Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – “All I want is to ensure that no young person is deceived, as I was, in the name of religion; I wasted the most precious years of my life on a misguided ideology”. This is how Osama Othman, a young Egyptian who has transformed from being a Salafi jihadist to a secularist, describes what he went through during his time as a member of an extremist Salafi jihadist organization.
Osama Othman, aged 38, lives in the El Matareya district of Cairo. Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, Othman recalled the various stages of transformation in his life, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Salafi jihadism, and finally to secularism.
He revealed that “I joined the Muslim Brotherhood when I was in the penultimate year of secondary school, through my school friends. They convinced me of their ideology, and I was just 16 at the time. Also during this period, my brother got to know some members of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya in one of El Matareya’s mosques, where they were conducting a meeting after the state security services had killed Dr. Alaa Mohieddin, the group’s leader at the time”.
Othman revealed that his school friends had convinced him of their ideology and the necessity of performing jihad for the sake of God; he said “they assured me that those who die for the sake of God do not experience the pains of the grave. Then my brother joined the group [al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya] and sought to recruit me as well. He brought me to a meeting they were holding, and invited me to read many books that expressed their ideology, until I became fully convinced by their views and of the need to change what is wrong by your own hands. Thus I entered the organizational structure of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya in the year 1991”.
Othman was keen to carry out jihadist operations with the group, and an opportunity came along when he was invited to participate in an assassination attempt on Nobel Prize winning Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz. However, the Egyptian state security apparatus arrested him four months prior to the planned operation, and hence he missed out on this “opportunity”.
Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya attempted to assassinate Naguib Mahfouz on 14 October 1994. A young man stabbed Mahfouz in the neck outside his Cairo home but the Egyptian novelist survived. This assassination attempt was in protest at the Nobel Prize winning author’s work, which the group described as blasphemous, particularly his novel “Children of Our Alley”.
Regarding the assassination attempt, Othman told Asharq Al-Awsat:“At the time of the operation I was very keen to participate, because we believed that Mahfouz’s work incited immorality and blasphemy. In truth we had not read these books, but members of the group convinced us they were wrong”.
As for why Othman had been arrested, the Egyptian youth’s father had reported him to the state security services for his aggressive behavior. Othman had smashed up a television set in their family home, which alarmed and terrified his father who subsequently reported him. Although the security services detained Othman for three and a half years, he was perhaps saved from a worse fate in falling deeper into the jihadists thrall.
Following his release from prison, Othman travelled to Saudi Arabia. He informed Asharq Al-Awsat that he used this period of travel to re-assess his views, adding that he was haunted by many questions, such as: “How could those seeking to apply God’s law and ensure the victory of Islam be defeated by an infidel government?”
Othman began to read numerous books on secularism and moderate Islam. He said that he gave careful consideration to the views and arguments of the al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, which he ultimately concluded to be contradictory. Othman said that he realized that the group was seeking to gain power through young people, who were being exploited to fulfill the group’s own interests and objectives. He spent the next six years of his life reviewing and restructuring his thoughts, and in the end he became fully committed to the idea of secularism.
Othman stressed that he is proud of his Islamic faith and fully believes that the youth affiliated with Salafi jihadist groups are good people, but that “they have been duped and brainwashed”.
He pointed out that whilst he was a member of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, he was influenced far more by the group’s personalities than he was by its ideology, which he now regards as contradictory.
Othman revealed that he now plans to record his experiences in a book entitled “My Journey: From Salafi Jihadist to Secularist”. He said that he intends to explain in detail everything that has happened to him since he first began to believe in extremist views to his new-found belief and respect for secularism in the hope that others will learn from his experience.
He said: “I do not care about anything now except conveying my experience to young people, so that none of them waste the most precious years of their lives, as I did. The ideology of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya is counterproductive to Islam, whether its members are aware of it or not”.