Aref Ali Nayed holds an official post, that of director of the Royal Institute of Strategic Studies of Islam in Amman, but in recent months he has been the spokesman for some 200 Muslim scholars who have initiated a dialogue with the Christian community, having signed the manifesto "A Common Word", in which they seek to highlight common values.
At the start of this year he was in the Vatican and he plans to return there in the next six months to meet with Pope Benedict XVI. Nonetheless, he still rails against the pope for having "provoked" Muslims by baptizing at Easter the Egyptian journalist Magdi Allam, a well-known critic of Islam.
Question. Do you think the Pope should not have baptized the Egyptian journalist Magdi Allam last week? Is that, in your opinion, a kind of provocation?
Answer. There is no problem in Allam being baptized; he seems to have been a tacit Catholic all his life as a result of his Catholic schooling, and it is his decision before God. There is no problem in the Pope baptizing because that is part of what Pope's do. There is, however, a problem with the Pope personally and spectacularly baptizing an infamous anti-Islam journalist who, on the very same day, revives the anti-Islam discourse of Regensburg.
Q. Do you think the Pope was badly advised?
A. Yes, indeed. Many moderate and sincere Muslims and Catholics have worked very hard to mend the massive damage caused by the Pope's Regensburg Lecture [September 2006]. Just recently we have been able to achieve, together, the establishment of a permanent Catholic-Muslim Forum. Our ailing world, suffering from an abundance of conflicts, did not need another provocation.
Q. How is the Moslem world reacting to that?
A. There are scholars who feel that the whole case should just be ignored. There has been an annoying recent tendency to try to repeatedly provoke Muslims. When we give these provocations attention we are satisfying the provocateurs. There are others who blame us for pursing Catholic-Muslim dialogue because they think that the present Vatican attitude is not conducive to dialogue. There are others, and I am amongst them, who feel that we must continue dialogue no matter how provoked we are. Dialogue is a religious duty that must be pursued for the sake of all humanity and of world peace.
Q. Are there some resemblances between the Easter baptism and the allocution of Regensburg?
A. Yes, the triumphalist chorography, and the contents of Allam's baptism article in the Corriere della sera are identical with the content and spirit of the Regensburg Lecture. That is the main problem with the whole episode.
Q. From time to time we also see leading Christian intellectuals converting to Islam. Could Christians also become angry?
A. I think that if a Muslim authority picked out a converting vehemently anti-Christian author and exhibited him on television in a major ceremony, and published a hateful anti-Christian article by him, many Christians would indeed be angry. People are converting both ways all the time. The issue was not the conversion, but rather the way it was instrumentalized by the Vatican.
Q. Do you think the conversion of Magdi Allam is special because he is a fierce critic of radical Islam and a defender of Israel? Was Allam influenced by catholic schools he attended as a child?
A. No, it was special because of his hateful anti-Islam discourses. The problem is not his anti-radicalism; Most of our scholars are also anti-radicalism. The problem is that he is vehemently and hatefully anti-Islam. Allam says that he took communion as a child. He seems to have been Christianized at school at an early age.
Q. Mustapha Krim, the president of the Protestant Church of Algeria, reported yesterday that 13 temples have been close mainly in Kabylia by the Algerian authorities. The apostolic nuncio in the Gulf, archbishop Mounged El-Hachem, has not reached until now an agreement with Saudi Arabia in order to be allowed to open churches in this country. Could the Christians aspire to reciprocity?
A. Reciprocity is an important diplomatic notion. However, the ethics and conduct of followers of heavenly religions should be based on the unhesitating praxis of pure compassion, without regard to how others treat them. Only Algerian can address the Algerian cases. They best know their country, its circumstances, and its history. I am sure that the dark and bloody pages of the alliance between Colonialism and Catholicism in Algeria have a lot to do with Algerian attitudes. As for Saudi Arabia, the Vatican is now engaged with the Royal House itself, and such issues can be discussed between them. It is often forgotten, however, that the Vatican never granted mosques when it was in power, and is unlikely to grant a mosque in Vatican City. As a matter of fact it always resisted mosque building until the Italian secular state granted such rights in very recent times. When invoking 'reciprocity' one must not self-righteously claim the good deeds granted by others as deeds of one's own.
Q. We have seen last week Osama Bin Laden attacking king Abdallah because he travelled to the Vatican last year to meet the Pope. Are radical Moslems obstructing religious freedom in the Arab world? Are they preventing Governments from making concessions to Christian religions?
A. I do not think that radicals determine what Muslim governments do. However, the multiple attacks on Muslim countries and peoples are often cited in critiques of any positive moves towards the West by any Muslim government. I am sure that the ending of wars and and the bringing about of peace can help improve Muslim-Christian relations on all fronts.
Q.Do you consider the cartoons of the Prophet an expression of (large) widespread and popular anti-Islamic feeling in Europe and in the West?
A. I would not say 'a large popular feeling', but a loud minority element in the complex composition of the West. Europe has always had a minority of demonic and dark forces. Such forces focused their hate on our Jewish brothers and sisters in the past, with horrific and tragic results. These forces are now focusing their hatful vehemence on Islam and Muslims. I pray that Europe will have the wisdom to see that such forces for what they are. Such forces can change the object of their hate, but are still essentially the same forces that lead to the darkest chapter in Europe's history. We must not let these forces hide behind appeals to freedom of expression, a freedom that we all uphold.
Q. Are you nevertheless continuing the dialogue with Christians? Are you going to hold a formal meeting in November in Rome? Would it be now more difficult?
A. Our dialogue with the People of the Book (Christian and Jewish) is a theological and spiritual imperative. The Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) asks us to connect even with those who cut us off, to give to even those who deprive us, and to forgive even those who are unjust towards us. We will continue dialogue no matter what. Furthermore, our dialogue is not limited to Catholics. We are in very productive dialogue with Evangelicals, Anglicans, Orthodox and a host of other denominations. As for the November meeting, I do pray that it will still go forward. We need to be engaged in order to resolve crises. It would help, however, if we all refrain from creating further ones.