Mosab Hassan Yousef stepped out of the airport terminal in a dark suit and tie, looking every inch the Hollywood darling. It’s perhaps not surprising then, that his close friend and the man who accompanied him on his trip to Israel this month, is producer and actor Sam Feuer. Feuer played the role of Yousef Romano in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, a movie about the aftermath of the Black September. Full of intrigue, spies, and clandestine operations—not to mention terror attacks on Israeli citizens—the plot of Spielberg’s cloak-and-dagger movie is not unlike Mosab’s own life as a secret agent.
Most people know the story by now, so I’ll be brief: In 1978, Mosab is born to the son of one of Hamas’ seven founders, Sheikh Hassan Yousef. Prepped to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a terrorist, Mosab starts asking questions until gradually, over the years, he becomes convinced that the ways of Hamas cannot be the truth. He subsequently converts to Christianity. He becomes an agent for Shin Bet. The intelligence he provides prevents terror attacks and leads to the incarceration of Hamas terrorists. In 2007, he leaves the West Bank in favor of the west coast. He gains political asylum in the US and remains there before coming back to Israel for a surprise visit last month.
Something about his life story—and indeed, certain aspects of his personality, including the fearless chutzpah with which he deceived Hamas—is distinctly reminiscent of Frank Abagnale, the real-life protagonist of yet another of Spielberg’s classics, Catch Me If You Can. But unlike the notorious confidence trickster, the former Shin Bet agent did not do what he did to advance his own interests (and neither did he forge millions of dollars worth of checks.) In his own words, Mosab Yousef did what he did in order “to save lives.”
Upon first meeting Yousef, there were a number of things I was curious to discover about his personality. Is he naïve or a realist? Is he extraordinarily foolish or extraordinarily brave? Has playing with fire become a way of life for him or does he take risks out of a sense of moral duty? More than once I was asked by other people, “Is he normal?” Considering the mind-boggling events that have shaped the life of Hamas’ prodigal son, the question is forgivable.
Normal or not, one thing about Mosab Yousef is that he is no politician. When asked whether he has any political aspirations, Yousef answers with a categorical “no.” Given his personality, his answer is hardly surprising. Yousef doesn’t seem to have a single trait that is conducive to being a politician. He has no sense of political correctness, and even though he is polite and refined, he lacks the diplomatic airs and graces of successful politicians. With utmost sincerity and an almost child-like earnestness, Yousef simply states the truth as he sees it.
When one considers that his upbringing was entrenched in a black-and-white value system (Israel is evil, destroying the Jewish State and its citizens is a divinely righteous pursuit, and so on), Yousef’s 180 degree turnaround seems rather miraculous. But then again, perhaps it is precisely because of his black-and-white upbringing that Yousef is now able to view things in such an uncomplicated manner, untainted by the confusion and ideals that so often color Western sensibilities.
Devoid of underlying messages or double entendre, he states his opinions eloquently. “I love Israel because Israel is a democratic country,” he has said on more than one occasion. Attending a panel on Israel’s future borders at the President’s conference last month in Jerusalem, Yousef loudly applauded the following statement from one of the panelists: “The issue is not whether the world can accept the Jews’ right to this land. The issue is whether Jews will accept their right to this land.” Regarding sovereignty, Yousef maintains an unequivocal party line: “All I can say is that the Israeli historic right to this land is obvious and clear to any person who can read.”
At a press conference a few days prior, Yousef caused a flurry with his explosive comments. “Islam is not a religion of peace, it is a religion of war,” he said. “If people don’t see the truth we will keep spinning an empty cycle of violence.”
But he balances his bombastic remarks by adding that Muslims themselves are a peaceful people. The problem, according to Yousef, is that most Muslims are not educated enough about their religion. “Out of 1.6 billion Muslims, perhaps only 300 million actually understand the language of the Koran,” he said. This is because for most Muslims, Islam is far more than a religion – “it is an identity and culture, it is everything they know.” He further posited that a full understanding of the text and of Mohammed’s life necessarily leads Muslims towards extremism and terrorism. According to Yousef, anyone who studies the life and the behavior of the prophet will arrive at the conclusion that Islam is a religion of war.
Yousef declares, “It is time to expose the life of Muhammed.”
The way that he proposes to do this is by making a feature film on the life of Islam’s apostle. Anyone who was around during the Danish cartoon controversy knows just how dangerous an endeavor this can be. According to the Muslim faith, depicting Muhammad is forbidden, and the violence that erupted following the Danish scandal resulted in over 100 deaths. But Yousef believes that the importance of the project overrides any fallout that may result from portraying Muhammad on the big screen. His aim is to challenge religious authorities by depicting the life of Muhammed in an objective and honest way, and as such it was imperative for the screenwriters to engage with Muslim theologians and remain true to the text of the Koran.
“We are not trying to offend Muslims, we’re trying to bring the truth,” he said. He hopes that the film will target the average Muslim and cause them to revisit the beliefs and ideology upon which they’ve been raised. “If this suicide bomber who is trying to kill many people is motivated by that ideology, I would love to seed [sic] doubt in his head, at least to be able to question before he goes to commit suicide.
“Today we have this powerful medium and the new generation can watch and see and make a judgment. They are looking for a difference in their life – they are looking for a better future. Let’s help them.”
Does Yousef harbor any fears that he may be risking his life by making a movie on Muhammed?
Yousef remains unfazed at the suggestion and answers simply: “There is nothing to be afraid about. We’re doing the right thing and we do it not through the power of conviction or the power of opinion, but through the power of truth.”
Finally, in answer to some of the aforementioned questions I had prior to meeting him, the impression I received is that Mosab Hassan Yousef is a remarkably courageous man with a bold vision and more than a hint of foolhardiness. And is he normal? It is, of course, all relative and perhaps in his new home of Los Angeles the answer might have been different. But here in this region at least, Yousef definitely comes off as one of the sane ones.