Novak (novak) wrote,

Theological Notebook: AP, Reuters, CNS and NYT stories related to Magdi Cristiano Allam conversion

As I'm curious to see how the very public conversion of Magdi Cristiano Allam to Catholicism plays out, particularly given the international media coverage of the event, I tossed a bunch of news stories related to it (and a few that really weren't, but sort of thematically caught my eye as I thought about these things) into the journal for keeping. Please excuse the mess.

Vatican spokesman: Muslim convert has right to express his own ideas
By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
March 27

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When Pope Benedict XVI welcomed into the Catholic Church a Muslim-born journalist often critical of Islam, it was not a sign that the pope accepts everything the journalist believes, said the Vatican spokesman.

The Italian journalist, Magdi Allam, "has the right to express his own ideas. They remain his personal opinions without in any way becoming the official expression of the positions of the pope or the Holy See," said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi.

Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, made his comments March 27 in response to a statement from Aref Ali Nayed, a spokesman for the 138 Muslim scholars who initiated the Common Word dialogue project in October and who established the Catholic-Muslim Forum for dialogue with the Vatican in early March.

Father Lombardi said baptism is a recognition that the person entering the church "has freely and sincerely accepted the Christian faith in its fundamental articles" as expressed in the creed.

"Of course, believers are free to maintain their own ideas on a vast range of questions and problems on which legitimate pluralism exists among Christians," he said. "Welcoming a new believer into the church clearly does not mean espousing all that person's ideas and opinions, especially on political and social matters."

Nayed questioned the pope's decision to baptize Allam March 22 during the globally televised Easter Vigil from St. Peter's Basilica.

"It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points," Nayed said.

"It is sad that the particular person chosen for such a highly public gesture has a history of generating, and continues to generate, hateful discourse," he added.

In a March 25 interview with Il Giornale, an Italian newspaper, Allam said his decision to convert grew as he became convinced that it was impossible to believe in a moderate form of Islam because "a substantial ambiguity found in the Quran and in the concrete actions of Mohammed" feeds violent tendencies.

Nayed said, "The basic message of Allam's most recent article is the very message of the Byzantine emperor quoted by the pope in his infamous Regensburg lecture," given in Germany in 2006. The pope quoted a medieval emperor asserting that Islam spread its faith through violence.

The Muslim scholar said, "It is not far-fetched to see this (Allam's baptism) as another way of reasserting the message of Regensburg, which the Vatican keeps insisting was not intended. It is now important for the Vatican to distance itself from Allam's discourse."

Father Lombardi's statement also strongly objected to the way Nayed referred to Allam's early education in Catholic schools in Egypt, implying that Catholic schools try to proselytize non-Christian students.

The Catholic Church's commitment to the education of all children deserves praise and not suspicion, Father Lombardi said.

In countries where Christians are a minority -- including Egypt, India and Japan, for example -- "the great majority of students in Catholic schools and universities are non-Christians and have happily remained so, while showing great appreciation for the education they received," he said.

Father Lombardi said the Catholic Church today does not deserve an accusation that it lacks respect for human dignity and freedom, but there are many situations in the world where such respect is lacking and which need attention.

"Maybe this is why the pope accepted the risk of this baptism: to affirm the freedom of religious choice which derives from the dignity of the human person," he said.

Muslim Baptized by Pope Sought Dialogue
Mar 24, 5:03 PM (ET)

ROME (AP) - The Egyptian-born commentator who renounced Islam and converted to Roman Catholicism with a baptism by Pope Benedict XVI has built his career crusading against what he calls the "inherent" violence in Islam and championing Israel's existence.

Magdi Allam, a deputy editor at the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera who has been honored for encouraging tolerance between cultures, angered some in the Muslim world Monday with his high-profile conversion in an Easter vigil service led by Benedict in St. Peter's Basilica.

"The pope provokes the indignation of Muslims by baptizing an Egyptian journalist who attacks Islam and defends Israel," read a headline in the newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi. The Arabic-language newspaper said Allam is known as a "Zionist Muslim."

Allam has credited the pope, who himself has been criticized by some Muslims, as being instrumental in his decision to become a Catholic at age 55 and after spending his adult life in predominantly Catholic Italy.

A frequent commentator on Islamic issues and terrorism on Italian TV, Allam says he is "passionate" about coexistence in the West of "national identity and democracy, immigration and integration, Islam and terrorism"

An Italian citizen since 1986, Allam has lived in Italy for 35 years, after attending a Catholic school in Cairo. He says he has never been a practicing Muslim.

Books he has authored include "Viva Israel. From the ideology of death to the civilization of life: my story," which was published in Italy last year.

Allam told an interviewer for the conservative Milan newspaper Il Giornale in December that he wrote the book because "I discovered that at the origin of the ideology of hatred, violence and death is discrimination against Israel."

He also published "Conquering Fear. My life against Islamic terrorism and the unconsciousness of the West" in 2005 and "Kamikaze made in Europe. Will the West defeat Islamic terrorists?" in 2004.

Allam filled nearly a whole page of Corriere della Sera on Sunday explaining his conversion.

He said he reflected that even beyond "the phenomenon of the extremists and of Islamic terrorism on a worldwide level, the root of the evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictual."

The conversion freed him "from the shadows of a preaching where hate and intolerance toward he who is different, toward he who is condemned as an 'enemy,'" he said.

In an interview on Italian private TV Canale 5 Monday evening, Allam said he felt "stronger" and "great joy" because of his conversion.

He dismissed the suggestion that Benedict, in baptizing him, might put at risk the lives of Christian minorities in Islamic nations.

Benedict "wanted to give a signal to the church throughout the world that whoever" wants to join will be accepted, Allam said.

Allam could not be reached for more comment Monday. His cell phone was answered Monday by an Italian identifying himself as part of a security escort provided to the editor by the Italian government.

Allam told Il Giornale last year that he believed he had been "condemned to death" by an Italian Muslim group, UCOII, which he called Hamas'"reference point" in Italy.

Il Giornale quoted Allam as saying an Italian intelligence official in 2003 said there was information that Hamas had "singled me out as an enemy to physically eliminate for my repeated criticisms of Palestinian terrorism."

Hamas officials in Gaza on Monday declined to comment on Allam's contention.

UCOII, the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy, described Allam's baptism as a personal choice.

Two years ago, Allam was awarded the Tel Aviv University-based Dan David Prize, which recognizes outstanding contributions to humanity, honoring him for his "ceaseless work in fostering understanding and tolerance between cultures."

Dan David, a Rome-based entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded the annual prize, said in a phone interview Monday that Allam was honored because he has "fought for freedom of expression" at the risk of his life.

David said he spoke to Allam on Sunday and praised him for his courage in converting in such a visible way.

Allam wrote in Corriere that with his conversion he took the name "Cristiano" (Christian in Italian) as his middle name.

Benedict baptized Allam just days after an audio message from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden accused the pontiff of playing a role in what he called a "new Crusade" against Islam. The Vatican called the accusation baseless.

The Vatican is still trying to repair relations with the Muslim world after Benedict in a 2006 speech about faith and reason cited a medieval text that described some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly the command to spread the faith "by the sword."

The pope later expressed regret his remarks angered Muslims and stressed that the medieval text didn't reflect his own opinion.


On the Net:

Corriere della Sera:
Dan David Prize:
Magdi Allam's Site:

Muslim Scholar Denounces Vatican Baptism
Mar 25, 2:05 PM (ET)

VATICAN CITY (AP) - A Muslim scholar who participated in recent Vatican talks to improve Catholic-Muslim relations criticized Pope Benedict XVI's Easter baptism of a prominent convert from Islam as a "provocative" act.

Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born TV and newspaper commentator who has denounced Islam as inherently violently, was baptized by the pope in a vigil service Saturday night in St. Peter's Basilica.

Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Amman, Jordan, criticized what he called "the Vatican's deliberate and provocative act of baptizing Allam on such a special occasion and in such a spectacular way."

"It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points," Nayed said in a written statement.

He added that the baptism came "at a most unfortunate time when sincere Muslims and Catholics are working very hard to mend ruptures between the two communities."

Earlier this month, Nayed participated in two days of talks at the Vatican to prepare for an audience in November between the pope and Muslim religious leaders and scholars. Benedict's top official on interreligious dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, was among the participants.

The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano denied that the baptism had been played up, saying it was kept secret until just before the ceremony. It described the baptism as a papal "gesture" to stress "in a gentle and clear way, religious freedom."

"There are no hostile intentions toward a great religion like that of Islam," the newspaper wrote.

The Vatican has been eager to mend relations with moderate Islam and has placed a great deal of importance on the upcoming audience with representatives of 138 Muslim scholars who wrote to the pope last year calling for greater Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Their call came after Benedict gave a speech in 2006 citing a medieval emperor's words about Islam and violence. Benedict later expressed regret that the speech angered many in the Muslim world.

Nayed said work to improve relations would continue despite the "unfortunate episode" of Allam's baptism.

Allam, a deputy editor of Milan daily Corriere della Sera, has built his career as commentator and book author attacking Islamic extremism and supporting Israel.

In a Sunday piece for Corriere della Sera, he said the "root of the evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictual."

On Tuesday, Ugo Intini, Italy's deputy foreign minister for Middle East affairs, criticized Allam's "very harsh condemnation" of Islam.

In an unusual appeal in a country where the government is highly respectful of the Holy See, Intini called on the Vatican, "after the emphasis given to Allam's conversion, to distance itself clearly from his statements."

Muslim baptized by pope says he wanted to show others not to fear
By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- The Muslim-born journalist baptized by Pope Benedict XVI at the Easter Vigil said he wanted a public conversion to convince other former Muslims not to be afraid of practicing their new Christian faith.

But a representative of a group of Muslim scholars who recently launched a new dialogue with the Vatican said the prominence given to the baptism of Magdi Allam, a frequent critic of Islam, raises disturbing questions.

Allam, 55, was one of seven adults baptized by the pope March 22 in St. Peter's Basilica.

Aref Ali Nayed, a spokesman for the 138 Muslim scholars who initiated the Common Word dialogue project last October and who established the Catholic-Muslim Forum for dialogue with the Vatican in early March, said conversion is a private matter, but the very public way in which Allam was baptized appeared "deliberate and provocative."

In a March 25 interview with Il Giornale, an Italian newspaper, Allam said thousands of Italian Christians have converted to Islam with no repercussions.

"On the other hand, if a Muslim converts it is the end of the world and he is condemned to death for apostasy. In Italy there are thousands of converts who live their faith in secret for fear they will not be protected," Allam said.

"I publicly converted to say to these people: 'Come out of the catacombs, live your faith openly. Do not be afraid,'" he said.

In a March 23 article in Corriere della Sera, the newspaper for which he writes, Allam said, "His Holiness has launched an explicit and revolutionary message to a church that, up to now, has been too prudent in converting Muslims."

He said Catholics were "abstaining from proselytism in countries with a Muslim majority and being silent about the reality of converts in Christian countries out of fear -- the fear of not being able to protect the converts in the face of their condemnations to death for apostasy and for fear of reprisals against Christians living in Islamic countries."

"Well, with his witness today, Benedict XVI tells us we need to conquer our fear and not be afraid to affirm the truth of Jesus even to Muslims," Allam wrote in Corriere.

Allam told Il Giornale that although his mother was a devout Muslim she sent him to Catholic preschool, elementary and high schools. In the Corriere article, he said he even had gone to Communion once, which demonstrates how he had been attracted to the church for a long time.

He told Il Giornale his mother later regretted sending him to Catholic schools "because I never shared a certain zeal in practicing Islam; I always had a lot of autonomy. And, so, I became aware that Catholicism corresponded perfectly to the values that I held."

Allam also said his Easter baptism marked a total and definitive turning from "a past in which I imagined that there could be a moderate Islam."

He said Islamic "extremism feeds on a substantial ambiguity found in the Quran and in the concrete actions of Mohammed."

While he moved definitively away from Islam five years ago, Allam said it was Pope Benedict's teaching that convinced him to become a Catholic.

"He has said the basis for accepting a religion as true is how it accepts the basic rights of the person, the sacredness of life, freedom, choice (and) equality between men and women," Allam said.

In a written statement reacting to Allam's baptism by the pope at the globally televised Easter Vigil, Nayed said, "It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points."

In addition, he said, "It is sad that the particular person chosen for such a highly public gesture has a history of generating, and continues to generate, hateful discourse."

Nayed said it would be important for Pope Benedict and the Vatican to distance themselves from Allam's stance on Islam.

"The whole spectacle with its choreography, persona and messages provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope's advisers on Islam," he said, adding that the Muslim scholars would continue their dialogue with the Vatican.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told the Italian news agency ApCom March 23 that he did not know how Allam came to be among the people baptized by the pope at the Easter Vigil "or who promoted it."

However, he said, freedom of conscience is a basic right and "to whomever knocks the door of the church is always open."

Vatican Says Pope's Baptism Of Muslim Not A Hostile Act
Published: March 25, 2008
Filed at 2:28 p.m. ET

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict's baptism of an Italian Muslim over Easter weekend was not a hostile act against Islam, the Vatican's newspaper wrote on Tuesday after the public conversion prompted criticism in the Muslim world.

In a surprise move, the pope baptized Egyptian-born Magdi Allam, a well-known journalist and outspoken critic of radical Islamism, at an Easter Vigil service in St Peter's Basilica on Saturday evening that was broadcast around the globe.

Muslim commentators said Allam's hostile writings and his headline-grabbing baptism strained relations between Muslims and the Catholic Church and cast shadows over a recently agreed dialogue between Catholicism and Islam.

The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, apparently reacting to this criticism, wrote a front-page editorial arguing that Benedict's gesture was an expression of religious freedom and certainly not directed against Islam.

"There is no hostile intention toward such an important religion as Islam," editor-in-chief Gian Maria Vian wrote on Tuesday. "For many decades now, the Catholic Church has shown its willingness to engage and dialogue with the Muslim world, despite thousands of difficulties and obstacles."

But critics of the baptism questioned why the pope chose to highlight the conversion of Allam, known in Italy for his attacks on Islam. Church experts on Islam privately expressed concern that his message could strain inter-faith relations.

Writing in Sunday's edition of the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, of which he is a deputy director, Allam said: "... the root of evil is innate in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictual."


Catholic-Muslim relations nosedived in 2006 after Benedict delivered a lecture in Regensburg, Germany, that implied he thought Islam was violent and irrational.

Muslims around the world protested and the pope, who said he did not agree with the Byzantine emperor he had quoted, sought to make amends by visiting the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul and praying towards Mecca with its imam.

Earlier in March, the Vatican agreed with Muslim leaders to establish a permanent, official dialogue to improve relations.

L'Osservatore Romano said the Vatican remained dedicated toward dialogue with Islam: "Difficulties and obstacles should not overshadow what there is in common and how much can come of the future."

Aref Ali Nayed, a key figure in a group of over 200 Muslim scholars that launched the dialogue with the Vatican and other Christian churches, said on Monday the Vatican had turned the baptism into "a triumphalist tool for scoring points."

"The whole spectacle... provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope's advisers on Islam," Nayed, who is director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Pope Calls for Peace and Celebrates Conversions
Published: March 24, 2008

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI led prayers for peace on the holiest day of the Christian year at a rainy outdoor Mass here on Easter Sunday, exulting conversions to the faith hours after the Vatican highlighted the baptism of Italy’s most prominent Muslim.

Pope Benedict XVI delivered the benediction on Easter Sunday.

In a prayer before thousands of soaking pilgrims and tourists at St. Peter’s Square, the pope noted that the disciples had spread the message of Christ’s resurrection — celebrated Sunday — and as a result “thousands and thousands of persons converted to Christianity.”

“This is a miracle, which renews itself even today,” he said.

Days after Osama bin Laden issued a threat against Europe that included an accusation that the pope was involved in a “new Crusade” against Islam, Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born writer protected by Italian bodyguards because of his criticism of radical Islam, was baptized by the pope Saturday night and received his first holy communion. The news about Mr. Allam, a secular Muslim who is married to a Catholic, was confirmed by a Vatican news release an hour before the baptism.

“It was the most beautiful day of my life,” Mr. Allam, 55, a deputy editor at Italy’s largest daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, wrote Sunday in a column. “The miracle of the resurrection of Christ reverberated in my soul, freeing it from the shadows of a preaching where hate and intolerance toward he who is different, toward he who is condemned as an ‘enemy,’ prevailed over love and respect for your neighbor.”

Mr. Allam said that he would take a new middle name, “Cristiano,” Italian for Christian.

Easter culminates the busiest week of the year at the Vatican. Scores of Masses and ceremonies mark the period in which Jesus Christ was arrested, crucified and, two days later, resurrected.

According to tradition, the 80-year-old pope prayed for peace in troubled parts of the world. He cited Darfur in Sudan, Somalia and “the tormented Middle East, especially the Holy Land, Iraq, Lebanon.” He also mentioned Tibet, a delicate issue for the Vatican, which is working to improve ties with China, amid unconfirmed reports of direct talks here last week between Chinese and Vatican officials.

“How often relations between individuals, between groups and between peoples are marked not by love but by selfishness, injustice, hatred and violence,” the pope said. “These are the scourges of humanity, open and festering in every corner of the planet, although they are often ignored and sometimes deliberately concealed; wounds that torture the souls and bodies of countless of our brothers and sisters.”

Though it was hard to hear him because of the sound of rain falling on umbrellas, the pope, under a canopy in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, delivered Easter greetings in 63 languages.

Divided and Conquered
Published: March 23, 2008

When Napoleon Bonaparte led his army into Egypt in 1798, he had more than military conquest on his mind. Along with 30,000 soldiers, his entourage included what amounted to a mobile university, complete with economists and poets, architects and astronomers, a balloonist, and a baritone from the Paris Opera. They carried with them a library of a thousand books, featuring Montesquieu and Rousseau, Montaigne and Voltaire, and other classics of the Western canon.

The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West.
By Anthony Pagden.
625 pp. Random House. $35.

Almost two centuries later, in 1971, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, held a lavish, weeklong fete for foreign dignitaries on the grounds of an ancient Persian palace. Over peacock stuffed with foie gras and 25,000 bottles of Champagne, he declared himself heir to the great Achaemenid kings Darius and Xerxes. The claimed price tag: $200 million.

For Anthony Pagden, a professor of political science and history at the University of California, Los Angeles, the shah and Napoleon are archetypes, respectively, of East and West, each seeing himself as heir to a glorious civilization. But as Pagden points out, each man also had his own fascinating ambiguities. The Swiss-educated shah was a highly secular supporter of modernization (and the Champagne for his party came from Maxim’s of Paris). Napoleon proclaimed to the Egyptians that he revered the Prophet Muhammad and “the glorious Koran,” if only to win over the local clerics.

Pagden has a keen eye for the striking detail (a helpful attribute for someone plowing through 2,500 years of history in 12 chapters), and “Worlds at War,” like Pagden’s earlier work “Peoples and Empires,” is bold, panoramic and highly readable, at times a page turner.

Through a combination of legend, anecdote and evocative writing, Pagden brings alive the ancient Greco-Persian wars, the rise of Islam and the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman emperor Mehmed II. And he turns what might otherwise be dry history about the Investiture Controversy of the 11th century into almost a thriller, with an “outmaneuvered” Henry IV standing outside the castle of Canossa “in a hair shirt and robes of a penitent, barefoot on the ice for three days,” seeking an audience with Pope Gregory VII, who had excommunicated him. Having obtained Gregory’s forgiveness, Henry promptly “descended on Rome with an army.” Gregory called on the Normans to defend him, and they defeated Henry. But unfortunately they “sacked the city themselves,” causing the Pope “to flee south, where he died of fever in Salerno.”

But if “Worlds at War” is hard to put down, it’s also hard to pin down; almost to the end, its thesis is something of a moving target. For starters, Pagden casts his book as an exploration of the “perpetual enmity,” as Herodotus called it, between East and West. Yet he excludes from his account China, Japan and the rest of the Far East and, for the most part, India. So his “East” consists almost entirely of Islamic societies: Persia/Iran, the Ottoman Empire/Turkey, Egypt and today’s Arab world.

Moreover, Pagden is frequently cagey about whether he thinks fundamental differences actually exist between East and West. In his preface, he says the East-West division is “often illusory, always metaphorical.” Elsewhere, he suggests that the West is in many ways rooted in the East. (“Like so much else that became a defining part of the Western world,” Christianity had also “begun in the East”; Christ was “a typical Eastern holy man,” and “the slain god, the virgin birth, the incarnation” of Christianity were “more Asian still.”) When he does draw out cultural differences, some of them stereotypical, Pagden tends to distance himself through attribution. He cites Herodotus for the contrast between Asian slavishness and Western individuality and love of freedom; Ernest Renan for Islam’s hostility to science; Montesquieu and Hegel for “Oriental despotism.”

In the end, however, “Worlds at War” is another book about the clash between the Enlightenment and religion, and its central target is Islam, which, Pagden argues, is incompatible with the Western principle of separation between church and state. The “fundamental theological difference between Islam and Christianity,” he tells us, lies in “the association between religion and the law.” Unlike Christianity, Islam supports “the complete identification of the secular realm with the sacred and the corresponding elevation of the ruler.” Christianity recognizes both the Kingdom of Heaven and the governments of earth. In Islam, by contrast, “there can be only one law”: the Shariah, which is God’s law and thus “eternal” and “unchanging.” According to Pagden, the history of Islam is unified “by a continuous and still unfulfilled narrative, the story of the struggle against the ‘Infidel’ for the ultimate Muslim conquest of the entire world.”

In Pagden’s Islam there is an odd echo of the Islam offered by the bearded mullahs who espouse violence from their mosques or caves. Indeed, Pagden quotes Osama bin Laden at length for the view that the greatest crime of the United States — for which 9/11 was punishment — was that “you separate religion from your politics, contradicting the pure nature which affirms Absolute Authority to the Lord your Creator.” Pagden adds that “most Muslim theologians and jurists would have to agree” with bin Laden.

Such passages are bound to infuriate many, including those Muslims who see themselves as reaffirming a well-rooted Islamic tradition of diversity in opinion against a rising trend of rigid fanaticism. Pagden tends to treat Islam as a monolith; at one point he describes Islam as intellectually “simple.” Given Islam’s long and variegated history, not to mention its abstruse jurisprudence, many will disagree. It’s a good bet that “Worlds at War” will appeal more to admirers of Samuel Huntington’s thesis about the clash of civilizations, which Pagden calls “a crude but useful phrase,” than to fans of Edward Said’s book “Orientalism.”

To be fair, Pagden also tends to treat Christianity monolithically (although more favorably). For example, some historians of the church will surely take issue with Pagden’s assertion that Christianity separated the secular from the sacred, emphasizing “the ultimate freedom of the individual.” How exactly do the crusades and the Inquisition fit into this picture, not to mention the many Christian doctrines of predestination?

The real value of “Worlds at War” may lie in a secondary theme: the West’s long, tragicomic history of trying to civilize and modernize the East. In the first century B.C., Octavian’s defeat of Antony and Egypt was portrayed by the Romans as the triumph of “a free and virtuous West” over “a tyrannical and corrupt East.” Almost 2,000 years later, in 1920, Shiites and Sunnis were killing each other in Mesopotamia, British officers were dying, and The Times of London wrote, “How much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavor to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?”

And then there was Napoleon. The most ambitious of Western conquerors in that region, he set about to impress the Egyptians with a demonstration of French technology: an elaborate launching of his hot air balloon, painted in red, white and blue. Unfortunately, it crashed and burst into flames. The Egyptians, no doubt, were shocked and awed.

Amy Chua, a professor of law at Yale University, is the author of “World on Fire” and “Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — and Why They Fall.”

-Ed Contributor
Why Radical Islam Just Won’t Die
Published: March 23, 2008

THE big surprise, viewed from my own narrow perspective five years later, has taken place in the mysterious zones of extremist ideology. In the months and weeks before the invasion of Iraq, I wrote quite a lot about ideology in the Middle East, and especially about the revolutionary political doctrine known as radical Islamism.

I tried to show that radical Islamism is a modern philosophy, not just a heap of medieval prejudices. In its sundry versions, it draws on local and religious roots, just as it claims to do. But it also draws on totalitarian inspirations from 20th-century Europe. I wanted my readers to understand that with its double roots, religious and modern, perversely intertwined, radical Islamism wields a lot more power, intellectually speaking, than naïve observers might suppose.

I declared myself happy in principle with the notion of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, just as I was happy to see the Taliban chased from power. But I wanted everyone to understand that military action, by itself, could never defeat an ideology like radical Islamism — could never contribute more than 10 percent (I invented this statistic, as an illustrative figure) to a larger solution. I hammered away on that point in the days before the war. And today I have to acknowledge that, for all my hammering, radical Islamism, in several of its resilient branches, the ultra-radical and the beyond-ultra-radical, has proved to be stronger even than I suggested.

A lot of people right now make the common-sense supposition that if extremist ideologies have lately entered a sort of grisly golden age, the Bush administration’s all-too-predictable blundering in Iraq must bear the blame. Yes, certainly; but that can’t be the only explanation.

Extremist movements have been growing bigger and wilder for more than three decades now, during that period, America has tried pretty much everything from a policy point of view. Our presidents have been satanic (Richard Nixon), angelic (Jimmy Carter), a sleepy idiot savant (Ronald Reagan), a cagey realist (George H. W. Bush), wonderfully charming (Bill Clinton) and famously otherwise (George W. Bush). And each president’s Middle Eastern policy has conformed to his character.

In regard to Saddam Hussein alone, our government has lent him support (Mr. Reagan), conducted a limited war against him (the first President Bush), inflicted sanctions and bombings (Mr. Clinton, in other than his charming mode), and crudely overthrown him. Every one of those policies has left the Iraqi people worse off than before, even if nowadays, from beneath the rubble, the devastated survivors can at least ruminate about a better future — though I doubt that many of them are in any mood to do so.

And each new calamity for Iraq has, like manure, lent new fertility to the various extremist organizations. The entire sequence of events may suggest that America is uniquely destined to do the wrong thing. All too likely! But it may also suggest that America is not the fulcrum of the universe, and extremist ideologies have prospered because of their own ability to adapt and survive — their strength, in a word.

I notice a little gloomily that I may have underestimated the extremist ideologies in still another respect. Five years ago, anyone who took an interest in Middle Eastern affairs would easily have recalled that, over the course of a century, the intellectuals of the region have gone through any number of phases — liberal, Marxist, secularist, pious, traditionalist, nationalist, anti-imperialist and so forth, just like intellectuals everywhere else in the world.

Western intellectuals without any sort of Middle Eastern background would naturally have manifested an ardent solidarity with their Middle Eastern and Muslim counterparts who stand in the liberal vein — the Muslim free spirits of our own time, who argue in favor of human rights, rational thought (as opposed to dogma), tolerance and an open society.

But that was then. In today’s Middle East, the various radical Islamists, basking in their success, paint their liberal rivals and opponents as traitors to Muslim civilization, stooges of crusader or Zionist aggression. And, weirdly enough, all too many intellectuals in the Western countries have lately assented to those preposterous accusations, in a sanitized version suitable for Western consumption.

Even in the Western countries, quite a few Muslim liberals, the outspoken ones, live today under a threat of assassination, not to mention a reality of character assassination. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch legislator and writer, is merely an exceptionally valiant example. But instead of enjoying the unstinting support of their non-Muslim colleagues, the Muslim liberals find themselves routinely berated in the highbrow magazines and the universities as deracinated nonentities, alienated from the Muslim world. Or they find themselves pilloried as stooges of the neoconservative conspiracy — quite as if any writer from a Muslim background who fails to adhere to at least a few anti-imperialist or anti-Zionist tenets of the Islamist doctrine must be incapable of thinking his or her own thoughts.

A dismaying development. One more sign of the power of the extremist ideologies — one more surprising turn of events, on top of all the other dreadful and gut-wrenching surprises.

Paul Berman, the author of “Power and the Idealists,” is a writer in residence at New York University.

Saudi King Calls For New Interfaith Dialogue
Published: March 25, 2008
Filed at 12:47 p.m. ET

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah plans to launch an effort at dialogue between Islam, Christianity and Judaism to help end inter-religious tension, Saudi media said on Tuesday.

State television showed the octogenarian king telling a forum in Riyadh that he would hold meetings with Muslims around the world to build a consensus for a new dialogue with Christians and Jews.

"I want to call for conferences between the religions to protect humanity from folly," he said in a speech where he spoke positively of his meeting last year with Pope Benedict.

"I wanted to visit the Vatican and I did and I thank him. He met me in a meeting I will not forget, a meeting of one human being with another. I suggested this idea," he said.

He said he had secured support of Saudi clerics over the past two years for the proposal. The reports, also carried in the daily newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, did not say which clerics.

Conservative Saudi Arabia champions a hardline form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism and many Wahhabi clerics regard even fellow Muslims of the Shi'ite sect as heretics.

Followers of other faiths are forbidden to build public houses of worship.

King Abdullah has led the Saudi government's campaign against al Qaeda militants who turned their attention on Saudi Arabia in 2003, launching a violent campaign against the U.S.-allied royal family.

The king is regarded as a reformer, although diplomats say clerics and their allies have been resisting his plans for reforms including a loosening of strict social and religious customs.

The Vatican, which wants Saudi Arabia to allow Christians to worship freely, runs its own interfaith dialogue with Muslim clerics.

The king's speech came just days after Pope Benedict baptized an Italian Muslim convert of Egyptian origin, an act denounced in some Arab newspapers and by some groups as provocative.

Saudi clerics had helped mobilize Muslims around the world in 2006 over Danish newspaper cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad, prompting Riyadh to withdraw its ambassador.

But reaction has been muted to Danish papers' republishing one of the cartoons last month, and diplomats in Riyadh say the authorities are keen not to enflame tensions.

(Reporting by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Richard Balmforth)
Tags: benedict xvi, catholicism, christianity, cultural, europe, interreligious, islam, media, new york times, theological notebook

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