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On the world stage, and under the auspices of Pope Benedict, Magdi Allam, a staunch Egyptian critic of radical Islam, became a member of the Roman Catholic faith. The significance and symbolism of this conversion cannot be understated, particularly in the current climate of Islamic-Catholic affairs. By embracing Roman Catholicism and rejecting Islam, Mr. Allam breached one of the most fundamental dogmas of traditional Islam by committing the "crime" of apostasy. At the same time Allam has made an empowering statement in support of the freedom of religion and universal human rights. While the implications have not been fully realized yet, the event will have clear personal implications for Mr Allam, and wider impacts on the state of Islamic-Roman Catholic Church Affairs. Nevertheless, the event presents both challenges and opportunities for Muslims and non-Muslims when confronting the aspects of Islam rarely discussed in the West.
At the basis of the ensuing controversy behind Mr. Allam's conversion is the judgment of traditional Islamic law. All of the major jurisprudential schools of traditional Islam criminalise apostasy, and all are in general accord that the punishment of death is mandated for the male, born to Muslim parents, who takes up another faith. While there have been alternative approaches articulated by some Islamic scholars and so-called moderates and reformers, the law is well settled. As such, Allam's conversion makes him a target for traditionalists and Islamists. In trying to grasp the situation, some commentators have begun to draw parallels between Mr. Allam and the author Salman Rushdie, born into Shi'a Islam, and accused of blasphemy and apostasy by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Rushdie has been the subject of several fatwa (Islamic legal judgments) calling for his execution, from both Sunni and Shi'a scholars, which have resulted in a number of attempts on his life.
While there are some clear parallels between Mr. Allam and Mr. Rusdhie, these comparisons are not entirely congruent. While Rushdie is considered an apostate by many Muslims and Muslim governments, he has not made a formal and public declaration of his apostasy like Mr. Allam. Through his works, including Viva Israele!, and his unabated criticism of radical Islam, Mr. Allam had already been tarred by Islamists with the brush of "intellectual apostasy." Moreover, Mr. Allam's conversion is likely to be treated with greater invective among Muslims because of its public nature and linkages to the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict. While the emerging Islamist reactions towards Mr. Allam have, thus far, been muted (some Islamists have argued that Mr. Allam has never been a practising Muslim), when one considers the invective focused on the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the event, it is clear that the threat to Mr. Allam is real.
In the wider context, Mr. Allam's conversion will to serve as flash point in the current context of deteriorating Islamic-Roman Catholic Church relations. In traditionalist and Islamist circles, Pope Benedict and the Catholic Church will be viewed as the primary enabler of Mr. Allam's defection, which will only contribute to the Muslim world's warped sensibilities about the Pope and the role of the Church. Still, this event provides further opportunity for the Holy See to assert the principle of "reciprocity" as a governing principle for ongoing Muslim-Church relations. This event could be interpreted as evidence of a paradigmatic shift in the framework of "inter-faith dialogue," which has traditionally focused on "polite" discussion and the common aspects of the Abrahamic faiths, towards an uncomfortable, but necessary, discussion on the core tenets of religion – that of Islam in particular.
In any case, the Allam conversion, and the controversy that ensues, will present both challenges and opportunities for ongoing Muslim/non-Muslim relations. For one, it provides another test of Islam's commitment to universal human rights, and, to a great degree, the faith's compatibility with "Western" values. For Western Muslims in particular, however, the Allam conversion affords an opportunity to demonstrate respect for freedom of religion, as it is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This will demand the express refutation and rejection of the Islamic traditionalist approach to the issue. Opportunities for Western Muslims arose in the context of the Pope's remarks on Islam and the publication of the Danish cartoons, but these opportunities were wasted. It falls now to genuine moderate Muslims and reformers to play a key role in this regard, as the divide perceived to separate Islam from the West has only widened.
The event also provides further impetus for a fundamental shift in policy thinking in the West, in terms of dealing with Islamic issues. Far too often, policy makers have been guided by concessionary thinking towards the Muslim world, without demanding corresponding reciprocity as a precursor for the "constructive dialogue" and inter-faith dialogue. There is a real opportunity to meaningfully link discussions with the Muslim world to meaningful compliance with universal human rights. Notably, Italy and the Vatican, which previously played a key role in providing state protection to Afghani "apostate" Abdul Rahman, now find themselves in a unique position to lead some of this thinking and set an example.
Because they occupy a unique position between the West and the traditional Muslim world, Moderate Muslims and reformers will offer a key contribution to the challenges and opportunities presented by Mr. Allam's conversion and the ensuing events. These Muslims have the responsibility, and are able, to help shift the balance of thinking away from the cultural relativist analytical framework that afflicts the Muslim and non-Muslim world to one that demands compliance with universal human rights. It is their contention, in the end, that this shift in thinking will profit both parties.
Thomas Haidon is a Muslim commentator on human rights, counter-terrorism, Islamic jurisprudence, and Islamic reform. He has provided guidance to governments on counter-terrorism issues and his works have been published in legal periodicals and other media. Mr. Haidon has also worked with United Nations agencies in Sudan and Indonesia. He is a contributor to Islamist Watch.