Former Salafi Sings About His Identity Crisis

Former Salafi, turned rapper, Omar Kamal left the Salafi fold during Egypt's revolution. He says that when Salafis came out of the dark they showed their hypocrisy. To the rhythm of beat boxing, he uses his lyrics to chronicle his own identity crisis — a crisis that reflects Egypt's struggle to find itself.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

All this week we've been listening to some of the more strident voices to emerge from the Arab uprisings. When secular rulers lost their jobs, religious groups pressed for both freedom and power. And that includes ultra-conservative Muslims known as Salifis who contend they follow the practices of the earliest Muslims from centuries ago. Today an Egyptian musician explains why he joined the Salafi movement and why he walked away. He met NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Omar Kamal looks like any other young musician. At this practice session he's wearing a T-shirt and jeans. The only thing that gives away his strict religious background is his neatly trimmed beard, worn by many conservative Muslims. At 26, Omar is part of Egypt's revolutionary music scene. And his personal journey reflects the wider story of a country trying to find a path between its religious identity and its modern reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Omar's gear is minimal - a laptop, speakers and a crudely made microphone. His lyrics steer clear of the things many young men obsess about - girls or money. He raps about weightier issues: the stereotyping of Islamists, his decision to leave Salafism, and the sometimes frightening polarization of Egypt in the new political landscape.

OMAR KAMAL: Yeah, I'm just a normal guy who was born a Muslim and I'm trying to be a good Muslim. That's it.

FADEL: Omar's history is unusual for someone in the music scene. He calls himself a former Salafi.

KAMAL: I used to be one of them two years ago. So I've been there, I've seen everything they've done. I've seen everything that's said to the youth and the young guys. And I've heard a lot of lectures and attended a lot of lessons, the religious lessons, for the sheikhs who are Salafis.

FADEL: Before he joined the Salafis, Omar said he was hurtling down the wrong path; smoking, drinking, doing drugs while playing drums in a rock band with his friends. He says he was searching for a happiness that he couldn't find.

KAMAL: I stood up for myself and said yeah, well, try searching somewhere else. Yeah, why not try searching in another place - in this case Islam and, you know, religion.

FADEL: He began to pray regularly and eventually some Salafi friends took him to a mosque. There, he met a Salafi sheikh who told him music was forbidden. So he gave it up. Women too, so he stopped mixing with the opposite sex.

Initially, Omar says, he found solace in this very strict form of his religion. But then the Egyptian Revolution began. And the sheikhs he'd listened to for years told him and other youths not to join the protests against former President Hosni Mubarak. Omar says he was shocked at their stance, especially because Salafis and other Islamists suffered intense repression during Mubarak's rule.

KAMAL: In Islam, there is a teaching that you should defend the weak; you should defend anybody who is being beaten or being subjected to injustice, you know. But when the revolution happened most of the Salafi sheikhs were against the revolution because they said it's not good. It's bad.

FADEL: And so Omar began to question what the Salafis had told him. And he returned to music.

KAMAL: There was this song that I wrote about the internal conflict that happened inside my mind, during the revolution.

FADEL: At his home in a suburb of Cairo, he plays us one of his new songs.

KAMAL: (Rapping in foreign language)

FADEL: He wrote lyrics about his conversation with that Salafi sheikh who told him not to join the protests in Tahrir Square.

KAMAL: (Rapping in foreign language)

FADEL: I was confused, he raps. So I called the sheikh. I asked him are you afraid. You were pretending to be a lion but now you do nothing.

Egypt's revolution changed Omar. He is proud to be a devout Muslim and believes that the most just society is a society ruled by Islamic law or sharia. But he says it can't be forced onto people the way some Salafi sheikhs preach.

KAMAL: I personally believe that what we try to do is to deliver the message of Islam to people - Muslims and non-Muslims - and until they - they are the ones who ask for sharia. If we aren't successful in convincing people that sharia is the best, then we have - there is a lot of work that still needs to done.

FADEL: Omar says he was excited when Salafi politicians first entered parliament. But he quickly grew disenchanted. They did nothing to fight corruption or injustice, he says, adding that he won't vote for them again.

KAMAL: You don't do the same mistake twice, unless you're stupid. Right?

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: And that stupidity, he says is why Salafis are failing in the new Egypt. The people aren't stupid, he says, and they won't believe you just because you claim that God is on your side.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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