Photography by Brian Moody
As a teenager Khaled al-Berry belonged to the radical Egyptian Islamist group, el-Gama’a al-Islamiya. A former BBC journalist, he is now editor-in-chief of dotMSR, a mutlimedia website. In 2009 Khaled published his book, ‘Life Is More Beautiful Than Paradise: A Jihadist’s Own Story’.
I was not attracted to the radicals’ brand of religion; I was attracted to them as people. I was 14 and the first time I knew one of them, we were playing football and he was a very decent person who took care of people around him. We built up a relationship as human beings. Then we started talking about religion and going to the mosque. This was 1986 and Egyptian society was not religious. We created a new way of looking at life which stated that this life is very short and real life is after death. They taught us that Islam means you can’t argue about text because the text is what God said.
Later we were asked to think of other aspects which require you to sacrifice more, like changing regimes which didn’t apply the word of God. We learnt that we couldn’t do this except by using violence because God doesn’t change our lives and we are tools of God. It was like all revolutionary thinking: you sacrifice yourself for change for the better and for all those poor and unprivileged people.
We were asked to do very small tasks to change the habits of other people. I was asked once to go and follow a tourist who was carrying a bag of wine bottles until we got into a quiet place then smash the bottles with a stone. Eventually clashes between el-Gama’a el-Islamiya and the regime in Egypt took a bigger shape. I was preaching to people in my school and then my university and was jailed for six weeks without trial for disturbing the public atmosphere. When friends disappeared, I knew that they had carried out an operation and been killed.
At one stage I thought I would love to be chosen for an operation. The idea of suicide bombing wasn’t obvious but the idea of martyrdom was prominent. I would have liked to do something I thought mattered – sacrificing yourself to establish heaven on Earth. For me the real question was: ‘Am I able to sacrifice more or not?’ It wasn’t: ‘Am I going to do a wrong or right thing?’ I knew I was right: the Koran said so. When Islamist people become suicide bombers they believe that God is ordering them to do it. They are not lying to themselves. They are not bad people but they cannot differentiate between themselves and their ideology
You only question these beliefs, if you find other people and other things to do. For me, the starting point was when I moved from Assiut to Cairo because I thought security services were chasing me. At Cairo University I found people who set up literature meetings and I started thinking in an individual way without close monitoring. When you are free in this sense, you come to know exactly what sort of person you are.
I used to think there was only one way to know truth – the divine way, the infallible way. But now I believe that the most dangerous thing in life is to let people become convinced that truth has just one face. At the root of forgiveness and tolerance is the belief that truth has MANY different faces and that the face you see of truth is not in any way of better value than the faces others see.
I don’t believe you can have forgiveness without justice, but justice doesn’t mean revenge. A lot of people radicalised in the Islamist movement are locked into this primitive thinking that revenge is justice. It’s the rationale which says, ‘the Americans and British killed hundreds and thousands in Iraq and don’t even count the bodies, so why blame me if I kill 50 on the tube’. By the same token Bush sold wars on the idea of revenge.
When I was a victim I thought protection meant violence. I thought, why should I be tight-handed when others are hitting at me? I don’t believe that now, but equally I feel guilty if I talk in a humanist way about the lives of people who don’t have the basic right to live safe in peace. There needs to be transparency before forgiveness.