When Ed Husain taught English in Syria, his students had many questions about life and politics in his home country in the United Kingdom. One question, he found particularly telling:
Many of my students asked why, if Britain was not an enemy of the Arabs and Muslims, did it give shelter to the Arab religious fanatics who wanted to kill and replace political leaders of the Arab world. Why was Britain home to Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada, and Omar Bakri, rejects of the Middle East?
It was darn good question, and Husain was particularly well placed to answer it. A Muslim of Bangladeshi descent, Husain spent much of his youth as an organizer for Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a radical organization which sought to create an Islamic state. His thought-provoking memoir The Islamist describes his involvement with "the Hizb" and other Islamic fundamentalist organizations, and his eventual disillusionment.
Islamism, according to Husain and many of the radicals to whom he was once devoted, is as much a political ideology as a religion. Gulam Sarwar, one of the first Islamists with whose work Husain became familiar, made that very clear:
Religion and politics are one and the same in Islam. They are intertwined. … Just as Islam teaches us how to pray, fast, pay charity and perform the Haj, it also teaches us how to run a state, form a government, elect councillors and members of parliament, make treaties and conduct business and commerce.
Indeed, Husain notes, many of his fellow radicals seemed more interested in political power — gained through intimidation, thuggery, demagoguery and, not infrequently, violence — than promoting their faith. "We were too tired to pray," he notes. "Establishing the Islamic state was more important than minor matters such as praying, reciting the Koran, giving to charity, or being kind to our parents and fellow Muslims."
The Islamic extremist presence in Britain has been well documented by writers like the right-leaning Melanie Phillips and blogs like the left-leaning Harry's Place;, but The Islamist offers a rare, valuable view from the inside.
Husain tells us organizations like Hizb-ut-Tahrir have been much more successful recruiting amongst second- and third-generation British Muslims, instead of their parents and grandparents; that Islamists have taken advantage of bureaucrats and public institutions too cowed by political correctness to stand up to them; and, that American and British "ally" Saudi Arabia continues to be the world's greatest promoter of radical, uncompromising, Wahabbist Islam. (Not radical and uncompromising enough for Husain in his younger years, alas.)
Most importantly, The Islamist shows how even a true believer in Islamic extremism found his way out. As he continued to learn more about his faith, Husain discovered that Islam was a much more complex and moderate faith than his radical colleagues and teachers had told him. Eventually, he discovered the relatively peaceful Muslim mysticism known as Sufism, and turned his back on extremism and xenophobia.
Over the past few months, amongst the conservative blogs I read, there has been a heated debate over whether the Islamic faith is inherently violent and supremacist. Husain and The Islamist are exhibits for the defence. If he could make the journey out of fundamentalism, there is no reason others cannot.