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Three years later, in August 2016, Le Monde reported that Abdel-Samad’s French publisher Jean-Marc Loubet had suddenly withdrawn from his contract to publish Abdel-Samad’s second book, Islamic Fascism.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.”
He spent the next ninety minutes reciting the lecture he’d been delivering for the past three years—one that echoed the central argument of his books: that Islam was fundamentally incompatible with modern, Western civilization. For Abdel-Samad, fundamentalist or “political Islam,” as he often calls it, cannot not be explained historically—say, as a reaction to colonialism—or addressed by a more sensitive multicultural politics. Because Islam has never developed an adequate culture of internal criticism, he argues, the faith offers its adherents few tools to adapt to modernity and globalization. “Muslim believers assume the Qur’an was revealed by God himself—it’s forbidden to ever be changed. This is exactly the problem,” he said, between sips of seltzer water. He spoke entirely from memory. “It’s not easy for a young Muslim to live in the modern world.”
When he finished speaking, nearly the entire crowd sprang from their seats in applause. An older man, clutching a pint of beer, shot his hand into the air. “We have to deal three times a week with Islam!” The man said, turning to face the crowd. “Why aren’t you sitting on a national public committee?”
Abdel-Samad laughed, explaining he’d been a part of the Islam Conference, a committee selected by the government to discuss the integration of Muslims into German society. But he’d quit the group. “All the intellectuals are gone, and Islamic associations dryly discuss the establishment of Muslim welfare associations, Muslim kindergartens, Muslim hospitals. Why do we need Muslim kindergartens? I’m sorry, but why?”
The crowd laughed, then clapped. Someone asked why the media was giving a platform to radical Islamic views. Another wondered how the Qur’an could be squared with the German constitution. Abdel-Samad answered each question calmly and at length, looking disappointed when the moderator stood up and waved her arms above her head. Immediately, a line webbed to the back of the room for signed copies of one of his latest books, The Case Against Mohammed. In line I met Herbert Blum, a 65-year-old man from the neighboring town of Darmstadt, who was eager to express his disapproval of Merkel’s immigration policies. “If I were a politician, I’d say stop every Muslim coming into our country!” he said, smiling at me. “We cannot integrate.”
Germany has had a substantial Muslim population since World War II. In 1961, hundreds of thousands of Turks were invited as “guest workers” into factories in Germany’s industrial zones. The German understanding was that the Turks would send remittances to their families, and eventually return to their native country; instead, many of them brought their families to Germany. By the Seventies, the Turkish population in Germany had grown to two million, and densely packed communities full of Turkish bakeries, kebab stands and mosques began to form in neighborhoods that ran parallel to German society—confronting the Germans with a new problem: integration.
But although Germany boasts of its Willkommenskultur (“welcome culture”), it has not traditionally regarded itself as a nation of immigrants. In 1982, Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl famously declared, “Germany is not an immigrant country!” Citizenship rights are primarily granted on the basis of jus sanguinis (“right of blood”)—meaning that to be a German citizen one must have parents who are German citizens, regardless of place of birth. In 2000 the law changed to jus soli(“right of the soil”), granting citizenship rights to those born in Germany to parents who have lived in the country for at least eight years. Yet despite the change in law, an underlying question is still being debated: Can someone without jus sanguinis—just jus soli—ever be considered echt Deutsch, or “truly German”?
In 2015, Chancellor Merkel appealed to Willkommenskultur when she sent special trains to pick up thousands of Syrian refugees stranded outside of Hungary’s closed doors. “It is our humanitarian duty,” she proclaimed. At the time, many Germans embraced this responsibility, flocking to welcome their new neighbors with chocolates and balloons. The country of 83 million now houses over six hundred thousand Syrian refugees.
Several incidents in the past two years, however, have dampened enthusiasm for Merkel’s initiative. On New Year’s Eve in 2015, in Cologne and several other cities, groups of Middle Eastern and North African men sexually assaulted and robbed hundreds of young German women. According to later reports, few, if any, of the men were Syrian refugees, but the event emboldened Germany’s far-right fringe group, “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West” (Pegida) to lead anti-immigration protests, carrying signs with the message “Rapefugees not welcome.”
Although less affected by jihadist terror than France or Belgium, Germany experienced a wave of isolated attacks in 2016, the most damaging coming in December when a Tunisian asylum seeker drove his truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, murdering twelve. Merkel’s response to each attack has been aimed predominantly at curbing Islamophobic backlash, and the response from Berliners appeared to be equally measured. When I visited the Breitscheidplatz market a week after the Berlin attack, the only reminder of what had happened was a small corner decorated with candles and flowers. A sign beneath the rubble read: Warum? (“Why?”)
But not everyone in Germany is content with stopping there. “Germany is no longer safe!” Frauke Petry, the 42-year-old leader of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Germany’s largest right-wing populist party, said in response to the Berlin attacks. “We must not indulge in illusions.” Another AfD member, chairman Marcus Pretzell, tweeted: “These are Merkel’s dead.”
In the September elections, the AfD—which began in 2013 (the same year that Abdel-Samad obtained permanent exile in Germany) as a faction against the European monetary union but now campaigns predominantly against the twin threats of immigration and Islam—won seats in parliament for the first time. On the other end of the spectrum, the leftist Green Party has called for Merkel to remove the cap on immigration and for the children of refugees born in Germany to be automatically granted German citizenship. The climate only appears to be growing more polarized. As a friend at a pro-democracy think tank put it to me, the issue of integrating Muslims into German society has reached a point that is “beyond conversation.”
When the book tour was over, I met Abdel-Samad at an Italian restaurant in West Berlin. Upon entering I was greeted by his security team—two men wearing heavy jackets who sat on opposite sides of Abdel-Samad and took turns taking “cigarette breaks” to check the premises outside.
Ahmad Mansour and Henryk Broder, both prominent writers and agitators living in Berlin, joined us for dinner. Mansour, an Arab Israeli and a self-described former Islamic radical, is known for his book Generation Allah, an argument for why the fight against religious extremism needs to be rethought. Mansour believes key actors in politics, civil society and public schools have been incapable of responding to youth radicalization; he currently runs a deradicalization program in Berlin, working with some of the same young men whose threats have necessitated Abdel-Samad’s police escort. It seems to have become a joke between them. “The Arab people hate him,” Mansour said, patting Abdel-Samad on the back.
“The left hates him too,” Broder added. “He’s lucky, we’re still here.” Broder, a 71-year-old TV personality and journalist, is known in Germany for his polemics against immigration, Islam and political correctness—a movement he described to me as “unconditional preemptive surrender” to leftist censorship. Often appearing on television in suspenders and thick, wire-rimmed glasses, Broder described meeting Abdel-Samad for the first time as “love at first sight.” In 2010, the pair created a television series called “The German Safari,” in which they took a thirty-thousand-kilometer road trip across Germany, asking neo-Nazis and ex-Stasi members provocative questions about Islam and Judaism.
When I met Broder for coffee a few months later, he showed up in bright red suspenders, and apologized for forgetting to wear his “Make America Great Again” hat. I quickly came to understand why Broder took a liking to Abdel-Samad: the Germans are trying to “make good to the Muslims what they did bad to the Jews,” he told me. He recited a laundry list of grievances: “Islam is not tolerant, not intellectual, not asking any questions, not challenging itself; it has no critical views of its own history.” When I asked him where he derived his ideas of Islam, he told me, “The people who attack the Twin Towers, and people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Hamed Abdel-Samad.”
A few days later, I went to meet Frank-Christian Hansel, the founding member of the Berlin chapter of the AfD. As we rode up in the elevator to his office, Hansel—dressed in a fitted gray suit, his hair combed into a neat bouffant—asked what I thought about Trump. When we reached the office, a bright red and blue campaign poster with Hansel’s face was thumbtacked outside the door, with the slogan: Berlin Kann Mehr! (“Berlin can be more!”)
Hansel believed Islam was antithetical to German values, adding that the “Muslim clan structure” made it more difficult to integrate Muslims than other immigrant populations. But the bigger problem, he argued, was “what Hamed Abdel-Samad says: that the Qur’an is the direct word of God.” He told me he preferred to use Abdel-Samad’s words when he spoke of Islam. “Hamed says the same thing we’re saying. Islam cannot be changed; it cannot go through the Enlightenment like the Christians.” After a moment, he asked me, “Do you read German?”
He slid open his laptop to his personal website, an entire section of which was devoted to Islam. He clicked on a link to a video of Abdel-Samad delivering a talk in front of the AfD in 2015, and buried his eyes behind the screen. “Ten thousand people saw that. That’s good!” He snapped the laptop shut, turning his attention back to me. “I have the same views on Islam as Hamed does; but it’s more authentic to talk about Islam from people who have suffered through it.”
Born the son of a Sunni preacher in 1972 in Abu Ghaleb, a village of twenty thousand on the Nile, Abdel-Samad’s childhood was characterized by constraint and rebellion. Because of his ability to memorize the Qur’an, he was expected to replace his father as the village imam. But he was, he recalls, “always questioning.” Instead of studying, he remembers sneaking out at night to dance with the Sufis, who attracted him with their ideas about free will. Later, he would read the novels of Naguib Mahfouz behind his father’s back, and when he turned sixteen he decided to study at Cairo University, rather than pursue a religious education. To his astonishment, his father let him leave.
Initially, Abdel-Samad told me, he felt misplaced and lonely when he moved to Cairo, in 1989. Soon, though, he began attending communist rallies with the Marxists at school. “The girls were beautiful,” he said. “And they were also monsters when it came to literature.” But a few months after he joined a leftist group at the university, the Soviet Union fell and Abdel-Samad quit, feeling that there was a “spiritual vacuum in Marxism.”
Abdel-Samad rummaged around for another ideology to fill the gap: in this case, encouraged by the Islamic groups that had begun to infiltrate his university, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood. “I was a lost soul in the middle of Cairo, and suddenly I was a part of God’s plan,” he recalls.
In the narrative he likes to tell, Abdel-Samad’s authority to speak about the repressiveness of Islam is grounded in his personal experience with it. He began praying five times a day, grew a short beard, and protested against the Mubarak regime. Soon he was sent to a desert training camp. Abdel-Samad was forced to walk for over a day in the dry desert heat, carrying nothing but a fresh orange. When the group’s emir allowed the young members to stop walking, they were instructed to peel their oranges and bury them in the ground. They could eat only the peels. “The bitterness of the peel in my throat—it was a real hit against my will, my individuality.” Abdel-Samad told me. “It’s exactly the strategy of those radical organizations, to break your will so you’ll be just a tomb to implement their orders.”
When he returned to Cairo, he changed apartments, left the Brotherhood and joined the Egyptian Army. Singled out for his English skills, Abdel-Samad was later sent to work for the ministry of defense, under General Hitler Tantawi (named after Adolf Hitler), translating letters to be sent to U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry. In 1995, he received a scholarship from the German government to study at the University of Augsburg, where he learned German. A year later, he gained German citizenship by marrying a woman twice his age. (They soon divorced: Abdel-Samad described the marriage as “transactional,” for citizenship and tax benefits.)
Abdel-Samad’s first year in Germany was difficult—he resented being thrust into the role of spokesperson for his native land and culture. “I disliked that I had to justify myself all the time,” he told me. “Germans are very curious. They’d say, What is Islam saying about violence? Why do Muslims marry four women? I’d say, go to a man who has married four women and ask him. It annoyed me so much to be the advocate of Islam.” Abdel-Samad became depressed, and in 1997 he was hospitalized for a month following a suicide attempt. (He declined to speak about the episode.)
After receiving a scholarship to study at Kwansei Gakuin University in Osaka, Abdel-Samad moved to Japan in 1998, where he flirted with Buddhism before realizing he couldn’t “take a shuttle bus between religions.” The constant weight he felt, he realized, was inside of him. He refers to it now as the “weight of self-responsibility.” “The shock is strong when you realize Germany is so much more advanced of a society,” he told me. “Human rights, law, freedom. You don’t want to admit it. You escape into this over-idealized image of your own culture; you sniff for every mistake in European culture—racism, colonialism and sexualized women. No one would admit that, except traitors like me.”
Abdel-Samad returned to Germany in 2000, where he began working at the University of Munich on a dissertation about youth radicalization, a project he credits with forcing him to take an “academic distance” from the Qur’an. A year later, the 9/11 attacks reinforced his growing skepticism toward Islam. Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian who flew the plane into the first tower, reminded Abdel-Samad of himself: Atta had been a member of the Brotherhood before joining al-Qaeda; he’d studied architecture and engineering; he’d lived in Hamburg. “It could have been me,” he told me. “But at a certain point, I intervened. I took my life back.”
Abdel-Samad didn’t just make his peace with Western society; in his subsequent career as a writer, he became a champion of what he saw as its animating ideals. After completing his master’s and beginning to teach Islamic studies at the University of Erfurt, Abdel-Samad gave an Iraqi publisher an early sketch of what became My Farewell from Heaven, a deeply confessional memoir in which he recounts being “force-fed Islam like a drug.” The book was first published in 2009 in Arabic under the genre of “fiction” (largely to protect its Egyptian publishing house), and sold roughly nine thousand copies in Egypt. The German translation sold some sixty thousand more. But the publication of the book also brought an end to Abdel-Samad’s academic career in Germany, as the University of Munich, where he was working at the time, had a conservative Islamic studies department. Abdel-Samad felt forced to resign, reasoning: “I left Egypt to be free. I’ll write what I write.”
In 2010 he wrote his second book, The Downfall of the Islamic World, in which he predicted that the Islamic world would unravel in a bloody civil war and provoke a wave of immigration into Europe. Perhaps generalizing from his own experience, he argued that a “schizophrenic attitude” had developed in Arab-Islamic countries towards the West: on the one hand, the West was hated for being impious and immoral; on the other, it was envied for its prosperity and personal freedom. After the Arab Spring, he published War or Peace: The Arab Revolution and the Future of the West, which argued that the “clash” between the West and Islam was actually a clash within the Islamic world between “continuity and innovation, modernity and the past.” It was the only one of his books to be well-received by both the left and the right in Germany.
The following year, Abdel-Samad decided to write specifically for a Western audience about the danger of political Islam. The book, based on his experiences with the Muslim Brotherhood, became Islamic Fascism, selling over one million copies in Germany. Roughly a year before it was published, in July 2013, Abdel-Samad delivered his fateful talk in Cairo, resulting in the fatwa and his exile from the Middle East. Since the publication of his book on the Prophet in 2016, he’s been forced to change hotels and cities every few nights.
Several of Abdel-Samad’s books are Der Spiegel best sellers and are frequently displayed in Berlin bookstores next to writers like Noam Chomsky. And both Green Party and AfD politicians have described him (though in very different tones) as one of “Germany’s most prominent” critics of Islam. Yet Abdel-Samad’s work is rarely discussed in intellectual magazines, or taken very seriously when it is: in one of the few reviews of Islamic Fascism, for the website Qantara.de, the German journalist Daniel Bax described the book as “a scrappily pasted-together book that contains a haphazard blend of Wikipedia knowledge [and] personal anecdotes.” Many Germans I spoke to in publishing circles had never heard of him, apart from the debates he had stirred up around free speech.
On one of the rare occasions when he was permitted to walk openly in Berlin, Abdel-Samad told me to meet him at the corner of a bridge in Kreuzberg, a gentrifying Turkish neighborhood that he used to frequent before the fatwa. The outing had been planned a month in advance. Two bulletproof BMWs glided up, and after a team of six got out, Abdel-Samad waved at me, looking paranoid.
We walked past a refugee center in Berlin, where the graffiti sprayed on the side of the wall read: Too soon 4 hope. As I stood looking at the wall, a young man of Middle Eastern descent approached to ask for a photograph. The security team stiffly closed in, but Abdel-Samad nodded in approval. I took their photo, and the man, who introduced himself as Hamza, told me Abdel-Samad was popular among his friends at the Free University in Berlin. “He speaks the truth,” he said.
We made our way to Abdel-Samad’s favorite Turkish restaurant, where we were the only customers. After ordering too much food, Abdel-Samad explained to me that his greatest fear was coming true—Western freedom is steadily eroding. “We don’t have a free culture of debate in Europe anymore,” he insisted, adding that the conversation about Islam in liberal democracies was constrained by “two regimes of censorship.”
The first regime of censorship was straightforward: many European publishers fear for their lives. A month after Jean-Marc Loubet had declined to publish Islamic Fascism in France, Abdel-Samad’s Swedish publisher withdrew from their contract due to safety concerns (later it was agreed the book would come out so long as the translator’s anonymity was guaranteed). Alexander Simon, of the Munich-based publishing house Droemer Knaur, told me that when they published Islamic Fascism, the police drove past their office once a day for protection.
The second form of censorship, Abdel-Samad claimed, is both subtler and more insidious: Western academics, the “liberal media” and left-wing defenders of political correctness who are wary of causing offense to other Muslims have refused to engage with his ideas. Simon told me he had to defend his decision to publish the book to others in the publishing industry, and several of Abdel-Samad’s talks were canceled in Germany in 2016, including those at the University of Hamburg—where some of the 9/11 terrorists had studied—after some of the school’s Muslim students lodged a protest against his appearance, claiming that he was not simply a critic of Islamism but an Islamophobe. According to Abdel-Samad, his talks in Germany have been canceled at least ten times.
Abdel-Samad’s leftist critics, however, point out that his relationship with right-wing political movements is a two-way street. Johanna Roth, the editor of the left-leaning newspaper Die Taz, wrote a scathing criticism of Abdel-Samad for speaking to the AfD: “This evening should not leave anyone to doubt that Hamed is no longer devoted to scientific consideration but to active Islam-bashing.” When I emailed Monika Lazar, a politician with the Green Party in Germany devoted to “countering right-wing extremism,” she denounced him not only for speaking at the AfD gathering but also for giving an interview to the New Right newspaper Junge Freiheit. “His criticism of Islam is based on anti-Muslim racism,” she wrote. “Integration needs openness instead of resentment.”
Such sentiments complete the ideological vice that has become all too familiar to conversations about Islam in the West. On the right, Abdel-Samad’s ideas are weaponized to defend calls for Europe to impose stricter immigration controls, while on the left they are often censored for promoting a negative image of Muslims. Yet Abdel-Samad, just like some of his counterparts in America, is not free from responsibility for his predicament. Although he claims to be interested in provoking a much-needed conversation, his decisions about where and how to speak often seem calculated less to promote dialogue than to court controversy and attention. In a country whose population is already 6 percent Muslim, where Turkish Muslims have lived for five decades, how can any serious discussion be expected to begin with statements such as “Islam doesn’t belong here”?
For its part, many of Germany’s Muslim communities have remained silent in response to Abdel-Samad’s accusations against Islam. On a frozen night in January, I took a train to the Arresalah Mosque, in a neighborhood outside of Berlin’s main attractions. I’d been told the mosque was part of an underground pipeline for the Muslim Brotherhood in Berlin. Its leader is Sheikh Imam Khedr Moty—the same man who, twenty years ago, had mentored Abdel-Samad in the Brotherhood.
Inside, beneath a white panel of fluorescent lights and walls covered in Arabic script, a group of men prayed as the imam, a large man with a short-trimmed beard and brown-robed djilaba, sat before them. When I sat down with Moty thirty minutes later, he offered me fresh dates and Sprite and spoke warmly of Germany’s choice to welcome so many refugees. But when the conversation turned to Abdel-Samad, he grew tense.
“Hamed Abdel-Samad is hardly a phenomenon worth speaking about,” he told me, etching thick diamonds on a scrap of paper in front of him. “He is an individual case who can only speak for himself. He does not represent an institution or an established movement or tendency in German society. Ninety-five percent of Muslims don’t agree with Hamed’s ideas.” It was institutions, such as the one we were sitting in, that “stand the test of time,” Moty insisted. “The views of individuals either die out or change accordingly.”
The next day, I joined Fadi Abdalla, an Egyptian medical student raised in Saudi Arabia, on a train ride to Potsdam, a riverside town outside of Berlin. Unlike Moty, Fadi was part of a generation of Muslims who practice their faith but, having spent time in the West, are also open to engaging with some of the ideas of critics like Abdel-Samad.
“Old Muslims sit in closed cultures, they have their own ideas, they won’t exchange anything with foreigners,” Fadi explained. His voice echoed in the train as some of the other passengers turned their heads to observe us. He described himself as a “scientist of Islam”—practicing but critical. Fadi first encountered Abdel-Samad’s ideas after My Farewell from Heaven came out in Egypt in 2010. Something in the book resonated with him: “I started asking, Why am I a Muslim? I’m interested in developing the religion that I belong to. I think my religion right now mostly has been expanding in the wrong way.”
As we stepped off the train, Fadi told me he felt Abdel-Samad had gone too far; he was too pessimistic about Islam. “We have a problem thinking outside the box,” he said, clutching a sack of medical books. “We think anyone who has thoughts outside the box has to be fought. But Abdel-Samad went in an extreme direction; he has only negative thoughts about Islam.”
On the platform he waved to his friend Amira Koraiem, who was waiting for us. Amira, an outgoing young dentist raised in Dubai, told me she’d recently decided to stop wearing the hijab—and Germans immediately began treating her more warmly. “They think I’m Italian now!” She laughed. As we settled into a café and ordered cappuccinos, Amira described Abdel-Samad in two words to me: “brave and outrageous.”
Like Fadi, she, too, first encountered Abdel-Samad after My Farewell from Heaven was published in Egypt. She said Abdel-Samad didn’t compare to her idol—Naguib Mahfouz—and she found his writing to be unscholarly and sometimes overly emotional. But she was sympathetic to Abdel-Samad’s case because she understood from her own experiences how Islam could lend itself to extremism.
“When I was twenty, I wanted to die to meet God because the ideas [of Islam] were so pure that I thought, what am I doing here in this nasty, ugly world?” She explained, referring to her time with al-Qubaysiyah, a female counterpart to the Muslim Brotherhood run by a group of Palestinian-Syrian women. The women convinced Amira to abandon everything she loved—music, makeup, jeans, colorful hijabs, driving—and begin praying five times a day. It was a form of radical Islam, she now believes, that needs to be reformed—and in this sense, she agrees with Abdel-Samad. “He’s not a Voltaire, that’s too much, that’s a huge jacket for him,” she said. “But really, I’d call him a brave person and I can appreciate that.”
I asked where Abdel-Samad’s impact was most felt: Did Fadi and Amira think he was sparking the sort of reform they both implied Islam needed to undergo?
“That’s a hard question,” Amira paused, shifting her glance to the fluorescent lights above us. “But the answer is yes. The advantages he has, he speaks simple Arabic and he has knowledge—”
“Not too much knowledge—” Fadi interjected.
“And timing is playing in his favor. Because he’s speaking now. Egyptians now are open to hearing what he’s saying. But the problem is, the Islam Hamed speaks about—he doesn’t differentiate between Islam as a religion and Islam as a culture.”
Fadi nodded in agreement. Though he admitted Abdel-Samad’s writing had a personal impact on him, he worried about how it was perceived by other Germans. At the heart of Fadi’s fear was a tension evident in many other German Muslims I spoke with, who were caught between the desire to candidly reckon with aspects of their faith—some of which were difficult to reconcile with their Western lives—and the fear that any criticism of Islam would ultimately be used against them.
“The problem is, there are major misunderstandings of the Islamic world, and Hamed abused those misunderstandings,” Fadi said. Islam in Saudi Arabia is not the same as Islam in Egypt or Somalia, he explained, but to a German audience who might not know the difference, blanket statements about Islam are problematic. “What Hamed does right now in Germany, he gives the Germans the thoughts they have been dreaming of—the idea that Islam is really radical. He’s telling the Germans what they want to hear.” Fadi took a sip of his cappuccino. “And that’s dangerous.”
Faced with growing dissatisfaction in places like Rossdorf, where I had first heard Abdel-Samad speak, and more recently the humbling election results and collapse of coalition negotiations, Merkel has long since retreated from the high ground of Willkommenskultur. Last September, in an unusually self-critical press conference, she said: “If I was able to, I’d turn back time by many, many years so that I could have prepared the whole government and the authorities for the situation which hit us out of the blue.” In December 2016, she was behind her party’s call to ban burkas “wherever legally possible.” And the following February, she began offering refugees 1,200 euros to return to their home countries.
Meanwhile, the AfD has continued to grow. At the election party following their success in September, the crowd sang the national anthem—an expression of patriotism that has been something of a taboo since World War II. Days later, Frauke Petry, who was considered a relatively moderate force, resigned because her party had become, as she described on her Facebook later that night, “too shrill and far-out.” A week after the election, the AfD’s Beatrix von Storch gave an interview to the BBC in which she stated bluntly: “Islam does not belong to Germany.”
Following our meeting in Germany, Abdel-Samad left for four months to a location he didn’t want me to disclose, where he could be “anonymous and free.” On his layover on his way back to Germany in March, we met in New York. As we walked through Times Square, I asked him whether he felt a sense of responsibility toward the Muslim community in Germany. He grew defensive. “I’m trying to introduce a new discourse Germany never knew before,” he insisted. Unlike other scholars of Islam, such as the Oxford-affiliated professor Tariq Ramadan, he refused to “sell false hopes for Muslims and Westerners that Islam and democracy are compatible.” As for receiving an endorsement from the AfD, he told me: “Somebody who lives under my conditions has other things to worry about. None of the AfD people are preparing a gun to get me shot; none of them are calling for violence.”
“The problem for those who are receiving or criticizing me is that they can’t really categorize me; I’m a new type for them,” he added, his face falling back to look up at the mirage of lights towering around us. Then he changed his mind. “No, they have to put me in a box—and that’s the problem.”
Abdel-Samad was right that he posed a problem for the politicians, the activists, and the newspaper columnists seeking to put him in a box. But those were not the people I had been asking about. For Muslims already integrated into German society, like Fadi and Amira, not to mention the hundreds of thousands who had just arrived in the country, the question of whether Islam and democracy could be compatible was one that was worked out, not theoretically, but in painstaking daily practice, and in increasingly hostile political circumstances. For them, Abdel-Samad posed a “problem” of a very different sort.
We turned onto 8th Avenue, where a garbage crate had tipped over in front of the New York Times building, spraying litter onto the sidewalk in front of the entrance. Abdel-Samad asked me to take a photo of him—in front of the trash and the Times—a fitting metaphor for the state of the American media under Trump, he said. “To publish a book with the title Islamic Fascism is an achievement,” he added. “This isn’t just an issue for Muslims, but also for Westerners. It’s an invitation for enlightenment. I don’t give a shit about my audience, I’m sorry!”