The Pope and Bin Laden
Mona Eltahawy

NEW YORK -- Is the Pope playing hardball with Osama Bin Laden?
In a March 19 audio recording, Bin Laden accused Pope Benedict XVI of leading a “new crusade” against Islam. The accusation was outlandish and no doubt aimed at giving the al-Qaeda leader a leg up onto the bandwagon of current affairs upsetting some Muslims, including a Danish cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed and an anti-Islam film by a right-wing Dutch politician.

Three days later, Benedict seemed to oblige Bin Laden by baptizing a prominent Egyptian-born Italian Muslim in a Vatican Easter service beamed live to millions across the world.

When extremists from all sides are scrambling for air time, determined to jumpstart that ‘clash of civilizations’ they alone would benefit from, surely the Pope would’ve been well advised to avoid playing into Bin Laden’s game?

By focusing so much publicity on Magdi Allam’s conversion, the Pope appeared to be engaging in a petty one-upmanship unbefitting the religious leader of 1.1 billion Catholics across the world.

It was especially frustrating because on March 15, the first Catholic church opened in the Gulf Emirate of Qatar, and a Vatican official confirmed it was in talks with Saudi Arabia to build the first church in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the region that bars non-Muslim houses of worship.

This last has been especially galling, considering the hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers from many faiths who keep Saudi Arabia running. It makes it easy to deflate the double standards of Saudi officials who condemn Denmark or the Netherlands for cartoons or a film, reminding them that Muslims in both those countries can publicly proclaim their faith in ways that non-Muslims in the Saudi kingdom can only dream.

But what is achieved by Pope Benedict’s public gloating over a conversion? I am just as incensed when I hear Muslim leaders boast that Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion. So what? How sad that faith has become a hollow competition of “my numbers versus yours.”

Let me be clear — everyone has the right to convert to any religion they want. Magdi Allam was clearly unhappy with Islam, which he attacked frequently in his writing. I want to be even clearer in my condemnation of any death threats that he or any other convert receives should they decide to leave Islam. We are taught as Muslims that there is no compulsion in faith and our clerics should make that clear.

But those of us who call for freedom of worship and who condemn threats of violence against those who choose another religion are certainly not helped when the leaders of those other religions seem to exploit a conversion to score points.

The Vatican seemed to want to have it both ways, holding up Allam as some kind of victory for Catholicism while at the same time claiming it was a private matter of faith.

I hope Allam finds peace in his new faith, but I agree with Rev. Christophe Roucou, the French Catholic Church’s top official for relations with Islam, who told Reuters News Agency “I don’t understand why he (Allam) wasn’t baptized in his hometown by his local bishop.”

This pope seems to relish unnecessary run-ins with Islam. In a lecture he gave in 2006 in his native Germany, Benedict quoted a medieval text that described Islam as violent and irrational. It was rich coming from the leader of a church with its own bloody history, but it certainly didn’t help that some Muslims staged angry demonstrations that lived up to that offensive description.

Benedict sought to make amends when he soon after visited Turkey’s Blue Mosque and prayed towards Mecca with its imam and he is due to meet with Muslim representatives later this year. Muslim scholars and leaders wrote to the pope and other Christian leaders after the fallout over Benedict’s speech, urging dialogue between the two faiths for the sake of the “survival of the world.”

I long ago gave up waiting for clerics of any kind to save the world but I’d much rather they sit and talk to each other than boast over who’s joined their team.

Christian leaders are having a hard time with Islam. Earlier this year, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams ignited his own firestorm when he said that applying some form of Sharia, or Islamic law, in Britain was “unavoidable.” Along with many other Muslim feminists, I found his words to be a dangerous form of political correctness run amok.

There are obviously difficult and necessary conversations that must take place between Muslim and Christian leaders. But the pope as juggernaut or the archbishop as cultural relativist must not be the only options. Extremists like Bin Laden and Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician behind the anti-Islam film, are happy to exploit the spaces in between.

If Benedict wants to play a numbers game there is another equation he should keep in mind. Wilders and Bin Laden appeal to minorities at opposite ends of a spectrum of hate. As the head of a much bigger flock, Benedict should wield his responsibility with more wisdom.
Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.
Copyright ©2008 Mona Eltahawy