Inside Jihad: How Radical Islam Works and How to Defeat It

Inside Jihad: How Radical Islam Works and How to Defeat It
(Tawfik Hamid, December 9, 2015)

Transcript available below

Watch his speaker playlist here

About the speaker

Dr. Tawfik Hamid, an expert in cognitive psychology, is an Islamic thinker and reformer, and one time Islamic extremist from Egypt. He was a member of a radical Islamic organization Jamaa Islameia JI (of Egypt) with Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahri, who later became the leader of Al-Qaeda. After being radicalized in the JI (approximately thirty-five years ago), he had an awakening of his human conscience, recognized the threat of Radical Islam, and started to teach modern peaceful interpretations of classical Islamic core texts. Dr. Hamid is the author of Inside Jihad: How Radical Islam Works; Why It Should Terrify Us: How To Defeat It.

He previously spoke at The Westminster Institute on:

The Psychology and Ideology of Islamic Extremism (September 6, 2013)


Tawfik Hamid:

So let me just start by some basic foundations for this whole topic. This in my view the critical question that has been raised by many people, including professor Bernard Lewis. I remember in lunch with him here in Washington. He asked me this question which was a title of one of his books. What went wrong? What happened? Because if any one of you either witnessed himself or studied the Middle East earlier, let us say sixty years ago or seventy years ago, you’ll find Muslims, Christians, Jews, living together in harmony. You’ll see churches. You never hear that someone went to burn a church or destroy a synagogue. This was virtually nonexistent. So what happened? How did these changes like- How did the Middle East change and then the whole world?

From an eyewitness on the events that happened, I can tell you what happened can be summarized in simple three steps, nothing more. Maybe there were some aggravating factors, but there were essentially three steps. Step one is when Saudi Arabia became very wealthy with oil and we started in the Middle East and the surrounding countries to adopt the very literal, intolerant ideology that simply does not accept the existence of the other. You will not see a church in Saudi Arabia, for example. You will not see music and art. Women are very suppressed. You will see literal interpretation of the religion with stoning. All such things

We started to say to one another when Saudi Arabia became very wealthy in the late ’70s, which is the time of the beginning of the Islamic revival, we started to say, “God blessed them with all this money and oil because they implement this form of Islam,” and we started to think our Islam, which was relatively tolerant – it was not perfect but it was relatively tolerant – we thought it is the wrong Islam and they have the correct one, so we started to follow them.

Women started to put the hijab- my wife Ma’a used to wear the hijab. She was the first one in her high school to wear it, in her family, and it was a phenomena, growing everywhere. We called it the Islamic revival, and this was the first step, and some scholars call it ‘Petrol Islam’ because it was related to oil.

The second step was when we adopted this ideology, we did not stop there, and I’m talking here about my own country, Egypt. We – I’m not speaking about every Egyptian, but I’m talking about the radical groups and the radical leaders – changed the level of jihad. You know jihad of course. It’s basically in Sharia books that are told by the Wahhabists. It’s a form of war either to protect the Muslim world or to spread the religion after offering people three options: Islam or jizya, humiliating tax, or you will be killed. That was the evil deal. That was throughout history.

And through this deal, Islam spread in North Africa, in different parts of the world. And we adopted this principle, but the real disaster was that we changed the level of jihad from a nation responsibility or national to a personal responsibility.

So, me as a young Muslim before the Islamic revival that- and before this change, I was supposed to wait for the Muslim nation to create an army and declare war on the Americans or the Europeans like the Muslim nation was against- or empire or Caliphate was against the Roman Empire, for example. It was traditional warfare, a nation against- I was not supposed to attack you individually, so what happened when we changed the level of jihad to a personal obligation, which was based on a specific understanding of verses from the Quran and the Hadith like the one that says, “Fight for the cause of Allah. You are only responsible for yourself.”

So, we took this verse and other Hadiths and we said look, we will no longer wait for the Muslim nation or Ummah to declare war on the others. We will do it individually. Now, in this new reinterpretation after changing the level of jihad, we started to adopt the group attacks and then individual attacks, what we see today of lone or homegrown terrorism. All of these cases of the concept of jihad but taking it at the personal level.

And I have to admit, we in Egypt, the Egyptian radical groups, were the ones behind the change of the ideology. But, this does not mean that jihad was originally peaceful and then it became violent. No. It was violent and it became barbaric. That is the change that happened, so we need to understand the shift was not from a peaceful concept to a violent one, just from a violent one when I declare war on you as a nation to force you in my religion and offer you three options, Islam, jizya, or be killed, that’s not a peaceful concept.

And this is what ISIS is doing today. They are not creating the concept. The concept is created by religious scholars, sadly, but the ISIS are the ones who are applying it. That’s the only difference.

The third step after we changed the level of jihad and now individuals can attack churches, attack other people, as we see today, the whole phenomena spread globally through your wonderful immigration policies. And today with the internet and the spread of ideology, the phenomenons that were local and in this certain part of the world has spread globally to reach every part now.

And this is where we are today. Three steps happened in the last few decades can explain to you what we see today, why we see these people are doing such things. It is the same ideology but things became personal and then the internet and the immigration allowed the spread of everything to the whole world. This is the first part. The second part I would like to address is the psychodynamics of this phenomenon.

How can someone like this lady in California, for example, or some young guy change from a peaceful person to become that evil? How can a human being change? I lived this change, so I can talk from reality and thank god I did not continue. I didn’t do any terror acts or killing or any of this stuff, but I stopped before this and I changed completely. Again, this was thirty years ago and more.

But the concept – I can tell you what happens exactly in the human mind. First of all, if you come to me now and tell me, Tawfik, go and kill some human being standing here… not you. So, the first thing that you need to do is to make me hate this individual. This is the first thing that you need to do. Otherwise, why should I go kill him? Why? What’s the reason? I have to hate him first.

So, the hatred, the concept of hatred, the promotion of hatred to Jews, Christians, Americans, Europeans, everyone else, everyone different, even reformers, the Bahá’í, everyone that is not on their agenda we have to hate it or we have to hate them. So, the concept of hatred is the beginning. That’s why when we say that love can be the antidote of the phenomena, I can say yes. I can say yes if we went to the deep root of it, but let us go to a more sophisticated level.

I hated that individual. Then I moved one step toward killing the person. What will happen is my human conscience will start to tell me, “Tawfik, this guy didn’t do any bad thing to you. He didn’t harm you. Why should you kill him?” Then my human conscience can work. Then you need to teach me how to suppress my human conscience and this is exactly what religious scholars used to do is to teach us how to practically suppress our human conscience.

Naturally, when you read some of the very violent things about Prophet Muhammad in the biography of Muhammad, for example, sira, or the marriage of a young girl of nine years old, naturally, your conscience will reject such things. But do you know what used to happen in our minds? The distortion has reached the level you have to suppress your conscience and not only say by tongue that this is great or good, you have to feel that it is good and great. Otherwise, you will be in hell forever. You will be tortured, barbecued forever, literally, forever in the hell or put in boiling oil forever, so can you imagine the fear mechanism has reached the level that [it is] as if you are tasting mud, and you have to say – not just to say, you have to feel it is nice, it is beautiful? It is not just [that] you have to say it, you have to feel it. Can you imagine the level of distortion of the mindset of these people?

This can explain to you how they can lose their human conscience. The level of fear and the inability to criticize or use critical thinking, and the suppression of all human conscience and critical thinking, allow a person to reach the third level, which is desensitization to the use of violence. When you read about the acts in the Hadiths book, about the violence, and how some poet, for example, objected to the Prophet, and spoke negatively against him, and how he put her between two camels, and she was destroyed, and her head was beheaded. And you read all of these torture things, and you have to feel that it is something nice, it is so beautiful.

The three steps occur here. First, the hatred, the suppression of human conscience, and then the desensitization to the use of violence because the moment you started to attack someone, if you are not used to the use of violence, then your hand may shake, and you will not do it. But gradually, by desensitization to the use of violence by approving stoning of women to death, for example, by approving these barbaric hudud things, in the Sharia, for example, the amputations of hands, putting people on the cross, and all of these violent things make your spirit and soul become desensitized to the use of violence.

So you go into three steps gradually. You start to hate the individual. If your human conscience objected to any violence, you start to suppress your human conscience. Then if your hands start to shake before you do a violent act, then they teach you how to become desensitized to the use of violence, and gradually you are ready to become a terrorist or a human being who is deprived or whose human conscience [is] deprived of love, deprived of critical thinking, and this can end up with people like Farook, Syed Farook, and Tashfeen Malik, the ones in California. [They] tell us how people can gradually reach that level.

And I have to tell you we are lucky. Until this moment we are very lucky that the radicals have not yet gained weapons of mass destruction because if these people with this barbarism have any access to weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons, [etc., that would be dangerous]. And this is what is worrying me in the near future, not even too far from now. I am extremely worried. I hope I am wrong, but I am really worried.

Then let us go to address our failures. It is important to evaluate the areas where we failed, to understand why we are not winning, why with all of the power we have and all of the money and all of the capabilities, these people are growing. Compared to before September 11 and now, and you will understand how we are losing this war with them. They are expanding geographically, their numbers are increasing, so why did we fail?

First of all, we failed because we failed to define the problem. It is like we are playing basketball without putting up the hoops. If you do not have clarity about the goal, where you shoot, where you aim, then you can spend the rest of your life trying for [an] infinity of time. There are no parameters for the concept of radicalism, and that is why I put up something called the ABCs test of radical Islam. It is available on my website. It is my name dot com. And I put it [up] because when I came to Washington, I realized people are talking about the words radical and moderate day and night, but when I asked them if they had a definition for this, they said no.