I’m still hoping that Pope Francis’ election won’t serve as the starting gun in a race out the Church doors, the finish line being sects and denominations that seem somehow less Francis-like. But if my hopes on that score do end up dashed, that race is already won, with Magdi Allam claiming the gold.
Allam, a naturalized Italian who had been born a Muslim in Egypt, joined the Church at Easter, 2008. Predating his religious conversion, however, was an ideological conversion. Whereas, in the first phase of his career as a reporter for La Repubblica, he had generally pleaded the cause of Muslim immigrants to Europe, the year 2003 saw a complete about-face. Allam began prophesying against Europe’s impending “Islamisation,” and urged the Italian government, among other things, to prohibit the construction of mosques.
Allam justifies renouncing his faith on the grounds that it drifts too far from his ideology. He’s said that the Church is “too weak with Islam,” and identified the “euphoria” over Francis’ election as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
As a convert — one who entered the Church over the same Easter Vigil as Allam — I feel for him. In that first fit of enthusiasm, it’s very easy to kid yourself that the Church’s worldview agrees far more than it does in fact with the one you’ve built for yourself.
In the letter where he describes his conversion for the Milanese newspaper Corriere della Serra, Allam sounds like a man riding exactly that kind of spiritual high. He begins by announcing: “I finally saw the light, by divine grace — the healthy fruit of a long, matured gestation, lived in suffering and joy, together with intimate reflection and conscious and manifest expression.”
He continues in the same exalted vein. “To acquire the gift of the Christian faith during the commemoration of Christ’s resurrection by the hand of the Holy Father is, for a believer, an incomparable and inestimable privilege,” writes Allam. He calls his baptism “a historical, exceptional and unforgettable event, which marks a radical and definitive turn with respect to the past.”
But then, in explaining the whys of his conversion, Allam begins to tip his hand. Whereas, in confessing his Christian faith, the veteran newshound uses language that evokes both the Little Flower and Hank Williams, Sr., he attacks Islam in terms that would fit well into any editorial:
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 Quran. 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.
Plenty of spokespeople for the New Evangelization have recommended an encounter with the Person of Jesus as an ideal starting point for conversion; it’s clear Allam had that. Others have prescribed thorough and ongoing catechesis as an intellectual support system — a truss for the conscience, if you like. Well, it’s just as clear that Allam had that, too. He names his mentors in the Faith, and the list, which includes Cardinal Bertone and Pope Benedict himself, reads like a regular Who’s Who of the Italian Church.
One person Allam singles out for praise is Fr. Julian Carron, head of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation, which has made a project of Christian-Muslim dialogue. (Another CL member, Cardinal Angelo Scola, who narrowly escaped being elected pope, founded Oasis to serve that very purpose.) Allam must have heard the line in Nostra Aetate, where the Church proclaims its “esteem” for Muslims. He must have given it his notional assent. But, even if, in his letter, Allam never quite contradicts the Church’s position on Islam, his words reveal a fissure of spirit. Sooner or later, something was bound to crack.
I get why it did. For Allam, flowery formulae or prudential judgment just couldn’t match the immediacy of his lived experience. His first piece for Corriere della Serra, titled “The new Catacombs of Islamic Converts,” was an expose on Christian converts from Islam who felt underprotected by the Italian government from extremist reprisals. Even before his conversion, he’d been threatened by Muslim extremists who resented his accomodations to the West and denounced him as a crypto-Copt, a Christian acting as a mole in the ummah. To live up to Allam’s hopes, the Church simply had to assume an heroic attitude, publicly demanding that converts be left in peace, and stepping up missionary activity in Muslim countries.
As he put it himself, “I pray to God that on this special Easter he give the gift of the resurrection of the spirit to all the faithful in Christ who have until now been subjugated by fear.”
Whether the Church is, in fact, doing all it can to guarantee the safety of converts I don’t know. If it’s not, it wouldn’t be the first time prudential judgment turned out to be bad judgment. But, speaking from experience, I can say that teeth-gritting through what looks like mis-prioritizing and plain blind stupidity is one of the biggest hurdles in any convert’s path.
If Allam believes strongly enough he’s got a point, let him stick around and play the gadfly. Sure, his view of Islam itself might need serious fine-tuning; that’s what prayer and meditation are for. But pleading for Christians under militant Muslim threat is something he’s uniquely qualified to do, and, frankly, we need someone doing it. This week in First Things, Archbishop Chaput warns: “Over the past century, the Middle East’s Christian population has dropped from as high as 30 percent to barely 3 percent, with religious persecution and intimidation largely to blame.” Coming from a native speaker of Arabic, that would sound even more convincing.
Maybe Allam’s experiences as a moderate, pro-Western Muslim have convinced him that living outside what he perceives to be the mainstream of his own religion is a fool’s errand. Or maybe he’s just not American enough to try. Our nation’s individualistic, can-do spirit — still twitching despite the recession — has made us a Church of 30 million prophets. For inspiration, Allam need only look to Randall Terry. After converting to Catholicism in 2005, the Operation Rescue founder decided the Church was too weak on, of all things, abortion. To right that wrong, he traveled to the Vatican, intending to persuade officials to replace U.S. bishops who didn’t meet his standards.
Actually, scratch that. With millions of lives and relations with the world’s second-largest religion at stake, Terry’s not such a great role model. But if Allam could stick around and learn the patience that would enable him to speak the truth in charity? That would be perfect.