By Gerard O'Connell
Magdi Allam, the prominent Muslim journalist whom Pope Benedict XVI baptized in St. Peter's Basilica during this year's Easter Vigil liturgy, is a man at high risk.
Allam's life was already in danger before the baptism because of his trenchant criticism of Muslim support for violence, terrorism, suicide bombings and his public defense of Israel's right to exist. It is in even greater danger now because of his "apostasy," and his depiction of Islam as "a negative religion."
Born in Egypt in 1952, Allam started attending a Catholic school run by nuns at the age of 4. His devout Muslim mother, separated from his father, worked as a babysitter for a rich family in Cairo. Allam also attended Catholic junior and high schools.
His mother moved to Saudi Arabia as babysitter for a Saudi princess, and there the woman, who took her young son to Mecca, adopted the more radical -- Wahabite -- brand of Islam, wearing the veil all the time. When she died in 1992, Magdi, respecting her wish, buried her in Medina, near the Prophet Mohammed's tomb.
After migrating to Italy in 1972, Magdi studied at Rome University, and became a journalist and expert on the Middle East, Islam and terrorism, writing for Italy's leading newspapers and is now a deputy editor of Corriere della Sera, Italy's largest national daily.
Father of three children, he will marry his second Italian wife in the Church on April 22.
Allam arrived for this interview with Our Sunday Visitor in a black bulletproof car, escorted by three carabinieri, or members of the Italian military police. One stood behind him throughout the interview at Rome's Foreign Press Club, while the other two guarded the entrance to the room.
Our Sunday Visitor: Why did you convert to Catholicism?
Magdi Allam: It was a gradual and slow journey. It began when, as a child, I attended Italian Catholic schools in Cairo: primary school run by nuns; junior and high schools run by Salesian priests. That allowed me to get to know the reality of the Catholic world from inside, and in a correct way. It helped me also to appreciate the Religious [men and women] who expressed their faith through works that corresponded to the common good. I was able to read the Bible, the Gospels, to attend Mass while living in college.
OSV: Did any other factor contribute to your conversion?
Allam: Two other factors impacted my decision to convert. The first was the fact of being threatened in April 2003 in Kuwait City. Because I criticized Palestinian suicide terrorism, Hamas identified me as an enemy to be eliminated. Since then I have lived under escort, and the situation has continued to get worse.
This condition has cast a shadow over my life, and forced me to reflect not only on the reality of Islamic extremism and terrorism, but also on the reality of Islam itself as a religion [because] these extremists and terrorists do what they do in the name of Islam. They say they are doing it in the name of Islam.
So I was forced to reflect on what was written in the Koran, and the thinking and works of Mohammed, and I discovered that there are profound ambiguities there that allow the Koran to legitimize violence and terrorism.
OSV: And the second factor?
Allam: The second factor that influenced my conversion was encountering many Catholics with whom I felt in perfect harmony in the sharing of values.
Without doubt, the person who has most influenced my conversion was this pope, Benedict XVI, whom I had never personally met before the baptism. That was the first and so far the only time that I met him.
OSV: You wrote in the Corriere della Sera that Pope Benedict's Regensburg lecture in September 2006 was a turning point for you, and though it offended many Muslims you defended him.
Allam: As a journalist, I followed all his activity and I was greatly fascinated by his thinking, and I shared fully his conception of the indissolubility of faith and reason, and that only the union of faith and reason represents the foundation of an authentic religion, and an authentic civilization of man.
He is a pope that has always fascinated me, because he is not only a great man of faith but he is above all else a great man of reason. I believe that many fear him not because for his faith but for his reason, for his capacity to challenge them on the terrain of reason.
OSV: Having already received death threats, why did you ask to be baptized by the pope, knowing it would increase the risk?
Allam: No, I did not ask him to baptize me. About a year ago, I confided with Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University, and with him I began a spiritual course to get to know the Catholic religion and initiation to the sacraments of Christianity. During the course I discovered that baptism for adults is given during the Easter Vigil, and since my spiritual guide is from Rome and the pope is the bishop of Rome, the possibility emerged that the baptism would be given by the pope. Bishop Fisichella made the request and the pope accepted it.
I am most proud of having converted, and of the fact that this was done publicly and has been publicized, and that I could affirm this viva voce ["by live voice"]. And I consider having received baptism from the pope as the greatest gift that life could have reserved for me.
I hold that it was a useful testimony for many Muslims whom I know, who have converted to Christianity here in Italy but who live their new faith in secret, because they are afraid to come out in the open. They are afraid because they fear that they could be killed here in Italy by Islamic extremists, and they don't feel protected, by neither the state nor the Church.
I hold that what I did was right, and a good thing, and the pope was extremely wise in making the reasons of faith prevail over diplomatic and political considerations, because that is his duty. He was also courageous, precisely because he did not want himself to be conditioned (by the politically correct).
OSV: In an article after your baptism, you described Islam as inherently violent, and elsewhere said there is no such thing as moderate Islam.
Allam: One has to distinguish between Islam as a religion and Muslims as persons. If I decided to convert to Catholicism, it is totally obviously that I did so because I have matured a negative evaluation of Islam. If I had held that Islam is a true, good religion I would not have converted, I would have remained a Muslim.
Now we live in a Europe that is sick with relativism, and succumbs to what is politically correct. For this reason one should say that all religions are equal, independently of their content, and one should not say anything that upsets the sensitivities of the other person.
Those who criticized and condemned me say: 'You can convert, you can condemn Islamic terrorism, but you must in any case maintain a positive evaluation of Islam.' And that is truly incredible because -- I repeat -- if Islam was for me a positive religion, I would not have converted.
I reject this [attitude], because I believe that the exercise of freedom of expression cannot in any way be limited. I say what I think, and what I firmly believe.
OSV: All this is very courageous but the price you pay is very high.
Allam: But you are calling me courageous for the simple fact that I tell the truth! If a Muslim says that Christianity is a false religion, and they say it because they deny the divinity of Jesus, and consider the most holy mystery of the Trinity as a heresy. They can say all this tranquilly and nothing happens to them, because that is their freedom of expression. But the opposite cannot happen: One cannot say that Islam is a false religion, nor can you say that Mohammed is a false prophet. If you say that you risk death. Don't you understand what kind of situation we are living in?
OSV: You have received death threats, but by converting you have challenged fear.
Allam: I am aware that if one lives in fear it's like as if one dies every day. I am not afraid of death, therefore I have decided that I will die one time only, I do not want to die every day.
Gerard O'Connell writes from Rome.