The nascent Catholic-Muslim dialogue sparked by the “Common Word” initiative was never going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances. There is a lot of suspicion, misunderstanding and different agendas to deal with. And then there are the surprises that can come seemingly out of nowhere and blow the effort off course, at least temporarily. One of these was the baptism of the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict that popped up by surprise on Saturday evening and highlighted some of the twists along the path of inter-faith dialogue.
The most surprising part about Allam’s baptism was not that he converted. He has been living in a traditionally Catholic country for 35 years, is married to a Catholic, is close to the lay Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, has long been highly critical of radical Islam and says he was never an especially pious Muslim. The surprise was that the Vatican would make it such a prominent event. There was a second surprise, too — the fact that Allam published such a hard-hitting declaration about his conversion, his view that Islam is intrinsically violent and that the Catholic Church has been too timid about converting Muslims. We quoted from the Corriere della Sera original on Sunday, but now the Catholic news agency Zenit has provided an English translation.
Reporting from Rome, the Paris daily Le Figaro had an interesting detail. It wrote on Monday that Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and as such the Vatican’s point man for relations with Islam, had not been informed about the Allam baptism before it happened. If this is true, it suggests some behind-the-scenes Vatican politics on how to deal with Muslims. It would seem that Tauran should have been informed on a need-to-know basis — this is, after all, his area of responsibility — but somebody didn’t do it.
We don’t know if the Vatican knew Allam would publish such an outspoken article on Sunday. Several Church sources have said off the record they were surprised and put off by its polemical tone and said it effectively drowned out the weak Vatican efforts to play down the baptism. Whether it was planned or not, Allam’s article became part of the whole story. As will his subsequent comments, as in an interview in today’s Il Giornale.
That was evident in the response that Aref Ali Nayed of the “Common Word” initiative gave to the Allam story on Monday. Nayed, who is director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, said he consulted several other signatories of the dialogue appeal before issuing the statement. One of the first things to note is that he treats Allam’s conversion as a personal decision and says “It is God who will judge him.” I didn’t expect “Common Word” signatories to denounce Allam as an apostate deserving death, but it’s worth noting the absence of any such comment because that traditionalist view is the one that’s probably best known to non-Muslims.
That said, Nayed turns to the baptism itself:
As for the Vatican’s deliberate and provocative act of baptising Allam on such a special occasion and in such a spectacular way, it is sufficient to say the following:
1. It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points. Such instrumentalisation of a person and his conversion is contrary to the basic tenets of upholding Human Dignity. It also comes at a most unfortunate time when sincere Muslims and Catholics are working very hard to mend ruptures between the two communities.
2. It is sad that the particular person chosen for such a highly public gesture has a history of generating, and continues to generate, hateful discourse. The basic message of Allam’s most recent article is the very message of the Byzantine emperor quoted by the Pope in his infamous Regensburg lecture. It is not far fetched to see this as another way of re-asserting the message of Regensburg (which the Vatican keeps insisting was not intended). It is now important for the Vatican to distance itself from Allam’s discourse. Should Muslims take the high-profile Papal baptism as a Papal endorsement of Allam’s discourses regarding the nature of Islam (which happen to coincide with the message of Regensburg?
3. It is sad that Benedict XVI chose to make the basic message of his religious discourse during the special occasion of Easter into a quasi-Manichean one with motifs of ‘darkness’ and ‘light’, ‘darkness’ being assigned to the ‘other’ and ‘light’ to the ‘self’. It is also sad that the idea of ‘peace’ expressed in that discourse reduces to the bringing of the ‘other’ into the fold through baptism. Such Roman totalitarian discourse is most unhelpful.
The whole spectacle with its choreography, persona, and messages provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions, and plans of some of the Pope’s advisers on Islam. 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’, it is rather a compassionate theology of ‘mending the in-between’ for the sake of the Love of God and Love of neighbor.
Some pretty raw nerves on display here (plus an apparent misunderstanding about the Easter Vigil service, at which the motifs of darkness and light are a permanent feature in many Christian churches, not just a choice by Benedict this year to dramatise Allam’s baptism). Another sore point appears at the beginning of his reaction, when Nayed mentions the fact that Allam attended Catholic primary and secondary schools in Cairo before studying in Italy. He adds:
The fact that Allam was given Catholic communion at a very young age under the influence of his early Catholic teachers seems to indicate that he was Christianized in childhood. As a result of his early Catholic schooling, he is reported to have never upheld or practiced the tenets of Islam. The case of Allam reminds us, yet again, of the legitimate concerns of many Muslim scholars regarding the abuse of the trust that sometimes happens when Muslim parents, because of economic or other factors, send their children to Catholic schools. What happens to children, including Muslim ones, in Catholic schools is a matter that must be discussed as part of addressing ‘Human Dignity’ in upcoming discussions. The use of schools for proselytizing is one of the important issues to be discussed.
There are many Christian schools in developing countries, often leftovers from the colonial era, and many Muslim families send their children there because they think they’ll get a better education than in state schools. The late Benazir Bhutto, for example, attended “convent schools” named after Jesus and Mary in both Karachi and the hill station Murree. When I lived in Pakistan, I met several other Muslims who had attended Christian schools and spoke fondly of the nuns who taught them, but never converted. Allam’s example is probably quite rare, but it has clearly pointed to an issue that remains sensitive.
Anyway, if Benedict was placing conversion on the agenda for the first Catholic-Muslim Forum meeting due in November, Nayed here is putting proselytism there too. These issues might be seen as two sides of the same coin called “religious freedom.” Or they might not be. Whether they remain separate agenda points or get joined may be a barometer of how this dialogue progresses.
One last point — all this focus on the Vatican position shouldn’t obscure the fact that “A Common Word” was addressed to all Christian churches and many Protestant churches have been more positive in their responses. When I asked Nayed about this, he said: “We’re preparing for our meeting in Rome in November, but we also have several other meetings in coming months.” In July, “Common Word” representatives will meet at Yale University with theologians from Yale, Harvard and Princeton divinity schools (mostly Protestant, including evangelicals, with a few Jewish scholars as well). A meeting to discuss scripture is planned at the University of Cambridge divinity school in October, then comes Rome in November and Georgetown University in Washington in January (a mixed group to discuss religion and world politics). Sometime in the spring, they plan a meeting on prayer and meditation with Orthodox Christians at the site of Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River.