The Free Mind of a Former Terrorist: Interview with Dr. Tawfik Hamid

Snapper S. Ploen

 

Dr. Tawfik Hamid, author of the book Inside Jihad: Understanding and Confronting Radical Islam, had once experienced a sinister type of religious and political conversion. Fortunately, he was able to escape that life and has since spoken frequently of his time as a former member of Jamaa Islamiya (an Islamic terrorist organization led by a member of Al Qaeda, Dr. Aiman Al-Zawahiri).

 

A medical doctor and psychologist, Hamid was born in 1961 and raised by a secular Muslim family in Cairo, Egypt. Later, as a young adult, he became indoctrinated into a terrorist group and confronted the true nature of Islamic fundamentalism. But with critical thinking skills learned from his father (an atheist) and through his work in the scientific field, he was able to find a successful pathway out of radical thought and away from Jamaa Islamiya. Today he is considered a world authority on counter-terrorism and has spoken at Intelligence summits in Washington D.C., conferences in Europe, and has briefed U.S. senators and representatives on the psychology of jihadists.

 

Dr. Hamid recently shared some of his time with Highbrow Magazine and discussed how he untied the spiritual knots imposed on him by dangerous fundamentalists and how he found his own truth in the scriptures of the Qur’an. Hamid also provided insights into the use of social media to topple entire governments:

 

 In your book, Inside Jihad, you tell us about your experiences being indoctrinated into an Islamic terrorist group, and your subsequent path out. You mention in the book that you began to find flaws in the jihadist’s thinking. They were not adhering to the principles of the Qur’an (as you understood them) and the group was protesting the use of music at an event even though the Qur’an does not specifically forbid music. Surely you must have realized – even before that – the fundamentalist point of view was not keeping in line with strict text, did you not?

 

 Dr. Hamid:  Absolutely. What’s happening in the Muslim world in general – which was reflected also in the Jamaa Islamiya radical group – is simply that the Qur’an has not become the main source of the religion. There are two extra things that really made things much worse and I believe contributed a lot to the current problems. These things are what’s called the Hadiths – which is supposed to be the words of the prophet Mohammed that some people started to collect after more than 200 years of his death, and this part is called the Sunnah; it is the source of many issues that never existed in the Qur’an – and actually contradicts it. The third source is the culture itself. What we see from the Muslim world sometimes is only derived from the culture rather than the Qur’an. Let me give you an example to illustrate: The concept of killing of an apostate – or someone who converts from Islam to Christianity or Judaism or whatever religion – has never existed in the Qur’an. In fact, the Qur’an clearly [states] “no compulsion in religion” and also [states] that whoever wants to believe – it’s up to him. And whoever doesn’t want to believe – it’s also up to him.

 

The same for stoning women to death. The Qur’an never accepted the stoning of women to death – never mentioned it. If you look to the Qur’an itself, you will see clearly many of the current practices in Islam and in the Muslim world actually have nothing to do with the Qur’an and are contradicting it. Like the killing of apostates, killing gays is never mentioned in the Qur’an at all. Stoning women to death, honor killings for someone…so you have a variety of barbaric things being practiced by the Sharia-adherent groups (or the very strict groups) and when you analyze deeply, you find many of these things are actually contradictory to the Qur’an .

 

 

That would be one instance– and I know this is not just the Qur’an, I think the Bible says things like this as well – as far as the treatment of women... It seems to refer to women as second-class citizens or as property.

 

Dr. Hamid:  Ah, less rights? Here for example, you can use a verse that means it is ordering …Muslims to follow the general rules of the society, or common values of the society. Here you can say that the common values of the world are now human rights. So you can use this Qur’anic verse and make it the basis for following human rights. And some may say, “How about the contradiction?” There is a verse in the Qur’an saying that you ‘follow the better verses’ from the Qur’an. So in the Qur’an, there is a verse allowing Muslims to choose the better –  which could mean what works in your times. It is a complicated issue, but you can’t ask people – you can’t tell them – that their only other option is to leave their religion. That is also difficult. So, I am trying to be realistic. They need a different version to allow them to live some harmony with the world.

 

Let me ask you more of a theological question, if I may. In the book, you say – and I am paraphrasing – “the DNA molecule does not seek to convert or overthrow the cells it inhabits but rather functions in harmony and promotes life with the other materials around it.” Would you say, on the whole, that religion promotes more harmony than it does divisiveness?

 

Dr. Hamid:  Unfortunately, in human history, the opposite happened. Just removing religion completely from the mind of people is sometimes very difficult, and sometimes impractical and unrealistic. So I always try to focus on the understanding of the religion. Like you have the Bible, for example, when it’s understood by people who want to do charity and care for the poor and weak, you have wonderful outcome in general. It was also understood in the Dark Ages in Europe, in a way, to justify things that are terrible. The same with Islam. You can have some interpretation that’s destructive. I’m trying to be a realist. I’ve met with radicals from other faiths and they are not much different in their way of thinking – the absolutism, the inability to see the view of the other – they see things only black and white. The arrogance of thinking that your view is the only view is very wrong.

 

 

In your brainwashing into the terrorist cell, were there things along the way that bothered you but that you said “I’ll make accommodations because I believe in this”?

 

Dr. Hamid:  Yes, of course! These things bothered me, like killing apostates for example. In the Hadiths of Mohammed, there were Hadiths that said he married a young girl of 7 years old. I was just unhappy deeply with them, but I had to suppress this for fear of hell and feeling that “Oh, this is the truth, I have to take it as rule, and I’m not allowed to think.” So of course this period happened. You can’t stop the normal human feeling. But actually, after some time, you start to enjoy the bad things – that is the reality. These things actually got into your mind (initially), and if you continuously suppressed them because you wanted to follow ‘the truth’ or what you thought was the truth at the time, at the end, I believe, the brain cells change (in away) and you start even speaking positively about these things.

 

You said in the book as well that it was a known fact that they would recruit doctors or people of scientific backgrounds. From your perspective, do you think that people would become less effective in those types of roles if they lost their ability to critically think?

 

Dr. Hamid:  Of course. The critical thinking is the most crucial part of the story, and that is what they did to me, they suppressed my critical thinking. This was the most important step in my view. When you start suppressing your critical thinking, you can be a robot who learns a lot of information. That’s why fighting radicalism – in my view – it has to happen in “Brain-istan,” not just Pakistan and Afghanistan, via encouraging critical thinking in societies. I see the Internet and social media doing a great job. Now with the Internet, people are able to criticize, they started to speak loudly, and they can’t just kill you if you have a different view – they don’t even know where you are! So the Internet created a forum for reform and change which I can tell you is really happening. I see the views of people starting to change.

 

That leads me to another question I was going to ask you: There is a big component in the recent events that happened in Egypt and other places that was basically started in social media. So I am curious if you see it overall as a positive thing? I am also wondering if you are worried that the free exchange of information could also be used as a weapon to misinform people or to possibly gather people for a not-so-good cause?

 

Dr. Hamid:  I see your point of view. I thought actually about it one day and my feeling is that in every technology, initially, you have usually a stage when you have a lot of negative side effects coming out of it. For example, in cars the level of combustion was not as high as it is today. Also, in airplanes, the technology was not that developed initially so you had more accidents or less safety.

 

By time, things develop and people realize the negatives and improvements happen. So I see there is a negative part of this social media – that you lose control of information and people lie…can put anything. But I believe, at the end, there will be a tendency to probably judge the information. For example, now when I see something on the social media, I don’t trust it fully until I have confirmation from other news that I trust. You see what I mean? So things can develop, and I know there is a negative part of it, but we humans have to think how to limit and decrease the negative part. But we cannot ignore the existence of the positive part. We can’t just stop the technology, we have to improve it.

 

Author Bio:

Snapper Ploen is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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