Defector from extremism recounts his journey
Washington - Ahmed Abdellahy was a shy kid. As a teenager, he eschewed social groups and thought girls were “aliens”. In 2000, while enrolled at the Beirut Arab University in Cairo, he found himself on the sidelines of the social spectrum. It was there that he fell in with Islamists who embraced him as a brother and made him feel he was superior to those who had ignored him.
“You have your own gang and they call you ‘brother’. Suddenly you’re above everyone else. You’re better than the people at university. They’re all sinners,” he told The Arab Weekly after delivering a talk at the Washington think-tank New America Foundation.
Abdellahy recalled how he grew a beard and assumed a stricter practice of Islam. He stopped shaking hands with women and no longer greeted Christians, including friends of his father who had been fixtures at Abdellahy’s home throughout his youth. He wanted to leave Egypt to wage jihad somewhere but did not have an opportunity to put this plan into action. Instead, he stayed at home and spent hours discussing the minutiae of Salafi Islam with his new friends.
“When you prostrate during prayer, should your hands touch the floor first or your knees? Your gilbab, should it fall above the ankle or a bit higher still? These were the things that preoccupied us,” he said.
Abdellahy grew frustrated with what he thought was a stagnant conversation about religion and spirituality so he read books and other free information online. He came to realise that the sheikhs he listened to were cherry-picking their sermons from original sources and he grew suspicious of the men who had declared themselves interpreters of Islam.
However, the event that jolted him out of his extremism was when Chechen rebels seized a school in Beslan, Russia, in 2004, and killed 385 people, including 186 children.
“It was disgusting and there’s no excuse for it but the people around me justified it,” he said. “That was the turning point for me and it took two years of gradual withdrawal before I completely abandoned the extremist ideology.”
Anne Speckhard, a psychologist at Georgetown University and author of ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of Confronting the Caliphate, said Abdellahy’s journey is typical of many defectors from terrorism.
“Ahmed was initially vulnerable to recruitment because he felt rejected. From his perspective, the Islamists looked respectable and willing to accept him and if girls were rejecting him before, suddenly he was in control because he is not shaking their hands,” she said.
“And people turn away from groups like this after witnessing extreme brutality, especially against women and kids. They become turned off and Beslan was going too far for many initial supporters. Even the Chechen groups changed strategy after that.”
Abdellahy runs a blog called ElOutsider2007, commemorating the year he abandoned extremism. His writings challenge the belief system of those he once called brothers. He knows he is risking accusations of apostasy and the death sentence that comes with it.
Abdellahy is one of a growing number of young Arabs who use the internet to access and disseminate alternative information, including atheists and other counter-culturalists who challenge religious authority and dogma at the risk of imprisonment or worse. Abdellahy said Egyptian authorities are too quick to suppress young intellectuals and liberals.
Nadia Oweidat, a senior fellow at New America Foundation and a scholar at Georgetown University, said the political and legal atmospheres in the Arab world create a fertile environment for extremism.
“The problem is when you engage in debate about reforming Islamic thought, you end up breaking draconian blasphemy laws. There are many intellectuals and thinkers from around the Arab world in prison because of these laws. Yet, if you want to become an extremist, the road is wide open for you,” she said.
Abdellahy said Egypt’s educational system was a primer for his extremist views. He was taught, for example, that Christians are impure.
Abdellahy’s candid recollection of his personal journey triggered hostility from some in the audience, similar to the typical reactions such a conversation invokes in much of the Arab world. One man claimed that Abdellahy knew nothing about Islam, saying: “You’re not a scholar of Islam. What do you really know?”
Another attendee said the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan was “the source of Islamic extremism”.
A young woman and recent convert to Islam accused Abdellahy of not addressing violence committed by the United States.
Abdellahy, who recently moved to the United States to pursue his education, said he would continue to blog about religion and extremism and planned to translate his blog into English.