Christian Provocateurs and Muslim Moderation

Have you noticed that Europe is issuing new provocations to Islam, and that Muslims are reacting so far with calm? Dutch politician Geert Wilders is promoting a film he says will prove his belief that "Islamic ideology is a retarded, dangerous one." A Danish newspaper republished one of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad last month, after the arrest of a man purported to be plotting to kill the cartoonist. Most troubling was the pope's decision to baptize the Egyptian journalist Magdi Allam in St. Peter's on the night before Easter, thus converting a famously self-hating Muslim into a self-loving Christian in the most high-profile setting possible.

Yet so far the main reaction to the pope was dismay from the 138 Muslim scholars of the new Roman Catholic-Muslim forum for dialogue, who said the "spectacle" of Allam's baptism, "with its choreography, persona and messages, provokes genuine questions about the motives ... and plans of some of the pope's advisers on Islam."

There are deeper signs of moderation, too. In Turkey, the ruling AK Party is supporting theological scholarship intended to modernize—and moderate—traditional Islamic teachings. In Lebanon, Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, once known as the spiritual leader of Hizbullah's suicide bombers, now counsels the faithful to respond to Western "aggressions" through cultural and legal means. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has fired 1,000 of the official Muslim prayer leaders and decreed that the 40,000 who remain must be retrained to make sure they are not stoking radical violence.

The pope previously angered Muslims by quoting a medieval emperor who called Islam "evil and inhuman." The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said Allam's baptism emphasized "in a gentle and clear way religious freedom." Some at the Vatican hinted that Benedict didn't know how angrily Muslim scholars would react to his embrace of Allam, who has made a career writing about Islam as a faith that terrorizes. Yet even Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vatican's representative in Arabia, says local Christians took him aside at Easter services and asked why the baptism "had to be done in such an extraordinary way."

Allam says he hopes his public conversion will help others to speak out, and praised the pope's "message to a church that, up to now, has been too prudent in converting Muslims." The more probable scenario is that Christians in the Muslim world will feel even more vulnerable, while Allam's Muslim-bashing books will climb Europe's best-seller lists. A Muslim explosion would only further boost sales. Unless—and this really would be news—the Muslim world just turns the page.