Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born journalist and scholar, is Italy's most famous Muslim, a fierce critic of his religion and a staunch supporter of Israel. In an interview he explains why he couldn't stand it anymore and decided to convert to Christianity
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Magdi Allam (photo: Elena Torre)

The gospel according to Allam

PUBLISHED IN |  Mar 27, 08

Magdi Allam, the most famous Muslim in Italy, and one of the leading and most courageous intellectuals in Europe today, converted to Christianity last Saturday night. The fact that the baptism was held at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome during Easter midnight Mass – the so-called “mother of all masses” – and was performed by Pope Benedict XVI himself, has made huge waves in Italy and throughout the Christian and Muslim worlds. The exalted occasion also transformed Allam’s conversion from a private act of faith into a public political event.

“It was the most beautiful day of my life,” Allam told Haaretz this week, in a phone conversation from Rome. “I was reborn. This was a radical choice, which has changed my entire past and has begun a new life. On that day, the Magdi Allam inside me, who believes unambiguously and unquestionably in the principles of liberty and choice, was reborn in the framework of religion. For me it was both Easter and the Feast of the Nativity.”

Since the beginning of the decade Allam, 56, has been writing pieces in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most influential newspaper, in which he has sharply condemned radical Islam and warned of the danger from within it constitutes, which he sees as lying in wait for democratic and liberal Europe. In 2003, Hamas declared a death sentence on him because of his criticism of terror attacks in Israel; since then the Italian government has assigned him a round-the-clock bodyguard. Together with his late countrywoman Oriana Fallaci and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch writer and politician of Somali origin, Allam has been one of the few intellectuals in Europe who have dared to challenge the prevailing belief in multiculturalism as the cure for the social rift between Muslims and Christians on the Continent.

However, Allam did all this as a Muslim. He was born in Egypt and in the 1960s he was an enthusiastic admirer of Gamal Abdel Nasser. For many years he also perceived Israel as an aggressive, racist, colonialist and immoral entity. Even after he emigrated to Italy in 1972, he continued being active on behalf of the Palestinian cause – writing, lecturing and taking part in demonstrations by the Italian left against Israel and in support of what he then called “the Palestinian resistance.”

After a long and agonizing path, he says, he came to the conclusion that the Arab states’ refusal to recognize Israel in the 1950s and ’60s was to the Palestinians’ detriment, and that the Muslim culture in which he was raised nurtured falsehood, tyranny, hatred, violence and death. In recent years, he concluded that the universal defense of the value of the sanctity of life goes hand in hand with the defense of Israel’s right to exist.

Last year, Allam, winner of the 2006 Dan David Prize (for outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social achievement), published the book “Long Live Israel: From the Ideology of Death to the Civilization of Life, My Story,” which is forthcoming in Hebrew.

“After the book was published, I was severely attacked,” he says. “They called me a traitor, a Zionist and an agent of the Mossad. They sentenced me to death again. This fact made me wonder why many Muslims lose the ability to conduct a conversation when Israel’s right to exist is brought up for discussion.” That, Allam explains, is one of the reasons for his conversion to Christianity.

Unstinting support

Turin mosque (photo: Chris Gold)

Turin mosque (photo: Chris Gold)

In his columns for Corriere della Sera, where he also serves as deputy editor, Allam expresses sweeping and unstinting support for Israel. In his March 1 column, he compared Hamas to the Kurdish PKK resistance movement: “If a comparison is made between the way the media have covered the battle Turkey has conducted against the PKK in Iraq, on the one hand, and the battle that Israel has conducted against Hamas in Gaza, on the other, one can see the clear discrimination against the Jewish state. At a time when phrases like ‘slaughter of children’ and ‘murder of civilians’ appear only when describing the activity of the Israeli army, neutral or even sympathetic descriptions are reserved for the Turkish army – such as ’77 Kurdish rebels were killed.’ When the bombs are Israeli, they inform us in detail about the number, and sometimes also the names, of those killed. However, the Turkish bombs always kill only adults, of the male sex, who consciously chose the path of violence.”

In “Long Live Israel,” he wrote that the culture of hatred and death the West today attributes to Muslims is not stamped in the DNA of Islam. But this week he sounded even more decisive, declaring that it is no longer possible to talk about moderate Islam, but only about moderate Muslims. “It is necessary to continue to try to hold a dialogue,” he says, “but only with those who acknowledge the supremacy of certain values, such as the sanctity of life and free choice.”

In a letter he published this week in his paper, in which he explained his conversion, Allam wrote: “I asked myself how it was possible that those who, like me, sincerely and boldly called for a ‘moderate Islam,’ assuming the responsibility for 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.”

Similar things were said about two years ago by the person who baptized him, Pope Benedict XVI. In a speech he delivered at Ratisbonne University in Germany in September 2006, the Pontiff aroused a great deal of anger in the Muslim world when he spoke about the violent nature of Islam. This week Allam said this was a crucial event for him on the way to becoming a Christian. “I was one of the few people in Italy who defended the Pope’s remarks, not only in the name of freedom of speech, but also with respect to the contents. What the Pope said was correct historically. The Pope’s speech showed me more than anything else that there is someone who combines faith and reason, and that Benedict XVI precisely embodies my thinking. For me, Christianity is a religion of goodness and wisdom, so very different from Islam.”

Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno, apparently, could have expressed a different opinion of the extent of the free will and wisdom endorsed by the Catholic Church over the years. But for Allam, at this moment in time, 2008, the Church is identified with the culture of the West, which reveres the values of liberty and the sanctity of life, in supposed contradistinction to the culture of narrow- mindedness and hatred in Islam.

‘Religion of goodness’

Galileo Galilei, by Justus Sustermans

Galileo Galilei, by Justus Sustermans

Asked how he reconciles with the fact that during the course of history, many people, Jews and non-Jews, were murdered in the name of that same “religion of goodness,” Allam replies that he deplores those deeds in the most vociferous way. These were “atrocities and historical errors that were committed in the name of religion. The last Pope, John Paul II, apologized for some of them at least. In any case, I will continue to be a person who defends the truth, no matter what it is, even if it concerns mistakes the Church has made.”

This week Allam was describing his baptism in almost mystical terms. “I have discovered the one true God,” he wrote in Corriere. He called the fact that his baptism was conducted by the Pope “the most beautiful gift I could have received.” Easter Mass is customarily a time when the Pope performs the rite of baptism, and Allam is not the first Muslim to undergo conversion. Nevertheless, the exalted public ceremony transformed the event into a clear political statement.

In order to head off in advance the anticipated angry reactions to the ceremony, the Vatican published an unusual statement on Sunday, in which it noted that “for the Catholic Church, each person who asks to receive baptism after a deep personal search, a fully free choice and adequate preparation, has a right to receive it.” The statement noted that the Pontiff conducted the ritual without making any personal distinctions regarding the identity of the convert, and said all newcomers to the faith were “equally important before God’s love and welcome in the community of the Church.”

The president of the Grand Mosque of Rome, Mario Scialoja, said, “It is necessary to respect the personal choice that Magdi Allam has made,” but the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi wrote on its front page: “The Pope is arousing the anger of Muslims because of the baptism of a former Muslim who supports Israel.” The Arab television networks and Internet sites related to the timing of the rite, on the most important day in the Christian calendar, as a crude provocation. After all, they wrote, the baptism could also have been held in a small church in Rome, by a minor priest.

But as far as Allam is concerned, this is the crux of the story. He is the one whose life is being threatened, he is the one who has to go around with bodyguards – something that has never been condemned in the Arab press – but his decision to convert is suddenly an intolerable blow to Muslim feelings. Just as in the affair of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, he explains, what is perceived in the West as an individual’s basic right is a harsh insult to Islam.

“When a Westerner decides to convert to Islam, that’s fine,” he says, “but when a Muslim converts to Christianity, it is suddenly the end of the world. Everyone condemns him, as though he has done something of which he should be ashamed.”

The reason for this, Allam suggests, is Europe’s weakness and flaccidity, and above all the multicultural model, in the name of which everyone is equal and no one can be criticized or let their feelings be hurt. In Italy, every Muslim can go to a mosque, but in the Arab world there is ongoing and long-standing discrimination against religious minorities. Nevertheless, he asks, who complains about the situation of the Christians in Saudi Arabia?

This week Allam decided to stop sitting on the fence and to change his religion and even his name. Henceforth call him “Magdi Cristiano Allam.”