At Easter Vigil Mass this weekend, Pope Benedict baptized Egyptian-born Italian journalist, Magdi Allam, now a former Muslim. The conversion was an attention-grabber for obvious reasons. National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez took the news as an excuse for a quick check-in with George Weigel, biographer of the previous pope, and author, most recently, of Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s the most important message about the war we’re in coming out of Magdi Allam’s conversion from Islam to Catholicism?
George Weigel: The war against jihadism is, among many other things, a war in defense of religious freedom, the first of human rights. That war is, at bottom, a war of ideas — of different ideas about the human person and different ideas of human obligation. Magdi Allam has courageously defended the religious freedom of all while sharply criticizing those currents of thought in Islam which would deny the right of religious conversion to Muslims. Now he fights the war of ideas from a different foxhole, so to speak.
Lopez: Who, among Muslims, should be held up as to encourage those who want to fight jihadism?
Weigel: The kind of Muslims who will be our most effective allies in the war against jihadism are those Muslims who want to make an Islamic case for tolerance, civility, and pluralism. The temptation to think that the answer to the problem of jihadism is the conversion of 1.2 billion Muslims to Western liberal secularism ought to be stoutly resisted as the ivy-league fantasy it is. The question is whether, and how, Islam can effect what Christian theology would call a “development of doctrine” on issues like religious freedom and the separation of religious and political authority in a just state. A lot of 21st-century history is riding on the answer to that question.
Lopez: Should we be worried about riots in the streets of Rome given his prominent baptism by the pope?
Weigel: During a recent work period in Rome I was regularly reminded that the normal patterns of Roman street life could well be classified as riotous, at least by other cultural standards.
Seriously, though, I would hope that the Italian authorities would take firm steps to ensure that a man’s act of conscience in a religious matter, freely undertaken, should not become the occasion for civil disturbances.
Lopez: Is Islam the enemy? Or just Osama bin Laden’s version of Islam?
Weigel: Bin Laden’s Islam is the enemy of those Muslims who do not share bin Laden’s conception of what Islam requires, as well as the enemy of the rest of us.
Lopez: Has Pope Benedict been an important voice in this war? Is he being listened to?
Weigel: I think Benedict’s Regensburg lecture of September 2006 was the most important papal statement on a public question of global consequence since John Paul II’s 1995 U.N. address in defense of the universality of human rights. As I put it in my small book, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism, the Regensburg Lecture identified the linked problems at the center of a lot of turbulence in world politics today: the detachment of faith from reason (as in jihadism) and the loss of faith in reason (as in much of western Europe and too much of American high culture). The former leads to the notion that God can and does command the irrational, such as the killing of innocents; the latter leaves the West intellectually disarmed in the face of the jihadist challenge. At Regensburg, the pope also gave a pluralistic world a vocabulary with which to deal with these grave problems: the vocabulary of rationality and irrationality. Whether these issues are understand in the world’s chancelleries and foreign ministries in the terms in which the Holy Father understands them is another question altogether.
Lopez: Is there a message about the war you expect he’ll be bringing with him to the U.S. next month?
Weigel: I wouldn’t be surprised if the pope spoke at the U.N. about the natural moral law — the moral truths we can know by reason — as a kind of global “grammar” by which the world can rationally discuss the world’s future. And that has everything to do with the war against jihadism.
Lopez: Do we deserve to win if we wind up electing Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama president?
Weigel: Whether we deserve to win or not, we’re much less likely to win with a president who manifestly does not understand the nature of the enemy or the multifront struggle in which we are necessarily engaged. A return to the Nineties — to foreign-policy-as-therapy — is not going to see us, or the Magdi Allams of this world, through to a future safe for the exercise of religious freedom.