The release last week of Osama bin Laden’s latest rant — which featured fulminations over cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammed and charges that Pope Benedict XVI is leading a “new crusade” against Islam — sparked a fresh round of head-scratching worldwide.
So why does Benedict infuriate bin Laden?
A glimpse of an answer came Saturday, during the Easter vigil Mass that Benedict celebrated in Rome. Among seven converts to the Catholic faith whom he baptized was a former Muslim named Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born Italian journalist known for his outspoken criticism of Islamist extremism.
Allam has been a leading voice of moderate Islam, a staunch supporter of Israel and a fierce critic of Islamist jihadists who murder in the name of God. Death threats have forced Allam to travel with armed guards, and he expects that his Christian conversion will lead to more calls for his head. But Allam says the risk is worthwhile, and he cites Benedict’s message about the compatibility of faith and reason as an inspiration for his conversion.
Predictably, Benedict’s decision to personally and publicly baptize Allam was blasted by several Muslim leaders. The Vatican newspaper responded by describing the baptism as Benedict’s attempt to affirm “in a gentle and clear way, religious freedom.”
The message was clear, indeed. The baptism signaled Benedict’s belief that religious tolerance must be a two-way street. As he proclaimed in his Regensburg speech, authentic interfaith dialogue, like authentic religious conversion, can happen only when violence is rejected as a means of persuasion and reason is embraced as a means of finding common ground.
Like Pope John Paul II, whose persistent reminders of the link between faith and freedom emboldened grassroots resistance to communism and enraged communist leaders, Pope Benedict has infuriated the global bullies of his day. To Islamist extremists who murder innocents in the name of their irrational and bloodthirsty god, Benedict’s message about the compatibility of faith and reason undermines their efforts in a way no military campaign or secular leader could.
No wonder bin Laden is worried.