A secular Muslim hawk who has the Church's ear on Islam

New York

Communion and Liberation’s annual “Meeting” in the Italian coastal city of Rimini is sort of a Catholic cross between the Algonquin Roundtable and Lollapalooza – one part intellectual discourse, one part rock-and-roll festival. Drawing crowds in excess of 700,000, it’s perhaps the leading annual forum in Europe for Catholics attracted to a strong sense of religious identity and a challenge to secular culture.

(Communion and Liberation is among the new movements in the Catholic Church, often regarded as fairly conservative. The group's American director, the affable Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, once laughingly described it as "Opus Dei for lazy Catholics.")

Ironically, one of the biggest draws each year in this robustly Catholic milieu is a secular Muslim – Egyptian journalist Magdi Allam, a columnist and vice-director of Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper. This year’s August 19-25 edition of the “Meeting” has been no exception, as Allam’s presentation on Sunday attracted an overflow crowd.

Allam, it should be stressed, is no ordinary Muslim. In some ways, he is the heir to Oriana Fallaci as Italy’s most prominent critic of Islam, someone whose views carry considerable weight in Catholic circles.

His most recent book is titled Viva Israele, in which Allam argues that Israel represents a culture of life, in contrast with militant Islam’s culture of death. Allam minces no words in making the point. In a recent interview with an Israeli news agency, for example, Allam was asked about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His lapidary response: “I hope that someday Israel will capture Ahmadinejad and force him to live the rest of his life between the walls of Yad Vashem.”

Allam has said that Israel, along with Pope Benedict XVI, represents the “residual hope” for Western civilization against the Islamic threat.

On Sunday, Allam took part in a session called “Let’s Save the Christians,” devoted to anti-Christian persecution in the Muslim world. He took the opportunity to reiterate a proposal he first made on July 4, during a rally in Rome in favor of persecuted Christians: the creation of a “Permanent Observatory” to monitor religious freedom worldwide.

Allam described the realities facing Christians in many majority Muslim states.

“In Saudi Arabia, all it takes is for the police to find a Bible in the drawer of a bedside table in a private house, for someone to be accused of apostasy, of betrayal,” he said. The consequence, Allam said, is that the Bible’s owner could be imprisoned and subjected to torture.

Such realities are producing an escalating Christian exodus out of the region. According to the World Council of Churches, the number of Christians in the Middle East has plummeted from 12 million to 2 million in just the last 10 years, the result of a triple whammy of political insecurity, economic stagnation, and harassment at the hands of Islamic radicals.

Allam also pointed to the example of Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, an Egyptian Muslim convert to Christianity, who has gone into hiding due to death threats after he sued the Egyptian government for refusing to allow him to change his religious affiliation on his national identity card. Allam denounced jurists at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, widely considered the most authoritative institution in the Sunni Muslim world, who have sided against Hegazy.

Among other things, Allam called upon Italian universities that have signed agreements for cultural collaboration with Al-Azhar to renounce them. One of those institutions is the Pontifical Oriental Institute, which is affiliated with the Gregorian University, the Jesuit-run flagship pontifical university in Rome.

His willingness to take such bold public positions has made Allam a sign of division in both the Muslim and Catholic worlds. Among Muslim radicals he’s seen as a traitor, one sign of which is that Allam is always surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards.

Among moderates in both the Muslim and Catholic camps, meanwhile, Allam is often seen as a provocateur, painting anyone who expresses sympathy with the Palestinians or with other Islamic causes as a dupe of the terrorists.

That was the spirit of a letter critical of Allam’s latest book published in the Italian journal Reset, signed by some 230 writers, academics and activists, both Muslim and Christian, in its July-August issue.

“Journalism risks falling into the logic of cheering for one sports team against another, rather than being rational and analytical, above all when it’s dealing with delicate and sensitive subjects such as religion,” it said, accusing Allam of adopting the all-or-nothing logic of “totalitarian ideologies.”

The appeal was signed by a “who’s who” of center-left Italian Catholic opinion, including Enzo Bianchi, founder of the ecumenical monastery of Bose; Paolo Branca, an expert on Islam and advisor to Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan; Alfredo Canavero, a scholar who also writes for L’Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops; and Alberto Melloni, a well-known church historian.

In effect, this school of thought believes that Allam’s hard line actually serves the interests of Western neo-cons and Islamic radicals, both of whom, they say, benefit from polarizing opinion in order to justify unending combat. Meanwhile, a number of leading Italian figures leapt to Allam’s defense, insisting that his critics are in denial about the realities of radical Islam.

In that sense, Allam incarnates the division between “hawks” and “doves” on Islam, between those who emphasize confrontation and those who seek dialogue. Today the winds seem to be blowing in favor of the hawks, a transition reflected in Allam’s own biography.

In Viva Israel, Allam recounts growing up as a convinced supporter of the Palestinian cause, believing that Israel was a racist state invented by the West as a compensation for the Holocaust. What turned him around, he wrote, was getting to know Yasser Arafat, which convinced him of the bankruptcy of terrorism.

As recently as 2002, Allam was still seen as something of a dove. In his book Diary of Islam, published that year, he wrote, “A moderate and tolerant Islam was among the first victims of Islamic terrorism,” insisting that Islam is compatible with democracy and pluralism. The hijackers of 9/11, Allam wrote, did not represent the “overwhelming majority” of Muslims around the world.

“The West is in the DNA of Islam, in the same way in which Islam is in the DNA of the West,” he wrote in 2002.

In a subsequent piece in Reset critical of Allam, a writer asked rhetorically if the Magdi Allam of 2002 would even have a coffee with the Magdi Allam of today. Yet the distance covered by Allam in those five years has hardly been his journey alone; in some ways it reflects a general trend in Western thought, including senior levels of the Catholic Church, towards ever-greater doubt about the prospects for a moderate Islam ready to make its peace with pluralism.

In that sense, the debate over Magdi Allam raises, in microcosm, one of the central questions of the 21st century – making him a very interesting figure to watch indeed.

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