03/27/2008, 00.00
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Magdi Christian Allam, a contested conversion

by Samir Khalil Samir, sj
The Catholic baptism of the well known journalist, Magdi Allam, Egyptian and non practising Muslim, has been criticised and despised by the Islamic world. Added to this, is the embarrassment in Christian quarters, of those fearful of seeing a new crusade being launched by Benedict XVI and the Church. Instead, just as with the Regensburg address, this baptism is a message in defence of religious freedom, of evangelisation and of co-existence between religions.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Every year, during the Easter Vigil in St Peter’s basilica, the pope baptises a group of adults drawn from the various continents.  On the feast of the baptism of Jesus, meanwhile, the pope traditionally baptises small children.

This year’s vigil saw 7 people baptised.  One of them was a Muslim, well known in Italy and abroad:  Magdi Allam, deputy editor ad personam of the leading Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.

A. The baptised Magdi

 1. Magdi Allam and the evolution of Egyptian society.

Magdi Allam, born in Cairo (Egypt) in 1952, comes from a Muslim family.  His mother was a devout women, his father more secularised.  He was educated by Italian Salesians, who run Cairo’s most famous technical school.

Arriving in Italy in ’72, he continued his studies at Rome’s La Sapienza University.  Following his degree, he embarked on his career in journalism, working first for La Republica, then for Corriere della Sera.

Increasingly Magdi Allam specialised in the phenomenon of radical Islam, above all in the aftermath of September 11th 2001.  His staunch opposition to this form of Islam which portrays itself as violent, radical, intolerant and invasive grew . As the violence of this Islam became blinder and more widespread, to touch the entire Islamic world, Arab and non Arab alike, his opposition intensified.

It must be remembered that this form of radical Islam was born in the early ‘70’s in Egypt; in the undercurrents of the Muslim Brotherhood – founded in Cairo in ’28 – and that it strengthened itself thanks to the ideological and financial aid of Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabita School. Egypt has radically changed in these past 30 years.  And Magdi has taken note of this: all of the radio and television programmes have been islamified; Egyptian cinema, the most famous throughout the Arab world, has become puritanical and Islamic; not even the merest of negative allusions to Islam is accepted; films can no longer be made about the prophets from the Old Testament; religious television now concerns itself with all areas of life; mosques are multiplying at an amazing rate; the veil has now become all but compulsory; the niqab – which corresponds to the Afghan burka, covering the woman’s entire body except for her eyes – is increasingly becoming the norm.

In 2006 the Egyptian Minister for Culture Faruk Hosni afforded himself the luxury of alluding to the widespread use of the veil, saying that “I no longer recognise my country, it has become so similar to Saudi Arabia”: in parliament deputies linked to the Muslim Brotherhood demand his resignation based on the constitution (inspired by Islamic sharia law).  Crumbling to pressure, his ruling party invited him to resign.  Faruk was saved at the last moment by the First Lady, Sawsan Mubarak.

All of this contributed to consolidating Magdi Allam’s opposition to this radical form of Islam.  It is rooted in the Koran and in the attitude of the prophet Muhammad, but it does not correspond to the vision of the greater Muslim majority.  These, however, are used to bending to the orders emitted by the imam, and accept this situation lying face down.

2. From Islamist violence to the non violence of the Gospel


This perhaps rienforced Magdi Allam’s distancing himself from his experiences of Islam, while leading him to the conclusion that the seeds of this violence are present in the Koran and in the tradtion of Mohammad’s sayings.

Some suspect that his choice was motivated by political ends, but I prefer to follow the principle set out by Saint Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, where he says that one must always attribute best intentions, the so called “presupponendum”, to the other person, even one’s enemy.

In his Easter Homily, the pope as the foremost representative of the Catholic Church, underlined that every person who has undertaken a spiritual journey and has been helped by a Christian community to verify his own reasons for his choice, must be welcomed into the Church.

The day after his baptism, Magdi Allam wrote a letter to his paper explaining the reasons for his choice, why he was baptised by the pope, etc... Some people’s reaction was to declare that baptism is a personal choice and as such should not be exposed in public.  In his position, I perhaps would not have chosen to do so, but it is not incorrect to have done as he did.

What is for me somewhat disjoined is that he chose the moment of his baptism to continue his analysis of Islamic fundamentalism.  That was the precise moment in which Magdi could have communicated how Christianity is the fulfilling of Islam’s religious leanings.  This too would have been of worth: contemporary Islam is heading full speed towards an intransigent integralism of vast proportions; contemporary Christianity on the other hand, is moving towards increased openness. Thus his choice would gain increased understanding.

Moreover, conversion is not simply a break with the past (in this case with Islam).  It is also a projection towards the new and the future. This other more intimate dimension, the discovery of Christianity and of a strengthening bond to Christ,  Allam does not speak of.  If he did, perhaps he would risk becoming the target of criticism from those who maintain that conversion is a private and personal matter.  But it would be truly wonderful to discover his personal reasons for this choice.

The way in which he wrote his letter, leaves open space to an interpretation that sees conflict between Christianity and Islam, given it's political, ideological and cultural form. But this is only one point in time.  Christianity is the fulfilment of all that is spiritual and good in this world.  I have had diverse occasions to follow young Egyptian, Lebanese and Iranian Muslims who wanted to convert to Christianity.  In many cases, the journey begins with their desire to contrast the violence of modern day Islam; then they discover that Christianity means peace and love.  What strikes most about the figure of Christ is the element of love, the gifting of himself even in the passion and on the cross, which supersedes the Koran’s vision, in which Jesus escapes martyrdom.

Certainly Magdi Allam was not a practising Muslim; as such his journey lent more towards the political and cultural.  However to say that it is not authentic is a step too far… which nothing can justify!

B. The absolute value of religious freedom

1. The freedom to abandon Islam and convert

His baptism however affirms the legitimacy of conversion.  I believe this is why he wished to draw greater attention to his conversion: to affirm what is denied by the Muslim world.

Allam has written extensively regarding the case of the Afghan convert Abdul Rahman, taking staunch positions and affirming the right to convert.   Magdi wants to lend his support to a civilisation of human rights, represented first and foremost by Christian civilisation.

In Rome I know a few Muslim converts, who however, hide their conversion, without ever denying it.    Magdi, being a public figure, felt the need to proclaim that he was Muslim and now he has become Christian.  Tarek Ramadan even arrived at accusing him of being a Copt who passed himself off as Muslim.

According to Muslims, if you are born Muslim you remain Muslim, even if you distance yourself from the practise of the faith.  This is why it is impossible to convert to another religion. Having reached perfection with the practise of Islam, the fullness of divine revelation given by God to the heart of Adam, but developed and culminating in the Koran, you cannot turn back.  In the Koran, even Adam is Muslim.

This is how I understand the reaction of a person dear to me and published in the newspaper Repubblica March 23: “there was no need to reject the love and faith for the prophet Mohammad in order to demonstrate love for Jesus.   Within their doctrine, Muslims recognise the figure of Christ and the Virgin Mary”. “This is why I fail to understand the choice to reject the tradition of the Islamic message: any form of apostasy is seriously perplexing”.

Instead I say: you cannot be Christian and Muslim at the same time, because there are irreconcilable points which divide them, at a level of dogma (be that Christ is the last revelation of God, or that Muhammad is the “Seal of the Prophets” who brought the last message to humanity); at an ethical level (be that the duty to forgive and love your enemy: or the non duty to do so etc.); at a historic level  (be that Christ died on the cross; or that he did not die and is still alive).  Muslims may have the ‘highest regard for Christ and the Virgin Mary” but the Christ of the Koran (however wonderful he may be) is not the Christ of the Gospel.

In the same way Abu Muhammad, commenting on Magdi’s baptism, writes from Gaza: “Islam is a great tent which gathers beneath it all religions and Celestial Books.  We believe in all of God’s messengers and in all Books.  We have a wide vision and an open spirit.  Even the apostate must be criticised so he may recognise true from false and discover that which he chooses to ignore”.

The same rebuke was voiced by the UCOII: “There is no Jesus-Mohammad contrast”.  Yet the contrast in reality exists! Everyone is free to prefer one or the other.  But the facts cannot be ignored.

Instead along comes Magdi, to affirm through his conversion, that his preference is Christianity.

These are some of the polite responses from Muslims.  But if one visits a Muslim website in Arabic, such as “islamonline”, there are many insults. Badr refers to him as a “dog”; Metwalli says: “from communism to the crusades to the fires of geenna”; Chérif calls him” vile” and scornfully congratulates him on becoming a Catholic; another writes “if God so desires he will die a non believer (kâfir) and so he will go to hell!”; “you have loved those who killed the prophets and the polytheists, so go to them!”.  Ahmad writes: “Go to hell!” and Umm Ahmad writes from France: “Lets do our research: surely he is an Zionist Jew, or at most without origins!”. Abu Muhammad form Gaza invokes God to send him painful torture”.  The litany is unending.

2. Freedom to convert even in a secularised world

Conversion and religion are also treated with distrust by the western secularized world. It is enough to consider the scandal which erupted in the wake of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent comments on Europe’s Christian roots and the need to rely on religions in order to regain lost secular values.  Secularists claim that it was secular enlightenment which brought values to the world and not religion.

Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address aimed to complete the conquests of the enlightenment by opening up its reasoning to the religious dimension.   However he also added: this does not mean returning to the situation preceding the enlightenment; his proposal is not a return to the past but a step forward [1].

Those non believers, who do not allow society to believe anymore, are against human rights.  Therefore, while there is a totalitarianism of Islamic stamp present in today’s world, there is also a totalitarianism of an atheist secular nature too.

If the religious dimension is not respected than there is the risk of leaning towards a political or ideological interpretation of religion.  Magdi Allam has often been criticised by western secular intellectuals as someone who aims to provoke a clash of civilisations, either in favour of an Italian political party, or in favour of a foreign one.  Personally, even if I do not share all his opinions, such as for example his reading of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I do not believe that he is seeking a clash of civilisations.  He is fighting against violence when it hides behind religion, such as violence in the name of Islam, but in this case those who fight in the name of Judaism or the Gospel should also be added.

C. Benedict XVI: The duty to evangelise with respect, Reciprocity in mission

1. Benedict XVI: Christianity is for everyone

The fact that Benedict XVI accepted to personally celebrate the baptism of Magdi Allam is surprising.  It must also be said that he did so without ostentation, giving the same importance to all 7 baptised, and not giving precedence to the Muslim convert.  This emphasis on the Islamic convert is the work of the press, overly used to attributing political meanings.

But Benedict XVI wanted to underline that everyone, Muslim, Atheist, Christians who have abandoned the faith, are all called to the faith.  He wanted to affirm the universality of the Christian calling, not because we Christians are the largest group, but to underline that every human being is called by Jesus.  Everyone has the right to know Christ.  No-one is excluded.

Of course, the presence of a Muslim among the catechumens is a sign for the Islamic world.  It is the most recalcitrant group to recognise this step.  The pope, without violence or acridity seems to be saying: You too are called to discover Christ and to enter into the Church, if you so desire.

2. Personal experience

For my part, I have experienced tragedy.  Years ago I was in Morocco.  A 35 year old Moroccan teacher of Arab tongue came to visit me, to speak with me about the Gospel and Christ.   No more than half an hour had passed when I told him of my stupor before his knowledge of Christian themes.  He replied that he had been seeking baptism for over 14 years.  Initially I thought that he had mistaken expression.  Hours later I met with the bishop and a small community of priests and I told them of my encounter and I told them that this Muslim had been asking to be baptised for over 14 years and that the priests had refused him. One of the priests stood up and reprimanded me: “It is right to refuse him baptism.  We don’t want to make any martyrs” [2]. After having revealed his reasons for caution, the priest berated me on how I had not understood the Second Vatican council according to which everyone can be saved, even within their own religion etc…..

I replied that the priest had no right to refuse baptism.  If the Muslim seeks baptism, he can be warned of the risks he is running, he can be put on his guard, but he cannot be refused because he has been called by the Holy Spirit and he is free, the choice is his.

On leaving, the bishop thanked me for having clarified the matter.

The very next day I travelled to Marrakesh and meeting with the small community of friars and nuns who live there, I described the episode to them and my conclusions, those being that you cannot refuse a person baptism, even if he is Muslim.  All of them greeted my words with applause, cries of joy and shouts! And they revealed that for years they had been forbidden to draw close to Muslims and that the priests have continued to refuse baptism to those who desire it.   Their “prudence” is explained in their fear that out of revenge the Muslims have Christian schools closed down, thus throwing the organisation of mission into crises.

On another occasion, after having concluded Holy Friday ceremonies, I was about to close the Church door, when three young Muslims between 20-25 years of age asked me if they could enter to visit the church.  Their curiosity urged them on to ask me many questions regarding the building, the covered cross and Christianity. At a certain point the parish priest arrived and immediately chased the young men away, saying: “We have no right to speak to them of the Christian faith”. All of this points to a very grave fact, because beyond highlighting the censorship in Muslim countries of the Christian mission, it also shows how Christians censor themselves, which is what Magdi Allam spoke about in his letter.

I therefore think that the pope’s gesture means this: the Churches mission is universal, even towards Muslims and it must be explicit.

On other occasions the Christian mission is halted in its tracks by “opportunists”.  For example, non Christians are advised not to seek baptism in order to act as a bridge between cultures.  Even Cardinal Newman, when he was Anglican, thought so.  But the point is that once the person in question feels duty bound to take the step towards complete and explicit belonging to the Church, he must take the step that his inner self suggests.

3. Benedict XVI: Reciprocity and mission

The final aspect is that of reciprocity in the duty to evangelise.  The pope and many Vatican documents underline that we Christians have the duty to announce the Gospel to everyone, and that everyone is free to accept it or refuse it.

How can we maintain the personal obligation to announce the Gospel while respecting the freedom of the other? The Church resolves this apparent contradiction by clearly stating that no one can be forced to convert. As early as the 8th century Arab Christian intellectuals wrote treatise underlining that not only is violence forbidden in calling someone to the faith, but that moral and spiritual pressure is also forbidden.  And they were only too familiar with the financial, moral and physical pressures that they were subjected too in order to keep their faith!

Freedom to evangelise (tabshîr), and freedom to islamify (da’wa) must be guaranteed. Christianity, for me, is the most beautiful and perfect religion, and Islam, despite its many beautiful traits, is not the fulfilment of the divine project for man, it is not the appeal to humanism.  At the same time I admit that the Muslim is convinced of the contrary and it is his right, rather his duty to be so! This is true reciprocal respect: each person follows his conscience and increasingly tries to enlighten the other.

The pope does not hide his certainty that Muslims still need one more step to reach the perfection of truth. But despite this he neither attacks nor slanders Muslims.  And when a Muslim says to me “it is a shame you are not Muslim!” I understand that he holds me in deep respect.  And my feelings towards him are the same.

This reciprocal respect is fundamental in order to build a peaceful coexistence between religions, but also with the atheist and secularist: a society in which each person is convinced of the truth of his position, but in which he is also convinced of the others right to live this certainty and live it with me.

Conclusion: the minimum common denominator remains human rights

In order for this to happen then a minimum common denominator is required: human rights.  To give up on human rights is an error.  This is why the Vatican continues, relentlessly, to seek reciprocity of worship.  Just as Muslims enjoy full religious freedom in European societies, Christians wish to be able to express their faith in freedom in Islamic nations.

And just as Muslims can call Christians to become Muslim in the West (and they do) Christians must be free to call Muslims to become Christians in Islamic nations.  Instead, many Muslim countries have reinforced their punishment of those who announce the Gospel; news from Algeria reminds us of this on a daily basis.

The pope’s baptism of Magdi Allam is not an act of aggression, but an exigency of reciprocity.  It is a calm provocation that serves to make us sit up and think. Each one of us must live as a missionary, attempting to offer to the other the best of what one has encountered and understood.

When I discover a good “product” it gives me joy to pass on the information to my friends.   It is not an act of commercial propaganda, but of esteem and affection.  Thus, the Muslim invites me with great simplicity to become Muslim and I invite him with simplicity to become Christian.

Two years ago two Iranian students who studied Arabic in Beirut came to ask me to explain Christianity to them; in turn I asked them about Islam.  Then, at a certain point the told me : “Professor, we have very little time before we have to return to Iran, please let us content ourselves to speak only of Christianity”.

Benedict XVI’s gesture is a great leap for coexistence between peoples.  Above and beyond this complete identity witnessed in freedom, there is only the disdain of  those who think differently to me or the relativism of those who are without certainties – and which is often expressed in great intolerance.

[1] Islam too is in need of a movement of enlightenment, which existed in the IX-X century, only to be submerged under a current of religious traditionalism.

[2] The reference here is to the risk of being killed for “apostasy to Islam”, as happens in many Muslim nations.

Photo: CPP


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