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Dissident voices

The war on terror often overshadows the war within Islam.

Dissident voices
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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.

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."

Hamid knows that the Quran's violent verses are the problem, and he thinks the solutions lie in the text. One of the main reasons Islam is so hostile toward non-Muslims is the Quranic principle of abrogation: Where there is a contradiction, later verses cancel out, or at least modify, earlier verses. The Quran's warring verses thus matter more than its peacemaking ones: In Mecca, Muhammad lived peacefully with nonbelievers; when he was forced to flee to Medina, fighting them and spreading Islam became the norm.

Hamid says the Arabic word translated as "abrogate" has another meaning-to write down or document. So instead of canceling out previous verses, the abrogation verse could mean that if people forget Allah's wonders, he simply provides new ones to document.

It's an interesting idea, but a lonely one against both classical and radical Islam.

Hamid may have walked with the Zawahiri radicals decades ago in Cairo, but now he calls himself "Muslim by faith, Christian by heart . . . and above all, human."

"Son of a papermaker"

Seeing Ibn Warraq in a public video, with shaggy black hair and thick white beard, is a rarity for the reclusive critic of Islam. But he allowed it, he says, because he usually does not look like that. He dyed his hair and grew a beard.

Even "Ibn Warraq" is an alias-it has been the pen name used historically by Islamic dissidents and means "son of a papermaker." He launched his career with his scholarly and most famous book, Why I Am Not a Muslim, after the Salman Rushdie affair. "It was a very aggressive book," he says. "I was really angry." Warraq was mortified that so few Westerners defended Rushdie's right to author The Satanic Verses.

The alias is to head off the kind of death threats and fatwas issued against Rushdie. Not even Warraq's affable brother, he says, knows that he critiques Islam for a living.

Warraq was not always such a vigorous critic. Of Pakistani origin, his father sent the motherless 10-year-old to English boarding schools to circumvent a grandmother pushing him into local madrassahs. Warraq saw his father only once more, at 14, before his parent died four years later. At school, he lost himself in books and became "pathologically shy," afraid of invitations to dinner or tea. Rational, secular humanist ideas slowly shaped his thinking.

At 19, Warraq had English tastes and habits and felt English, but his darker skin prompted locals to ask, "Where are you really from?" An ensuing identity crisis led him to study Arabic at Edinburgh University under W. Montgomery Watt, a famous Orientalist and expert on Islam. In his book, Warraq criticized his old tutor for being too accommodating of a faith he came to reject.

Warraq later studied philosophy and moved to France in 1982, where he met his wife. There, he worked for a travel agency as the Rushdie affair broke, taking tourists to the Far East via Pakistan. He met friendly Pakistani pilots on the way but was shocked that, however nice, they were "quite convinced that Rushdie must be killed. I didn't want to tell them that I was an apostate myself."

As it happens, Warraq got his first unlooked-for break in an American secular humanist magazine. Free Inquiry usually ran pieces titled, "Why I am not a Methodist" or "Why I am not a Mormon"-no ex-Muslim had appeared in its pages. Warraq filled the gap, and he has since written several books on Islam.

Warraq, 60, describes himself now as an agnostic and says reformation is hard because moderate Muslims are tough to identify and do not take to the streets. "Islam has a kind of 'publicness' to it," Warraq said. "You have to manifest publicly, have to go to prayer five times daily. It makes it difficult to turn it into a private religion."

"Not the monsters we thought"

Nonie Darwish was born in 1948 in Cairo to an elite Egyptian family and spent her first eight years in Egyptian-controlled Gaza. Her father headed military intelligence there, as well as the Fedayeen mission that launched guerrilla attacks into Israel. Eventually, Israeli forces assassinated him.

Darwish and her family returned to Cairo and soon received a visit from President Gamal Abdel Nasser and a government official. Darwish, her brother, and her sister lined up to greet the men and one asked, "Which one of you kids will avenge your father's blood by killing Jews?"

The siblings were embarrassed by the question. "It made me think that if I loved my father, I had to kill Jews." Her father's death did shape her, she says, but in unexpected ways: She rejected Islam, now describes herself as a Christian, and runs a website called ArabsforIsrael.com. She has written a book titled, Now They Call Me Infidel.

But it was a long and twisting journey. Like other wealthy Egyptian girls, Darwish went to a private convent school. She studied anthropology and sociology at Cairo's American University, then worked as a journalist. Visiting a Coptic Christian friend once, they heard a local mosque at prayers, calling for Muslims to kill infidels. Darwish saw fear in her friend's eyes: "I suddenly, for the first time in my life, thought, 'My religion-there's something wrong with it.'"

In 1978, Darwish moved to the United States, settling in the Los Angeles area. Women could attend Muslim prayers, but the rabid, anti-American teaching and the ill-educated leaders repelled her. Curious, she soon began educating herself about Jewish and Christian beliefs.

When her brother, still in Gaza, had a stroke that put him in an Israeli hospital, relatives told her the medical staff cared well for both Jews and Arabs. This was a biting contrast to the tale she learned as a child, that Israeli soldiers killed pregnant Arab women for fun. Darwish thought, "This is another proof that we're living a big lie. They are not the monsters we thought they were."

On her first trip back to Cairo in 2001, Darwish also was shocked to see a different, radicalized city. Most women wore headscarves. Young, unemployed men railed against the West, then asked if she could secure them U.S. visas for jobs. A local paper reported that Israeli Viagra tampered in order to sterilize Egyptian men was flooding the country.

Her family returned to L.A. from vacation a day before 9/11. When she heard Egyptian Mohammed Atta was the head hijacker, she called friends at home to ask how they felt that Arabs had committed such slaughter. None believed her; they all said 9/11 was a Western conspiracy. That was her tipping point. Like Hamid and Warraq, trumpeting radical Islam's dangers has become her urgent mission.

Priya Abraham Priya is a former WORLD reporter.


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