The Making (and Unmaking) of a Jihadist Mind

The Making (and Unmaking) of a Jihadist Mind
(Tawfik Hamid, December 12, 2018)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

Dr. Tawfik Hamid is a thinker and reformer who was at one time an Islamic extremist. While still in medical school, he was recruited as a member of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the most violent Jihadi group in Egypt. There he became acquainted with Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahri, who later served as second in command to Osama bin Laden. Zawahri is now the leader of Al-Qaeda. After being radicalized Dr. Hamid experienced an awakening of conscience, recognized the threat of Radical Islam, and started to teach modern peaceful interpretations of classical Islamic core texts.

In a seminal article, “The Development of a Jihadist’s Mind,” he described the process of his recruitment and explained how the appeal of jihadi ideas works. In 2015, Dr. Hamid published a book on how to defeat these ideas: Inside Jihad: How Radical Islam Works; Why It Should Terrify Us; How to Defeat It. Ayaan Hirsi Ali remarked that, “Reformers such as Tawfik Hamid … must be supported and protected. They should be as well known as Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Havel were in the 1980s.” (Dr. Hamid’s book will be available for purchase at his talk.)

Dr. Hamid’s Facebook page (in Arabic), Modern Interpretation for the Quran, provides a peace-promoting commentary on and understanding of the Quran. The page has garnered over 2,000,000 “Likes” from an Arabic speaking audience since it began in May 2013. In addition, Dr. Hamid recently launched a YouTube channel (in Arabic) to Counter Radicalism. His channel has more than a quarter million views and more than 1,200 other channels subscribe to it. Furthermore, Akbar Al-Youm, one of the Arab world’s most reputable and widespread newspapers, recently published a major article by Dr. Hamid, in Arabic, wherein he suggests ten major, novel principles for re-understanding the Quran in a peaceful way to counter radicalism.

Dr. Hamid has appeared on shows spanning the spectrum from CNN to Fox News and C-SPAN. He has also appeared on Aljazeera TV Channel (Arabic) more than 60 times in the last couple of years, and his articles and op-ed pieces have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, VOA, France 24, RT (Russia Today), and the Jerusalem Post. Dr. Hamid’s comments have also appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy magazine, USA Today, The Huffington Post, the National Journal, and Wired magazine.

He has spoken and testified before/with: the U.S. Congress (House Armed Service Committee); the Future Summit at the invitation of President Shimon Peres; numerous Department of Defense (DoD) offices at the Pentagon; the Special Operations Command; the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI); the National Security Agency (NSA); the European Parliament; the New York Academy of Science, and many others.

He previously spoke at Westminster on the subjects of:

Inside Jihad: How Radical Islam Works, and How to Defeat It (December 13, 2015)

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


Robert R. Reilly:

Well, it’s a tremendous pleasure to have our long-time friend, Dr. Tawfik Hamid with us this evening and his lovely wife, Maha. Where are you, Maha?

Tawfik Hamid:

Stand up.

Robert R. Reilly:

Dr. Hamid has spoken at Westminster before but several years ago before we began taping these presentations. I thought it was very important for Westminster to have Tawfik back here so we could record his words of wisdom because they grow even more timely. Now, you’ve all read his introduction, so I’m not going to repeat what you’ve read here but you know that he was a member of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the most violent Egyptian jihadist group, which he had the wisdom of leaving soon thereafter and it led him at a certain point to write an article or a monograph called, The Development of a Jihadist’s Mind, which I believe the Hudson Institute published at first.

Tawfik Hamid:


Robert R. Reilly:

I remember when that came out. It had a big impact on me. I thought it was terrific. I didn’t realize at that time that I would later have the pleasure of meeting Tawfik and later having a friendship with him. And it was such good news that he eventually developed what he had in that brilliant monograph into a longer book called “Inside Jihad: How Radical Islam Works, Why it Should Terrify Us, How to Defeat It.” It’s available on the table outside for sale. I’m sure Tawfik would be happy to sign copies for you after his presentation tonight, which as you know is on The Making and the Unmaking of the Jihadi Mind. Just mention also how popular his online presence is. He’s had more than two million likes on his Arabic-speaking page as well as a huge YouTube channel audience. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Tawfik Hamid.

Tawfik Hamid:

Thank you. Thank you for being here tonight and thank you so much Bob for this great introduction.I just want to make sure that everybody can hear me clearly in the back. Okay? Yeah.

The title, The Making (and Unmaking) of a Jihadist Mindset, I believe is extremely important simply because if you can’t or we can’t understand the mechanism of any process, we will not be able to solve it. So, I think digging deep in this mindset and understanding what can make someone a radical and why others do not become radical and why some radicals continue, what can bring radicals back to become moderate and reasonable people, how this can happen.

So, let me start with my personal experience with this. I joined the GI. I was brought up in a very secular family. My father was a Marxist and agnostic and my mother was not much into religion. I became interested in religion through the DNA molecule initially. I thought about the creator and I started to think about him and through this enthusiasm – I was young and enthusiastic – it just happened in my life.

In the medical school I was invited by the Gama’a al-Islamiyya. They realized some capabilities. They found me speaking and knowing the Qur’an, other phrases, speaking poetry, so they tried to- They actually invited me to join them.

If I started to recall what happened to me and I’m doing this so that the next generations do not face the same outcome of radicalism because I was lucky that I didn’t continue them. If I continued with them, I would be now in Afghanistan, fighting you instead of being speaking here, believe me.

So, just imagine the difference. So, let me just tell you what happened to me in person and then I will reflect on different aspects in relation to this topic.

What happened to me was simply the first day I met with a leader in the Gama’a al-Islamiyya. His name was Mukhtar Mukhtar. I remember him very well. He was the amir or prince of the Gama’a al-Islamiyya of the fourth year in the medical school.

They really have this classification, amir Gama’a al-Islamiyya. They have this classification. And the first day we went together to pray at the Gama’a al-Islamiyya mosque.

By the way, joining the Gama’a al-Islamiyya is very easy. It’s not sophisticated. You just put your name in a piece of paper – I believe they threw it immediately after – and you are in.

So, it’s just by starting praying with them, just being part of them, learning about the Qur’an more, learning about theology and the books. That’s being part of them. It’s what is needed to make you part of them.

So, I went with him. We met in front of the anatomy department and we started walking together to the first day for me in the Gama’a al-Islamiyya mosque. It was inside the medical school.

Mukhtar was on my right side and he said to me, “Tarek” – my real name is Tarek. Tawfik I use for media and other stuff for security reasons. He said to me, “Look, Tarek. The most important thing that you need to learn when you are with us is the following,” and I listened. He said to me, “Al fikroo Kufr.”

Whomever here knows Arabic will realize what this means. Al Fikr means to think. Kufr means to become an infidel. So, for Mukhtar, the message was clear for me.  I should stop thinking. I should follow blindly.

And he felt in my eyes that I’m a bit hesitant because my upbringing was not that kind. We used to have arguments, discussions in the house, so I was not that kind of people who can easily, like, go into this direction.

So, he added some- for me back then it was logical. He said to me, “Look, Tarek or Tawfik, your brain is just like a donkey. A donkey in the Arabic word Humar is a big insult. Ask anyone here. When someone says your brain’s like a donkey, it’s an insult because it represents stupidity in general.

He said to me, “Your brain is just like a donkey that helps you to reach the palace of the king, Allah, almighty, Islam. Once you enter the palace, you are in Islam. Will you take your donkey,” or my brain, “inside the palace? Or leave it outside?”

I said to him, “I will leave it outside” because now it’s with Allah, almighty. I couldn’t take it. And he welcomed me for the first prayer in the Gama’a al-Islamiyya. I will never forget it.

I started waiting for the prayer and it took them twenty minutes to make sure our shoulders were touching one another and our feet were touching one another. You have seen [this].

And I was bit surprised because I used to pray in other places but I never had this persistence and this insistence to make sure that the shoulders were touching one another and the feet also.

I understand the shoulders, yeah, that’s common, but feet also? Why was it not enough to have your feet wide like this with no gap at all? You can’t have this gap. You have- It has to be like this, so you have to have your heel outward and adjust it exactly to the other foot to- standing like this. And they took twenty minutes.

And I had a biochemistry lecture. I was so annoyed because of that delay. Twenty minutes just to make sure that we are standing shoulder to shoulder, foot to foot. This was the first time, really, to see something like that. I followed because – I mean the prayer, I couldn’t just leave.

So, after the line – they came and made sure every line is standing like this. Then the leader of the prayer or the imam, said it very clearly the reason for this. He actually quoted a verse from the Quran that said, “ุฅูู†ูŽู‘ ุงู„ู„ูŽู‘ู‡ูŽ ูŠูุญูุจูู‘ ุงู„ูŽู‘ุฐููŠู†ูŽ ูŠูู‚ูŽุงุชูู„ููˆู†ูŽ ูููŠ ุณูŽุจููŠู„ูู‡ู ุตูŽูู‹ู‘ุง ูƒูŽุฃูŽู†ูŽู‘ู‡ูู…ู’ ุจูู†ู’ูŠูŽุงู†ูŒ ู…ูŽุฑู’ุตููˆุตูŒ,” which means, “God loves those who fight for his cause as if they are one wall together, no gaps, no separation, one wall.”

So, he wanted us to feel that we are in the stage of fighting already for Allah for the jihad. We are standing together with no gaps between us at all because this is what God will love, to see us standing as soldiers for the jihad process.

And I have to tell you honestly, when he recited this verse with the enthusiasm, with the whole atmosphere, I felt I am at war, at war with you, with the world of freedom, believe me, and civilization and human rights. This was our real enemy, and al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, the real enemy for us was human rights because in al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya we used to teach, for example, killing apostates, and with human rights, you have freedom of religion, for example.

We used to suppress women. With human rights, it was freedom of women, so when you have this, we certainly have hatred also to other religions and faiths because we believe they are inferior to us and they have to be subjugated via jihad, so the hatred was overwhelming and I’ll come to this later, but once this happened, I started to go into the process gradually.

The gradual process was simply – after this stage I cannot forget at all how they used the concept of hellfire very effectively to make me unable to think. Imagine if someone suppressed your critical thinking and someone made you so scared to think outside of what they teach you. You can’t dare to think differently, you can’t dare to reinterpret anything or think outside their box.

And the third factor that affected me was the suppression of my human conscience, which I believe was the worst thing that ever happened to me during this period of time, and you’ll be surprised that this suppression came from the concept of halal and haram.

The concept of halal and haram was simply if something is halal – halal means permissible in Islam. Haram means not permissible, not allowed. This concept by itself made me feel that I can do anything as long as it is halal. For example, for them and for me at that time, stoning women to death is okay because it is halal. You see, beating women is fine because it is halal. Declaring jihad and killing some innocent people because they didn’t subjugate to our religion – back then – is halal.

I started to suppress my human conscience and that was a real crime I believe so they suppressed my critical thinking, they suppressed my human conscience as a human being, so there was nothing left, really, in my humanity when they did both of them.

When you see something that’s halal and you give your self full permission to do it and without using your human conscience, that can end in disaster. The third mechanism or the fourth mechanism was they made me unable to see anything about the literal understanding of the meaning and unable to see outside it.

So, for example, they used to bring a verse from the Qur’an that said, “kill infidels wherever you find them.” And for me, this verse created major trouble for me, so I took this verse to some friend of mine called Adail Saif. He was Salafi. Salafi is a form of radical, regressive radicals. And I gave the verse to him because I had a conflict within my human conscience. What can I do with this verse? Shall I attack my fellow Christian neighbor, for example, or what shall I do?

So I took this verse to Adil Saif. Adil, the Salafi, said ah, of course, you have to fight these people, and he brought a lot of books, Ibn Taymiyyah and others, to prove his point of view, and Abul A’la Maududi. If someone is from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, you will understand how powerful this man was.

He has translations in Arabic, so he convinced me that this is, yes, the mission is to fight, it’s just we need to be organized nothing more than this. I couldn’t take it, so I went back there. I took it further to some Sufi scholar. You know Sufism is a form of mystical style – many of them, I can’t generalize because some of them now are very mixed with the Salafi teaching, so without generalization, some of them, including this Sheikh, he was a peaceful person.

I went after Friday prayer, showed the verse to him, “Sheikh Shaban, what can I do with this verse? ‘Kill the infidels wherever you find them’.” And Sheikh Shaban was sitting in front of me. He patted me on my shoulder and said to me, “My son, just be a good human being and love every human being and god will be happy with you.”

I said to him, “But Sheikh Shaban, it is written in the Qur’an.” He said to me a verse in the Qur’an which means, in the Day of Judgement, not now, you will be able to understand the meaning of the verse. And as I always say as I was not that patient to wait for the Day of Judgement, I want something now to start the process.

So what happened because the Sufi was a peaceful guy, but he did not provide any theology to reinterpret this verse in a different way. It know it is complicated, it is not that easy, but at least he did not give any way of theology which I can address later how this can happen.

But without theology – Adil Saif was giving the theology, so I was paralyzed. What can I do? I want to follow Allah, follow God, follow the religion, so I followed the path of the radicals. The lack of some theological understanding that provides some peace is a big problem here within the Islamic culture overall.


Another factor that I believe played a major role in my radicalism was what I call sex deprivation syndrome. And let me explain how this happened. When you start attending high school and you start puberty around fifteen let us say, you still have the high school and then medical school, seven years, then three years residency. Then after that, you do a Master’s degree for another three years. After that you travel to some Gulf countries to collect some money to return back to Egypt. You know what I mean? It was a very costly process to marry.

This is on the one hand. On the other hand, there was no chance, and it is so difficult culturally to have any extramarital relationship or even friendship or whatever, so it was very difficult. Plus the more you become religious, the more they deprive you of looking at women when you speak to them. I used to look down like that. You cannot shake hands with them because hand skin will create electricity they imagine.

Believe me, the more I am suppressed on this side, the more this whole thing gets even more and more, and not only that, many, not all but most of the Islamic scholars prohibited any physiological release for sexual desires.

See the rest of his Westminster talk…