On June 4, 2013, a month before Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, was toppled by a coup d’état, a forum was held in Cairo under the title “Islam and Democracy.” The panel’s main attraction was Hamed Abdel-Samad, whose incendiary memoir, My Farewell from Heaven, had raised suspicion among religious authorities in the country. Dressed casually in a purple polo and speaking in simple, layman’s Arabic, the 41-year-old writer addressed the small crowd of mostly university students with a message that would soon endanger his life.
“Islam has a key problem,” he began, as the room fell silent. Drawing on his experiences as a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdel-Samad argued that Islam promotes an inherently violent ideology, displaying many of the same characteristics as twentieth-century European fascism: an exclusive claim to truth, hostility toward modernity and an imperialist vision of world domination. “Yet unlike fascism in Europe,” he concluded, “Islam has yet to be trounced.”
After the talk, Abdel-Samad took a taxi home to his apartment on the outskirts of Cairo. He awoke the next morning to find his face, name and address broadcast on Channel 2, one of Egypt’s largest national television stations, with the announcement that a fatwa had been issued against him. Below his face, the words “WANTED DEAD” were written in Arabic in large, yellow block letters. The additional message was clear, notwithstanding its unintentional irony: “Behead those who call Islam violent.”
Overnight the video of Abdel-Samad’s talk had reached an audience of 250,000 on YouTube, provoking three Islamic preachers to call for his death. By the time rumors began circulating in the media that Abdel-Samad was missing, abducted, possibly even killed, he was hundreds of miles away in Europe, having fled via a circuitous escape route devised by the German ambassador. Two weeks later, he was living in an apartment in Berlin.
The threat of violence, however, along with more complicated forms of censorship, would eventually follow him to his new continent. Three years later, in August 2016, Le Monde reported that Abdel-Samad’s French publisher Jean-Marc Loubet had suddenly withdrawn from his contract to publish Abdel-Samad’s second book, Islamic Fascism. “I’m very sorry,” Loubet wrote to Abdel-Samad, “But we cannot take the risk of publishing such a book.” In addition to the physical danger—two weeks earlier, a Tunisian immigrant had rammed a truck into the Bastille Day crowd gathered in Nice—Loubet cited the publishing house’s reluctance to lend credence to the newly resurgent European right, which was being fueled by (and fueling) anti-Islamic sentiment. “I’ve seen polemics increase among politicians and hate speech about Muslims,” he wrote. “We cannot add water to the mill.”
Abdel-Samad was furious. “This is how far we’ve come in Europe,” he wrote in response, for the German political blog Achgut. “It was not long ago that this publisher wrote: Je Suis Charlie. Today, he writes: I am scared of becoming Charlie. Voltaire would turn over in his grave!”
Another French publisher agreed to publish Islamic Fascism six months later, with little incident. But questions about how to respond to Abdel-Samad’s writing persist across Europe and in his new home country, where threats on his life have earned him police protection along with a polarizing celebrity. If his talk in Cairo turned into a one-way ticket out of Egypt, it also opened the door to a peculiar kind of fame in the West.
In November 2016, on the night before Donald Trump would be elected president of the United States, I caught up with Abdel-Samad on his latest book tour in Rossdorf, a town of twelve thousand about an hour outside of Frankfurt. Far from Berlin’s multi-ethnic streets, Rossdorf is a reminder of the Germany that remains predominantly white, German-speaking, and largely Protestant-Lutheran. But Islam, formerly a matter of indifference in the region, had recently become an issue of acute concern, and there was not an empty seat in the house.
“How many of you have actually read the Qur’an?” Abdel-Samad began, somewhat mischievously, from behind a wooden lectern. Stocky with black hair scraped over an encroaching bald spot, Abdel-Samad wore a habitual scowl that he occasionally relaxed into a shy smile. After only a couple of hands wafted into the air, he paused: “That’s exactly what I’m here for.”