Brother Hesham El Ashry, the host of the Egyptian talk show The Court of the Scholars, lured me on the air with a tantalizing offer: the chance to ask a Muslim cleric anything I wanted, on live television. “Anything?,” I asked.
“Anything,” he said. “You can even ask”—and here his eyes twinkled—“whether the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a child-molester.”
I met Hesham last year, at a sit-in next to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo—the same building that a Salafi-led crowd stormed in September. Fifty-three years old, short, and bearded, he spoke English well, having spent years as a tailor in Manhattan. (He made suits for Paul Newman.) At the sit-in, he acted as an unofficial spokesman for Omar Abdel Rahman, the 74-year-old “Blind Sheikh” serving a life sentence in the United States for conspiring to blow up New York landmarks in 1993. In Egypt, the Blind Sheikh is known as the spiritual guide of the Islamic Group, the proto–al-Qaeda organization accused of butchering 58 tourists and four Egyptians in Luxor in 1997. Hesham was working tirelessly to persuade the U.S. to free the sheikh.
Hesham and I spent many hours in his Cairo tailor shop talking theology and drinking tea. He adheres to the school of Islam known to many outsiders as Wahhabism, and to its practitioners as Salafism—an attempt to pare back the past 1,400 years of religious innovation and so-called progress, and instead mimic the austere desert ways of the Prophet and his companions. The Egyptian government vigorously persecuted the sect through the Mubarak years, but now Salafis are free to proselytize on television and lead violent protests—including the deadly ones in Egypt and Libya against the infamous Innocence of Muslims video. They have emerged as the chief rivals of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, and have ambitious plans to replace Egypt’s Brotherhood-led government with a strict sharia state, à la the Taliban.