I grew up in northern Italy, in a Catholic household. For us, as for many Italian families, being Catholic was a matter of tradition rather than of faith. When I was young, I attended catechism in Milan, received my sacraments, and believed in God. But my parents did not teach me to practice a Catholic way of life. They did not practice themselves. They divorced when I was very young. We attended Mass only at Christmas and Easter, according to the Italian tradition.
I went through rollercoaster teenage years. I was rebellious in the way teenagers are, which means conforming to the world—the world being post-Christian Europe. At first disregarding religion, I then began to reject it actively. When I left Milan to attend university in London, my attitude and behavior toward religion remained the same.
My rejection of the faith was due in part to the formation I had received in school. From my teenage years, I liked to study philosophy and literature. Though I studied Christian writers like Dante, the curriculum focused on thinkers who questioned Christianity. I took a course called “Philosophy of Religion,” which was taught by a teacher who displayed a complete contempt for faith in God, to the point that one of my religious friends once exited the classroom crying. At the time, I saw that as an overreaction to a sound argument.
I completed my undergraduate degree in political science at King’s College London and my postgraduate degree in political philosophy at University College London. The modules we studied were from the Enlightenment onward: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and so forth. No ancient or Christian philosophy was taught. We then moved on to study postmodernism, and I was drawn to thinkers like Michel Foucault. Living in London—an alienated and atomized city—inspired in me an aversion to modernity, so that Foucault’s critique of modernity as a system of control over the individual made sense to me. To some degree, I still agree with this critique. But the character of my aversion to modernity was liberal then, and now it is religious.
I finished an intensive journalism training program at the largest news agency in London, and for my first job as a journalist I traveled to North Africa. I went there without prejudices or preconceptions regarding the Islamic faith or Muslim society. I lived for a year in Tunisia, where I worked for five different Arab newspapers. I was able to observe a Muslim society firsthand.
From the start, I resented the conservative aspects of Tunisian society. My first interview was with an ex–Guantanamo Bay detainee who refused to shake my hand because I was a woman. Most Tunisians did not follow this practice, but other restrictions applied. I couldn’t go out at night without a male companion. Once, I was jogging outside alone, and I had to threaten to call the police because a group of young men wouldn’t leave me alone. It was a form of harassment I had never experienced before. These incidents made me want to work with women in the country, to shed light on the oppression and derogatory sexual practices they experienced in their lives—such as humiliating virginity tests. To be considered worthy wives, women had to give evidence of their chastity by showing blood on their sheets to their families after the first night of marriage. I heard stories of women or their spouses cutting themselves or using wine in order to provide this “evidence.” Other stories involved women undergoing hymen reconstructive surgery. Hearing about these episodes made me resent the hypocrisy of certain Islamic practices even more.
I also worked with Tunisia’s Christian minorities. Leaving Islam is not permitted, according to religious scriptures. I spent weeks researching an article that exposed how proselytizing remained illegal in supposedly liberal Tunisia even after the Arab Spring, which was meant to be a revolution to uphold human rights for all, and how apostasy carried the risk of intense social shame, even violence. I spoke to converts from Islam to Christianity, who described their fear of disclosing the fact that they had become Christian. I interviewed religious leaders from both the Christian and the Islamic faiths. Christians needed police protection when they went to Mass on Sundays. I attended Mass in the main cathedral of Tunis—at first, merely for journalistic purposes. But as I did so, I felt a sense of belonging I hadn’t felt before.
I felt that these men and women professing their faith amid persecution were my brothers and sisters. Their hospitality to a stranger like me, and the strength of their faith despite the troubles they faced, made me see myself as one of them, a Christian. I had never defined myself as Christian, but among Christians persecuted abroad I began to see myself in their terms.
I had lengthy conversations with some Tunisian Christians about their conversions, and one story from a former Al-Qaeda sympathizer particularly struck me. He said: “I was full of hate inside of me, but when I started believing in Christianity, I felt a peace of mind I never had before.” The faith I had taken for granted while growing up in a post-Christian culture started to come alive.
By the time I returned to Italy, my home country had become strange to me. I began to understand the words of an Anglican pastor I had interviewed in North Africa: “I prefer living in a Muslim country, despite the persecution we sometimes face, to living in Europe, where religion is derided. At least now I am surrounded by people who also believe in God.” I could understand how Muslims and Christians had more in common with one another than with atheists in the West who had contempt for all faiths.
And I appreciated that I had just experienced a society which, for all its faults, provided a sense of community, companionship, and transcendence that was lacking in Europe. I realized that these qualities had existed not just in the persecuted Christian groups with whom I identified, but in the broader society as well. The Muslim society I thought I despised—and still do, when it comes to the oppression of women and Christians—looked superior to my own when I considered the sense of purpose it provided to its people. I watched some of the friends I had grown up with drink, party, and engage in all kinds of sexual activities without much thought. I saw them in a different light.
In my youth, I had been numbed to the decadence that now was impossible to ignore. I started isolating myself from my peers in order to focus on my work and practice my faith. My old frustration with conventionality was given a proper direction. I realized that there was nothing truly rebellious in conforming to the lifestyle of most of the people around me. I came to see that true nonconformism meant distancing myself from the world of my upbringing.
While living in the Muslim world, I had thought that European society was under threat from the moral traditionalism of Islam. When I returned to Europe, I realized that Islam is a lesser threat to us than we are to ourselves. There is not much left to save in Western society; our task now must be to recover what has been lost. I am grateful to Islam for helping me see this. Though I continue to reject elements of Muslim society, I have come to admire its sense of faith, which brought me back to my own. I still struggle in a society that rejects my beliefs, and in which isolation or compromise often seem the only options. At least now I have a spiritual orientation and a path forward.
Alessandra Bocchi is an Italian freelance journalist.