April 13, 1998
Section: TIME 100
Throughout the world, religious fundamentalism has established itself as a major political force. To adherents, fundamentalism offers a moral refuge from the vulgarities of the secular, modern world. To critics, it represents a dangerous rejection of the liberal, Western tenets of the Enlightenment. Can the two views be reconciled in the next century? In Egypt, MOHAMMED ABDUL KODDUS hopes to find out
What comes to mind when an Islamic fundamentalist turns up in the news? Egyptian soldiers assassinating Anwar Sadat? A Palestinian suicide bomber blowing up an Israeli market? In an age when Islamic fundamentalism has become a cliche associated with gruesome acts of terrorism, one image that usually does not spring up is that of a Muslim activist like Mohammed Abdul Koddus.
Abdul Koddus, 50, an Egyptian writer, is a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political group founded in 1928 that has been banned by the government. He prays five times a day, campaigns for an Islamic republic and pens frank public critiques of President Hosni Mubarak's regime. His opinions have landed him in prison a few times and in all likelihood will do so again.
Yet far from being a Koran-thumping, bomb-toting fanatic, Abdul Koddus is a self-described Islamic liberal, a teddy bear of a man who denounces terrorism and sings the praises of some features of Western democracy. He avoids the austere robes that are de rigueur for bearded hard-liners and favors smart Italian-style sport jackets. In 22 years of marriage, he says, he has never pressured his attractive wife to cover her hair with the Islamic hijab, as required by strictly observant Muslims. "Yes, I have a beard, but I trim it every day so that my wife can kiss me on both cheeks," says Abdul Koddus, laughing, as he offers a silver tray of Oriental cookies and mint tea to visitors at his luxurious Cairo apartment.
Abdul Koddus--reasonable-sounding, charming and passionate--represents a potent modern brand of Islamic activism. It is still activism. Like Islamic extremists, Abdul Koddus argues that centuries of imperialism have corrupted and weakened Islamic countries. He and other relative moderates believe despots should be removed, Israel abolished and society governed by Islamic law. But Abdul Koddus shuns violence, seeking change through gradual transformation.
In Egypt the strategy of these relative moderates is for successive waves of activists to infiltrate key institutions--such as the legal and health-care professions, the education system, the media--until the secular system peels away and a truly Islamic order emerges. Among the increasing numbers of ordinary Muslims frustrated by unemployment and political repression, the fundamentalists' message has a striking appeal: citizens can change their lives for the better by doing nothing more than harnessing their traditional faith in Allah.
Abdul Koddus was pressed into Islam by the shock of Israel's devastating defeat of Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War. The loss catapulted him and many other activists of his generation into politics. He was the last person that friends and colleagues ever suspected would become a fundamentalist. He grew up in Cairo's affluent Zamalek quarter, the privileged son of Ihsan Abdul Koddus, a liberal writer with close ties to Egypt's revolutionary hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser. His grandmother was Rose al Youssef, a Lebanese-born early feminist, a flamboyant actress and magazine publisher.
His path to Allah began in earnest one day in 1974 when President Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, abruptly ordered veteran leaders of the Brotherhood released from prison. Abdul Koddus, who was working for a Cairo paper, went to interview them and immediately became attracted to the group and its leader, Omar Tilmisani, who stressed tolerance and exemplary personal behavior. By 1976, Abdul Koddus had stopped drinking alcohol, married the daughter of a prominent Muslim preacher and joined the Brotherhood.
Since then, Abdul Koddus has been on the knife-edge of Egyptian politics. Writing in Al Shaab, Cairo's main opposition newspaper, he campaigns for democratic elections and release of political prisoners, not knowing whether government tolerance will give way to another jail term for him.
In conversations in his spacious salon overlooking the Nile, Abdul Koddus stresses the Brotherhood's desire to adopt the best of Western values. "I ask for political freedom for everybody," he says, rejecting the goal of militant groups to establish an Islamic dictatorship. Yet he believes that British author Salman Rushdie should be put on trial for blasphemy, and he refuses to condemn Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, convicted on terrorism charges in New York City. And there can be no peace with Israel, he adds, so long as the Jewish state occupies Jerusalem.
Abdul Koddus says he is confident his vision of Islam will prevail in Egypt and across the Arab world. Recent patterns seem to support his view: while secular governments have contained, if not eliminated, terrorist groups, they have enjoyed less success in holding back the tide of Islam as a political force. In Algeria and Turkey, for example, Islamic parties won stunning electoral victories. Though the triumphs were later reversed by military-backed crackdowns, that only confirmed the potency of their challenges.
If somebody with Abdul Koddus' secular upbringing can turn to Islam for the solution, many others will eventually do so too. Abdul Koddus even got the blessing of his father, an editor and novelist known for his racy, romantic themes. "I could have chosen a completely different path, but my father did not object," says Koddus. "The way I see it, if Islam and liberalism can exist in one household, they can exist in the same society." And, with that, Abdul Koddus excused himself and went to pray.
By Scott Macleod/Cairo With reporting by Amany Radwan/Cairo