Tawfik Hamid in the Jerusalem Post (thanks to all who sent this in) reveals how he became a jihadist, and his trajectory follows exactly what I have explained here many times: as he grows more devout, and studies the Qur’an and Muhammad’s example, he tends more and more toward jihadist views and hatred of non-Muslims. That’s why it’s so critical for Muslims who claim to reject all this to do a searching reevaluation and reinterpretation of core texts of Islam, as Hamid is doing. But the likelihood of this on a large scale is virtually nil.
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.
I attended the private Al-Rahebat primary school in the area of Dumiat, which is about 200 kilometers north of Cairo, when I was six years old. Though managed by Christian nuns, the school was supervised by the Egyptian government and required its Muslim students to attend classes on Islam.
Before each Islamic lesson began, the teacher would dismiss the Christian students, who were then obliged to linger outside the room until the lesson was over. Adding salt to the Christian children’s wounds, many Muslim pupils would tease them for their faith – telling them that they would burn in hell eternally because they ate pork and were “infidels.” This made a strong impression on me. I felt sorry for the Christians, sensing that they must be hurt by being treated as an inferior minority in an Islamic society. In my short life it was the first time I perceived that my Christian friends were not my equals. My parents had never suggested that we were superior to Christians, and I counted many among my friends. We used to play hide-and-seek and other games together.
Not only Christian children in the school were persecuted, however; non-practicing Muslims were scorned as well. Observant Muslim children would gather around those who did not fast during Ramadan and sing, “You who eat or drink during Ramadan are the losers of our religious… the black dog will tear apart your guts.” Such treatment of Christians and nonpracticing Muslims encouraged us to think that nonbelievers were inferior creatures and that it was right to hate them – they did not follow Islam and the Prophet Muhammad and, therefore, deserved to be tortured in hell forever. Though my secular upbringing prevented these thoughts from entirely dominating my mind at the time, other children were affected even more.
Beginning of a Dream
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. I was mostly occupied with schoolwork and such hobbies as sports, stamp collecting, chess and music. My father actively encouraged my brother and me to participate in ordinary activities. In fact, we were members of an exclusive private club where we pursued our hobbies and favorite sports. 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.
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.
I have chosen the latter….
Read it all.