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Turmoil In The Land Of The Pharaohs: An Interview With Former Egyptian Radical Dr. Tawfik Hamid

Dr. Tawfik Hamid

Dr. Tawfik Hamid

Egypt’s future remains in flux. On Sunday, Mohammed Morsi of the radical Muslim Brotherhood movement became Egypt’s new president, narrowly defeating the secular Ahmed Shafiq by 52-48 percent. Just two weeks ago, however, Egypt’s military council issued an interim constitution stripping the president of most of his powers. A few days before that, the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved Egypt’s parliament, controlled by radical Islamic parties, on a legal technicality.

No one is quite sure what the coming days and weeks will bring. Will Morsi fight to restore his office’s authority? Will Egypt’s secular military elite yield to the Muslim Brotherhood? What about Egypt’s masses? Will they stand by silently? Or will they rise up, mimicking last year’s protests that led to the ouster of longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the deaths of 900 Egyptians?

To answer some of these questions, The Jewish Press recently spoke with Tawfik Hamid, a former Egyptian radical who now lives in the United States and devotes his efforts to reforming Islam and educating the West about radical Islamists. He is also the author of Inside Jihad: Understanding and Confronting Radical Islam and chair for the Study of Islamic Radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

The Jewish Press: You recently stated that if “the Muslim Brotherhood attains power in Egypt, a war in the Middle East will be inevitable.” Why do you think so?

Hamid: Because the Muslim Brotherhood will work against U.S. interests and the peace treaty with Israel. For example, in one of the latest celebrations for Mohammed Morsi, the main theme was to support Hamas, declare war against Israel, and restore the caliphate with its capital in Jerusalem. On its website, the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t even mention the word Israel. They call it “the entity” without even writing “Zionist entity.” They consider the word “Zionist” filthy and don’t want to place dirt on their website.

Just recently, the Muslim Brotherhood invited one of Hamas’s leaders to speak in Al-Azhar Mosque and met with him in the parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood also has relatively good relations with the Iranians, who promised to send millions of tourists to Egypt. Furthermore, it now has full control over the Suez Canal.

Finally, these people are unlikely to cooperate with American and Israeli counterterrorism efforts like Egypt’s former regime did. This, in turn, may lead to more terrorist attacks and an escalation of the already existent frictions between Egypt and Israel.

What would you advise Israel or America to do at this point?

I think it’s better for Israel not to comment on what’s happening because any comment may work against them.

I think the United States can play a role by not placing pressure on the military of Egypt at this stage. I’m not saying the military is perfect or good, but with all its faults and mistakes it is still a relative ally to the U.S. It will try to keep the peace treaty with Israel and protect the Suez Canal and U.S. interests.

How do you think matters will unfold in Egypt?

The Muslim Brotherhood will try to demand that the military allow them to write [an Islamist] constitution. They will also demand that the military give legislative power to Morsi, or at least reinstitute the dissolved parliament.

But the military is also fighting for a piece of the cake. They contributed to the revolution, and it was their intervention, if you think about it, that made Mubarak leave. So they feel they deserve a cut, and if the Muslim Brotherhood demands complete power, that will create a situation of violence.

The best outcome, in my view, is that the military retain legislative power and power over the constitution so that we have a secular constitution that can control Morsi.

In fact, I don’t expect Brotherhood to perform very well economically because their agenda is against tourism which is badly needed to save the economy. I think if they show failure in the next two or three months we might have an anti-Islamist revolution. Failure to deliver economically will be evidence for Egyptians that Islam is not the solution and that Islamists are not really the hope for their future.

You currently maintain liberal, western views, but as a youngster, you flirted with radicalism and almost killed a man. Can you talk a bit about your background?

I was born in Cairo in 1961 to a secular family. When I was around 16, I started to think about God and religion and later joined a radical group, Jamaa Islamiya, in medical school. There I met Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now the first in command in al-Qaeda. I became radical for one and a half years.

But then they asked me to help kidnap a police officer, dig a grave for him beside a mosque, and bury him alive. Although I was convinced theoretically about jihad, this was beyond my human conscience to really accept or tolerate. I felt there was something wrong, so I started to think, and the critical thinking that was suppressed in me after joining Jamaa Islamiya started working again. I began examining different methods of looking at Islam.

Currently you are working to reform Islam, but some people argue that your task is impossible – that Islam is an inherently violent religion and nothing can be done about it.

There is a lot that can be done. I’ll give you a simple example. When I was young, one of the verses that really made me turn more radical was, “Kill the infidels wherever you find them.” I took this verse to a radical friend of mine, who said to me, “Yes, we have to fight the infidels. That is Islam.”

Then I approached a Sufi scholar – Sufism is a mystical form of Islam. The scholar patted me on my shoulder and said, “My son, just love every human being and be good to every human being.” I said to him, “But it’s written in the Koran…” He said, “You will understand the meaning of this verse only on the day of judgment, not now.” But my friend’s interpretation was more convincing to me because he had the text.

Later on, however, I realized that all the violent verses in the Koran use the expression “al” which means “the.” It’s like if I tell you, “I’m going to a white house in Washington” versus, “I’m going to the White House.” These two letters, “al,” can limit all the violent verses in the Koran to specific times in history against specific groups. For example, when you read in the Bible about a war against the Canaanites, you don’t generalize it.

The cover of Dr. Hamid's book

If the history of Islam and the Sunna books – which record the words and deeds of Muhammad – remain [authoritative texts], I agree that reform can be very difficult. But my reform is based on predominantly using the Koran, not other religious texts.

Some people might argue that you are virtually alone in interpreting these texts in this manner and that reform is therefore hopeless.

It’s not just me. When you follow what’s happening in the Muslim media and social network now, you will see new reformers who are advocating using the Koran instead of the Sunna books and who are trying to offer relatively peaceful interpretations to counterbalance the violent ones.

When I write something now about Islam on the social media, the majority of people are supportive of the reformist version, while in the past they were against me.

Believe me, ideologically the Islamists are losing. The Muslim world is more ready now. The Egyptians dreamed about Sharia, but when they confronted it, they realized that Egypt will become like the Taliban and they started to say, “No.” You can see that in the decline of the Islamists in Egypt from their nearly 80 percent representation in the parliament in 2011 to the 37 percent they received in the first round of voting for the president in May 2012.

There is a wave of reform that has just begun in the Muslim world. But this is a very early wave, and if Islamists control power, it will certainly be suppressed. If the Islamists do not control the power, however, there is still hope. Either way, you have to try. You cannot guarantee results, but you have to try your best to make things better.

Why do you live in America? Why don’t you return to Egypt?

I help here in America by teaching people about radical Islam. But I’m thinking seriously of going back. A few months ago, I went to Egypt and met with some very high-level officials to help in reforming Islamic teachings. And I would be more than happy to move to Egypt if its success depends on me being there.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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