A Muslim Critic Turns Catholic

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Marco Di Lauro / Getty

Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam (L), who was a non-practicing Muslim, walks away after being baptized by Pope Benedict XVI during Easter Vigil mass in Saint Peter's Basilica March 22, 2008, in Vatican City.

Magdi Allam is Italy's answer to Ayaan Hirsan Ali, the Somalian-born Dutch writer and politician forced to live under police protection for her repeatedly stark public criticism of Islam. Like Hirsan Ali, the Egyptian-born Allam was raised in a Muslim family, before emigrating as a teenager to Europe, where he eventually became famous for railing against what he sees as fundamental flaws in his native religion. The Rome-based journalist has faced repeated death threats from Islamic radicals, and travels to speaking engagements in Italy and abroad with an armed security detail. Needless to say, neither Allam nor Hirsan Ali show signs of toning down their criticism.

A recurring topic of Allam's articles were cases of Muslims who were threatened with death for seeking to convert to Christianity. And now, Allam has himself become a Roman Catholic, converting in a baptism rite inside St. Peter's Basilica, a ceremony conducted by no less than Pope Benedict XVI. Allam has held a unique public role as the most prominent Muslim commentator — and critic of Islam — right in the Vatican's backyard. Church officials may be pleased that Allam has so publicly joined the Catholic flock, but he is unlikely to become any kind of mediator in the Vatican's attempts to start a dialogue with Islam.

That is because Allam is seen as almost belligerently anti-Islamic. 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."

This and other writings have led to widespread criticism among Muslims in Italy, who say he depicts only the worst of Islamic faith and culture. Not surprisingly, Allam has won the admiration of some of Europe's prominent conservatives and critics of Muslim immigration. He has been compared to Hirsan Ali, herself an avowed atheist who long ago renounced her faith, and now divides her time between Europe and the United States. Allam also struck up a friendship with Oriana Fallaci, the late Italian journalist and writer, who in recent years wrote anti-Muslim screeds and warned against Europe becoming "Eurabia." Fallaci, a Catholic by birth, was a non-believer through her adult life, though reportedly was exploring questions of faith as she battled terminal cancer. In 2005, she met privately with Pope Benedict, but was still said to be an atheist when she died the following year.

Allam is the latest example of Benedict's attempts to re-engage contemporary European secular culture as well. The official Church line is that the decision for the Pope to perform the baptism himself was not extraordinary. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi emphasized that Allam was just one of seven adults baptized Saturday during an Easter vigil mass, saying that the Pope performed the rite "without making any 'difference of people,' that is, considering all equally important before the love of God and welcoming all in the community of the Church." Nonetheless, Allam's public conversion is another reminder that the Vatican is not shying away from the more prickly questions in its complicated relations with Islam. Benedict has made what he calls a "frank" public conversation with the Muslim world a high priority of his papacy, arguing that Islam should address the violent minority within its ranks by incorporating the theories of "natural law" the way Christianity did with the Western ideas of the Enlightenment.

While scores of top Muslim scholars have engaged the theologian Pope on this and other topics, some radical leaders see him as a prime nemesis. In an audio tape released last week, Osama bin Laden accused Benedict of playing a "large and lengthy role" in a "new Crusade" against Islam, which included the publication in Denmark of cartoons denigrating the prophet Muhammed. Father Lombardi dismissed the accusation, noting that Benedict repeatedly criticized the offensive cartoons.

The Holy See's diplomacy in the Muslim world stretches well beyond the Pope's words. High on the agenda is the Vatican push for the right to build Christian churches in Muslim-dominated countries. Officials in Rome have been heartened over the past two weeks with news of the first Catholic church opening in Doha, Qatar, and negotiations underway to potentially build one in Saudi Arabia. Still, Church officials say that the question of religious freedom must ultimately also mean freedom to change religion, and note that some Muslims insist that conversion from Islam is apostate, and punishable by death. In 2006, Abdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity, fled his native country after death threats and arrived in Rome, where he received political asylum from the Italian government and the support of the Pope.