BETHEL, Conn. — Mohamed Ghounem is looking for a few lapsed Jews.
The Egyptian-born Ghounem is the founder and Web master of “Jews For Allah,” a missionary Web site designed as the Islamic answer to Jews For Jesus. And while Ghounem is no great fan of Jews For Jesus — he calls Christians “flesh-god worshippers” — he is a student of sorts of their tactics in missionizing to the Jews.
“At this point I really admire Moishe Rosen,” said Ghounem, referring to the founder of Jews For Jesus. Interviewed at his home here, Ghounem pulled out audio- and videocassettes produced by the Christian group in its conversion efforts.
“They’re incredible,” Ghounem said of the tapes, adding with a laugh: “Let me tell you — the guy got me thinking about Jesus.”
But Ghounem apparently lacks one of Rosen’s major selling points: Ghounem isn’t Jewish.
“I believe I have” Jewish ancestry, Ghounem told the Forward. “My middle name is Moses. And all Semitic peoples share the same blood… We all come from the same common ancestor — we are all children of Abraham.”
When asked if he is well-read in Jewish literature, Ghounem replied: “Well, I read The New York Times everyday.” The reporter who was interviewing him burst into laughter — and Ghounem joined him.
Perhaps more to gain legitimacy than anything else, the 31-year-old Ghounem is presently searching for a Jewish convert to Islam to become president of his tiny organization. “There are only half-a-dozen to a dozen hardcore members,” Ghounen said, but added that he has spoken to what he estimates are around 100 converts via e-mail, and his site had had more than a million hits.
And during the Forward’s visit Ghounem conducted Jews For Allah’s first-ever conference call, which took place in his living room, whose walls include an Arabic placard reading “The Ninety-Nine Names of God” and Ghounem’s honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. Ghounem moved to the United States with his family at the age of 4; he works as an information technology specialist with a major telecommunications firm.
Earlier Ghounem introduced the reporter to his daughter, Meriam, and his wife, Shahenda. Shahenda, who grew up in Egypt, served up a feast for their guest, which Ghounem seasoned with platitudes about the beauty of Islam. “I feel that ignorance equals hate, equals fear, equals death,” Ghounem said. “I’m trying to take out the ignorance.”
Ghounem, who has dark hair and a soft voice, declined to be photographed for this article because he said that he has received death threats since he started his site, and, indeed, on the guest book page of his site one sees the insults from unfriendly browsers. (“Go suicide-bomb yourself,” wrote one visitor.)
Undeterred, Ghounem tries to maintain a Jewish-friendly tone on his Web site. On the home page is a Star of David juxtaposed next to a crescent moon. The “Jews and Muslims Agree” section highlights the dietary, religious and scriptural similarities between Judaism and Islam. And under the plea of “Hebrew Quran Project Needs You,” browsers are asked to help translate the Koran into Hebrew.
But Ghounem is improvising a great deal in the face of many spiritual dilemmas. Is Ghounem offering Jews straight Islam, or a variation on Islam? Jews For Jesus and other Messianic Jewish sects famously celebrate both Passover and Easter — will Jews for Allah celebrate Yom Kippur and Ramadan? “I don’t know about holidays yet,” Ghoneum said. Ghounem says he’ll wait until more Jews have come into his organization before deciding.
The problems Ghounem faces might in fact be more formidable than those facing Jews For Jesus, which has an established foothold in missionary work, major funding from various evangelical groups and, according to some estimates, 150,000 to 200,000 members.
“There’s an enormous Hebrew Christian movement,” said Rabbi Tovia Singer, a radio talk show host and the head of an anti-missionary group dedicated to bringing converted Jews back to Judaism. According to Singer, Jews For Jesus missionaries “undergo very intense, rigorous training. The [number of] people they affect is enormous by training gentiles how to convert Jews.”
Singer said the number of converts to Islam is very small, and the Jews who convert to Islam are very different from their Christian counterparts.
“Islam is the religion that’s seen as anti-establishment and anti-Western,” Singer said, “which is why it’s successful among African Americans.”
Jews who convert to Islam are disenfranchised and are “much more thoroughly cut off from Judaism,” Singer said. “There’s no struggle. They’re completely comfortable in their new religion.” Singer, who said he has converted hundreds of Christians back to Judaism, said he has never managed to sway a Muslim back to Judaism.
Ghounem disagrees with the assessment. Ghounem views Islam as the logical progression of spirituality. “It’s like the alphabet. You start at A — which could be Judaism — and you end up with Z, which is Islam. You have to move forward.”
Ghounem is also bucking a desire among many Muslim clerics not to proselytize to Jews. Ghounem claims that since he launched his Web site, he has received e-mails from fellow Muslims who disapproved. “Many of them didn’t like the Jewish star,” Ghounem said of the logo on the main page of his site. Browsers felt it was a symbol of Israeli oppression. And many Islamic leaders have not been eager to reach out to Jews, who some imans refer to as the children of “apes and pigs.”
And Jews For Allah might not even get full support from Jewish converts to Islam.
Yousef Khatab, a friend of Ghounem’s and a former Orthodox Jew from New York who two years ago became a convert to Wahabbi Islam, dismissed the idea of a Jews For Jesus-style Islam. “That’s an oxymoron,” Khatab told the Forward. “In Islam we believe in all the prophets… True Islam is true Judaism, it’s the continuation.
“I don’t like the idea of making a club for Jewish Muslims,” Khatab said of his friend’s organization. Khatab maintains his own Web site, “Jews To Islam” — which describes his conversion to Islam and his disputes with anti-missionaries like Singer. His battle with Singer is currently under investigation by the FBI after Khatab posted Singer’s photograph and home address on his Web site.
But despite Khatab’s disdain for the idea of a Jewish Islam, he is still eager to recruit Jews and proselytize. “Of course, it’s an obligation,” Khatab said. “The whole idea is to spread Islam to all races and bring them together under the banner of Islam. Including the Jews; including Mr. Sharon.”