Cover Story

Dissident voices

The war on terror often overshadows the war within Islam. But as recent surveys and profiles of three Islamic reformers show, some Muslims are as troubled over jihadi-based violence as Westerners who want to end it

Issue: "Fixing Islam," June 16, 2007

In the first comprehensive survey of local Muslim attitudes, the Pew Research Center interviewed almost 60,000 respondents between January and April to find out what America's estimated 2.3 million Muslims believe. The results, released last month, came at a good time: Four ethnic Albanians, a Jordanian, and a Turk-six American Muslims-who lived in the Philadelphia area for years delivering pizza, roofing, driving a cab, and making bakery bread, all in their 20s, were caught last month plotting to slaughter U.S. soldiers at Fort Dix.

Such incidents of homegrown terrorism-from apparently Americanized immigrants-serve as shadowy reminders about radicalism within U.S. borders. The survey results identified a trend toward radicalism, particularly among young Muslims, while at the same time showing encouraging signs among American Muslims, about 65 percent of whom are foreign-born, largely from the Middle East.

The encouraging news: Compared to their Western European counterparts, U.S. Muslims are wealthier and better assimilated. Almost three-quarters like their communities and believe they can succeed through hard work.

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The discouraging news: Only a quarter of U.S. Muslims think the war on terror is a sincere effort to combat terrorism, compared to two-thirds of the general public. More astounding, only 40 percent believe groups of Arabs were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Fifteen percent of Muslims under 30 believe suicide bombing is often or sometimes justified to defend Islam, compared to only 6 percent of older Muslims.

The findings reveal that Muslims themselves are deeply divided on what Islam stands for. Into that gap have stepped prominent Islamic reformers who are examining radical Islam by re-reading the Quran and Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) to decipher whether the writings establish the basis for Islamic terrorism. As a result of speaking out against radicalism, several face death threats for apostasy. WORLD talked to three prominent reformers: All face danger because of their strong critique of Islam, one remains a Muslim, one became an agnostic, and one became a Christian.

"Above all, human"

Tawfik Hamid remembers the sharp-eyed young scholar he met some 30 years ago at his medical school's mosque in Cairo-a polite man, but with "suppressed anger" in his expressions. One day he gave an impromptu lecture on Islam during prayers. That man was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who years later became the No. 2 man in al-Qaeda.

Both men followed the same radical path, but Hamid, now 46, soon turned back. With apostate, if moderate, views, he says only that he has lived in the West since 1995-but will not name which country is his home.

Hamid was not an obvious candidate for radical Islam. His parents, he says, were secular; his father an orthopedic surgeon, his mother a "liberal French teacher." A gifted student, he entered medical school at 16. Examining DNA structure led him to think a creator existed, and Islam became enticing.

At medical school, Hamid attended mosque and joined one of Egypt's main terrorist groups: al-Gamaat al-Islamiya (GI). The first thing he learned was not to question anything. One man in GI told him, "The brain is a donkey. Once you enter [the mosque] you go walking and leave the donkey outside." Within months, Hamid said, "I became a beast."

He dreamed of burning churches. Mosque teaching frightened him, with gory details of hell's torture. He learned snakes would attack one in the grave, for example. Earthly life seemed more and more insignificant; what mattered was to die a shaheed, or a martyr.

Sexual frustration crackled. Even talking to a girl was culturally forbidden, and difficult economic times coupled with scarce housing made it hard to marry. "Many of us used to dream of dying for Allah, just to have sex in paradise," Hamid said.

Like other GI members, Hamid could have joined terrorist missions, but he hesitated. He began listening to moderate streams of Islamic teaching that did not, for example, advocate killing apostates. He read the Bible to criticize it, but found passages he actually liked.

Eight months after joining GI, Hamid rejected radical Islam, which was based on Saudi Arabia's stringent and fast-spreading Wahhabi version. That made him an apostate in GI eyes and ripe for killing. Threats came from old Islamist friends.

Ironically, Hamid fled to Saudi Arabia, where he took a lucrative job and medical exams that would allow him to practice medicine in the West. He stayed low and said nothing about Islam.

Now Hamid speaks often and publicly, writing in the U.S. press and educating federal officials on radical Islam. He cautions that several Islamist civil-rights groups, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), have succeeded in sounding moderate by broadly condemning terrorism. But he says true rulings, or fatwas, would condemn Osama bin Laden and other terrorists by name. For his views, CAIR's Michigan spokeswoman called Hamid "the latest weapon in the Islamophobe arsenal."

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