In Defense of Sheik Abdul-Rahman

Although both the FBI and the New York Police Commissioner refused to link Mohammed Salamah, the prime suspect in the bombing of the World Trade Center, with any one Islamic group, the media have. Almost all reports now focus on a New Jersey mosque and its preacher, Sheik Omar Abdul-Rahman, who is widely portrayed as an Egyptian version of Ayatollah Khomeini endowed with near-mythic powers to incite his followers to violent acts.

As an Egyptian writer and scholar, I have been aware of Dr. Abdul-Rahman's activities since he was a professor of theology at Assiut University in southern Egypt, where I studied in the late 1970s. In fact, the sheik is very much a product of indigenous Egyptian problems, whose anger is directed not at Americans but at an inept and corrupt Egyptian regime which is on the verge of collapse.


Sheik Abdul-Rahman came to prominence in Egypt when he was implicated in the assassination of the late President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981 and the subsequent uprising of Islamic students in Assiut. He was tried and acquitted of all charges. Five years later, after repeated arrests, he was detained as a suspected subversive and held without charges for over a year.

Fearful of continued harrassment, Sheik Abdul-Rahman left Egypt in 1990 for Sudan, a center of Islamic fundamentalism where Egyptian Muslims can travel freely without passports. Contrary to press reports which have depicted him as a fugitive alien in this country, he entered the U.S. legally and subsequently obtained his permanent residence status after assuming responsibilities as the leading cleric of a Brooklyn-based mosque.


Given the corruption of the Egyptian court system, what is remarkable about Sheik Abdul-Rahman's odyssey is that he was acquitted not once but twice. Had the government obtained the slightest piece of evidence to prove its case against him, he would have been imprisoned for life or executed.

This is not to say that Sheik Abdul-Rahman did not later preach the violent overthrow of the Egyptian government. On recent cassettes, he has repeatedly called for the assassination of President Mubarak and the destruction of state buildings associated with the state security apparatus. But his personal crusade against Mr. Mubarak began only after he himself experienced repeated arrests and torture. His taped sermons are replete with calls for a return to a golden age of Islamic rule when society was far more democratic and torture relatively unknown.

Nor has he propounded terrorist acts that involve the killing of innocent people or the destruction of private property. "Islamic groups use violence only as a response to state violence," he says. In a statement given to CNN the day after the arrest of Mohammed Salamah, he emphasized that no true Muslim approves of killing or the destruction of property of innocent people.

In my own recent exchange with Sheik Abdul-Rahman on a talk show aired by the American Arabic Broadcast Network, he seemed less motivated by ideology than by a personal vendetta against Mr. Mubarak and his torturers.

Charged with having helped instigate a recent campaign of terrorist attacks on tourists in Egypt, he took pains to distance himself from the attacks. He advised tourists to respect the customs of Egyptians.

In Egypt, the sheik's opposition to Mr. Mubarak has only %J enhanced his appeal. As the economic situation grows more desperate and the government's crackdown on dissidents more brutal (there are some 10,000 political prisoners currently in Egypt, most of them Islamists), anyone willing to speak out against the government evokes admiration. "Sheik Abdul-Rahman is only expressing the feeling of 99 percent of the Egyptian population," one Cairo resident told an American reporter.

What puzzles many Egyptians about Sheik Abdul-Rahman is why, given his reputation as an alleged terrorist, the United States has tolerated his presence for so long. To many the answer is obvious. The regime is widely viewed as close to collapse, and expectations are high that the military is poised for a takeover.

The ideal candidate for president would then be former defense minister Abdul Haleem Abughazalla -- known for being both pro-American and religious (his wife wears Islamic dress). If this is, indeed, the scenario envisioned in Washington, it would make sense to keep one more loose cannon moored down in the United States rather than back home disrupting the script.


Mamoun Fandy, an Egyptian writer and political scientist at the University of Southern Illinois, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.