When I was ten years old, I attended a youth camp organised by my local mosque. At the end of a week of lectures and quizzes we were asked to present a project on an aspect of Islam, preferably something we had learned during the week. A set of older boys produced a booklet called ‘Islam Is the Solution’. The front cover was an image of two tanks facing each other, one flying the American flag, the other the Soviet. Heavenly light emanating from an Iranian flag descended between them. Mahmoud, the leader of the set, wore a black and white checked scarf; his beard was thick but neatly trimmed; he was 18 years old. I knew Mahmoud slightly and was keen to speak to him. ‘Islam is the complete solution to our problems,’ Mahmoud said, explaining that our brothers in Afghanistan and Palestine and Kashmir would only be successful if they rejected Communism and capitalism for the true faith. ‘Islam is politics and politics is Islam,’ he said. ‘We are battling against the kuffar and only fools think otherwise.’
I saw Mahmoud again ten years later, at the mosque. This time he was manning an accountancy stall at a careers advice day. His beard was now barely a tuft and he wore a suit and tie. He seemed embarrassed when I reminded him that we’d met. He was married with two children and lived in Birmingham. I didn’t ask whether he still believed in battling the kuffar: it seemed unlikely.
Ed Husain was completing a similar journey from extremism to integration at around the same time. He was born in East London in 1975 to an Indian father and a Bangladeshi mother. According to his book, The Islamist, his earliest memories are of an idyllic country untouched by ethnic or religious conflict: ‘green, serene’. The occasional skinhead shouted abuse, he says, but the ‘colour-blind humanity’ of his teachers more than compensated. His family saw nothing wrong in buying cakes from a Jewish baker. His Koran teachers preserved the mezuzahs on the door of their building out of respect for the People of the Book. When he was nine he read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and wondered if Allah and Islam had anything to do with Aslan.
Things changed when he went to secondary school. Against the advice of his primary school headmistress, his parents insisted on sending him to Stepney Green, a single-sex school not far from where he lived. All the teachers were male and white; all the boys were Bangladeshi and Muslim. Away from the comforting presence of women (a recurring theme in his story), Husain struggled, and was bullied by the older boys. He found it difficult to make friends with more recent immigrants from the Subcontinent, who sang Hindi songs and lived in council houses. (His parents watched the news and lived in a Victorian terrace.) He considered growing his hair and joining a gang, but didn’t dare defy his parents.
Then his grandfather arrived from India. He was a ‘tranquil, sombre, even serious man’ and the ‘master of five Muslim mystical orders’. Husain carried his books for him while he visited mosques round the country. On their journeys, he was taught the correct method of reciting the Koran and poems that praised the Prophet. Soon he was performing in front of large audiences: ‘I was a sort of Muslim choirboy,’ he says. This kind of Islam – more interested in ritual than in politics – is common in Asia. It is vaguely Sufi, with an emphasis on blessings and amulets. When his grandfather finished his tour he gave Husain a bottle of perfume in honour of the Prophet. Husain thinks his leaving marked the end of his being one kind of Muslim.
Husain began to read about Islam at school. His primer was a book called Islam: Beliefs and Teachings by Gulam Sarwar. It introduced him to some unfamiliar ideas: to the notion, for example, that ‘religion and politics are one and the same in Islam.’ Elsewhere Sarwar commends the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamat-e-Islami, organisations which fight for the ‘establishment of Allah’s law in Allah’s land’ in the Middle East and Asia. Only later did Husain discover that Sarwar was an activist and not a scholar. This book, he warns, is still being used to teach religious education in British schools (though when I studied GCSE Islamic Studies through the mid-1990s, I was given a mainstream textbook). By the time he was in his mid-teens, Husain had begun attending the East London mosque with Brother Falik, a fellow pupil at Stepney Green.
Funded with Saudi money, the mosque was a hotbed of extremism, both political and religious. Its principal ideologue was the founder of Jamat-e-Islami, Abul Ala Mawdudi. Mawdudi taught his followers that the most dangerous enemy to an Islamic state were ‘partial Muslims’: those believers who ‘do not read the Koran and do not know what is written in it’, who adopt some rituals but whose lives are not dominated by religion. As a teenager Husain was pleased to be counted a ‘true Muslim’ and pray in a part of the mosque reserved for activists.