At The New Republic, Graeme Wood, a journalist and editor for The Atlantic, writes about his Salafi acquaintances in Egypt, and describes one of the bloke’s understanding of hell in graphic detail. What Graeme Wood learned from him and some of his fellow Salafis is the following: like the Christian fundamentalist, the Islamic fundamentalist’s imagination is quite animated by a literal belief in hell–even absurdly so.
No, the opening to Graeme Wood’s essay is not a Halloween hoax worthy of the Onion, though it reads that way. Prepare to be utterly exasperated at the warped psychology on display:
I NEVER ASKED MUCH of Hesham El Ashry, and Hesham never asked much of me. All I wanted was some conversation about religion and Egyptian politics with someone who had strong views on both. All Hesham wanted was one more chance to describe in grotesque detail the fate that awaited me and everybody I loved: Our skin would thicken, not with callouses but with soft, thin, tender layers, each more sensitive than the last. Eventually the accumulated layers would be miles deep. And then God—not my god, or the god of the vast majority of so-called Muslims, but the one true Allah, worshiped by Hesham’s fellow Salafis—would burn off those layers individually, savoring the pain until he reached flesh. Then Allah would restore them again, like Prometheus’s liver, so he could blister and rip them away for eternity.
“Do you feel that?” Hesham asked me once, gently handing me a scorching glass of Lipton, poured straight from a whistling kettle. He never missed a chance to illustrate a point. My fingertips burned, and I recoiled a little, losing a splash of the tea. “You feel why Allah chooses heat,” he said. “Because it’s the worst torture there is.”
Hesham is a squat little guy, 52 years old and usually smiling, as guys who think a lot about hellfire and how they are surely going to avoid it often do. Though he is not rich, he spends his time and money freely in an effort to convert new Muslims, and for the last year, I have been a special project. His goal is as much spiritual as hygienic—a quest to purify Islam and the world of heresy and disbelief.
Every couple months, I visited his tailor shop in downtown Cairo for instruction in the narrow, rigid take on Islam known as Salafism. As a Salafi, Hesham explained, he is concerned not only with replicating the ways of the prophet and his companions, but also with erasing all religious “innovation” (other Muslims might call it “development” or “progress”) that has perverted Islam since the eighth century. He always greeted me cheerily, with a “Salaam” and a handshake. Eventually, we achieved a sort of unconventional friendship. “I hate you,” he told me in August, with a smile. “I hate all Jews and Christians, anyone who is not a Muslim.”
I wish the piece had stopped there and I could say, with Hamlet, that “the rest is silence.” But the rest is here.
And it gets worse.
By Salafi lights, Graeme Wood learned in a visit with them in Alexandria, not even the vast majority of Muslims belong to the blissful camp:
SHERIF’S DISMISSAL of non-Salafi Muslims as “infidels” was harsh. Many Muslims won’t even call a Christian or Jew a kafir, since they worship Allah, in their own benighted ways. If Sherif really meant “infidel”—and I never knew a Salafi to joke about such things—he was consigning not just those in downtown Alexandria, but nearly every Muslim in the world, to scorching damnation. I returned to Cairo and asked Hesham whether that judgment might be a tad extreme. He didn’t budge. “The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that not one in a thousand of his followers would join him in Paradise.”
Salafis have taken over whole neighborhoods in Alexandria, a place where there also happens to be a lot of quite vulnerable Christians (Egypt’s population consist of 10% Christians, many in Alexandria, a city of four million people):
After my first session with Hesham, he sent me to Alexandria to meet his Salafi confederates there. “Alexandria is the world capital of Salafis,” Hesham said. It was once a European trading colony, a city of vice where the Greek poet Cavafy could leer from his balcony at prostitutes and lust lyrically after young men. Now, Hesham said, parts of it have been reclaimed for Islam. Converts from all over gravitated toward its Salafi dominated apartment blocks, […]
What a lesson in how things can go horribly, horribly wrong! Ideas matter. Reason matters. Cosmopolitan openness to the world matters. Had Alexandria somehow remained within the domain of Western–not Islamic–civilization over the past 1500 years, who can doubt it would today be a rival to the world’s great cities–a Paris on the Mediterranean?
Now it’s a backwater.