A self-described revolution in world affairs has begun in the heart of one man. He is the Italian journalist and author Magdi Cristiano Allam, whom Pope Benedict XVI baptized during the Easter Vigil at St. Peter’s. Allam’s renunciation of Islam as a religion of violence and his embrace of Christianity denotes the point at which the so-called global “war on terror” becomes a divergence of two irreconcilable modes of life: the Western way of faith supported by reason, against the Muslim world of fatalism and submission.
As Magdi Allam recounted , on his road to conversion the challenge that Pope Benedict XVI offered to Islam in his September 2006 address at Regensburg was “undoubtedly the most extraordinary and important encounter in my decision to convert.” Osama bin Laden recently accused Benedict of plotting a new crusade against Islam, and instead finds something far more threatening: faith the size of a mustard seed that can move mountains. Before Benedict’s election, I summarized his position as “I have a mustard seed and I’m not afraid to use it.” Now the mustard seed has earned pride of place in global affairs.
Magdi Allam tells us that he has found the true God and forsaken an Islam that he regards as inherently violent. Magdi Allam has a powerful voice as deputy editor of Italy’s newspaper of record, Corriere della Sera, and a bestselling author. For years he was the exemplar of “moderate Islam” in Europe, and now he has decided that Islam cannot be “moderate.”
Since September 2001, the would-be wizards of Western strategy have tried to conjure an “Islamic reformation,” or a “moderate Islam,” or “Islamic democracy.” None of this matters now, for as Magdi Allam tells us, the matter on the agenda is not to persuade Muslims to act like liberal Westerners, but instead to convince them to cease to be Muslims. The use of the world “revolution” is Magdi Allam’s:
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.
There is no deference to mutual respect and multi-culturalism. Magdi Allam forsook Islam because he considers it to be “inherently evil.” As he wrote to his editor at the Corriere della Sera:
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 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 Koran. 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 [emphasis added].
Far more important than denouncing the evils of Islam, though, is Magdi Allam’s embrace of what he calls the God of faith and reason:
The miracle of the Resurrection of Christ has reverberated through my soul, liberating it from the darkness of a tendency where hate and intolerance in before the “other,” condemning it uncritically as an “enemy,” and ascending to love and respect for one’s “neighbor,” who is always and in any case a person; thus my mind has been released from the obscurantism of an ideology which legitimates lying and dissimulation, the violent death that leads to homicide and suicide, blind submission and tyranny – permitting me to adhere to the authentic religion of Truth, of Life, and freedom. Upon my first Easter as a Christian I have not only discovered Jesus, but I have discovered for the first time the true and only God, which is the God of Faith and Reason …
Magdi Allam presents an existential threat to Muslim life, whereas other prominent dissidents, for example Ayaan Hirsi Ali, offer only an annoyance. Much as I admire Hirsi Ali, she will persuade few Muslims to reconsider their religion. She came to the world’s attention in 2004 after a Muslim terrorist murdered Theo van Gogh, with whom she had produced a brief film protesting the treatment of women under Islam. As an outspoken critic of Islam, Hirsi Ali has lived under constant threat, and I have deplored the failure of Western governments to accord her adequate protection.
Yet the spiritual emptiness of a libertine and cynic like Theo van Gogh can only repel Muslims. Muslims suffer from a stultifying spiritual emptiness, depicted most poignantly by the Syrian Arab poet Adonis (see Are the Arabs already extinct?, Asia Times Online, May 8, 2007). Muslim traditional society cannot withstand the depredations of globalized culture, and radical Islam arises from a despairing nostalgia for the disappearing past. Why would Muslims trade the spiritual vacuum of Islam for the spiritual sewer of Dutch hedonism? The souls of Muslims are in agony. The blandishments of the decadent West offer them nothing but shame and deracination. Magdi Allam agrees with his former co-religionists in repudiating the degraded culture of the modern West, and offers them something quite different: a religion founded upon love.
Only a few months ago it seemed fanciful to hail Benedict XVI as the leader of the West. I wrote late last year (The inside story of the Western mind, Asia Times Online, November 6, 2007):
The West is not fighting individual criminals, as the left insists; it is not fighting a Soviet-style state, as the Iraqi disaster makes clear; nor is it fighting a political movement. It is fighting a religion, specifically a religion that arose in enraged reaction to the West. None of the political leaders of the West, and few of the West’s opinion leaders, comprehends this. We are left with the anomaly that the only effective leader of the West is a man wholly averse to war, a pope who took his name from the Benedict who interceded for peace during World War I. Benedict XVI, alone among the leaders of the Christian world, challenges Islam as a religion, as he did in his September 2006 Regensburg address.
One does not fight a religion with guns (at least not only with guns) but with love, although sometimes it is sadly necessary to love one’s enemies only after they are dead. The Church has lacked both the will to evangelize Muslims as well as the missionaries to undertake the task. Benedict XVI, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, has thought about the conversion of the Muslims for years, as I reported just before his election in 2005 (The crescent and the conclave, Asia Times Online, April 19, 2005). Where will the Pope find the sandals on the ground in this new religious war? From the ranks of the Muslims themselves, evidently. Magdi Allam is just one convert, but he has a big voice. If the Church fights for the safety of converts, they will emerge from the nooks and crannies of Muslim communities in Europe.
The Pope also has in reserve the European youth movement “Communione e Liberazione,” which he has nurtured for decades. Forty-thousand members turned out in 2005 when the then Cardinal Ratzinger addressed a memorial service in Milan for the movement’s founder. European Christianity may be reduced to a few coals glowing in the ashes, but it is not dead, only marginalized. If the Catholic youth of Europe are offered a great task – to evangelize the Muslims whose restlessness threatens to push Europe into social chaos – many of them may heed the call.
As I wrote in 2005, “Now that everyone is talking about Europe’s demographic death, it is time to point out that there exists a way out: convert European Muslims to Christianity.” Today’s Europeans stem from the melting-pot of the barbarian invasions that replaced the vanishing population of the Roman Empire. The genius of the Catholic Church was to absorb them. If Benedict XVI can convert this new wave of invaders from North Africa and the Middle East, history will place him on a par with his great namesake, the founder of the monastic order the bears his name.
As Magdi Allam enjoins his new Church:
For my part, I say that it is time to put an end to the abuse and the violence of Muslims who do not respect the freedom of religious choice. In Italy there are thousands of converts to Islam who live their new faith in peace. But there are also thousands of Muslim converts to Christianity who are forced to hide their faith out of fear of being assassinated by Islamic extremists who lurk among us. By one of those “fortuitous events” that evoke the discreet hand of the Lord, the first article that I wrote for the Corriere on September 3, 2003, was entitled “The new Catacombs of Islamic Converts.” It was an investigation of recent Muslim converts to Christianity in Italy who decry their profound spiritual and human solitude in the face of absconding state institutions that do not protect them and the silence of the Church itself. Well, I hope that the Pope’s historical gesture and my testimony will lead to the conviction that the moment has come to leave the darkness of the catacombs and to publicly declare their desire to be fully themselves.
What the outcome will be of the evangelization of Muslims lies beyond all speculation: that is a matter of every soul’s relationship to God. But the global agenda has changed, not through the machinations of statesmen or the word-mincing of public intellectuals, but through the soul of a single man. Benedict’s Regensburg challenge to Islam now demarcates the encounter between the West and the Muslim world, and nothing will be the same.