My Conversion Will Not Be Televised

How I ended up on TV debating Salafism with an Egyptian cleric

Egyptian protesters attend Friday prayers near the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in mid-September. (Nasser Nasser/AP)

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.

Early this year, Hesham started guest-hosting for Al Hafez, a Salafi station best known for letting a cleric call the actress Ilham Shahin a whore on the air. (She has filed a lawsuit.) The Court of the Scholars features theological discussion, and Hesham thought our conversations might make good TV. He’d bring on a scholar to debate theology with me. God willing, I’d lose the argument but save my soul by converting on the air.

Video: Graeme Wood debates a professor of Islam on Court of the Scholars

In August, I joined him in his studio. Gamal Abd al Satar, professor of Islamic creed and philosophy at Al Azhar University, resplendent in a Western suit and trimmed beard, would represent Islam. I, a journalist who recently wrote a piece for this magazine about a pro wrestler who stabs his opponents with forks, would represent Christendom.

The set was well appointed and clean, like one you might see on the Home Shopping Network. Hesham introduced me to viewers, sweetening them up by recounting how I had tried to interview the Blind Sheikh. Then he let me ask my first question. (My Arabic is too weak for formal debate, so Hesham translated.)

At his request, I had come up with a list of stumpers. (I declined to ask about Muhammad’s alleged pedophilia, since Hesham clearly had a zinging response planned.) Unbeknownst to him, I had canvassed a few friends and scholars for especially tough questions. One professor, a Western expert in Islamic law, suggested that I ask whether Salafis thought it was odd that their version of Islam had been ignored for more than 1,000 years, only to gain prominence today. Did that mean all of their ancestors were hell-bound? Another scholar—a gay Jew—told me in an e-mail that he found the prospect of such a debate appalling. “Since you have asked for my advice it is this: do not dignify them by your presence.”

Hesham, I knew, relished any chance to tell non-Muslims about the tortures that awaited them in the afterlife. So I started by asking his scholar how I could possibly love God, when He was so keen on flambéing me if I crossed Him. “When someone embraces Islam,” I asked, “does the person have to have a different view of love?”

“Islam is built on love,” my debate partner, who is known as Sheikh Gamal, responded. “And scaring people is something that can be done out of love. When you warn your child not to do something, because it’s dangerous for him, it is out of love.”

I tried to point out that stern words and spankings were one thing, and the threat of having one’s skin eternally restored by God so it can be blistered up and ripped off, again and again, forever, was something else. “Is the kind of love that a parent has for a child the same kind of love God has for His creations?” Sheikh Gamal admitted that the parent-child relationship was an imperfect comparison.

This conception of love seemed difficult to untangle. So I tried peace. “In the English-speaking world,” I said, “we know the phrase Islam is a religion of peace. Even George W. Bush said this.”

“He’s a liar,” Hesham said.

“But there are some religions, such as Jainism in India, whose followers don’t even brush their teeth, because they are afraid of killing bacteria!”

“That’s dirty,” Hesham said.

“And some types of Christianity say that when you are hit, you should turn the other cheek. So I’m curious,” I continued. “Are these religions even more ‘religions of peace’ than Islam?”

Sheikh Gamal defended his stance fiercely. “If Islam is a religion of peace means that Islam stops harm, then yes, Islam is the leader in stopping harm to people, to animals, to insects,” he said, pointing out that Islam prescribes onerous rules for waging war.

“But some other religions would suggest that you simply don’t fight at all. Isn’t this more peaceful?”

“Self-defense is natural, though it depends on what the situation is,” he said. “Is it right for Islam not to defend itself? If your wife and children are attacked, aren’t you going to defend yourself?”

I brought up nonviolent resistance again, and the example of Gandhi. “It sounds to me like Islam is a religion of peace, but when it’s attacked, it stops being a religion of peace.”

Now Sheikh Gamal hedged. “God did not want man to be humiliated,” he said, adding that God demanded respect for humanity. “Peace means preventing any humiliation or attacks against honor. Without this defense, there is no peace.” That type of peace sounded obviously more threatening than even the most bellicose kind of Jainism or Quakerism, so I let my point stand.

For the next hour, as we cut, thrust, and parried, text messages sent in by viewers crawled along the bottom of the screen, including prayers for my conversion. I grilled Sheikh Gamal about the status of women in Islamic countries, and asked why women seem to suffer more harassment in countries where they are veiled. He replied that first, I was mistaken—many Egyptian women aren’t really veiled; they cover just their hair and wear too-tight clothing, rather than going for the billowing reverse Full Monty favored by Salafis—and second, the United Nations had affirmed that there is less sexual harassment in Muslim countries than anywhere else. (I have been unable to find any such affirmation.) I asked whether he’d be comfortable executing someone under sharia law, given that he’d be answerable before the Almighty if the person were innocent. He replied that the standards of evidence under sharia are very high. His confidence was breathtaking, and left me wondering whether the TV station should try broadcasting some kind of CSI: Mecca.

After an hour and a half of debate, Hesham and Sheikh Gamal let me speak last. I said that I was impressed by the openness they had displayed in letting me take 90 minutes’ worth of potshots at their religion. Afterward, while I was de-miked, the switchboard flashed with callers wanting to know whether I had converted yet. Sheikh Gamal’s mobile rang with friends asking the same.

My own phone remained silent, with nary a caller bothering to ask whether Sheikh Gamal was converting to Quakerism.