Ed Husain, The Islamist: Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left. London: Penguin, 2007. Pp. 288. £8.99. Paperback.
As this book was published at the beginning of May 2007, five British-born Muslims were convicted of plotting to blow up targets like a shopping centre and a nightclub using 600 kilogrammes of ammonium nitrate. The persistent question remains: how did we get to a position where MI5 are monitoring 1,600 suspects in 160 cells? Who are these would-be terrorists? Even though Ruth Kelly and John Reid now belatedly acknowledge the aggravating effect of Iraq, foreign policy alone does not provide the whole answer. The impact of radical ideas have mattered too, which this book sets out to explore.
Leaving aside how much weight they would put on radicalisation alongside other causal explanations, British Muslims generally have two views on the role of ideas in the phenomenon. The first pins the blame squarely upon extreme Salafis who developed a doctrine of attacking the West in the wake of the Afghanistan-Soviet war in the 1980s. Some of their propagandists – Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza, Abdullah Faisal and Omar Bakri Mohammed (who became Salafi in his theological outlook sometime after 9/11) — were allowed to spread their ideas in Britain relatively unimpeded by the police and intelligence services throughout the Nineties, in fierce competition with other groups promoting political Islam. Most ordinary Salafis, commited to a puritanical apolitical form of Islam, either ignored this trend or argued against it. Some British Salafis who opposed this trend early on, with no public recognition whatsoever, had to face intimidation and even death threats.
The second position takes a wider view. British Islamists, those who emphasise faith-based political activism, helped to create a receptivity to more radical groups with whom they shared a similar vision of Islamic resurgence in the Muslim world. In this view, the elements of Islamism are likened to the spectrum of communism, i.e. between the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks and the Trotskyists – more a difference over means than ends — ranging from gradual reform to national or even international revolution. Some Islamists are in favour of democracy and some aren’t. Some are happy to have peaceful co-existence with the “West” and some aren’t. All, to a greater or lesser extent, have been critical of the traditional Islam of the ulema, of what they saw as their intellectual lethargy and quiescence during the period of direct European colonial rule in the Muslim world. They were also critical of Sufism, either rejecting it or seeking to reform it.
Ed Husain, brought up in Tower Hamlets, takes the second view and describes in detail his time with various Islamist groups in London at colleges and university campuses between 1990-1996. Husain, in escalating youthful rebellion, defies his parents, then his traditional upbringing, his college authorities and later society at large. Having been an eyewitness to this scene myself, I can vouch that he accurately describes an historical period of intense competition and one-upmanship for the attention of young minds. However, the main reviews so far, in the Times, the Sunday Times, the Observer and the Guardian, have been quick to draw sweeping and general conclusions about today’s situation, even though the heart of this book is really about the early Nineties.
The most important insights arise from Husain’s period of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir at a time when it was under the leadership of Omar Bakri Mohammed. Riding on the back of anti-Saudi sentiment during the first Gulf War in 1990, Hizb ut-Tahrir began to have a serious impact. Its confrontational tabloid style excited Muslim students looking for easy answers to Western double standards and the new Salafi missionaries from Saudi Arabia. The control of Islamic student societies would oscillate between Islamists and apolitical Salafis, leaving few alternatives to a crude, despiritualised, angry and self-righteous take on Islam. Husain’s judgement that Hizb ut-Tahrir, under Bakri’s inspiration (who was later to found the splinter al-Muhajiroun), did more to inculcate the spirit of jihad, anti-West sentiment, anti-democractic politics, and passionate support for the cause of the umma, the Muslim supernation, than anyone else is essentially correct.
While this personal memoir is a must-read, offering with authority and nuance an insider’s view of the context that shaped the period, it is not a definitive analysis. Husain doesn’t reflect enough on the serious debates on basic beliefs and practices that the Salafis provoked at the time and says little about the emergence of “the jihadi scene” in Britain during the late Nineties, during a time when the enemy (in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo) was politically halal. But then none of this is central to his personal journey.
Husain is unequivocal about calling for the banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir, yet I remain unconvinced. For while Hizb ut-Tahrir is subversive of democratic participation and integration, and should be challenged, they have not directly recruited for jihad abroad or terrorism at home. Undoubtedly, a few have left Hizb ut-Tahrir’s talk of jihad for the real thing, and the leadership has always denied the violence that hovers around some of the young men they have influenced. For instance, Hizb ut-Tahrir’s stoking of inter-communal tensions in Newham College in 1994 led indirectly to the murder of a Nigerian Christian by a Muslim, in which the leadership denied all involvement, a tragedy that leads to Husain’s pathway out of Islamism. Husain also reports of “off-duty” excursions to help out Muslim gangs in their turf wars with Sikh gangs in Slough and West London.
I also got first-hand reports of the disruption of Labour and Respect Party election campaigns as late as 2005 by Hizb ut-Tahrir activists in Tooting, Bethnal Green and Bow, and Sparkbrook and Smallheath, something that Husain reports, too. This is contested by Hizb ut-Tahrir’s leadership, who argue that they never endorsed any such activity, and other community activists have reported that al-Muhajiroun members were the real culprits in operating these spoiler campaigns. Given these conflicting reports, I do wonder if Husain has done enough to sift fact from allegation.
The government was far from agreed on the case for banning, first mooted by the Prime Minister in 2005. Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary, Home Office lawyers, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the intelligence services and the Association of Chief Police Officers argued against the banning. Hizb ut-Tahrir have not been seen as part of the terrorist problem, even if they are seen as subversive of democratic politics. The point though is that postwar Britain didn’t seek to ban political subversion. For example, neither the Communist Party of Great Britain was banned, even though it was funded by the Soviets during the Cold War, nor was Sinn Fein, despite its being the political wing of the Irish Republican Army during the Troubles. The British Nationalist Party is not banned either. Other methods have been used to marginalise or moderate such movements in Britain.
This is unlike postwar Germany, where the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz), or FOPC, seeks to “safeguard the protection of the free and democratic fundamental order and the continued existence and security of the state”. This covers political subversion, originally designed to tackle any re-emergence of Nazi ideology in postwar (then West) Germany, as well as terrorism. The 2004 FOPC Report gives the following reasons for the German ban of Hizb ut-Tahrir:
The Federal Minister of the Interior banned Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami in Germany with effect from 15 January 2003, among other things because it opposed the principle of international understanding and because the organisation approved of violence as a means for achieving its political aims. (p. 204)
Is Britain moving towards the German view that subversion should be banned? Al-Muhajiroun and its successors could only be legally banned after extending the grounds for the proscription of terrorist groups in the Terrorism Act 2000, by passing an additional clause banning the glorification of terrorism in the Terrorism Act 2006. Section 21 of the Terrorism Act 2006 proscribes groups that promote or encourage “the unlawful glorification of the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future, or generally) of acts of terrorism”. Glorification is understood as encouraging the “emulation of terrorism”.
This is a delicate and difficult debate. Husain makes the case for banning Hizb ut-Tahrir on the basis of his personal journey rather than considering the political implications as carefully as he should have done. There is no doubt that Hizb ut-Tahrir should be pressurised in all sorts of ways short of banning, but let us not lose sight of the fact that criminalising its membership might end up alienating Muslim communities up and down the country and scotching any effective “hearts and minds” strategy. Academic estimates of the Party’s size in the UK, including members and sympathisers, hover at around 8,500. Given its size, the ripple effect would be immense, a consideration that no doubt bore upon the decision to not, as yet, ban the Party. The other effect would be the chilling of the dissident political voice of young Muslims, who would no doubt draw their own conclusions. Would this be preferable to taking ideas on while preserving the democratic right to speak out? One worries that the litmus test of being a good liberal, especially of the Muslim variety, might have come to rely on a preference for security over liberty on issues like this. A common argument one will hear is that Hizb ut-Tahrir has opened up somewhat since 2005, and Husain characterises this as a divergence between a comparatively more moderate leadership seeking political survival while trying to keep a more unreconstructed membership on board. This judgement is sound, and he is also right to remind us of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Leninist orientation. It has not given up on the idea of a totalitarian expansionist state or the coup d’etat as a means of establishing it.
The other serious point that Husain raises is about responsibility for rhetoric. To put it simply, the angry anti-West rhetoric of the period of colonial struggle (Mawdudi) or of postcolonial resistance (Qutb and Nabhani), without a controlling contextualisation, cannot be idly placed in the hands of young British Muslims. Years ago, back in the Eighties, some young members of the Islamic movement went to the elders to ask why the movement in the UK was not more radical. Why did they not adhere closely to the revolutionary ways of Mawdudi and Qutb? The elders replied that their ideas were for purposes of self-rectification only, and had no practical place in the work of the Islamic movement in Britain. Now this is genuinely mysterious. If the founding fathers of modern Islamism are basically irrelevant, which is what the first and second generation leaders tell me when I’ve pressed this point on them in private, then what’s the reason for not going out in public with a clear post-Islamist position? Tribalism? Loyalty to the movement? Inertia? Pride? Who knows?
Husain’s point here is that during the early Nineties, broad ideological affinity among Islamists meant that the moderates got involved in a game of one-upmanship with the radicals even as they competed fiercely for recruits. Husain gives an example that occurred at the East London Mosque when Hizbi activists attempted to take on the Islamic Forum Europe and the Young Muslims Organisation on their own turf. They were eventually forcibly removed, but not before an elder is seen to fail to respond to Hizbi polemics against democracy, and chooses to remain silent instead. The moderate Islamists could only argue within an overall framework that merely set their differences out in methodological terms (gradualism verses revolution), rather than on more substantive bases. Even now, some, especially those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK, will mount a sophisticated apologetic on behalf of Qutb. People just keep misreading Milestones and his tafsir, they say, and have done so consistently since the 1970s. If only people had listened a bit more to Hassan al-Hudaybi, the second Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood between 1951-1976, then the violent splinter groups would not have emerged. This is rather wishful thinking that misconstrues the power of Qutb’s ideas. The argument about responsibility over rhetoric also has implications for whether a prominent institution like the East London Mosque should be happy to invite intolerant, communalist preachers (Delwar Hossain Sayeedi or Abdul Rahman al-Sudays), or to allow the stocking of Qutb’s Milestones in the bookshop that pays rent to the mosque and is incorporated as part of the building.
However, this tribal loyalty to the ideologues of Islamism is only part of the story. You would be hard pressed to find a more dynamic mosque than the East London Mosque. It houses a school, a major charity, countless educational and welfare projects and extensive sporting facilities. It employs non-Muslim staff. It has a high rate of active participation from young men and women. It has incorporated newer communities — Somalis and Maghribis — within the governance structure of the mosque, rather than remaining an ethnic redoubt. It has worked very closely with the local authority on some substantive issues. For instance, the mosque worked with the local council to bring down absentee rates among Bangladeshi pupils, with the imams directly challenging the cultural practice of pulling kids out of school during term-time for extended trips abroad. There was no doubt that many at the mosque put their weight behind the Respect Party protest vote in 2005 that saw George Galloway to victory at Bethnal Green and Bow. Husain mentions that the link between Respect and former YMO/IFE activists exists, but, arguably, their links with local Labour are much stronger. Privately, it was accepted that Galloway would not be a good constituency MP, and that this was effectively a short-term protest over Iraq. It was assumed that politics as usual would resume with Labour, which is likely to be the case with an excellent candidate in Rushanara Ali (ex-Home Office, Young Foundation and political aide to Oona King, the former MP). None of this gets consideration in Husain’s account of the ELM today.
Husain also provides a short pen-portrait of the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) in 1996, a year before a faction split off to help form the Muslim Brotherhood’s main organisation in the UK, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). He captures the inside debate at the time between those who wanted a post-Islamist, integrationist British Islam, those who were responding to Hizbi criticisms, and those who took more seriously the Muslim Brotherhood’s rather unreconstructed tarbiya, laced with lashings of pro-Hamas rhetoric and anti-Semitic diatribes, according to Husain who attended some of these sessions. Husain, then still detoxing himself from the Hizb, doesn’t always distinguish more laughable elements from more serious ones. A two-hour ISB presentation Husain attended on an entryist methodology into key sectors of British society should rightly be laughed off as pie-in-the-sky thinking rather than some kind of insidious Islamist version of SPECTRE.
Husain’s intelligence and sensitivity eventually leads him to go full circle, back from Islamist alienation to his family and the tolerant mystical Islam – Sufism – that they espouse. He becomes part of the counter-extremist movement, led by Hamza Yusuf and Tariq Ramadan, that gained ground in Britain from the mid-Nineties onwards, defined by a convergence between a more relevant traditional Islam and post-Islamism, emphasising core Islamic values and active citizenship. Husain, scarred by the cultish manipulations of Islamist groups, particularly Hizb ut-Tahrir’s, underestimates the positive impact this has had on both British Islamists and Salafis, and, in my view, mistakenly judges this transition as more tactical than genuine. He is sometimes unwilling to see that just as he has been on a journey, others have been too. The contours of the middle ground have been drawn and partly defined by many of the moderate Islamist groups, of which he has remained suspicious. Muslim student politics, with all its passions and immaturities of the early Nineties, has improved and matured. The students I regularly meet nowadays are considerably more sophisticated than the Neanderthal variety that roved the campuses in the period of the early Nineties that Husain describes. They embody this new middle ground: a place for personal spiritual piety combined with a commitment to social and political activism within democratic norms, or somewhere in the ground chalked out by Hamza Yusuf and Tariq Ramadan ten years ago and elaborated since then. Even now, in a new publication, Turning the Tide, Qutb and Mawdudi are being improbably represented as part of the Sufi tradition. Sarah Joseph edits the most integrationist, aspirational glossy Muslim magazine, Emel, on the market. The centre ground has shifted. Formerly hardline Salafis are happy to go by the name of “Sidi” and to emphasise the traditionalist aspects of the Hanbali madhhab. Mawlid, dhikr, rihla, ijaza — all terms and practices with cache and endorsement; Sufism is no longer the despised, disreputable cult of uneducated parents, as it was once characterised not too long ago. And how many in traditionalist circles now follow the lead of the moderate Islamist movements into interfaith, civic participation, charitable, social and welfare projects? How many Muslims now seek to define Muslim public identity, even as “British Muslims for Secular Democracy”? How many raise the same arguments about foreign policy, whether as Sufis, Shias or Islamists, as British citizens making their concerns heard?
This shift towards a relevant British Islam, having acquired official encouragement since 7/7, has become politically contested among British Muslims. Naysayers may now play the “sell-out” card more assiduously, and government has been none-too-subtle at times in its public interventions, stoking fears of re-engineering a churchless religious tradition proud of its independence and diversity. Presently, at national level, Sufis are being pitted against Islamists in representational terms, while the government is endorsing a British Islam that is the product of both, i.e. the championing of both Tariq Ramadan and Hamza Yusuf, the two figureheads of the new convergence. No wonder many Muslims are disenchanted and confused by these mixed messages. The moderate Islamists have pioneered interfaith, democratic political engagement, women’s participation and serious youth work and they look increasingly likely to leave aside their ideological roots for civic participation and integration. The neo-traditionalists have restated core Islamic values and respect for learning in a manner relevant to diaspora life in twenty-first century Britain.
Husain, however, ends on a more ambiguous note: the future direction of British Islam remains, for him, uncertain. His own trajectory shows, however, that mainstream Islam can renew itself in the context of twenty-first century multicultural Britain, even with the challenge of an extremist fringe, which — while small in absolute terms — constitutes the largest political challenge for British Muslims and society at large. He has not recognised sufficiently that he didn’t travel alone in his voyage of maturation and self-discovery: many of his generation have travelled with him, and the younger generation has absorbed the lessons of the excesses of the early Nineties in order to avoid them.
A short version of this review will appear in the New Statesman.