The title of this post is a quote from Dr. Tawfiq Hamid. Dr. Hamid is a Cairo born physician who eventually became a practitioner of Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi / Salafi Islam, a jihadist, and a member of the terrorist organization Jamaah Islamiyah (JI). JI was an organization led by Ayman al-Zawahiri that later merged with al Qaeda as Zawahiri became Osama bin Laden's executive officer. What follows is Dr. Hamid's autobiographical story. It is a condemnation of Saudi Arabia's brand of Islam being exported across the world today with billions of petrodollars. And it chronicles Dr. Hamid's own belief that the Koran can and should be reinterpreted to promote equality and non-violence. I have mentioned Dr. Hamid several times before as one of those brave men who seeks to evolve his religion at great personal risk. And here is his story:
What occupies the mind of a jihad-driven Muslim? How is such fervor planted in young and impressionable believers? Where does it originate? How did I - once an innocent child who grew up in a liberal, moderate and educated household - find myself a member of a radical Islamic group? These questions go to the root of Islamic violence and must be addressed if free societies are to combat radical Islam. To further this aim, I will explore the psychological development of a jihadi's mind through my own firsthand experience as a former member of a Muslim terrorist organization.
I was born in Cairo to a secular Muslim family. My father was an orthopedic surgeon and an agnostic at heart; my mother was a French teacher and a liberal. Both considered Islam to be, primarily, an integral part of our culture. With the exception of my father, we would fast on Ramadan. Even though my father was not religious, he understood our need to fit into the community and never forced his secular views on us. He espoused diverse philosophical ideas but encouraged us to follow our own convictions. Most importantly, he taught my brother and me to think critically rather than to learn by rote.
I never had any doubt, however, that we were Muslim - that Allah was our creator, Muhammad his messenger and the Koran our book. I believed that if I performed good deeds, I would be admitted to paradise where I could satisfy all my personal desires. I also knew, alternatively, that my transgressions would be punished by eternal torture in hell. I absorbed these beliefs largely from the surrounding environment rather than from my parents; they were shared by most children around me.
. . . When I was nine, I learned the following Koranic verse during one of our Arabic lessons: "But do not think of those that have been slain in God's cause as dead. Nay, they are alive! With their sustainer have they their sustenance. They are very happy with the reward they received from Allah [for dying as a shahid] and they rejoice for the sake of those who have not joined them [i.e., have not yet died for Allah]" (Koran 3:169-70).
It was the first time I was exposed to the concept of shahid (martyr), and naturally, I began to dream of becoming one. The thought of entering paradise very much appealed to me. There I could eat all the lollipops and chocolates I wanted, or play all day without anyone telling me to study.
What made the concept of shahid even more attractive was its power to quell the fear I experienced as a young boy - for we were taught that if we were not good Muslims (especially if we did not pray five times a day), a "bald snake" would attack us in the grave. The idea of dying as a martyr provided a perfect escape from the frightening anguish of eternal punishment. Dying as a shahid, in fact, was the only deed that fully guaranteed paradise after death.
In secondary school I watched films about the early Islamic conquest. These films promoted the notion that "true" Muslims were devoted to aggressive jihad. While jihadi seeds were thereby planted in my mind, they did not yet seriously influence my personality or behavior. . . In my early years of high school, I was also - as many teenagers are - preoccupied with sex and hobbies. A variety of religious and cultural constraints made it virtually impossible to experience sexual activity, however.
During my last year of high school, I began to ponder seriously the concept of God while reading about the molecular structure of DNA in a biology book.
These thoughts prompted me to learn more about Islam and to devote myself to serving Allah. I remember one particularly defining moment in an Arabic language class when I was sitting beside a Christian friend named Nagi Anton. I was reading a book entitled Alshaykhan by Taha Hussein that cited the Prophet Muhammad's words: "I have been ordered by Allah to fight and kill all people [non-Muslims] until they say, 'No God except Allah.'" Following the reading of this Hadith, I decisively turned toward Nagi and said to him, "If we are to apply Islam correctly, we should apply this Hadith to you." At that moment I suddenly started to view Nagi as an enemy rather than as a longtime friend.
What further hardened my attitude on this matter was the advice I received from many dedicated Muslim fellow students, who warned me against befriending Christians. They based their counsel on the following verse: "O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends: They are but friends to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them [for friendship] is of them [an infidel]. Verily Allah guideth not a people unjust" (Koran 5:51).
In view of this verse and the previous one, I felt obliged as a Muslim to limit my relationships with my Christian friends. The love and friendship I once felt for them had been transformed into disrespect, merely because I wished to obey the commandments of my religion. The seductive ideas of my religious studies had diluted the influence of my secular upbringing. By restricting my contact with Christians, I felt that I was doing a great deed to satisfy Allah.
My high test scores enabled me to gain admission to the medical school at Cairo University in the late 1970s. At the time Islamism was proliferating rapidly. This was due in part to the money and textbooks Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi sect donated to promote Salafi Islam, but, more importantly, Islamism gained adherents because Egyptians attributed the growing wealth of Saudi Arabia to its strict practice of Salafism. We enviously lamented, "Look how Allah has blessed the Saudis with money and oil because they apply Shari'a." We believed that our economic problems would be solved if we did the same - just as Allah had blessed the Saudis, He would bless us.
At medical school I met members of Jamaah Islamiyah, an Islamic organization then approved by both the Egyptian government and the university, though later classified as a terrorist organization. Jamaah built a small prayer room in our medical school that later developed into a mosque with an associated library. The mosque was behind the physiology and biochemistry departments, and members of Jamaah came there daily before science classes to lecture us on Islam. They warned us about the punishments awaiting us after death if we did not follow Islam strictly and were effective in advancing Islamism among many of the students, including me.
Our fear of being punished after death was exacerbated by our work in the cadaver room, where we dissected dead bodies. Seeing death regularly during anatomy and physiology courses made us feel that the life of this world was meaningless compared to "real" life after death. Jamaah Islamiyah impressed that idea on us by citing the following Koranic verse: "Those who desire the life of the present and its glitter, to them we shall pay [the price of] their deeds therein, without diminution... [yet] it is they who, in the life to come, shall have nothing but the fire - for in vain shall be all good things that they have done in this [world], and worthless all that they ever did" (Koran 11:15-16). Indeed, the preachers used a range of verses to warn those who did not follow Muhammad and Islam rigorously that they would suffer in hell forever.
. . . The rising power of Jamaah Islamiyah inside the medical school was another critical factor in fostering my religious zealotry and that of my fellow students. Once Jamaah Islamiyah became influential, it prohibited such social events as listening to music, which it deemed un-Islamic. Female students were separated; they were not allowed to sit with males. Students were afraid to defy the group's hostile decrees. Its control reached the point where Christian professors were threatened. I will never forget when they attacked an anatomy professor, Dr. Edward, because he asked Jamaah leaders to end their "mandatory" daily sermon so that he could start his anatomy class. Jamaah Islamiyah's control of our medical school gradually limited our rights. Its members exploited the lack of restrictions on their conduct to deprive everybody else of freedom.
During my first year of medical school, a Jamaah member named Muchtar Muchtar invited me to join the organization. Muchtar was in his fourth year, and Jamaah had given him the title amir (prince or caliph) - a designation taken from early Islamic writings that is associated with the Islamic caliphate or amir almomenin (prince of the believers). I accepted his invitation, and we walked together to Jamaah's mosque for noon prayers. On the way there Muchtar emphasized the central importance in Islam of the concept of al-fikr kufr, the idea that the very act of thinking (fikr) makes one become an infidel (kufr). (In Arabic both words are derived from the same three root letters but have different meanings.) He told me, "Your brain is just like a donkey [a symbol of inferiority in the Arab culture] that can get you only to the palace door of the king [Allah]. To enter the palace once you have reached the door, you should leave the donkey [your inferior mind] outside." By this parable, Muchtar meant that a truly dedicated Muslim no longer thinks but automatically obeys the teachings of Islam.
Initially, I thought that I would experience an ordinary prayer session like those in other mosques. But before the prayers began, the participants were required to stand shoulder to shoulder and foot to foot. The leading cleric, Muhammad Omar, personally checked our arrangement for 15 minutes to make sure that there were no gaps between our shoulders or feet. The reason for this exercise became apparent when Omar recited the following verse: "Truly Allah loves those who fight in His cause in battle array, as if they were a solid cemented structure" (Koran 61:4). This militaristic attitude during prayers was the first step in preparing me for the concept of jihad against "the enemies of Allah," the non-Muslims.
Following the prayers, members of Jamaah welcomed me and introduced me to a "brother" named Magdi al-Mahdi, who advised me to start reading Salafi books. I followed his advice and became immersed in those texts. After a few months of listening to Jamaah's belligerent religious sermons and reading the materials they recommended, my personality was utterly transformed. I started to grow my beard. I stopped smiling and telling jokes. I adopted a serious look at all times and became very judgmental toward others. Bitter debates with my family ensued. My behavioral and intellectual transformation greatly alarmed my father. My mother was also concerned; she said that the Koran should be understood in a more moderate manner and advised me to stop reading Salafi materials.
Salafi teachings expressly forbid acting on sexual desire. They prohibit a man from touching any woman or even looking at one. Speaking to a woman on a personal level is not permitted. To be alone with a woman without relatives present, it is believed, would "invite Satan to be the third person." Women became for members of Jamaah, therefore, forbidden creatures. But while relations with women were strictly proscribed, the erotic passages in Salafi writings simultaneously aroused in us a powerful sexual desire. This dilemma led us to conclude that dying for Allah provided our only hope for satisfying our lust, because that lust could be satisfied only in paradise. It is not surprising that Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders sent letters to their suicide murderers that described to them the hur, or white ladies awaiting them in paradise.
In addition to its severe prohibitions governing sexual conduct, Salafi Islam also strictly limits most artistic expression, which it considers to be satanic. Music involving string instruments is haram (forbidden). Songs, especially romantic ones, are prohibited as well. It is haram to listen to a woman's singing voice. Even drawing is restricted. Such harsh prohibitions suppressed my ability to appreciate beauty and prepared my mind to accept the inhuman elements in Salafi doctrine. By way of contrast, it is interesting to note that Sufi Muslims enjoy music, singing and dancing, and they rarely, if ever, engage in terrorism.
Unfortunately, I followed Salafi Islam. My hatred toward non-Muslims increased dramatically, and jihadi doctrine became second nature to me. My goal of being a physician and healing the sick grew tainted, infected by my strong wish to subjugate non-Muslims and impose Shari'a.
At one afternoon prayer session, an imam I had never met before gave a sermon. He was one of the fiercest speakers I had ever heard. His passion for jihad was astonishing. He advocated complete Islamic dominance, urging us to pursue jihad against non-Muslims and subdue them to Shari'a - the duty of every true Muslim. His rhetoric inspired us to engage in war against the infidels, the enemies of Allah. He particularly condemned the West for the freedom of its women. He hated the fact that Western women were permitted to wear what they pleased, to work and to have the same opportunities as men.
He dreamt of forcing the West to conform to a Taliban-style system in which women were obliged to wear the Islamic hijab, were legally beaten by men to discipline them and were stoned to death for extramarital sex. After the imam's speech my friend, Tariq Abdul-Muhsin, asked me if I knew this speaker. When I said I did not, Tariq told me that he was Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri and, because I was a new member of Jamaah, offered to introduce us.
Zawahiri was exceptionally bright, one of the top postgraduate students in the medical school. We called him by his title and first name - Dr. Ayman.
He came from a well-known, highly-educated and wealthy family. As was customary for Jamaah members, he wore a beard and dressed occasionally in the Pakistani style of the Taliban. He disapproved of Egypt's secular government; he wanted Egypt to follow Shari'a law and Coptic Christians to be made dhimmis - second-class citizens submissive to Islam. To disparage secular Arab governments, he cited the following verse: "For they who do not judge in accordance with what God has bestowed from on high are, indeed, infidels" (Koran 5:44).
When I met him, Zawahiri welcomed me affectionately. He spoke quietly, gazing intently at me through his thick glasses. With a serious expression he placed his hand on my shoulder and said, "Young Muslims like you are the hope for the future return of khilafa [caliphate or Islamic global dominance]." I felt a great sense of gratitude and honor. I wanted to please him by contributing to his "noble" cause. Throughout my membership in Jamaah, I would meet with Zawahiri on six more occasions. He did not have much time to spare, however, for he was deeply involved in several Islamist organizations.
One of Zawahiri's significant achievements was to personalize jihad - that is, to have transformed it from a responsibility of the umma, the Islamic collective, to a duty of Muslim individuals. His goal is to spread the empire of Islam through the actions of individual radical Muslims, each of whom is incited to wage a personal jihad. This allows young Muslims to carry out suicide bombings without the endorsement of the collective body.
Zawahiri and his fellow jihadis base their philosophy on the verse that states, "Then fight in Allah's cause - you are held responsible only for yourself - and rouse the believers [to fight]" (Koran 4:84).
Within several months I was invited to travel to Afghanistan to join other young Muslims in training for jihad. It was fairly common to be recruited after the end of Friday prayers. Volunteering to train in Afghanistan was very simple: I only needed to register my name in certain mosques, and organizers would carry out all the logistical and financial arrangements. I was excited to go because I believed that I would be fulfilling "the command of Allah" to wage jihad. It seemed the easiest way to guarantee my salvation in the afterlife and to attain my purpose in life.
We viewed both the Soviets and the Americans as enemies. The Soviets were considered infidels because they did not believe in the existence of God, while the Americans did not follow Islam. Although we planned to fight the Soviets first, our ultimate objective was to destroy the United States - the greatest symbol of the infidel's freedom. My personal dream was to be an Islamic warrior, to kill the enemies of Islam, to smite their necks in accordance with the Koranic verse that read, "When ye meet the unbelievers smite at their necks" (Koran 47:4).
We considered the Prophet Muhammad to be our role model. The Koran commanded us to follow in his footsteps: "Ye have indeed in the messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern [of conduct] for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the final day, and who engages much in the praise of Allah" (Koran 33:21).
Salafi Islamic texts demonstrate Muhammad's uncompromising nature. They encourage devout Muslims to emulate the prophet's deeds and to accept and defend his actions in even the harshest passages. When confronted by outsiders, however, these same Muslims insist that such stories are misinterpreted because they are taken out of context - though they rarely, if ever, provide the context. This self-protective denial effectively paralyzes further criticism by the West. Meanwhile, these texts are taught and understood in a very literal way by both the young members of Jamaah and many other Muslims.
I was not allowed to question any established teaching of Salafi ideology. The Salafists consider any criticism of Islamic texts as redda (apostasy) punishable by death and eternal damnation. Out of simple fear, then, I attempted to idolize Muhammad and to emulate him as he is portrayed in the Sunna. The fear of such harsh punishment deters most other Muslims from criticizing Salafi teaching as well.
I increasingly felt at ease with death because I believed that I would either defeat the infidels on earth or enjoy paradise in the afterlife.
Jihad against non-Muslims seemed to me to be a win-win situation. The following verse, commonly cited by Jamaah members, validated my duty to die for Allah: "Allah has purchased the believers, their lives and their goods. For them [in return] is the garden [of paradise]. They fight in Allah's cause, and they slay and are slain; they kill and are killed... it [paradise] is the promise of Allah to them" (Koran 9:111).
I passed through three psychological stages to reach this level of comfort with death: hatred of non-Muslims or dissenting Muslims, suppression of my conscience and acceptance of violence in the service of Allah. Salafi religious indoctrination played a major role in this process. Salafists promoted our hatred for non-Muslims by emphasizing the Koranic verse that read, "Thou wilt not find any people who believe in Allah and the last day loving those who resist [i.e. do not follow] Allah and His messenger" (Koran 58:22).
Salafi writings also helped me to suppress my conscience by holding that many activities I had considered to be immoral were, instead, halal - that is, allowed by Allah and the prophet. My conscience would normally reject polygamy, for example, because of the severe psychological pain it would cause my future wife. Salafi teaching encourages polygamy, however, permitting up to four wives as halal: "Marry women of your choice, two or three or four" (Koran 4:3). I accepted such ideas - ideas that contradicted my moral outlook - because I came to believe that we cannot negotiate with God about his commandments: "He cannot be questioned for His acts, but they will be questioned [for theirs]" (Koran 21:23).
Once I was able to suppress my conscience, I was open to accepting violence without guilt - the third psychological stage. One Salafi method of generating this crucial attitude is to encourage violence against women, a first step in developing a brutal mentality. Salafists emphasize the following text: "Men are superior to women because Allah has given them more preference than to women, and because they financially support them. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part you fear that they do not obey you, admonish them, avoid making sex with them [as a form of punishment], and beat them; but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means [of annoyance]: For Allah is most high, great [above you all]" (Koran 4:34).
A mind that accepts violence against women is much more likely to be comfortable murdering hated infidels and responding to the verse that reads: "O prophet, strive hard [fight] against the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and be harsh with them. Their abode is hell, an evil refuge indeed" (Koran 9:73). It is clear that the three psychological stages in Salafism that I have described are deeply interconnected.
. . . It is unfortunate and disastrous that the theological underpinnings of Salafism are both powerful and prevalent in the approved, traditional Islamic books. These texts teach, moreover, that the Koran's later, more violent passages abrogate its earlier, peaceful ones. This concept, called nasikh wa-l-mansukh, has effectively diminished the influence of the peaceful verses.
When I discussed the implications of the violent passages with a few Sufi clergy, they suggested that one "should be good and peaceful to all mankind" and that "the understanding of the violent verses will be clarified on the day of judgment." These views were not based on rigorous Islamic eschatology, however, or on an objective analysis of the religious books.
They merely embodied a desired perception of Islam. My secular parents offered the same tolerant perspective, insisting that Islam is a religion of peace. But for me both responses were unsatisfactory because they suffered from the same problem - they were not theologically grounded. My difficulty was not resolved, and I continued to live with a complex dilemma.
My crisis of conscience was mostly internal, but I did share some of my doubts with my mother. On one occasion a fellow medical student named Abdul Latif Haseeb started a conversation with me about religion. We discussed whether it was right to kill apostates or stone women to death, as well as whether Muhammad could be considered a pedophile because he married the seven-year-old Aisha. We weighed the merits of declaring war on non-Muslims to spread Islam and agreed that it should be rejected because it is condoned only by supplemental Salafi books rather than by the Koran itself.
Haseeb belonged to a sect known as Koranist, which strictly adhered to the teachings of the Koran but rejected other writings. This opened my eyes. I was impressed that my new friend disagreed with many Salafi teachings. I also realized that Haseeb was not alone in his beliefs; his father and several mutual acquaintances shared the same ideas. They relied on new interpretations of the Koran and spurned the traditional Salafi textbooks.
They accepted and tolerated different views within Islam and, in most circumstances, had a peaceful analysis of the verses.
Haseeb invited me to join the sect, and I accepted his invitation in order to examine the Koranists' ideas more thoroughly. Though not without problems, the sect possessed at least some rigor and was more moderate than Salafism. It provided me with a protected sanctuary that allowed me to keep my identity as a Muslim while giving me the flexibility to reinterpret Koranic verses in a nonviolent way. The group counted among its members the liberal peace activist Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, whom I met on one occasion.
Mahmoud was later murdered in Sudan by exponents of Salafi doctrine for the crime of "apostasy" because his teaching clashed with theirs. I eventually built on the Koranists' ideas in developing a fresh understanding of the Koran that is compatible with the values of human rights and modernity.
By immersing myself in Salafi ideology, I was better able to judge the impact of its violent tenets on the minds of its followers. Among the more appalling notions it supports are the enslavement and rape of female war prisoners and the beating of women to discipline them. It permits polygamy and pedophilia. It refers to Jews as "pigs and monkeys" and exhorts believers to kill them before the end of days: Say: "Shall I tell you who, in the sight of God, deserves a yet worse retribution than these? Those [the Jews] whom God has rejected and whom He has condemned, and whom He has turned into monkeys and pigs because they worshiped the powers of evil: these are yet worse in station, and farther astray from the right path [than the mockers]" (Koran 5:60). Homosexuals are to be killed as well; to cite one of many examples, on July 19, 2000, two gay teenagers were hanged in Iran for no other crime than being gay.
These doctrines are not taken out of context, as many apologists for Islamism argue: They are central to the faith and ethics of millions of Muslims, and are currently being taught as part of the standard curriculum in many Islamic educational systems in the Middle East as well in the West.
Moreover, there is no single approved Islamic textbook that contradicts or provides an alternative to the passages I have cited. It has thus become clear to me that Salafi ideology is what is largely responsible for the so-called "clash of civilizations." Consequently, I have chosen to combat Salafism by exposing it and by providing an alternative, peaceful and theologically rigorous interpretation of the Koran.
My reformist approach naturally challenges well-established Salafi tenets, and leads Muslims who follow Salafi Islam to reject me. Why? I have not altered the Koran itself. My system is simply one of inline commentary, in which dangerous passages are flagged and reinterpreted to be nonviolent. I have added these inline interpretations to key Koranic passages and examples of the commentary are freely and easily available.
For over 15 years I have tried to preach my views in mosques in the Middle East, as well as to my local community in the West, but have faced the unwavering hostility of most Salafi Muslims in both regions. Muslims who live in the West - who insist to outsiders that Islam is a "religion of peace" and who enjoy freedom of expression, which they demand from their Western hosts - have threatened me with murder and arson. I have had to choose between accepting violent Salafi views and being rejected by the overwhelming majority of my fellow Muslims.
Even though radical Islam began to reassert itself in the 1970s, it did not become widely pervasive until quite recently. In the early 1990s many people were intrigued by my ideas, and only a few militants threatened me with violence. One day, after I gave a peaceful Friday sermon, I walked home with a friend. To my surprise, several men ran up and threw stones at us from behind to intimidate me from returning and speaking in their mosques. As time has passed, this violent and threatening behavior has become more common: Dr. Wafa Sultan in the US, Abdul Fatah in Egypt and many others have received and continue to receive death threats. Recently, Dr. Nawal al-Sadawi, a liberal Muslim thinker and women's rights activist, was forced to flee Egypt because of her public statements. Dr. Rashad Khalifa was murdered in the United States after he published his own reinterpretation of the Koran which was less violent than was traditional.
In Egypt, Dr. Faraq Fuddah was shot to death after publishing condemnations of Jihadists. Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Najib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck for writing his novel, Awlad Haretna, perceived by Salafists as blasphemous. The list goes on. Still, the majority of members in many Muslim communities have adopted the violent teachings of the Islamists.
Salafi indoctrination operates through written words and careful coaching. It is enormously seductive. It rapidly changed me into a jihadi. Salafi sacred texts exert a powerful influence on millions of Muslim followers throughout the world, and terrorism is only one symptom of the Salafi disease. Salafi doctrine, which is at the root of the West's confrontation with Islamism, poses an existential threat to us all - including Muslims.
Indeed, Salafism robs young Muslims of their soul, it turns Western communities against them, and it can end in civil war as Muslims attempt to implement shari'a in their host countries. A peaceful interpretation of Islam is possible, but the Salafi establishment is currently blocking moderate theological reform. The civilized world ought to recognize the immense danger that Salafi Islam poses; it must become informed, courageous and united if it is to protect both a generation of young Muslims and the rest of humanity from the disastrous consequences of this militant ideology.
Read the article.