Dangerous Minds

By Yahya Birt

New Statesman, 14 May 2007

The Islamist: why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left
Ed Husain Penguin, 304pp, £8.99
ISBN 0141030437

On 30 April, five British-born Muslims were convicted of plotting to blow up targets including a shopping centre and a nightclub using 600kg of ammonium nitrate. The question remains: how did we get to a position where MI5 is monitoring 1,600 suspects in 160 cells? Who are these would-be terrorists? Even if Ruth Kelly and John Reid now belatedly acknowledge the aggravating effect of Iraq, foreign policy does not provide the whole answer. Radical ideas have mattered, too.

Among British Muslims, there are two main views of radicalisation. The first pins the blame squarely upon extreme Salafi Muslims, who developed a doctrine of attacking the west in the wake of the 1980s Afghan-Soviet war. Throughout the 1990s, their propagandists were allowed to spread their ideas in Britain unimpeded by the police and intelligence services. Most ordinary Salafis, committed, like the Amish, to austere apolitical piety, either ignored this trend or argued against it.

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. Their relationship is like that 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.

Ed Husain, brought up in Tower Hamlets in east London, takes the second view. He describes in detail his time with various student Islamist groups between 1990 and 1996. Husain, in an 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, I can vouch that he accurately describes a period of intense competition and one-upmanship between Islamist factions for the attention of young minds. Riding on the back of anti-Saudi sentiment during the first Gulf war, the Hizb ut-Tahrir organisation began to have a serious impact.

Hizb ut-Tahrir’s confrontational tabloid style excited Muslim students looking for easy answers to western double standards. Control of Islamic student societies oscillated between Islamists and apolitical Salafis, leaving few alternatives to a crude, despiritualised, angry and self-righteous take on Islam. Husain is essentially correct in his judgement that Hizb ut-Tahrir, then under Omar Bakri Mohammed (who later founded the splinter group Al-Muhajiroun), did more to inculcate the spirit of jihad, anti-west sentiment and passionate support for the cause of the umma, the Muslim super-nation, than anyone else.

This personal memoir offers an insider’s view of the context that shaped the period, but it is not a definitive analysis. While Hizb ut-Tahrir is subversive, and should be challenged, its members have not directly recruited for jihad abroad or terrorism at home. However, a few have left Hizb ut-Tahrir’s talk of jihad for the real thing – though the leadership has always denied the violence of the young men it has influenced. Hizb ut-Tahrir’s stoking of intercommunal tensions at Newham College in 1994 led indirectly to the murder of a Nigerian Christian by a Muslim. The leadership denied any involvement, but the tragedy set Husain on the path out of Islamism.

Husain’s intelligence and sensitivity lead him 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-1990s, 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, underestimates the positive impact this had on both British Islamists and Salafis, and – in my view, mistakenly – judges this transition as more tactical than genuine.

This shift towards a relevant British Islam, having acquired official encouragement since 7/7, has become politically contested among British Muslims.

Naysayers now play the “sell-out” card more assiduously, and the 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.

Husain ends on an ambiguous note: the future direction of British Islam remains uncertain. His own trajectory shows, however, that mainstream Islam can renew itself in the context of 21st-century multicultural Britain – despite the challenge of an extremist fringe.