, gradually became a point of reference in regard to the certainty of truth and the solidity of values. . . .

    But undoubtedly the most extraordinary and important encounter in my decision to convert was that with Pope Benedict XVI, whom I admired and defended as a Muslim for his mastery in setting down the indissoluble link between faith and reason as a basis for authentic religion and human civilization, and to whom I fully adhere as a Christian to inspire me with new light in the fulfillment of the mission God has reserved for me.

    Christianity will certainly procure for me yet another, and much more grave, death sentence for apostasy. You are perfectly right. I know what I am headed for but I face my destiny with my head held high, standing upright and with the interior solidity of one who has the certainty of his faith. And I will be more so after the courageous and historical gesture of the Pope, who, as soon has he knew of my desire, immediately agreed to personally impart the Christian sacraments of initiation to me. His Holiness has sent an explicit and revolutionary message to a Church that until now has been too prudent in the conversion of Muslims, abstaining from proselytizing in majority Muslim countries and keeping quiet about the reality of converts in Christian countries. Out of fear. The fear of not being able to protect converts in the face of their being condemned to death for apostasy and fear of reprisals against Christians living in Islamic countries. Well, today Benedict XVI, with his witness, tells us that we must overcome fear and not be afraid to affirm the truth of Jesus even with Muslims.

  • Not suprisingly, is playing up Allam's "Muslim" background as well, in addition to his denunciations of Islam as "intrinsically violent".

  • Muslims question Vatican baptism of Islamic critic, by Tom Heneghan. Reuters. March 24, 2008:
    [Aref Ali Nayed, a participant in the Muslim-Catholic dialogue] said the Vatican should distance itself from a searing attack on Islam that Allam published on Sunday in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, where he is deputy director.

    Commentators in Algeria and Morocco echoed Nayed's view, saying Allam's conversion was a personal affair but his attacks on Islam and his headline-grabbing baptism by the pope strained relations between Muslims and the Catholic Church.

    "The whole spectacle... provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope's advisers on Islam," Nayed, who is director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, said in a statement.

    "Nevertheless, we will not let this unfortunate episode distract us from our work on pursuing 'A Common Word' for the sake of humanity and world peace. Our basis for dialogue is not a tit-for-tat logic of reciprocity."

Update 3/24/08

Some reactions from the Catholic blogging world ...

  • An Individual Act of Conscience or a Global Phenomenon?, by Sherry Weddell, who expresses her reservations about the publicity being heaped upon Allam (Intentional Disciples March 24, 2008):
    [Allam's baptism] could have been done lovingly and well a thousand different ways – none of which required that his face and story blanket the globe within hours of his reception. Being baptized did not require that he become the poster-boy for Muslims considering Christianity and there were a number of obvious reasons why he isn’t a great candidate for poster boydom and may actually be counter-productive.

    Apart from the geo-religious-political implications, all this publicity could actually hamper his spiritual growth and that of his family. Being a trophy convert is often not a good thing for one’s actual process of conversion. . . .

    Since we aren't actively persecuted, it is easy for us to call for a full frontal assault ( Charge!) and "religious freedom now!" and to talk blithely about the blood of the martyrs being the seed of the Church. Cause the chances of it being our blood or that of our children is very, very small. But as I have said before, "charge!" and spineless cowardice are not the only two options available to us.

    Meanwhile, someone really sharp, spiritually and theological mature, and prayerful needs to stay close to Allam and guide him through this tumultuous transition. It's hard enough to become a Catholic at age 56 from a non-Christian background. Doing it in the middle of a media and geo-political circus (Imagine if Princess Diana had become Catholic as was rumored before her death!) is full of potential pitfalls.

    (Abu Daoud @ Islam & Christianity, responds on The Baptism of Magdi Allam: Wisdom or Folly?:
    Was it the wisest and most prudent path for Benedict to baptize this particular Muslim on Easter at St. Petersburg?

    I think there that Sherry would answer NO. But my answer is Yes. So let me address this specific topic instead of trading in hypotheticals, which is what we have been doing until now. . . .

  • And DarwinCatholic, on True Religious Tolerance and Dialog:
    I find myself wondering if Benedict's aim in all this is to make a statement about the nature of true religious toleration and dialog. . . .

    Benedict is no political and cultural fire-breether, but he is a thoughtful and holy man who is in no sense afraid of difficult and unpopular truths. I wonder if the pope, who according to Allam immediately agreed to personally receive him into the Church when Allam made the request, means with this action to make a statement that he will bring to the table when he meets with scholard from the A Common Word initiative in November: Toleration means not merely ignoring and minimizing points of difference, but respecting the conscience of others even in the face of grave and important points of difference.

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