The Baptism of Magdi Allam: wisdom or folly?

Sherry from Intentional Disciples and I have been having an ongoing debate about this topic for all of two days. I think we have established that in many respects we are actually in agreement. So I think the main topic at this point is regarding the prudence of this specific act: was it the wisest and most prudent path for Benedict to baptize this particular Muslim on Easter at St. Petersburg?

I think there that Sherry would answer NO. But my answer is Yes. So let me address this specific topic instead of trading in hypotheticals, which is what we have been doing until now.

1) It was wise because this man has been thinking about converting for years. This is not a sudden decision or something that has not had forethought. He said it himself if you read the articles. This is important.

2) It is right because the man lives in Rome. Benedict is the bishop of Rome and thus the senior or chief pastor of that city--even Protestants and evangelicals must agree with this. It is therefore good and right for him to baptize new Christians.

3) Mr. Allam is already a public figure. He is a journalist and knows how to deal with publicity and questions about his motives and positions. This is very important because it means that he is in an excellent position to be an apologist/evangelist for his new faith. Many MBB's are very sincere and godly, but do not know how to adequately explain their motives and reasons--this man does and has.

4) It is good because it is a claim of solidarity with MBB's by the pope. By taking this action Benedict has decidedly cast his lot--within the context of further dialogue with Muslims--with the converts. He is this carrying on the heritage of JPII and his proclamation that evangelistic mission is and always must be at the heart of the church's ministry (read Missio Redemptoris by JPII if you haven't already). He is also saying quite clearly that he is willing to suffer the odium and persecution of the shari'a with Muslim apostates.

5) It is good and right because it will give hope to Christians throughout MENA. Some might say that the Christians in MENA will be persecuted because of this. Guess what? They are persecuted either way and every day, several times, they hear resounding from the minaret that 'there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet' which means, yes, that the Christian faith is useless and empty. They are used to it. I am used to it. Here is a secret, small glimpse of hope for them. That thought they hear this message called out day after day that someone has said, "NO: Muhammad is not his prophet." And that the most influential Christian in the world has fellowship with this man.

For these reasons, and others, I think that BXVI's act of baptizing brother Allam on Easter in St. Peter's was a good and right thing to do--and more than that, prudent and wise.

The persecution against Christians in MENA is already here--this will give them hope and strength to withstand it.


Anonymous said…
May I join the discussion?

To be frank, I agree with Sherry on this one:

"But that could have been done lovingly and well a thousand different ways – none of which required that his face and story blanket the globe within hours of his reception. Being baptized did not require that he become the poster-boy for Muslims considering Christianity and there were a number of obvious reasons why he isn’t a great candidate for poster boydom and may actually be counter-productive.

Apart from the geo-religious-political implications, all this publicity could actually hamper his spiritual growth and that of his family. Being a trophy convert is often not a good thing for one’s actual process of conversion.

Here’s the deal. No one, obscure or famous, gets baptized by the Pope during the Easter Vigil accidentally. And I didn’t notice Vatican spokesman offering comments and clarifications about the other 6 adults baptized in the same liturgy. Someone (and I don’t know who it was) decided to use a globally streamed event watched by hundreds of millions to transform an *individual act of conscience* into a *global phenomena*. It is the wisdom of that decision *alone* that I question."

My chief concern here - one which hasn't been sufficiently addressed on this blog yet -- is the overall effect on Muslim - Christian relations. I believe that this baptism unduly damages that relationship. There has been significant, unprecedented advance in Catholic-Muslim relations - much of it spearheaded by the Vatican itself -- in the last year (i.e., A Common Word, the recent delegation to the Vatican, the Nov. 2008 conference, etc.).

Why then, now, would the Pope revive antagonism in this way? Why such effort to revive relations after a strained several years (i.e., the Pope's Regensburg comments and the subsequent debacle) if only to flush those efforts away with this public provocation.

Here are the options, as I see them, for why the Pope made this decision to baptize Allam like he did:

1. Bad advisors. Somebody gave him bad advice that this would somehow actually turn out for the advance of the Church in the Muslim world. I'm sorry, I just can't see that happening.

2. Ignorance. Somebody wasn't thinking. What - in sum - has this accomplished for the Kingdom and/or for followers of the King in the MENA and elsewhere?

3. A desire to "score points": It is hard to disagree with Aref Ali Nayed, a key signee of A Common Word, who said the Vatican had turned the baptism of Allam into "a triumphalist tool for scoring points."

[I'll throw up a link to this good discussion on my blog also]
Anonymous said…
Shaw (and Sherry),

When talking about the importance of good relationships with other religions, we have to be clear about why those relationships are important and what we are trying to achieve. Appeasement for appeasements sake is rarely an effective strategy.

The Pope's clear agenda here is selling the concept of religious tolerance to a group to whom it is completely alien.

I agree that there may be some short term negative fallout from this. I don't think this is a case of bad advice - all of the players seem very well aware of the personal risks they are taking, and the potential consequences for others.

But this is a long term game, not a short term one. That is why the concept of 'the blood of the martyrs as the seed of the Church' is relevant here. Symbolic gestures can have powerful effects building up over time, and eventually change the world.
Abu Daoud said…

I guess it comes down to what one sees as the main priority for the Kingdom of God. The NT clearly teaches that the City of God and the earthly city will often times clash. So I think that this use of the sacrament to encourage other MBB's to "come out of the closet" or for Muslims to consider conversion is good and wise.

The pope is clearly in favor of ongoing discussions with Muslim leaders, and that is in the works right now. But it is wrong to compromise our fundamental beliefs regarding the Gospel and rebirth (which is what baptism signifies) in order to not anger Muslims.

Where does it stop brother? Shall we take the crosses down from our churches? Shall we stop using church bells because it is against the shari'a? Shall we all start writing 'peace be upon him' after we write the name 'Muhammad'?

The Church was founded by Jesus Christ to be the sacrament of the Kingdom of God and to spread the Gospel. Sooner or later we have to decide that strife and opposition and even persecution are not, in themselves, bad things. Because we live in a broken world (and Islam is a profoundly broken civilization) and because we witness to the Gospel which denies all the prerogatives and desires of this world, opposition must come. Jesus knew it and didn't shy away from it. Paul and Peter and John knew it. Raymund Lull knew and was not afraid.

Peace, in the end, is rightly ordered justice. It is not the lack of strife--that is a secular and heretical lie.
Sherry W said…
Abu Daoud:

I presume that you are responding to Shaw's comment over at your blog. Since he didn't post it here, readers may not understand the context of your comments.

As you and I both know, some of the most effective witnesses *in the Muslim world* have done exactly that: they don't have crosses on their meeting places, and they don't use bells, and women do cover their heads and men and women sit separately and they may use a Koran stand for their Bible, etc. They have adopted local customs that are not essential to the faith in order to more effectively be able to share the Gospel with others.

It is an old and long debate in our circles, as you know - what is simply appropriate adaptation and what is compromise, what is just western culture and what is essential to the faith and there is a legitimately wide spectrum of opinion on the subject.

Abu Daoud, for instance, you use a common Arabic pseudonym and never reveal your Christian name or your location on your blog and have a special high security e-mail address. All very appropriate precautions but intended to give you the anonymity you need to be effective in your mission. You clearly feel that in-your-face candor is not appropriate or necessary at all times (and I would heartily agree with you) so that you might be able to be present as a witness.

But some of my readers, who are not familiar with the realities involved, might regard this as "appeasement", knuckling under to unjust laws and customs instead of challenging them directly and boldly Of course, if you do, you don't have access, so there you are.

This is the model of St. Paul declaring that he was a Jew to Jews and a Greek to the Greeks, all things to all men that by any means he might reach some.

This is the model of Francis Xavier, saint and the patron of Catholic missions, leaving behind his very simple garb which was so appropriate when working among poor fishing peoples in south India and dressing in the robes of a Shinto scholar in Japan so that he might win a hearing. He did and left behind him the first Christian communities in Japan.

If the question we are asking is "What has been most effective in actually winning significant numbers of Muslims to Christ?", the evidence is in.

In 800 years of attempts at witness, aggressively, in-your-face challenge has consistently been the *least* effective. The alternatives are not less risky. They are often *more* risky to those who dare to take them but more importantly, they have proven to be much more fruitful.

Even in this country where religious freedom reigns, we know that ordinary friendship and kindness is best way when it comes to our family members and friends whom we hope to win back to the practice of the faith or to the faith in the first place. Because it is a human way,

We start with friendship and build trust and earn the right to speak about deeper things We don't begin the relationships by beating them over the head with a catechism.

But is "what will make us most effective in our attempts to bring Christ to others?" the question that most of us around St. Blog's are really asking? I don't think so,

I think that in this discussion, we have confused two issues: the western concerns about large scale Muslim immigration into Europe, and what to do when a significant part of your population no longer shares your most basic assumptions about law and freedom - the whole Eurabia debate - and the very different situation of those who are, this very moment, taking enormous risks to be present as loving Christian witnesses in the Muslim world.

Because of the globally public nature of Allam's baptism and the power of the internet, these two very different worlds have become one. It is as though Francis Xavier had to judge how best to reaching out to illiterate Indian fishermen *and* highly educated Japanese religious scholars in a single gesture. As challenging as his task was, at least he didn't face that uniquely 21st century dilemma.

Because this is all about gesture, one of the most highly public gestures possible.

NOT AT ALL about whether or not Allam should have been received and baptized - but how best to do so. The most spectacular way that is humanely possible or the way that is the norm for all other converts of any background?

Two days ago, Allam was hardly a household word outside of Italy. Hardly anyone around St. Blog's knew of him. Certainly we didn't talk about him. Today, we are all talking about him.

Someone - probably a group of someones - decided to go out of their way to make *Magdi Allam* with all his history and notoriety (not just anyone and *not just any Muslim becoming a Christian*) a household word and posterboy for MBB's.

And that, and that alone, *not his baptism and conversion*, is the issue. It is the consequences of that choice, not the consequences of his choice to become a Christian, that are at issue here.

Anonymous said…
bbالاخ ابو داود

السلام عليكم و رحمة الله و بركاته

I just got back and have a hundred things going on, so I do not have time to get into this discussion. However, it is a great discussion and I will give my opinion without supporting it ;^) ...

While I see both sides... I am inclined to agree with Sherry on this one. While the Kingdom of God clashes with the Kingdom of this present World all the time, this is not something I would be comfortable doing were I in his shoes.

May His grace, mercy and peace be yours in abundance,
From the Middle East
Sherry W said…

Another factor in this debate that no one has mentioned so far is the huge charism in mission experience since the 60's between Catholics and evangelical Protestants.

Catholic missionaries, for the most past, jettisoned the proclamation of Christ as the primary focus of mission 40 years while evangelicals revved their engines.

So the two categories that Catholics tend to think of as Catholic are 1) the (understandably) extremely cautious, we-won't-bother-you-by-sharing-Christ-if-you'll-just-leave-us-alone stance of historic Christian minorities in the ME and parts of Asia and

2) the older Christendom model where everyone is assumed to be Catholic and state and cultural norms and church all reinforce one another and the Catholicism fills the public square.

The fearful, quiet minority or the big battalion. Egypt and Italy, if you will. (Allam's life bridges both)

But in my experience, Catholics are hardly ever familiar with the vastly different evangelical experience of the past 40 years in the Muslim world - where a huge number of creative, pro-active, alternatives to categories 1 & 2 above have been tried. Many have proven fruitless but some have born enormous fruit and given rise to the first Muslim background Christian communities in history.

AD, your own ministry would fall into this second category I think?

The most common reaction I get from Catholics when I mention these alternatives is that they aren't legitimate, are somehow deceptive and immoral and imperialistic (which is how these same folks often regard evangelization in this country as well) and are simply unrealistic. Because no *normal* Christian (they must be emotionally and religious unstable freaks) could or would ever do anything like this - could or would do what you are doing, AD.

The whole debate around St. Blog's seems to presume that door number one and door number two are the only two truly Catholic alternatives. And obviously, operating from those assumptions, the recovery of Christendom is the more attractive option.

The reality of tens of thousands of MBB's in the Muslim world is unknown to Catholics or at best, an abstraction, while the situation of a highly westernized Muslim man wanting to become a Catholic in Italy is immediately understandable.

After all, he is choosing Christ and his Church, light and truth, and all that it represents in terms of culture and civilization over a faith and culture that seems diametrically opposed to our way of life and members of whom actively threaten us.

His public reception is a blow for our side in the future-of-the-west wars and it feels good.

Meanwhile, the cost to MBB's and the historic Christians of the Muslim world is not obvious - is hidden from us because we hardly know they exist. Nor is the very real possibility that the promotion of a man with his history as the model of conversion may turn off many seeking Muslims who were already on the journey. Because very few Catholics believe that Muslims can and do become Christian as an act of faith. They think the concept is as new to everyone as it is to them.

The irony is that Allam's public conversion will illuminate western Christians who didn't realize this was possible and will probably hurt the efforts of those who are already in the thick of it

That's why I'm raising the issue. Those of us who do know have to keep pointing out that there is more at stake here than the real and important debates about the Christian identity and future of Europe.

There is also the identity and future of the rest of the world.
Odysseus said…
Hmmmmm. I just see any options. The man wanted to be baptized. Other people are baptized by the Pope every year. Why not him? To decide to "use discretion" is really an offense agianst God's Kingdom. We should not think about public relations at all when it comes to baptism. True, other people will suffer subsequently, but that is not the result of the baptism, it is a result of other people's evil natures. People suffered terribly after the first baptisms found in Scripture. I don't mean to sound dismissive of other people's suffering, but I don't see any options that don't offend God.
CMinor said…
This has been a refreshingly thoughtful and civil discussion; thanks to all for the opportunity to read it!

Perhaps I'm naive, but I think Abu Daoud makes very sound points. On a few occasions when I've attempted to dialogue with Muslims in comboxes, I've been acutely aware of the presumption of inequality there. How can you dialogue with someone who already sees you as an inferior?

There seems to be no lack of interest in the Muslim world in the acquisition of prestigious converts to Islam, to the point that some odd internet rumors (one involves a retired U.S. astronaut ) circulate. One wouldn't think that one guy publicly converting from Islam to Christianity (particularly when he hadn't been a practicing Muslim in years) would cause the earth to shake and the sun to hide his face.

If there is going to be real dialogue between Christianity and Islam, the door has to swing both ways. One side cannot go into the dialogue regarding it exclusively as an exercise in conversion. Dialogue has been initiated between Muslim clerics and the Vatican, but it needs to be real dialogue. It looks to me like the Holy Father may have taken the opportunity to make that point.

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