Exiled Egyptian cleric Ahmed Subhy Mansour, whose teachings have earned him dozens of death “fatwas” from fellow Muslim clerics, uses the English translation for al Qaeda — meaning “the base” — to describe a plan to defeat Osama bin Laden and other terrorists, who he says have seized control of Islam.
“Suppose you have here [in the United States] a base to counter al Qaeda in the war of ideas?” Sheik Mansour asked during a recent luncheon at The Washington Times.
“You could convince a large number — millions of silent Muslims. We can convince them very easily that the real enemy is not the United States. It is not Israel. The real enemy is the dictators in the Muslim world and the culture of the Wahhabis and Muslim Brotherhood,” he said, referring to the dominant arbiters of Islamic orthodoxy in Saudi Arabia and Egypt respectively.
Sheik Mansour is the founder of a small Egyptian sect that is neither Sunni nor Shi”ite. They call themselves Quranists because they believe that the Koran represents the single authentic scripture of Islam. They especially anger Sunni Muslims by rejecting the Hadith and Sunna, purported sayings and traditions of the prophet Muhammad.
“Killing people just because they are not Muslims, they have a Hadith for this. To kill a Muslim like me after accusing him to be an ‘apostate,” they have a Hadith for this. To persecute the Jews, they have a Hadith for this.
“All this is garbage. It has nothing to do with Islam. It contradicts more than one-fourth of the Koranic verses,” Sheik Mansour said.
A former professor of Islamic history at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, he was expelled in 1987 as the Muslim equivalent of a “heretic” and was briefly imprisoned by Egyptian authorities. After subsequent waves of persecution, he finally fled Egypt just months after the September 11, 2001, attacks and received political asylum in the United States the next year.
More recently, in May and June, Egyptian authorities arrested five leaders of the movement, including Sheik Mansour”s brother, on charges of “insulting Islam” and began investigations of 15 others, with the intent, he said, to destroy the entire movement.
From exile in the United States, he continues to attack the Islam of bin Laden and the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia that gave birth to bin Laden”s beliefs. Sheik Mansour also attacks the Islamist vision of Egypt”s Muslim Brotherhood, a group that rejects violence but shares the goal of a theocratic nationhood under Shariah, or Islamic law.
Though illegal in Egypt, the Brotherhood is allowed to operate openly in an uneasy truce with the government. Police round up its members whenever it delves too publicly in politics — for example, by holding anti-government demonstrations. But the Brotherhood”s interpretation of Shariah provides a benchmark for Egyptian law, which is based primarily on Shariah.
“We are not against the people. We are against this culture that will produce more and more generations of fanaticism. We go to the core of this culture and prove that it contradicts the Koran,” Sheik Mansour said.
“Few Americans understand that the battle against terrorism is a war of ideas,” Sheik Mansour said. “It is a war that is very different from the military in its tactics, its strategy and its weapons.
“Suicide bombings are just one aspect of this war. They brainwash young men to blow themselves up, to kill randomly. Our mission is to convince him, to undeceive them, to convince them that what he is doing is against Islam. He will lose his life and lose his afterlife as well.”
Sheik Mansour claims about 10,000 followers in Egypt who accept his teachings, many of whom are part of his extended family.
“We find Islam has the same values as the West: freedom, unlimited freedom of speech, justice, equality, loving, humanity, tolerance, mercy, everything. This is our version of Islam, and we argue that this is the core of Islam according to the Koran.”
He and his sons operate the Quranic Center in Northern Virginia, which includes an elaborate Internet site in Arabic and English. On its Web site at www.ahl-alquran.com, the organization is republishing dozens of Sheik Mansour”s books and hundreds of articles he has written over the years.
The campaign is not without risk. One can find a sampling of fatwas, or edicts by other Muslim scholars against the Quranists, including one saying, “We have issued our commands to the soldiers of God to worship God by pouring out their blood and burning their homes.”
Sheik Mansour said in response: “I do not care about my safety, but I do care about my persecuted people in Egypt.”
Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute”s Institute of Religious Freedom, said arrests of the Quranists reflect an attempt by Egypt”s government to demonstrate its loyalty to Islam to fend off challenges from even more extreme Islamists who want to impose much harsher restrictions on the Arab world”s most populous nation.
“These arrests are part of the Egyptian government’s double game in which it imprisons members of the Muslim Brotherhood when the latter appear to become too powerful, while simultaneously trying to appear Islamic itself and blunt the Brotherhood’s appeal by cracking down on religious reformers, who are very often also democracy activists,” Mr. Marshall wrote in a recent edition of the Weekly Standard.
The arrests of the Quranists received a brief mention in the latest annual report on International Religious Freedom by the State Department, which noted the arrests of five Quranists and defined the group as “a small group of Muslims who rely largely if not exclusively on the Qur’an as authoritative for Islam, to the exclusion of the prophetic traditions [Hadith] and other sources of Islamic law.”
One detainee told an Egyptian human rights investigator that he was beaten and threatened with rape by one interrogator, the State Department report says.
Since arriving in the states, Sheik Mansour has held a number of academic posts. In 2002, he was a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, where he wrote on the roots of democracy in Islam.
Thenext year, he received a visiting fellowship at Harvard Law School”s Human Rights Program.
He also briefly met Karen P. Hughes, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, last year in the office of Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican.The meeting, Sheik Mansour said, lasted for 10 minutes, barely enough for polite introductions.
“I said: ‘Please, let me sit down with you for more time. I have big plan,” ” he recalled. But there was no follow-up.
“We need official American help for our arrested people in Egypt,” he said. “We don”t want money. We are talking about releasing our arrested people, saving the lives of scholars, bringing them to the U.S., granting them asylum to help establish this new base for moderate Islam.”