Egypt and the Hell of Islam

At The New Republic, Graeme Wood, a journalist and editor for The Atlanticwrites 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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Egypt and the Hell of Islam

  1. mary says:

    Are you reconsidering the program of “take a Muslim to lunch or tea?”

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Ha! Good dig, but no. I think it’s very important to name things accurately and make distinctions. That means being able to express outrage at Salafis in Egypt even as one is able to make the distinction between those who practice religion hatefully and those who practice religion lovingly (or at least in a tolerant and nonviolent way).

      Like you and I and everything else, Islam is a historic phenomenon, not a transcendent essence (despite the determination of fundamentalists to treat it as having a callous core or essence). That means that people can practice it differently in different times and places and that it can change over time (as Christianity has).

      A century from now the Islamic world will not consist of people as poor and humiliated as it does now, and that will change it in a positive direction. The Muslim of the future looks like the Muslim that lives in Los Angeles, not Pakistan.

      We who are cosmopolitan need to, in the meantime, trade and befriend those who would trade and befriend us, for that is the path to prosperity and tolerance.

      Do I think that Islam has been a tragic historical phenomenon, on balance, over the past millennium? Yes. I also think that Christianity set civilization back a millennium when it triumphed over the advances of pagan science and instituted what historians used to call “The Dark Ages.”

      But openness is now winning over isolation unmistakably in the world. Technology is driving it. Trade is driving it. We need, of course, to have lunch with people who will have lunch with us and keep talking. In dialogue is the hope of the world.

      We are one planet and one species of animal with a rover on another planet called “Curiosity.” Islam, like other human cultural phenomena, is not an alien. We can understand it. We don’t have to demonize those raised in different historical circumstances from us. We can infer through our sympathetic imaginations the issues at stake inside of them and how we would like to be dealt with if we were in that situation.

      During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy had to exercise his sympathetic imagination and infer what it was like to be the leader of a communist country, and how that leader would react to us. We are probably all here today because he did that effectively and with a cool head. He didn’t listen to Colonel LaMay or even Eisenhower (who advised Kennedy to bomb Cuba).

      One reason I want Obama to win the presidency again has to do with the fact that he was raised multiculturally and, as such, does everything he can to make distinctions between friends and enemies and to keep dialogue going. It’s risky, of course, to open yourself to the world and try to build trust, but it’s always been risky. And important.

      One of Kennedy’s closest advisers at the time of the Cuban missile crisis used to eat lunch with Kruschev in Moscow and even stayed in his house. He knew him socially and he told Kennedy to ignore the bluster and focus on communications that were conciliatory. Kennedy did.

      –Santi

      • concerned christian says:

        It is hard to make any sense of what’s going on Egypt today, but maybe if we identify all the players we maybe able to start to sort out some of the this confusing mess
        There are Salafis who are trying to stay away from politics, so even with their hard core interpretation of Islam they are not as dangerous as those Salafis who use religion as a way to take over the country and to accomplish their goals they plant seeds of hatred and are in fact dividing the country into good Muslims who are those who follow their twisted teachings and everybody else.
        Then we have the Muslim Brotherhood who are accused of making deals with the USA and Qatar. They took over almost every branch of the Government and got rid of the military rulers but they started to loose their popularity because of the many mistakes they and their leader Morsy, the current president, have committed. One major set back was when Morsy tried to fire the top law authority in the country and he was forced to take back his decision.
        Any way since picture is worth a thousand word, and hence a video is worth at least a million word, allow me to post two videos, unfortunately both of them in Arabic. The first one is when Morsy fired the top law authority and the MB said they will prevent him from getting to his office he went there and gave a speech telling the MB they can’t fire him and almost challenge them to assassinate him or beat him up, telling them that they have done that in the past and after a short speech left without any attempt to stop him. After that the Government said that the who episode was based on misunderstanding.

        The second one just happened during the feast prayer, Morsy likes to attend Mosques every Friday but by doing that many of those who pray regularly in these Mosques are not allowed in. The video show a police blockade and people outside the Mosque, which BTW is the oldest Mosque in Egypt, are outside. Then Morsy comes in a big Convoy., the people stayed outside and finally when he was leaving people started to shout “why you came we don’t want you.”

        The secular groups are trying to unite and hopefully they will do better in the next election. Also in spite of the attempts by MB to take over the legal branch their attempts have backfired and the standoff between the MB and the Court may take the country into uncharted territory.
        Here I wanted to focus only on the political upheaval, as for women and minorities they are facing a lot of pressures and continuous attacks, the worst is possibly the new constitution being written now which includes many Shariah’s based rules.
        The bottom line is stay tuned nobody can predict what will happen in Egypt.

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