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.
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?