Review of The Islamist, by Ed Husain
“The Islamist does not flatter the people, is not courteous to the authorities or care for other people’s customs and traditions, and does not give any attention to whether people will accept him or not. Rather, he must adhere to the ideology alone.” Taqiuddin al-Nabhani,founder of Hizb ut-Tahrir
“Islam is a revolutionary doctrine and system that overthrows governments. It seeks to overturn the whole universal social order.” Abdul Ala Mawdudi, founder of Jamat-e-Islami
The publication of The Islamist earlier this year prompted both criticism and praise. Hardly a surprise given the attacks made on various individuals and organisations within its pages.
Those it indicted, people such as Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) responded by questioning Husain’s knowledge of Islam and levelling some accusations of their own. Some liberal commentators — in the main, those who seem to confuse Islamism with the beliefs of the majority of Muslims — also responded badly. Seamus Milne of the Guardian accused him of being a “neocon pinup boy”. Writing in The Independent, Ziauddin Sardar claimed that “You have to be of a certain bent to come under the influence of a cult [HT] and join as a fully paid-up member”. Meanwhile, Husain received support from the most unpleasant of places with Melanie Phillips informing the notoriously open-minded readers of the Daily Mail that Husain was a “brave Muslim”.
So what are we to make of this writer, a man who flitted from one reactionary outfit to another until he finally rejected the lot and started pointing the finger. What, if anything, can his book tell us?
It is only on the rarest of occasions that mainstream Islam receives a hearing in the press, on television or in books. More often than not Islam and those who practice it are viewed through the prism of a terrorist act, an extremist group or at best a sense of otherness. Those who “speak for British Muslims”, the figures promoted by the government and parts of the left, are generally unrepresentative “politicians”. They have deep roots in the broad landscape of political Islam. Of the more than 900,000 Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims in the UK, how many have any affiliation to or accept Islamism, how many are supporters of say, the Muslim Brotherhood or (the Pakistani-rooted) Jamaat-e-Islami? If the answer is “not many”, how is it that groups like these achieved a position of semi-legitimacy and recognition? What and who do they represent?
Husain grew up in Limehouse, East London, with an Indian Muslim father and Bangladeshi mother. He opens the book with a glowing description of his earliest school-days at the Sir William Burrough primary school. For Husain the school was “an extension of my home”, an island of “goodwill and kindness” in a sea of hate. With the National Front on the streets and widespread racism the teachers made every effort to protect and enrich their students. All this changed when Husain moved on to Stepney Green secondary school.
After a period of deep involvement with the Sufism of his father, who was an ardent follower of a particular shaikh, Husain began to question and reflect upon religion and his place in the world. Like many teenagers he strove to find a sense of identity separate from the family: “I was drawn to Islamic groups because there was no alternative: either I became involved in Islam or I joined a gang. There were simply no other outlets for young Muslims. That hasn’t changed. I don’t think there’s a single family in this area that’s not had a family member influenced by Islamism.”
At Stepney Green he found people more than willing to “help”. Husain got involved with the Young Muslim Organisation (YMO), a front group for Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). Organised around the East London Mosque, the YMO concentrated its efforts on providing social and “educational” activities for young boys from Muslim backgrounds, that is indoctrination into the writings of Abdul Ala Mawdudi, the founder of JI, who conceived of Islam as a political doctrine, a call to revolution.
The JI group dismissed the validity of the mainstream Islam practised by most Muslims. It provided a political framework for understanding the world and a sense that things can and must change. But Husain found limits in their teachings and practice. Although the idea of the “caliphate” — a united, international Islamic state — was central to YMO thought, there were limits to how this extended into their activity. During attacks on Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s Husain toured East London calling for jihad. When he came across Hizb ut-Tahrir he found a group seriously organising for such efforts. Whilst the YMO and other Islamist groups spoke of “unity”, “Islamic revolution” etc… it was HT who seemed to put these ideas into action.
“Young Muslims are no more likely to join Hizb ut-Tahrir than young Christians are to join the Moonies”.
Ziauddin Sardar in The Independent
The above quote completely misses the point and hides the true nature and organisational approach of a group like HT. Far from relying on people slowly drifting into the group, HT makes special efforts to recruit and organise.
Husain claims that HT borrow some methods from the far-left, employing ideas of hegemony and organising in a “cell structure”. Well, this may or may not be the case but you don’t have to read Gramsci to realise that making your ideas dominant in any one place helps you recruit and that getting people in a room together is a good way to keep them actively involved.
At Newham College, Husain and his HT colleagues put these ideas into practice. During his time there the number of women students wearing the niqab rocketed, the terms of political discussion were set by HT — even if lecturers and other students managed to avoid direct contact with the group, they would certainly have known HT existed.
Whilst the fundamental idea of Islamism is the caliphate, other more revealing issues were a constant matter of concern. Anti-semitism and homophobia are the bedrock of many reactionary organisations and HT positively dripped with both. The sort of “international united state” envisioned by HT and other Islamists would be one based on a warped and prejudiced ‘“reading” of Islamic writing.
At Newham, Husain’s association with HT came to an abrupt and bloody end. One afternoon, sitting in the library he witnessed the murder of a fellow student. Husain is convinced that the activities of HT precipitated the murder of this black, Christian student. Although no claim is made that the killing was directly sanctioned by the group, Husain claims that the atmosphere — the heightened political and religious hot-house — generated by the actions of HT was to blame.
It’s often been said that “it’s easier to learn than it is to unlearn”. For Husain, the truth of this statement was borne out. After severing ties with HT he thought the last vestiges of Islamism had been expunged from his system. What shocked Husain again was his initial response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
Having returned to the Sufism of his family he attended a prayer meeting and asked “what will we do to celebrate?” The others in the room were shocked by his statement.
Determined to positively struggle against these ideas, Husain decided to learn Arabic — so that he could read the Koran for himself — and travel the Middle East. Experiences in Saudi Arabia convinced him of the hypocrisy of self-defined Islamic states. Repeated flirtations with various educational and religious groups convinced him of the massive impregnation of Islamism and its supporters in many Muslim organisations. The result of these experiences are detailed further in the book.
Husain is longer an Islamist but he still harboring some stupid ideas. A supporter of the Blair government but able to see how abandoned the working class communities of London still are. Repelled by his experience of the wide-spread influence of Islamist ideas but imagining that the legal proscription of Islamist groups will solve the problem. A Sufi who interprets Islam as a religion of peace, but someone who finds excuses for the war on Iraq: “In early 2003 Saddam Hussein effectively invited the US army to invade Iraq by playing cat-and-mouse games with United Nations arms inspectors.” A mass of inconsistencies and contradictions. But, then again, is it any wonder?
The key value of The Islamist is the way it exposes the wide-spread influence, the aims, objectives and ideology of Islamism. Husain is clear — and we should be too — that the multifarious groups adhering to the teachings of people like Mawdudi have reactionary intentions. What separates the “mild” Islamism of the YMO from the proto-jihadism of HT is simply choice of tactics.
Whilst the left should fight against the racist portrayals of Muslims that are so common, we should not flinch from describing the reactionary politics and intentions of Islamism. We should not pretend that those who claim to “speak for Muslims” do anything of the sort. We should understand the tensions and antagonisms within the broad Muslim community without relating to people based merely on the colour of their skin, assumed religious affiliation or sense of communal identity. Whatever his faults, Husain shatters the dominant political understanding of Islam as a homogenous block. This can only be a good thing.