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How a Salafi Preacher Came for my Soul

The far-reaching ambitions of Egypt’s rising Islamists.

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.”

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We met at the introduction of Abdullah Abdel-Rahman, son of the “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman, the 74-year-old spiritual capo of the Egyptian Salafis. The Blind Sheikh is a notorious figure in Egypt: He is the spiritual leader of the Islamic Group, which was accused of a series of mass killings and mutilations of Egyptians and tourists in the 1990s, and he himself was put on trial for alleged involvement in the murder of Anwar Sadat. He is currently serving his nineteenth year of a life sentence in the United States for his role in planned terrorist attacks on New York landmarks in 1993.

Hesham and Abdullah both count the Blind Sheikh as their religious guide, and when I expressed a desire to meet him, Hesham prayed aloud that I would have my wish. “Inshallah you will take shahada”—that is, recite the Arabic sentence that signals conversion—“when you meet him.”

Until then, Hesham and his friends would take their turns softening me up.

THE SALAFI MOVEMENT is the squeakiest wheel in Egyptian Islamist politics—not as powerful as the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, but louder and more visible, relative to size. The two movements arose in the same Islamist awakening in the middle of the last century, then split apart in the 1980s when the Salafis grew more radical. Some quietist Salafis eschewed politics for ultra-religious private lives. But a Salafi-jihadi fringe adopted terrorist tactics to overthrow the government. This group suffered acutely. They were forced underground, and when they poked up their heads, the secular government hunted them like prairie dogs. Many were imprisoned; some were tortured. 

But after last year’s revolution, Salafis fielded candidates under the Nour Party, which won a quarter of the votes for Egypt’s parliament, behind only the Brotherhood. The vestigial pro–Hosni Mubarak elements and secular democrats hardly matter anymore, so the Salafis stand as the Muslim Brotherhood’s main opposition. They believe that the only way back to the righteous path is an almost Talibanesque program of shariah law.

Even the Abdel-Rahman supporters are, as of now, on sabbatical from their old ways of mass slaughter, but some have mused openly about a return to violence. When Hamas exchanged Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners last year, Salafis suggested that a similar deal might yield a swap for the Blind Sheikh. They’ve also appeared at a variety of public events to agitate for draconian punishment—generally death—for a range of offenses, including democracy promotion and the airing of the “Innocence of Muslims” YouTube clip. When Egyptians besieged the U.S. Embassy, Salafis breached its walls first and flew flags associated with Al Qaeda.

Visibility on the streets of Cairo is only one prong of the Salafi’s expansionist strategy. The other is vigorous recruiting. But recruitment presents a special problem for Salafis: Since they are so intolerant of other types of Islam, they repel other conservative Muslims, who don’t like being told how wrong and doomed they are. As a result, Salafis have to spend a lot of time wooing outsiders, such as non-Muslims or non-religious Muslims, who have no preexisting theology to offend. A 2009 Salafi-jihadi recruiting manual ranked people by how likely they were to convert. It put the non-religious first and the deeply religious—especially “memorizers of the Koran”—last. (Its author also suggested that Salafis “take the recruit on a picnic,” which seems like nice advice.)

A non-religious, non-Muslim journalist like me would be a major prize. So it didn’t seem odd one evening in January when Hesham allowed another Salafi to observe our conversation. Twice before, he had been accompanied by female understudies dressed in the full, black, figure-covering niqab.

But this time something was different. The woman at the shop wore no niqab, and her small, black veil left her round face visible. She stayed silent and looked at the floor, so at first I couldn’t make out her features. But about 20 minutes into the session, she looked up and showed me her eyes. I was a little surprised to see epicanthic folds—the gentle crinkled lids of an Asian woman, probably Malay or Indonesian. I didn’t let my glance linger: I had never seen a Salafi woman’s face and suspected that staring would be verboten.

Hesham eventually excused himself to make us tea. As soon as he disappeared into the kitchen, the woman signaled me discreetly. “Do you have a phone number?” she whispered to me in English. “For emergency.” I could now see that her veil clung to her head a little lopsidedly, as if she had just started wearing it. I deduced two things: that she was Japanese, and that she was absolutely terrified of the man pouring us tea in the next room.

HESHAM IS a late arrival to the Salafi movement. Born in Cairo in 1959 to a not-especially-religious family, he immigrated to New York City in the early 1980s as a spindly kid in search of a job. He found one at Three Star Tailors near the United Nations building, and he also worked with mixed success as an importer, living between Egypt and the United States for the next 25 years. 

By the late 1990s, many Egyptians were shuddering at Abdel-Rahman’s organization’s slaughtering of tourists. Hesham, by contrast, was inspired by the Blind Sheikh’s sermons and chose that moment to join the movement. The Mubarak government noticed Hesham’s newfound devotion, and after jailing and torturing him in 2000, offered him a choice: exile or death.

He chose Brooklyn. And he liked it: No one minded when he casted aggressively for converts, and he could pray when and how he wished. He worked as a master tailor, this time making $5,000 suits for wealthy clients, including Paul Newman. (“Jewish,” Hesham sniffs. “He gave all his money to Israel.”) But in 2009, Homeland Security expelled him on immigration violations, and he was forced to move back to Cairo with his wife and two children. While waiting for his final deportation order in a Manhattan holding center, he says he converted six other detainees, plus one guard.

Over many hours in Salafi company (not only Hesham’s), I observed that he was part of a network of conversion experts, no less talented or dedicated than any religion’s front-line missionaries. They were clever and hard-working, capable of deviating from scripts when their mark threw them oddball questions or unexpected replies. And they worked in concert.

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 Salafidominated apartment blocks, and he directed me to one called Medinat al-Zuhur, or City of Flowers.

On arrival for noon prayers, I found a neighborhood quite devoid of flowers or any other physical beauty. Less than a mile away, there was a Sheraton resort, with beach restaurants and surf. Here, the streets were dirty and the buildings dust-caked. I looked for the mosque and found one with elegant calligraphy outside. Within seconds of entering, though, I got a call from Hesham’s agents, who said I was in the wrong mosque and sounded peeved that I would mistake it for their own.

Their mosque turned out to be hardly a building at all—more of a shed, with crude walls around an area smaller than half a tennis court. Light came through gaps in the wall and from a few cheap curly fluorescent bulbs that hung down from the ceiling and reminded me, blasphemously, of pigtails. The structure conformed to the Salafi ideal; it lacked adornment and art, and indeed resembled a place where one might expect a desert prophet to feel at home.

Hesham had arranged for two Salafis to meet me: Ahmed, a religious student, and Sherif, an engineer. Before and after prayers, I heard only Arabic in the mosque—and always classical Arabic, never the street-level dialect typical of Egyptian daily life. (Using classical Arabic is a Salafi point of pride, as abnormal and deliberate as medieval monks speaking Latin in daily life.) Foreigners were present but shy. A Dutchman was pointed out (he wouldn’t talk), and on the mosque door, I noticed an ad in Russian for plane tickets.

After prayers, Ahmed, Sherif, and others surrounded me in a horseshoe and pressed me on theology. Sherif, who lives part-time in the United States and whose wife is Japanese, spoke English and led the conversation. Low whistles were emitted when I mentioned having visited the beautiful Sayyid Al Badawi mosque in Tanta on the way here— Salafis accuse the Sufis of saint-worship at that mosque—and before long the discussion devolved into a forceful lecture, a psychologically wearying brainwash session that fit more Salafi propaganda into my head in an hour than I thought possible.

Once it was over, they conferred in Arabic about what to do with me. I didn’t reveal that I could understand much of what they said, so they spoke bluntly. “He is questioning the unity of God,” one fumed. “Idolatry,” said another. Finally, they decided I could not be trusted to remain on a track toward conversion if left to myself.

“Listen,” Sherif said in English. “Where are you staying?” I named a downtown neighborhood with a bunch of good hotels. He suggested, in a way that was grave and welcoming at the same time, that I might be better off remaining in the City of Flowers. When I stood firm, someone asked Sherif what I said. He replied in frustrated Arabic: “He’s staying among the infidels.”

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.” So no one should be surprised that the criteria for proper practice of Islam would be extremely strict. 

Hesham was a connoisseur of divine sadism and frightened me often with previews of hellfire. But he also cajoled me sweetly now and then, prodding me to say the shahada—“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is God’s messenger”—as soon as possible or, at the very latest, when I met the Blind Sheikh. (Prison authorities have denied my interview requests.)

“Just say it,” he said. “Repeat after me.”

“I can’t,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t believe it’s true.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “Allah likes it when his slaves say this. Just say it.”

“Wouldn’t I be lying? And isn’t lying worse than saying nothing at all?”

Traditionally, one element of valid conversion is intent. You can’t accidentally say the words, or say them when you’re drunk or lying, and be sure the conversion counts.

Intent, however, was not Hesham’s priority. “You have your part to do, and Allah has his part,” he told me. “Your part is to say the words. And if Allah loves you, he will put the belief in your heart. But you have to do your part with the tongue, and then he helps you with the heart.” I asked him if I would, upon saying the words even without belief, be a Muslim.

“Yes,” he said.

GIVEN THAT that low standard for conversion, I started to see the world through his eyes: filled with potential Salafis who could, with just a little coaxing, be converted and cleansed. This vision reminded me of the alleged Scientology practice of counting as a member anyone who has taken even just a single course or filled out a personality test. New Muslims could be minted by the truckload each day, as long as they could be brought into Hesham’s presence, taught a little theology, and induced to mouth a few Arabic words. La ilaha ilallahu, wa Muhammad ar-Rasulillah. Say it. Blammo, now you’re a Muslim. 

In Alexandria, I visited a Salafi outreach center. When I walked in the door, the missionaries were poring over maps of Benin, the troubled West African country famous as the birthplace of voodoo, in preparation for a proselytizing trip. I browsed the bookshelves and picked out a German translation of the Koran. Moments later, a middle-aged man chatted me up in fluent, idiomatic German. He claimed he had never been to a German-speaking country but had studied so he could talk to people on the Web. Would I care to repeat a few words with him?

Compared with Hesham, however, this guy was a minor-leaguer. Hesham had in spades the Salafi talent of citing scripture and hadith to answer any question asked, no matter how arcane or mundane. There was a Salafi way to walk down the street, a Salafi way to pick your teeth, a Salafi way of tailoring clothes (the tunic should be cut relatively short, leaving the ankles showing). Since total spiritual confidence is what makes Salafism attractive in the first place, he was the ideal person for a potential convert to meet.

That explained the mysterious Japanese convert’s presence in his shop: She was there to learn. But something was obviously wrong. After begging for my phone number—“for emergency”—she asked me if I sometimes had trouble in Egypt and how I got out of it. I mumbled something about making sure I had friends to help me out. Then I asked her where she was from, and she explained that she was from Yokohama but had been teaching Japanese in Vladivostok.

“Do you speak Russian?” I asked in Russian.

At this, her lungs filled with oxygen, and she let forth not a simple “Da!” but a long, scared, uncomfortably loud explanation of her predicament. (My Russian could not keep up, so I had to fill in details later. “Slowly,” I told her, to no avail.)

Her name was Hoshi. During a rough patch, she had met two Egyptian men online, and they lured her to Cairo with the promise of a job and friendship. On arrival, she converted to Islam at the Egyptians’ request. Then everything went badly: The job didn’t work out and her new Internet friends cut her off, under pressure from their families to stay away from a strange unrelated foreign woman. Then her landlord robbed her and her friends dropped her, nearly broke, at Hesham’s doorstep. As part of his service to a nongovernmental organization, which she called “the Organization” and which Hesham called “The Charity for New Muslims,” Hesham would be her one-man welcoming committee into Islam.

It sounded suspiciously like a trap—a ruse to get her on a plane, isolated, and at the mercy of strangers. Whether she had been lured as part of a scheme, I don’t know, and Hoshi declined to guess. But she was getting the Salafi hard sell now, and they were not letting her escape to kafir-land without a fight.

She feared that she would be cut off from the world. “That tailor guy let me talk to an American woman who converted,” Hoshi said. “She said they would not even let her leave the apartment.” Already they had been advising her sternly to hand over her phone and computer. Hesham called up a health spa where she had a job interview and told the manager she would not be coming in. Her wallet was almost empty. Would her passport be taken away next?

Hesham returned with the tea, looking troubled to hear us gabbling in a language he didn’t understand. I told him that she explained that she needed a place to stay and that I offered a spare room in the apartment my partner and I shared. “Don’t worry!” he said. “I have a very nice place for her in Mohandiseen.” Mohandiseen was the part of town where the American woman said she was imprisoned.

Hoshi looked even more stricken than before. “If you need a place, we’re happy to help you for a few days,” I told her in English. “And if you need help,” I added in Russian, “call me any time, day or night.”

WITHIN HOURS the texts came. “I want to leave the Organization,” said one. “Please can you meet me today as soon as possible,” said another. Since she said her phone was monitored, for a little extra security I asked her to write in Russian, which she did immediately. A Russian-speaking friend reluctantly helped me write back. “I have to live in this city,” she said crossly, not wanting to get on the wrong side of the Salafis. 

The next day, Hoshi slipped out of her Salafi apartment undetected and, taking great care to avoid being followed, met me in the garden of a Marriott hotel. Her veil had slipped to her shoulders. She looked relieved. Before anything else, I told her that I would be expressing no opinion about Islam or Salafism. But if she felt endangered, I would help her. I passed her my mobile phone, which had the Japanese consul waiting on the other end, and they discussed options in Japanese for about 15 minutes. Satisfied that she was comfortable with her plan, I pressed cab fare into her hand and sent her away.

A few days later, she called again, saying that she thought she had extracted herself from the Organization. I had referred her to a couple cheap Japanese-friendly hotels, and I think she stayed at one for a night or two. “Be careful of that tailor guy,” she said at the end of our chat. “He says I should not talk to you. He thinks you are spy.”

Within a few days, her phone was dead, and I stopped hearing from her.

MONTHS LATER, an e-mail came through: Hoshi was still in Cairo and would meet me for dinner. I took her to a French restaurant, and she described how she had left the Organization, fending off persistent entreaties from multiple Salafis who had somehow got her new number. But the calls stopped, and now her main struggles were with the rapists and thugs who prowled the downtown flophouse where she lived while scraping together cash for a trip home. 

But before I learned about Hoshi’s fate, I stopped at Hesham’s shop unannounced and asked where she was. I had left Hoshi at the Marriott just days before, and for all I knew she was stashed behind a locked door in a Salafi apartment somewhere. Before I met Hoshi, I could greet Hesham as a friend. But now his sunny face shone with the cruel smile of a jailer. He told me that I shouldn’t worry about Hoshi, that he had taken care of her.

“Do you think I’m a spy?” I asked.

He evaded my question masterfully. It didn’t matter if I was a spy or not, Hesham said. He was telling me about Islam. And the Salafi message didn’t vary according to who heard it, just as Islam didn’t change—or shouldn’t have—between the eighth century and the twenty-first.

I told him that it might not matter to him whether my utterances were sincere—but it mattered to me. And I didn’t want him to think I had come to him falsely. I had arrived as a skeptical journalist and would soon be leaving as one; he shouldn’t think the hours we spent burning our fingers on tea were some kind of CIA plot.

Hesham had, in a way, been exceptionally open and forthright. And yet a pall of distrust now darkened the room.

He said Allah didn’t much care whether I was a spy or not. What mattered was only whether I spoke the words, and whether when I met my maker I responded to his questions with precision and accuracy. Would today be the day I took shahada, he asked?

I said no to Hesham many times, but that time was the easiest.

Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. This article appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of The New Republic under the headline Preacher, Tailor, Zealot, Spy: Conversations with a Salafi harvester of souls.