The bimonthly U.S. international affairs journal Foreign Policy has just published a survey of the world’s top 20 public intellectuals and the first 10 are all Muslims. They are certainly an interesting group of men (and one woman) but the journal’s editors are not convinced they all belong on top. In their introduction in the July/August issue, they wrote: “Rankings are an inherently dangerous business.” It turns out that some candidates ran publicity campaigns on their web sites, in interviews or in reports in media friendly to them. So intellectuals who many other intellectuals might have put at the top — say Noam Chomsky or Richard Dawkins — landed only in the second 10 or in a much more mixed list of post-poll write-ins.
There seems to have been a silver lining to the Dutch anti-Islam film “Fitna” that far-right PVV party leader Geert Wilders released in late March. We noted already the strife that many people feared didn’t materialise. Now the country’s National Coordinator for Counterterrorism says the long debate about the film actually brought Christian and Muslim groups closer together.
Two recent op-ed articles in the United States presented Barack Obama as a “Muslim apostate” according to “Muslim law as it is universally understood.” Since Muslims were bound to see him as an apostate, they argued, the potential next president could be seen as “al Qaeda’s candidate” because Islamists could whip up popular anger in the Muslim world by portraying him as a turncoat heading a Western war against Islam. He also risked assassination, one suggested, because Muslim law considers apostasy a crime worthy of the death sentence and bars punishment for any Muslim who kills an apostate.
“Religion has been used, politicised, not only by groups but also the official institutions in every Arab country … Nearly everything is theologised — every issue society faces has to be solved by asking if Islam allows it. There is no distinction between the domain of religion and secular space.”
The Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad were widely condemned in the Muslim world and led to violent protests, attacks on embassies and even deaths. Even in recent days, they have continued to stir more protest (in Pakistan) and create security problems (in Afghanistan). They have set off a kind of “clash of civilisations” with a Muslim side denouncing them as blasphemy and a western side defending them as freedom of speech. The whole dispute has been extremely polarising.
The nascent Catholic-Muslim dialogue sparked by the “Common Word” initiative was never going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances. There is a lot of suspicion, misunderstanding and different agendas to deal with. And then there are the surprises that can come seemingly out of nowhere and blow the effort off course, at least temporarily. One of these was the baptism of the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict that popped up by surprise on Saturday evening and highlighted some of the twists along the path of inter-faith dialogue.
Just when relations between the Vatican and Muslims were improving, Pope Benedict has taken a highly symbolic step that could set them back again. On Saturday evening, at the Easter Vigil Mass, he baptised seven people including one of Italy’s best-known Muslims. Magdi Allam, the new convert, is deputy director of the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. The Egyptian-born journalist, who has lived in Italy since his university days, was one of the few Muslims who defended the pope after his controversial Regensburg speech in 2006. Allam’s outspoken articles have already prompted death threats from Islamists and he lives under constant guard. Announcing the surprise move only an hour before it took place, the Vatican stressed the Catholic Church had the right to baptise anyone who wanted to join it and that all were equal in the eyes of God.