Although Muslims are the world's fastest growing religious group with more than a billion adherents, they haven't been active enough in the battle for Jewish souls, Ghounem says. "Muslims haven't been doing it," he says. "The Muslim attitude, unfortunately, was 'Jews will never convert'."
But why target Jews, fellow monotheists whose faith is regarded by many as Islam's closest relative, and who the Quran describes as "People of the Book?" According to Ghounem's reasoning, to help the Jews, who remain dangerously ignorant of Mohammed's prophecy, and, in the long run, to turn Israel into an Islamic state.
Ghounem's goals, while seen by many as laughably far-fetched, have outraged leaders of Jewish counter-missionary groups who have already been fighting off Christian evangelists for decades and are wary of new attempts to convert Jews by aggressive or deceptive means.
A fervent admirer of Moishe Rosen, the founder of the messianic group Jews for Jesus, Ghounem has studied the groups' tactics and adopted their rhetoric. Like Jews for Jesus, an organization renowned for claiming a Jew who believes in Jesus is a "completed Jew," Ghounem says converts can maintain their Jewish cultural identity and observe Jewish holidays. He stresses Judaism and Islam's shared lineage of prophets and their similar dietary laws. And, in language almost identical to his Christian mentors, he insists that a true Jew follows Mohammed.
"If you're a true Torah follower, you'll believe in Mohammed, because he's predicted in the Torah," Ghounem says.
He also argues Jews can liberate themselves from the stringent demands of their religion by embracing Islam. "The holy Quran is a mercy to Jews," Ghounem says. "A lot of the things in the Torah, they're not going to have to do anymore."
The suggestion that Judaism's proximity to Islam justifies conversion remains odious to many, however, who see Ghounem's efforts as an affront to both religions. "What this guy is doing is a disservice to both faith systems," says Scott Hillman, executive director of Jews for Judaism, a group that seeks to educate and protect Jews from evangelical groups. "If he's going to say, 'Judaism is fulfilled by Islam,' he's saying Islam is incomplete."
Others say Ghounem is simply acting on the centuries-old impetus for people of all faiths to seek converts. Ibrahim Hooper of the Council for American Islamic Relations says Ghounem's objectives are in keeping with the principles of Islam, which encourages evangelism. "Muslims are encouraged to present accurate and balanced information about their faith to people of all religions," Hooper says.
Before he set out to convert Jews, Ghounem underwent a conversion of his own, from being an American college student who was mostly ignorant about his faith, to a self-fashioned Muslim scholar combating the pervasive myths about Islam he encountered on the Internet.
Ghounem, who immigrated to the United States from Egypt at age six, says his knowledge of Islam was tenuous when he graduated from Western Connecticut University with a degree in engineering. After returning to Cairo for a year to study at al-Azhar, Ghounem began spending hours a night in chat-room debates with Messianic Jews and Christians.
Unlike Jews for Jesus, Ghounem has no sponsors and no missionaries; he relies solely on the Internet for outreach. His Web site, which has had more than one million visitors since it was launched three years ago, has attracted about 200 "converts" who use it as a support group. It also provides a forum for Ghounem to address misconceptions about Islam, like the idea that Islam was spread by the sword, that the Quran is anti-Semitic, and that Jews and Muslims worship different gods.
Leaders of Jewish counter-missionary organizations claim they aren't overly concerned by Ghounem's efforts, saying the content of his Web site is so outrageous that most people don't pay attention. "This is a freak show, a side show," says Rabbi Tovia Singer, the head of Outreach Judaism, a group that works to bring converts back into the fold.
Moreover, they say Ghounem's background as an Egyptian-born Sunni Muslim probably doesn't help his quest for Jewish converts. "Ghounem wasn't a Jew in the first place. The Jews for Jesus founder was at least a convert who was Jewish," Hillman says.
Ghounem may not be Jewish, but the man who he has described as his alter ego, Yousef al Khattab, was born a Jew. The 35-year-old Brooklyn native, once known as Joseph Cohen, now lives in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem, where for the past three years he has operated the Web site JewstoIslam.com. Though the two men have never met, they monitor each other's progress and frequently chat online.
While Ghounem's site may invite ridicule, al Khattab's has been attacked with viruses, threats, and complaints. With links such as "My Heroes the Taliban" and "Freaky Jewish Stuff," which details such familiar anti-Semitic myths as rabbis sucking babies' blood, it is no wonder the site has been taken down several times.
As a former Jew preaching conversion amid the treacherous political and religious fault lines dividing Israel, al Khattab is a far more controversial figure than Ghounem. His transformation from being an ultra-Orthodox American Jew to a fundamentalist Muslim gives him license to preach a higher level of invective against Jews than his Gentile counterparts, says Singer, who says al Khattab threatened his life by posting his home address on the Internet and inviting Muslims to "visit him at his home."
"Jews who've converted to Islam are disenfranchised and self-hating," Singer says. "When you listen to them, you will hear virulent hatred toward Judaism. Their message is pregnant with hate."
But al Khattab, who denies ever having contact with Singer, says it is Judaism, rather than Jews, that he opposes, arguing that Jews have been misled by their rabbis. "Muslims are all inclusive and the whole message of Islam is to invite Jews, Nazis, capitalists, all religions and beliefs," al Khattab said in an e-mail.
Al Khattab, who has converted 11 Jews, said he was attracted by Islam's clear message of obedience to God. He seems unfazed by charges that he supports the goals of terrorists (he has called on Muslims to take up arms against Jews who don't convert), or by other Muslims' initial suspicions that he was a member of Mossad, the Israeli secret service.
"When we become Muslims we do this for the sake of Allah all mighty alone," he says. "We don't care if Muslims or non-Muslims approve of our goals."
Ghounem, who shares al Khattab's goal of turning Israel into an Islamic state, has chosen a different approach, however, taking careful stock of opinions about his Web site and often adjusting its content to appease critics. He took down a link about Sufism, the mystical strain of Islam, after some of his more orthodox fans complained Sufism is a fringe movement alien to Islam.
Ghounem said he recognizes converts risk alienation from both faiths, but hopes his Web site might lead to dialogue between Muslims and Jews. Well, that and one other thing. "My goal is to surpass Jews for Jesus, which I consider 100 percent inevitable," he said enthusiastically.