Green, Serene

Sameer Rahim

  • The Islamist by Ed Husain
    Penguin, 288 pp, £8.99, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 14 103043 2

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.

Falik introduced Husain to the Young Muslim Organisation. Operating from the East London mosque, its members ran kung fu classes and football tournaments; they put up posters and wore T-shirts advertising their Islamic identity. Several had been in prison or belonged to gangs. Husain writes that the YMO was ‘as bad and cool as the other street gangs, just without the drugs, drinking and womanising’. (But not without the violence: the police had to be called to the mosque to break up fights between rival factions.) By this time, Husain had left school and entered Tower Hamlets College. He became a prominent figure in the Islamic Society and was soon attracting large crowds to his meetings.

None of this impressed Husain’s parents. He was neglecting his GCSEs, spending time instead at the mosque (which his parents didn’t attend). His father suggested he get a job in an Indian restaurant away from distracting influences. But Husain had his mind on higher things and – for the first time in his life – was openly defiant. Encouraged by Falik and others at the YMO, he had come to think of his parents as ‘partial Muslims’, since they strongly disapproved of Mawdudi and his brand of political Islam. Husain told them they had misunderstood their religion. ‘You’re no longer the son I raised,’ his mother replied. ‘If you want politics,’ his father said, ‘go and join the Labour Party.’ Husain compromised for a while but when his father caught him with a stash of leaflets calling for the release of a jailed Jamat-e-Islam leader, he threw him out of the house. A friend from the YMO told him to stay firm: ‘The Islamic movement is more important to us than our families.’

Husain, though, promised to concentrate on his studies and was allowed back home. But it was impossible for his parents to monitor everything he did at college and he soon became head of the Islamic Society. With Falik at his side, he tried to assert control over its members. Many students who attended Friday prayers also liked going to the college disco. One evening, Husain and his committee stationed themselves at the entrance and shamed fellow Muslims into staying away.

A related campaign encouraged Muslim women to wear the hijab. The demure look pleased Husain and his fellow members; women, they felt, looked more attractive covered up. However, some of the sisters who began wearing the hijab did not stop there: they put on dark flowing robes; then they covered their faces and began to wear gloves. They also wanted to play an equal role in the Islamic Society. One veiled woman insisted on remaining behind a screen during a meeting with Husain. ‘Do you think I am going to rape you?’ he said, his teenage sense of injustice outweighing his sense of propriety. The veil allowed these women – many of whom came from restrictive Indian families – to demand equal rights while protecting them from accusations of Westernisation. Now referred to by the men as ‘ninjas’, they cited the example of the Prophet’s first wife and made offers of marriage to the brothers. Some marriages took place but many of them ended in divorce: the women found the men were not as pious as they had appeared; and the men complained that their wives had been ‘influenced too much by feminism’.

In 1993 the Islamic Society had an opportunity to extend its radical message. Husain received a videotape from Bosnia that contained detailed reports of atrocities. He showed it to a packed audience and spoke of the war as ‘the killing of Muslims by Christians’. Upset at the perceived bias of the international community, the society began collecting money for Bosnian charities, but this soon seemed inadequate. The general arms embargo didn’t affect the Serbs because they had inherited the Yugoslav army; the Bosnians, however, had to make do with smuggled weapons from Saudi sympathisers. Criticised by the ‘ninjas’ for failing to protect their sisters, Husain’s friends began raising money for the mujahidin. The cry ‘Jihad for Bosnia’ was regularly heard at prayer meetings and demonstrations. Then Husain was introduced to a revolutionary Islamic organisation that had long promised such a jihad.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, or the Party of Liberation, was founded in 1953 by a judge living in East Jerusalem called Taqiuddin al-Nabhani. It rejected Arab nationalism and secularism, the dominant ideologies of the post-colonial Middle East. A radical offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the party called for a return of the Sunni caliphate which, it claimed, had afforded Muslims protection from the time of the Prophet until the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1924. Only a caliph, the party’s constitution read, ‘will provide stability and security to all the people of the region, Muslims and non-Muslims’. After some debate, Hizb ut-Tahrir had decided that a revolution backed by the army was the best way to achieve an Islamic state. The Jordanian government – which at the time controlled East Jerusalem – banned it immediately; all other Arab governments soon did the same. Over the next thirty years, Hizb ut-Tahrir launched unsuccessful coups in Jordan, Syria and Egypt.

In the 1980s and 1990s many of its members sought political asylum in Britain. One of these was Omar Bakri, a Syrian Husain heard speak at an LSE conference on Bosnia. He was impressed. The ‘charismatic’ and ‘pugnacious’ leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain dismissed the petitions and letter-writing advocated by previous speakers: his solution was a powerful Islamic state with an army capable of defending Muslims. Husain’s interest in the party grew. It seemed intellectually more coherent and ambitious than the group he was leading at college. Muslim nations should withdraw from the World Bank, it argued, and refuse to sell oil to the West until it did something about Bosnia. Before that, however, the people had to overthrow corrupt Arab regimes. This would be achieved by a revolutionary vanguard spreading the ideology of political Islam and eventually installing a caliph.

At colleges, universities and mosques around Britain, Hizb ut-Tahrir handed out unsigned booklets that summarised its beliefs. One of these, Democracy Is a System of Kufr (1995), begins with an explanation of democracy that includes distorted snatches of Hegel and Rousseau but soon comes to the main point: enfranchisement has led to ‘societal decadence’ the like of which ‘is not to be found even in the domain of beasts and animals’. Only Hizb ut-Tahrir can ‘clarify its corruption and rottenness’ by implementing ‘pure’ Islam. After democracy has been overthrown, the ruling caliph would be chosen by Muslims, and after that there would be no more elections. The caliph would be advised by a council of scholars but – as some thinkers argued during the historical caliphate – it would be forbidden to overthrow him even if he deviated from Islamic law.

Husain was drawn into Hizb ut-Tahrir by specialist recruiters: a town planner with Islington Council and a Canadian convert who worked for J.P. Morgan. Soon he abandoned Brother Falik and the YMO. The recruiters gave him literature by Nabhani and repeated the movement’s key words to him: ‘ideas, intellect, thought, challenge, systems, concepts, destruction, construction’. Once they were persuaded of his seriousness, they invited him to join a cell of five students. It met every Thursday evening at a location revealed by an anonymous telephone call. Husain was made to promise never to disclose the name of his instructor, but he gives it here: Farid Kasim, one of the party’s high-profile members and a former activist in the Socialist Workers’ Party. At each meeting the initiates would read out from a booklet, before Kasim explained its ‘deeper meanings’. Hizb ut-Tahrir, he said, would light ‘a flame whose heat would transform the society to boiling point’.

Husain became a committed activist. He distributed Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets to worshippers leaving mosques in Tower Hamlets, while Kasim made impromptu speeches in the street. One Ramadan, Husain and other party workers drove past a mosque shouting through megaphones that fasting was not enough: ‘What use are your prayers when the Jews slaughter your brothers in Palestine?’ The police were called and they were told to stay away from the mosque. So they started putting up posters describing themselves as Concerned Muslims Living in Tower Hamlets.

There was little moral self-examination. Hizb ut-Tahrir forbade its members to take out insurance policies (betting on an act of God was unlawful), but many insured their cars under a family member’s name. The party encouraged Muslim women to cover themselves completely, but allowed its members to use pornography since the models were (they presumed) unmarried. Kasim argued that there was no such thing as ‘feeling immoral’: ‘If Allah allowed it, it was moral. If He forbade it, it was immoral.’

Husain became leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir at Newham College (he had left Tower Hamlets), but started to have doubts. He had been in the party for two years and was exhausted: being a fanatic had used up a great deal of emotional energy. The ideas he had been taught came to seem ‘like pretentious, counterfeit intellectualism’. Alone in a car with Omar Bakri one evening, he asked why the party’s members were so lax in their basic knowledge of Islam: he had recently discovered that the men who had initiated him into Hizb ut-Tahrir couldn’t recite their prayers correctly. Bakri said that a training session would be held, but it never materialised. At home, Husain shut himself in his room: ‘My life,’ he writes, ‘was consumed by fury, inner confusion, a desire to dominate everything, and my abject failure to be a good Muslim.’

Gradually extremism lost its appeal. He met a Bangladeshi girl called Faye who had a similar background to his and who reawakened his feeling for his grandfather’s compassionate Islam. They agreed to marry when their studies ended. Then things got out of hand at Newham College. There was tension between the black students (defined as Christians by Hizb ut-Tahrir) and the Muslims, and on one occasion a dispute over the use of the pool table escalated into a near-riot. Later that term, one of Husain’s friends challenged a Nigerian boy who was making offensive comments about Islam. The Nigerian was stabbed in the chest and died.

Husain now tried to distance himself from Hizb ut-Tahrir. Other members insisted that he was ‘carrying’ the party’s ideas whether he liked it or not. ‘I felt like a woman pregnant with a violent partner’s child,’ Husain writes. He and Faye decided to move away from their neighbourhood and accepted places at the University of North London. There Husain studied history with teachers who made him think critically about facts and sources. He was inspired by E.H. Carr; he learned that Hizb ut-Tahrir had taken many of its ideas from Rousseau and Gramsci. At the same time, he began attending Islamic study groups that focused on spirituality rather than politics. He heard a Muslim scholar reprimand those ‘who adopted modern European political idiom and sought to impose it on a 1400-year-old tradition’. Husain now wanted a normal British life. He graduated from university and got a job at HSBC. In 1997 he voted for Tony Blair.

After marrying Faye, he thought he had flushed out all extremist thoughts. But when he watched the attacks of 11 September 2001, he says ‘a part of me was joyful.’ At a Sufi gathering that evening, he asked what they would be doing to celebrate the attack. The group was taken aback. ‘The Americans are not our teachers; if they kill like barbarians, we do not respond like them,’ one man said. Still unsure how to detach his Islamic faith from political radicalism, Husain and his wife moved to Damascus to study Arabic. They stayed there for two years and then moved to Saudi Arabia, where he was abused for being an Indian and – following the pattern of his schooldays, when bullying played a part in leading him to adopt extreme opinions – reacts by now writing of ‘the racist Arab psyche’ and its inability to tolerate foreigners. He also claims that Arab objections to Israeli behaviour are anti-semitic: when they use the word ‘Zionist’ they really mean ‘Jew’. He adopts the clichéd view that Muslims ‘have not accommodated themselves to a new post-colonial world’ and – eager to prove how far he has travelled – he dismisses the role of Western foreign policy in fomenting radicalism.

When he returned to Britain, Husain met and challenged some of his old friends. There were a few he couldn’t talk to because they had been arrested on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks: in November, Dhiren Barot, a former associate, was convicted of planning explosions in London using gas cylinders in parked limousines. ‘British suicide bombers,’ Husain writes, ‘are a direct result of Hizb ut-Tahrir disseminating ideas of jihad, martyrdom, confrontation and anti-Americanism, and nurturing a sense of separation among Britain’s Muslims’. Omar Sharif, a British Muslim who in 2003 tried to carry out a suicide bombing in Israel, attended Hizb ut-Tahrir meetings when he was a student; after his death the police found emails in his inbox from 1924.org, an organisation affiliated to the party. Although he had no direct link to Hizb ut-Tahrir, Mohammed Siddique Khan, the leader of the 7 July bombings, was, Husain argues, a product of a similar culture. Husain now thinks that Hizb ut-Tahrir should be banned; in this, he agrees with David Cameron, who is upset by Gordon Brown’s refusal to follow up on his predecessor’s promise to eradicate it.

In an email sent to various news organisations after reviews of The Islamist began to appear, Hizb ut-Tahrir said that Husain’s experience in the early 1990s was not representative of the organisation today. Omar Bakri left in 1996, and the party claims that it became entirely peaceful at this point. It takes public relations seriously. After 9/11, its position as a legal organisation in the West was threatened. Within a week it had condemned the attack; Islam, it said, ‘forbids any aggression against civilian non-combatants’. A similar statement was issued a day after the bombings in London in 2005. (This did not stop the Guardian sacking a trainee journalist, Dilpazier Aslam, when it discovered that he was a member. He has since won an out-of-court settlement case for unfair dismissal.) However, in its private literature and statements the party is more equivocal. In a booklet published in 2002 entitled The Inevitability of the Clash of Civilisations, 9/11 is referred to merely as ‘the incident’ in a sentence introducing a list of anti-Islamic comments made in American newspapers after the attacks. Imran Waheed, a spokesman for the party, said that he would condemn the events of 7 July only if ‘Western leaders condemn what they have done in Fallujah and other parts of Iraq and Afghanistan’.

It is important not to draw general conclusions from Husain’s narrow experience, as he and a number of his reviewers have done. ‘In Britain’s Muslim communities the ideas of a global jihad . . . are accepted as normal and legitimate,’ he writes, not considering that his view might be distorted: there are around 8500 Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Britain out of a population of 1.5 million Muslims. There is also a problem with the term ‘Islamist’. Husain puts the word into the mouths of radicals speaking in the 1990s, before it came to mean what it does now. Yet what does it mean? Journalists regularly label as ‘Islamist’ movements as diverse as Turkey’s ruling AK party and al-Qaida. The effect of repeating the term, as Husain does, is to reinforce a connection between Islam and extremism – ‘I was running an Islamist front organisation operating on campus to recruit for the wider Islamist movement and maintain a strong Islamist presence’ – and to give legitimacy to movements that claim to act in the name of all Muslims. (It was encouraging to hear the new home secretary, Jacqui Smith, describe the failed bombers in Glasgow and London as ‘criminals’.) Yet Husain himself argues that extremist Islam is more usefully compared to other kinds of extremism than it is to the religion. ‘Islamism’ in the sense used in this book is a not a branch of Islam.

Husain is still confused. He criticises the multiculturalism supposedly fostered by the Labour government, yet within a few pages is confidently claiming to be both British and Muslim. In a recent article for the New Statesman, he begins a paragraph by saying that, thanks to its ‘history of plurality and spirituality’, Islam ‘has a natural home in Britain’, yet ends it with a warning that ‘the carnage of Baghdad may well erupt in Bradford and Birmingham.’ One of the few places where Husain felt comfortable in Saudi Arabia (or anywhere else) was close to the mausoleum of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina, where he smelled musk rose drifting from the alleys. Yet he lives in Britain, with all the effort of preserving different selves that it entails for Muslims. The last time I saw my friend Mahmoud, he was at the funeral of a distant relative, apologising to the father for leaving early; there was, he explained, an emergency back at the office.