Former Jihadism Insider Tells All

Feb 8th, 2016 | By | Category: Weekly Washington Updates

By Andrew Harrod, PhD:

Dr. Tawfik Hamid

Dr. Tawfik Hamid

Inside Jihad:  How Radical Islam Works, Why It Should Terrify Us, How to Defeat It, the autobiographical book by former Egyptian would-be jihadist Tawfik Hamid, has recently appeared in a revised 2015 edition.  This critically important, tremendously insightful insider analysis of Islam, its various threats, and reform possibilities is no less relevant now than the first edition seven years ago.

“A literal interpretation of the Quran, along with mainstream teachings of Islam today, can easily be used to justify” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) explains Hamid in detail.  Around the world “Denialists,” as he terms them, “typically and stubbornly promote the view that Islam is a peaceful religion,” but “violent injunctions of Sharia are not bizarre, extremist or anachronistic Islamic interpretations.”  “Excusing ISIS as being ‘un-Islamic’ is absurd.”

Hamid justifies his judgments with the experience of an individual born 1961 into a highly-educated “secular Muslim family in Cairo,” Egypt, who turned to religion as a medical student.  His uniquely interesting autobiography documents how the son of a privately atheist doctor participated in the Egyptian Islamist group Jamaa Islamiya (JI) from 1979-1982 before a spiritual transformation turned the younger Hamid away from violence.  In JI he was “prepared to train with jihadists in Afghanistan—to fight and kill the Russian invaders in the name of Allah.”

“Medical students are often more attracted to religion because they see the power of God in nature on a regular basis,” writes Hamid while noting that his life story is no exception.  “Westerners are often astonished to observe highly accomplished Muslim doctors in the terrorist ranks,” he notes while citing the example of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian surgeon currently leading al-Qaeda.  “Dr. Ayman,” as he was known through his involvement in various Islamist groups to Hamid and his colleagues, “came from a wealthy, well-known and well-educated family and was a top postgraduate student.”  Zawahiri exemplifies for Hamid that, among Islamist leaders, “many if not most emerged from the upper socioeconomic classes,” contrary to “naïve and unrealistic” socioeconomic explanations for jihad such as poverty.

Hamid testifies from personal experience that “[i]t is entirely accurate to refer to Islamic terror as ‘Islamic terror,’” even though for the Arabic jihad a “non-violent interpretation is often advanced by Muslims to avoid criticism of Islam.”  Yet the “dominant sense in Islamic books is violent.  It is misleading and dishonest to claim that the nonviolent understanding is in any way typical today.”   “If you ask a Muslim child in the Arab world to define jihad, in most cases the answer would be ‘war against the infidels.’”

A “large percentage of Muslims today” also practice what Hamid terms “passive terrorism,” a “broad category of enabling behaviors and beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, which serve to exacerbate jihadism.”  Such “support for terror often takes the form of taqiyya,” Islamic doctrinally-justified deception.  “One of the tactics Islamists use to deceive the West is to present the same religious information to non-Muslims in one way and to Muslims in another.”

For Islamic fundamentalists or Salafists (salaf in Arabic means “ancestor”) this deception includes the Islamic doctrine of abrogation, in which chronologically later Quranic verses annul earlier verses. “Abrogation allows Salafists to deceive non-Muslims into believing Islam is a religion of peace,” Hamid writes.  “To non-Muslims, Salafists present the peaceful verses.  To their own flock, they present the violent verses and teach that they abrogate the peaceful ones.

Beyond religious warfare, Hamid warns that “Islamists will use democracy to end democracy.”  Proliferating “Islamist organizations” are a “frequent source of mystification to Westerners, but for all intents and purposes the strategic goal of each organization is the same; they differ primarily in tactical focus.”  Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has shown through the years that it seeks “to infiltrate politics at the grassroots level” in an “insidious strategy that inhibits outsiders from suspecting the brotherhood’s creeping tyranny.

Against such illiberalism a reformed Hamid in Egypt “began to preach a peaceful understanding of Islam” after his abandonment of JI.  He joined “a very small sect of Islam that followed only the Quran” and rejected the hadith or biographical accounts of Islam’s prophet Muhammad and other traditional Islamic canons.  “Tolerating different views was an important creed of the Quranics” and in their rejection of violent Islamic doctrines such as corporal punishment they considered historic Islamic imperial expansions “as immoral and senseless.”

Hamid’s unorthodox understandings of Islam have not gone without opposition, as he learned when he gave a sermon at an Egyptian mosque.  After prayers at the mosque, a mob of violent Muslims confronted him and an accompanying friend; punches to the latter and a shower of stones left the pair running.  Today Hamid worries that “passive terrorists often behave actively by suppressing moderate voices” by “ostracizing the moderate Muslim and his family or by using harsh language, physical threats and even violence.”

Hamid claims that “Islamic writings can be interpreted in a manner that encourages peace and tolerance.”  Yet he doubts the doctrinal authenticity of secular- and mystical- (Sufi) oriented Muslims.  “It pains me to state it, but both Sufi and secular Islam are weak in their theological foundations” and “lack recourse to the doctrinal bedrock in Islam that Salafists enjoy.”

Nonetheless, the Quranic Hamid remains undeterred.  Many “violent tenets in Islam are not sourced in the Quran but in secondary writings” that “are not the Word of God,” he writes.  For the violent Quran verses themselves, his specific hermeneutic “neither cancels nor abrogates them but limits their scope to the historical period within which they were revealed.”

Hamid’s “Relativity of the Quran” justifies a “peaceful version of the faith, one that lives in harmony with other faiths in civilized societies.”  Quran 39:55 means that “Muslims are permitted by Allah to follow the verses that better suit their point in history.”  “I am a Muslim, and I consider much in Islam to be beautiful and worthwhile,” he writes as he struggles to redeem Islam from its orthodox absolutes.

About Andrew Harrod
Andrew E. Harrod is a researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. He can be followed on twitter at @AEHarrod.

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