The former Muslim Magdi Allam tells Edward Pentin that western critics of his conversion are betraying the ideal o religious freedom
When did you first consider becoming a Catholic? Who influenced you the most?
It's been a long process that I first became aware of when I was four years old. It began in Cairo, the city of my birth, and attending a school there run by Catholic religious. First it was a school run by Comboni Sisters devoted to St Joseph and then by Salesians, the Institute of Don Bosco in Cairo.
During these years, from when I was four until I was 18 years old. I lived inside these Catholic schools, and this allowed me to become aware of the reality of the religion; it allowed me to share in the lives of Catholic religious and lay figures, to read the Bible and the Gospels. to assist at Mass. No one tried to convert me to Christianity, but certainly I came to know Catholic Christianity then.
My path became clearer after I arrived in Italy in 1972 when I was 20 years old. In the last years, two experiences accelerated my path [to conversion]. The first was five years ago when I found myself escorted under armed guard because of threats from extremists and Islamic ten-orists. This situation forced me to reflect not only on the reality of Islamic extremism, but also Islam as a religion.
The second experience was meeting many well-known Catholics, and simply ordinary Catholic people, who convinced me of the goodness of the religion found through living a life in communion. Their faith and their actions corresponded with the common good. The person who influenced me more than any other in determining my conversion to Catholicism was certainly this Pope, Benedict XVI, in indicating that the indissoluble union of faith and reason is fundamental to authentic religion, and to an authentic civilisation.
And his address at the University of Regensburg played a key role, too?
Certainly. I am proud to have been one of the few Muslims in Italy working for a national newspaper who stood firm in defending the Pope after his discourse in Regensburg on September 12 2006. I didn't only defend him in the name of freedom of expression. I also defended the content of what he said, believing that it corresponded to the truth on a historical and scientific level. So I am proud to have always been greatly consistent in agreeing with the Pope in these confrontations, both when I was a Muslim and when I converted a few days ago. How did you come to be baptised by the Pope. Were you selected, or did you put your name forward?
About one year ago, I began a spiritual course to enter into the Catholic Church with Bishop Rino Fisichella, the rector of the Pontifical Lateran University. Bishop Fisichella is near to the Pope, close to his level of spirituality, to his level of ideals. It's been through the mediation of Bishop Fisichella that the availability of the Pope was verified and became certain. When he [the Pope] was presented with the possibility of baptising me at the Easter Vigil, he accepted straight away to impart on me the sacraments. So I wasn't sought out. That wouldn't have been possible. No, and I never thought for a moment when I decided to become a Catholic that such a positive thing could happen.
Some notable Catholics in the Middle East say your decision to be baptised by the Pope looks like triumphalism. Muslims and others have said it's provocative, and that you manipulated the Pope to make your own statement about Islam. What do you say to these reactions?
I am really baffled that they consider the baptism of a Muslim to Christianity a provocation. and that the image of the Pope baptising a Muslim should make this fact even more serious. It's as if some think the baptism of a Muslim is something shameful, so much so that they'd have preferred it if I was baptised in a particular distant parish, away from the people, because it's better that people don't know about it. I am proud to be a convert to Catholicism and to have publicly affirmed it in a solemn way. I believe the Pope has done his duty correctly in welcoming someone like me into the Catholic religion, someone who has freely and responsibly chosen to join himself with Jesus Christ.
To insinuate that the Pope has been manipulated, which even some Catholics think, is not only wrong but offensive to the Pope. To imagine that the Pope would let himself be manipulated makes him out to be a man of insufficient reason, who acts only instinctively. I believe the Pope in this circumstance has shown himself to be a great pope because he has set himself above the fray; that is to say, he has put faith and reason before other diplomatic and political considerations.
I believe one should have respect for the actions of the Pope, that one should calmly and proudly accept,the baptism of Muslims, just as one should calmly accept the opposite, when nonMuslims convert to Islam. In Europe. there are thousands who have converted to Islam and no one says anything. No one is allowed to criticise them, or threaten them, but if just one Muslim converts to Christianity, immediately he is sentenced to death for apostasy. That's happening now in Europe — not only in Saudi Arabia. If we in Europe are not at the stage of defending religious liberty, including the right of a Muslim to convert to the Christian religion or any other faith, then I'd say we have lost our battle for civilisation and liberty.
But through your baptism, did you perhaps want to give a message that today Christianity doesn't use violence to convert, but Islam still does?
I would like to be very clear: I am absolutely in favour of dialogue with Muslims as people. I believe not only are we able to, but we must dialogue with all Muslims who share those values that give a sense of our humanity, starting from the sacredness of life, from the dignity of the human person, freedom of choice, including religious liberty. So I am not for a war of religion, or a war of civilisations. But at the same time I believe that it's my legitimate right as a Catholic Christian to have a negative assessment of Islam. If I hadn't accrued a negative assessment of Islam, I wouldn't have converted. If I thought Islam was a good religion, a religion of moderation, I would have remained a Muslim, but I converted so evidently I think differently.
You've said that "the root of evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictive". That being the case, do you think there is such a thing as "moderate Islam", or is it a myth?
We have to distinguish between persons and religions. People are not automatic products of the dogmas of their faith. They're not like fruits of a tree. In reality, people are more complex. Each person is different, has his own particular relationship with his religion that can be more or less intense. Each person expresses his life in the context of his religious experi ence differently, but human experience is fragile, whether in culture, whether bound to an economic situation, to familiar conditions, to juridical and political situations, to where one lives.
I am convinced there are moderate Muslims, that there are Muslims who share rules that allow for coexistence. But at the same time I am convinced that when one scrutinises the basis of Islam (I'm speaking here only about the religious sphere and do not condemn its people) there are not the conditions within it, because there is an incompatibility with some nonnegotiable values.
Islam is a religion that has always been plural because it's had within it a myriad of souls. But as a religion it's never been pluralist. it's not been democratic. And between a multiplicity of souls, it's never been a religion of reciprocal acceptance and respect. So this is how historically it's been a religion that has always been in conflict internally, before being that way with the world outside. It's enough to think that three of the four successors of Mohammed were assassinated by Muslims because they were contrary to the way they considered Islam, their way of exercising power. So the path towards a caliphate has always come through war, but war is internal to Islam. That is its history; these are truths that one cannot deny.
Do you think Islam can ultimately be reformed?
I don't want to put limits on providence, but as a Muslim of 56 years, I couldn't be sure of the possibility of internal reform in Islam, that it could fully render itself compatible with the values and principles that I consider inalienable and inviolable. My wish is that it can happen, but what should certainly interest us is not how much Islam can undergo internal reform, but whether coexistence with Muslims is possible and that they can abide by common rules. These rules should be based on those values that, as an expression of our humanity, are absolute, universal and transcendent to those who have faith in God.
What do you say to those Catholics in Muslim majority states who feel their lives are perhaps at mater risk on account of your baptism?
We should free ourselves from the common assumption that the violence of extremism and Islamic terrorism is reactive, that is to say, it's due to provocation and is incited. This globalised Islamic terrorism is aggressive in nature. September 11 2001 didn't happen because the United States had perpetrated something against bin Laden. It was an act of war, an act of aggression against the United States. Today, Christians in the Middle East, Muslim countries, in Iraq, are being slaughtered. They're being persecuted in Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon. All of these things haven't happened because they were provoked by the Pope. They kill them because they consider the use of violence to be legitimate against all those who do not resemble them. Therefore, it's not true they have a need. that they have a pretext to let loose their violence. They manipulate events to say: "It's the fault of the Pope, it's the fault of Magdi Allam. and because of that, we can behave in a certain way."
But they're already doing it: since 1945, around 10 million Christians abandoned the Middle East. in the countries on the southern shores of the eastern Mediterranean, there were one million Jews; today there are about 1,000. All this happened because of the reality of intolerance and violence towards those who are not Muslim.
Only a few days before your baptism Osama bin Laden accused the Pope of pursuing a crusade against Islam. Do you think your baptism plays into his hands, that it makes it look as though the Pope is embarking on a crusade when he is not?
Bin Laden is the ideological head of a globalised Islamic terrorist network. We are talking about a criminal, the most hunted man on earth, who has massacred thousands of people, a man who legitimised the indiscriminate killing of all people who do not submit to his power. We cannot in any way legitimise such a person and consider him in negotiations.
The Pope hasn't launched a crusade. The Pope is affirming values based on his beliefs. He is doing what that his faith calls him to do and he is doing it with absolute peaceful means, with completely legal means, and keeping very much in mind Christians in Muslim countries who are being persecuted and killed by those who think like bin Laden.