Dr. Tawfik Hamid (pronounced taw-feek hameed) was born and bred in Egypt. While attending medical school in Cairo he joined the Muslim terror organization Gamaat Islamiya, where his colleagues included Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al Qaeda. Using the powers of his intellect, Dr. Hamid was eventually able to pry himself away from the extremist indoctrination and embrace a far more moderate and tolerant version of Islam.
Currently, Dr. Hamid is a Senior Fellow and Chair for the Study of Islamic Radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. His book, Inside Jihad: Understanding and Confronting Radical Islam, has been hailed as a manifesto on how to neutralize the threat of radical Islam.
Dr. Hamid spoke with Aish.com this week from his home in Washington DC. In a wide-ranging and candid interview, he offers insights into the recent election of Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt; the possibility of a nuclear Iran; and the key to revitalizing Islam as a “religion of peace.”
Aish.com: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you – who grew up in a liberal household, the son of an orthopedic surgeon – become a member of a radical Islamic group?
Dr. Hamid: I was a normal kid occupied with school and hobbies such as sports, stamp collecting, chess and music. Although my parents were secular, I had a desire to find God. I always believed that God and the world are aligned, but I never connected my heart to my mind. Then I took a biology class where I learned about the molecular structure of DNA. I felt that I’d discovered an expression of God in the world. This was the beginning of my spiritual journey. Unfortunately my zealousness for God led me to the darker side of Islam.
Aish.com: You joined Gamaat Islamiya, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization dedicated to the violent imposition of Sharia law. How did that come about?
Dr. Hamid: I was at medical school in Cairo. Studying anatomy and physiology increased my belief in God and made me more enthusiastic about Islam. The radicals were on the lookout for people like me. I was recruited and indoctrinated in three psychological stages: 1) hatred of non-Muslims and dissenting Muslims, and 2) suppression of my conscience. At that point I was open to accepting the third psychological stage: violence in the service of Allah without guilt.
Aish.com: What specific goal did they have for you?
Dr. Hamid: I met Ayman al-Zawahiri, now the leader of al-Qaeda, who was one of the top postgraduate students in the medical school. He dreamed of forcing the West to conform to a Taliban-style system where women are obligated to wear the hijab, are legally beaten by men to discipline them, and are stoned to death for extramarital sex.
I was groomed to go to Afghanistan to join other young Muslims in training for jihad, to perform crimes in the name of God. My sponsors pledged to make all the logistical and financial arrangements. I was excited to go because my personal dream was to be an Islamic warrior, in accordance with the verse: “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks” (Koran 47:4). This seemed the easiest way to attain my purpose in life and to guarantee my salvation in the afterlife.
Aish.com: What changes did you undergo upon joining Gamaat Islamiya?
Dr. Hamid: My personality was utterly transformed. After a relatively short time I started to feel that my personality – open, tolerant, peaceful – was changing gradually into an evil personality. I stopped smiling and telling jokes. I became very judgmental toward others. My goal of being a physician and healing the sick grew tainted.
I was not allowed to question any established teaching of Salafi ideology, including the enslavement of war prisoners, the beating of women to discipline them, polygamy and pedophilia. My hatred toward non-Muslims increased dramatically, and I wished to subjugate them – especially the Jews, who we referred to as “pigs and monkeys” and were exhorted to kill before the end of days.
Aish.com: What caused you to reverse this path toward jihad?
Dr. Hamid: I was invited by a leader of Gamaat Islamiya for a specific mission to kidnap a police officer and bury him alive. This was the beginning of the end of my connection with Islamic terror, because my human conscience reasserted itself. My critical thinking kicked in and I underwent an intense inner struggle. I knew I would become a satanic beast if I continued, so I started to withdraw.
Aish.com: When you broke away from the radicals, did you do so quietly or publicly?
Dr. Hamid: I became a very vocal critic, speaking in the local mosques, promoting love, care, and compassion to all humans. As a former jihadist I knew how to influence others to become more moderate.
The Salafists consider any criticism of Islamic texts as apostasy punishable by death and eternal damnation. So I became a target of threats and intimidation by these same extremists who had been my friends. One day they surrounded me and said, “If you come here again, we’ll kill you.” Then they started to stone me.
Aish.com: Where did you go?
Dr. Hamid: I made a decision to seek freedom in the West. But first I went to Saudi Arabia to work and save some money. During these three years I had to keep silent because any criticism would have gotten me hanged or beheaded. So I kept silent.
Aish.com: We see much of Islamic terrorism emanating today from Saudi influence, yet you describe radical Islam as being rooted in Egypt. How did this develop historically?
Dr. Hamid: The Saudi royal family has a deal with the religious authorities, to implement Wahabbi-style Sharia law. For centuries this was a local Saudi problem, as the Wahabbis did not think to promote Islam globally.
Al this changed when members of Muslim Brotherhood, who were put into prison during Nasser’s time, managed to escape to Saudi Arabia. There they influenced the Saudis to take it global, to export the radical form of Islam.
This gained popularity because Muslims in other countries lamented, “Look how Allah has blessed the Saudis with money and oil because they apply Sharia. That is a sign that Allah is pleased. Our economic problems will be solved if we do the same – just as Allah has blessed the Saudis, He will bless us, too.” That’s how the extremist Saudi style came to be viewed as the solution to all the problems in the Arab world.
Adherence to the Koran is compatible with universal human rights and intellectual freedom. Unfortunately the real message of Islam has been hijacked.
Aish.com: In recent weeks, Israel’s southern border turned very hot, with rockets and terror attacks coming from Sinai. Is there concern that with the Muslim Brotherhood candidate winning the presidential election, Egypt may morph into a full-fledged “Islamic Republic”?
Dr. Hamid: It depends. Although the Muslim Brotherhood controls the government, as long as the military controls their own power, I believe the Egyptians will maintain the status quo. If the Muslim Brotherhood controls the military, Egypt will become like Iran or even worse. Unfortunately, the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to confront the military in a "life or death" struggle over the country's future. So a political regression in Egypt may likely happen.
Aish.com: How would Israel then need to react?
Dr. Hamid: In that case Israel will need to act decisively, because the Muslim Brotherhood poses an existential threat to Israel. The best outcome of any confrontation would be if Israel gives Egypt a major beating. That would teach Muslims a lesson that the whole phenomenon of political Islam can collapse.
Aish.com: What did you learn about Israel and the Jews growing up?
Dr. Hamid: When I was four years old, the dehumanization of the Jews led me to imagine them as green ugly people, full of evil. The media and schools portrayed Israel and the Jews as bloodsuckers who enjoyed killing young Arab kids.
Many Muslims correlate the word “Israel” to the similar-sounding word “Azraeil,” which means "angel of death." This links the concept of death with Israel, and from the earliest age Muslim children are instilled with a hatred of Israel.
Fortunately, my parents had a broader view. When I was age seven, my father, who was secular and open-minded, was reading a history book when he showed me a photo that will never be erased from my memory. He explained: “These people are called Jews and someone named Hitler put them in ovens to burn them alive.” I went to my room and wept over these people.
Since then, everything changed in my mind regarding the Jews. Despite the extreme hatred all around me, I sympathized with them. I wanted to meet these people, talk to them, and try to understand them.
Aish.com: A survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project shows that a majority of Egyptians favor abandoning the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Where do you see these relations heading?
Dr. Hamid: The Muslim Brotherhood does not acknowledge the word “Israel” on their website. Worse, when referring to Israel, they aren’t even willing to use the catch-phrase, “Zionist entity.” They consider “Zionist” as too filthy a word to make their website unclean. The hatred is even to the level of not tolerating the existence of the word.
At the launch of Morsy’s candidacy last month, Egyptian Cleric Safwat Higazi declared before a huge crowd that “Our capital shall not be Cairo… it shall be Jerusalem… Our cry shall be: Millions of martyrs march toward Jerusalem.” (See video) And in speaking to a gathering of Cairo University students, Morsy reportedly said that “jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal.”
If the Muslim Brotherhood gains controls of the military, then a confrontation with Israel is inevitable and will occur within a short period of time.
Aish.com: Where does this hatred and intolerance stem from?
Dr. Hamid: The Arab mind always tries to find someone else to blame for its mistakes. Instead of confronting themselves over the economic collapse, for example, the easiest thing to do is to scapegoat the Jews and Israel. Over the past few decades this blaming of Israel has reached a pathological level.
I think this is rooted in the Muslim idea of blaming Satan for encouraging them to sin. When a Muslim makes the required pilgrimage Hajj, a major component is Ramy al-Jamarat – throwing stones at Satan – because “he” is the one who is responsible for their mistakes. So there is a desire to never admit you are wrong. There is widespread intolerance for all minorities and, at its core, the inability to accept the existence of the other.
Iran and Martyrdom
Aish.com: How do you view the current threat from Iran?
Dr. Hamid: Once you have Islamist political power working for religious ambitions, the results can be brutal. We saw how the Iranian fundamentalists acted during the Iran-Iraq war, when the Ayatollah sent untold numbers of children to die by giving them the keys to paradise.
If Iran gets the bomb, their influence will spread immediately throughout the Middle East – into Syria and to Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran has vast oil supplies that can serve as a base for building a huge empire to spread their radical religious ambitions.
Aish.com: Is Iran any more dangerous than other non-Western nuclear powers?
Dr. Hamid: If you have Russia or China becoming strong, at least they care for the absolute value of life. You can put your issues on the table and say: “Neither of us wants to be destroyed. So let’s find a way to live in peace.” But with Iranian radicals, the rules are different. They desire your destruction, and are undeterred by self-destruction. They know that we don’t want to die, and yet they are ready to die as a shaheed (holy martyr). This gives them major leverage power, and getting nukes into their hands is a very dangerous situation.
Aish.com: In Western culture, suicide and death are so undesirable. In radical Islam it appears the opposite. What is the attraction of dying as a shaheed?
Dr. Hamid: The motivation of a shaheed is to enter paradise. In radical Islamic culture, a shaheed does not experience punishment in the grave. A shaheed is not dead, but is alive with God. He bypasses the grave stage and goes immediately to paradise. During my time with the radicals, jihad against non-Muslims was a win-win situation. I felt at ease with death because I believed that I would either defeat the infidels on Earth, or enjoy paradise in the afterlife.
Even as a young boy we were taught that if we were not good Muslims (especially if we did not pray five times per day), a “bald snake” would attack us in the grave. The fear of hell persists so strongly on a subconscious level that you become ready to do anything to avoid this hell. The idea of dying as a martyr provides a perfect escape from this anguish of eternal punishment. As a child I began to dream of becoming a martyr, to enter paradise where I could eat all the lollypops and chocolates I want, and play all day without anyone telling me to study.
Additionally, for young men, the idea of “women in paradise” plays an important role. The jihadist books contain many sexual descriptions of women waiting in paradise. These young men are literally dying to satisfy their desires.
Aish.com: How should the West deal with Iran? Do you favor an approach of containment?
Dr. Hamid: For many decades the Iranian revolution has served as a model that emboldens other jihadists. The Islamic revival was in two stages: first was the Saudi version fueled by vast petroleum wealth. The other was the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini which provided the idea that it is possible to replace secular regimes with Sharia. This empowered many people to think in the direction of political Islam, and we see it spreading today to the regimes now operating in Somalia, Afghanistan and Gaza.
Defeating Iran would be highly symbolic in taking the teeth out of that. We need a model of failure. An Iranian defeat will discredit it in the eyes of radical Islamists and weaken their pursuit of this path. This will be a big step forward in defeating the whole notion of political Islam.
The Future of Islam
Aish.com: You live in the United States. Do you detect a rise in domestic Islamic fundamentalism?
Dr. Hamid: We are currently seeing a struggle for how Islam will take shape in America. Muslims there choose among many levels of connection to their religion: a cultural connection; a ritual connection while still Western in outlook; theological Muslims who support Sharia law; and finally radical-jihadist Muslims who use violence.
In America, the radical version of Islam was largely discredited after 9-11. So many Muslim-Americans prefer a version limited to the ritual aspects of Islam, without the political goal of global dominance. Though a significant number also want Sharia Law.
Aish.com: You are a bit of a lone voice fighting against Saudi oil influence, against the Muslim Brotherhood, and against the other forces pushing Islam in a more radical direction. Are you succeeding in promoting your message?
Dr. Hamid: I have seen a real shift. After 9-11 the media started turning to me as a resource and this gave a big boost to my message. Also the Internet has brought about a real change because it allows people to criticize without fear of their lives. So now I’m not alone. I’m not a stranger anymore. I receive comments on my Facebook page from Arabic people who would have previously been 100% against me and are now moving in my direction. I see a significant increase in the number of Muslims seeking a version of Islam which is different from the violent version. The momentum is stronger than ever and is increasing. But we still have far to go to reach a mass level.
Aish.com: It appears that Islam is at a crossroads in its history. Which direction do you believe things will head?
Dr. Hamid: The recent Egyptian election is a tragedy for that country’s 82 million people. In recent years, many reformers had been speaking on the mainstream Egyptian media saying things I never believed I would hear – for example, questioning the violent interpretations of the Koran. Ideologically, things had been changing in Egypt and the atmosphere became ripe for reform. Unfortunately, with the Muslim Brotherhood taking power, this wave of inertia will be suppressed. This is bad news for the entire Middle East.
Aish.com: Do you have a plan for how to turn this around?
Dr. Hamid: Radical Islam teaches people to see things in stark black-and-white terms: “My view is the only view and everyone else is wrong.” There is an inability to see the view of the other. They teach that the very act of thinking – fikr in Arabic – makes one become an infidel – kufr – which have similar Arabic letters.
I am now developing an educational curriculum to change the process of thinking, to fight radical Islam at the level of cognition, not religion. This is similar to the process I underwent myself years ago, and I’m trying to answer the question: What helped me, at that critical juncture, to turn away from radicalism and toward moderation?
When I was young, my father showed me a model pyramid and asked: “What shape is it? If you look from the base, it’s a square. From the side, it’s a triangle.” It’s like Einstein’s law of Relativity, where the truth is based on the perspective of the observer. Not only can differing views both be correct, but we need to understand other views in order to see the big picture.
This process helped me get out of radical Islam, by showing me that what I considered to be “absolute” is not always absolute. Just adopting this mindset can limit the radicalization.
Aish.com: What message do you have for the people of Israel?
Dr. Hamid: I will never forget when the Israeli Air Force was above Cairo in 1967 in a war initiated by the Arabs. The Israelis could have destroyed all of Cairo but they did not. I know very well that if the opposite had happened and the Egyptian Air Force was above Tel Aviv, they would not have hesitated for even a moment to destroy the entire city.
I once wrote an op-ed entitled, “Why I Love Israel Based on the Koran.” My reading of the Koran is that Israel is the Promised Land of the Jews. As a man who seeks the truth, I say loudly that Israel is the only light in the Middle East. Israel is the light of love, democracy, civilization, tolerance and justice. The intent of the Jews is to build, while others intend to destroy. I pray from the depth of my heart that the light of Israel radiates to illuminate the darkness around it.