February 15, 2008
A Conversation with Dr. Tawfik HamidBy Joseph Puder
Dr. Tawfik Hamid, 47, was born in Egypt into a secular Muslim family. As a student at Cairo University medical school in the late 1970's, Hamid joined the Jihadist-Muslim group-Jamaat Islamiyah. He was deeply influenced by an older fellow student named Ayman al-Zawahiri, destined to become al-Qaida's No.2 and Osama Bin Laden's lieutenant. Hamid described al-Zawahiri as "One of the fiercest speakers I had ever heard...His rhetoric inspired us to want to engage in a war against the infidels, Allah's enemies."
Through the influence of his atheist father who had honed his son's critical thinking, Hamid eventually rejected his Jihadi friends. Before leaving Egypt 13 years ago he earned degrees in Cognitive Psychology and Masters Degrees in Internal Medicine and Education. Hamid then went on to develop a unique cognitive psychological approach to improving the absorption process in student education.
Dedicated to American values, Hamid has combined his expertise in Quranic studies with acquired skills as a psychologist, to combat radical Islam that seems to have hijacked normative Islam.
This writer recently sat down with Dr. Hamid for an interview at his Washington home.
Joseph Puder (JP): There are some people in the West who question Islam's ability to reform and transform itself, what would you say to these people?
Dr. Tawfik Hamid (TH): "I can fully understand the feelings of westerners about Islam when they see the beheading of innocent people, and the explicit violent verses of the Quran and the Hadith used by Islamists to justify violence. The deafening silence of our Islamic scholars adds to the problem.
I could however give you many examples on how this violent text could yield different meaning when interpreted in a different way. Many religions were practiced in a barbaric manner when worshippers implemented its text in a literal way. Thinking at a conceptual level and limiting certain meanings to the past and using a complex theological approach could make a true change.
It was said about the violent texts in other religious books that those religions could not be reformed as well. The reality is that these texts are now interpreted differently and reformation of the violent text in a peaceful manner has already happened in other belief systems. It is not an easy process when it comes to Islam, since the violent style of teaching became part of the mainstream teaching. Reinterpretation of Islamic religious text is however possible. Some examples:
Quran, Sura 4:101- the infidels are your sworn enemies
Quran, Sura 66:9- Prophet, make war on the infidels
Quran, Sura 28:86- never be a helper to the disbelievers
The above verses could incite a lot of hatred against non-Muslims. Some Muslims might take them literally and inflict harm on innocent people. Careful analysis of the above verses demonstrates that the Quran use of the suffix "the" in Arabic text AL-is connected to the words "infidels." The AL- makes the verse limited only to the time of the revelation of the verse (in the past) and only to specific groups of people in the early stages of Islam. If the Quran meant to generalize or extend the meaning to our modern times it would have used the expression "Min kafar" rather than "Al-Kafereen." The former "Min kafar" means anyone who does not believe in God while the latter "AL-Kafereen" means a specific group of people who fought the Prophet Muhammad in the early stages of Islam.
Just by considering the meaning of "The" while reading the Quran has made all of these violent verses automatically limited to the past. If someone had taught this concept to me or to many of my fellow Muslims in Jamaat Islamiyah, we would not have thought of becoming Jihadists.
JP: The Arab-Israeli conflict is less about territory (Israel returned all of the Sinai to Egypt) and more about dar al-Islam (the domain of Islam), and the refusal of Palestinians and Saudis in particular to recognize the right of the Jewish State to exist in the region. What in your view can change that (short of Jews accepting Islam)?
TH: Different approaches must be taken.
Hamas has to be defeated both militarily and economically to achieve this. The defeat of Hamas is crucial because it will prove to the Palestinians that their violent approach does not work. Israel and the civilized world need to use sufficient power (military and economic) to do this. Using insufficient power in this situation is like a doctor using "half a dose of antibiotic" which does not cure but rather encourages the development of resistance to antibiotic. Unfortunately, the use of power is sometimes essential to change the educational systems of violent regimes. We have seen how this happened with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in WWII.
With regard to Saudi Arabia and their oil-related dominance, the use of alternative energy or more efficient engines that use less petrol can exert enough pressure to make them change their educational system and thus allow the acceptance of Israel. Moreover, the ideological approach should not be ignored. For example, new theological analyses of verses that are used to promote anti-Semitism are required and entirely possible. To summarize, using a multi-directional approach that includes military, economic, and an ideological/educational dimension could certainly assist in making a change in the Arab perception of Israel.
JP: Christianity and Judaism underwent reformation and adopted modernization of thought as well as technology, why is the Arab world resistant to change, reform and modernization, considering that the Arab Middle East is currently at the bottom of the Human Development Index scale?
TH: The reasons why the Arab/Muslim world is resistant to change are: 1. Muslim scholars made violent interpretations (such as killing apostates, beating and stoning women to death, declaring war on the innocent to spread Islam) and when they feel that someone is seeking to change these concepts they fear that their whole religion will collapse, so they resist change.
2. There is currently no theologically based teaching that interprets the violent Quranic passages in a different manner. The mainstream books teach an extremely violent theology that is applicable to the past, and I have overwhelming evidence to prove this point. I am working on providing a modern interpretation to avoid the inevitable clash of civilizations if Islamic teaching remains as it is now.
JP: As a Psychologist/Psychiatrist, you understand better than most of us the importance of teaching children tolerance. Currently, Hamas in particular, and the Palestinians in general, are teaching their children to be suicide-bombers or martyrs (Shahids), and are indoctrinating children as young as 4 years old hate and intolerance towards Jews, Christians, Israelis and Americans, how would you go about changing that?
TH: The problem is unfortunately not limited to Hamas. It is a widespread disease of anti-Semitism. Once the words "Jew" or "Israeli" is mentioned it is immediately associated with negative feelings in the mind of Arab-Muslims. This is called the "Spreading Activation Model." In order to stop this phenomenon, you need to use the power of religion itself to combat it, albeit, in the opposite direction. This is what I call "`Reversed Religious Activation." It is a complex process that aims at weakening the negative links in the brain and creates positive links instead. To be successful this process needs support from the media, the educational system, and other areas as well.
JP: Are the teachings of the Quran hateful towards non-Muslims, particularly Christians and Jews, or is this animus a matter of interpretation that is motivated by political and cultural considerations?
TH: If the Quranic verses are taken literally and understood traditionally, some verses could obviously create hatred towards Jews and Christians. On the other hand, if these verses are understood in conjunction with other verses, the interpretation could yield different meanings. Unfortunately, most of the current interpretations create hatred. The problem of hating non-Muslims is in my view a theologically based problem, and not necessary a political one.