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July 25, 2007

Ed Husain shows that the drift towards extremism among British Muslims has nothing to do with social exclusion or economic circumstances, argues Richard D. North: The Islamist - Ed Husain

Posted by Richard D. North

The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left
by Ed Husain
London: Penguin, 2007
Paperback, 8.99

This is a remarkable and likeable book, and quite possibly important, too. There is some evidence that Ed Husain will become even more useful as time goes on. He has, for instance, recently turned up the heat on the continuing Islamist threat on our campuses, not least in a BBC Radio 4 Today programme piece [Listen Again archive, 18th July 2007]. But in doing so, he is only putting right the inadequacies of his charming and rather thrilling book.

Ed Husain once espoused beliefs and causes which it is easy to characterise as evil. But his book reminds one that it is quite possible that his fellows - even those who strapped bombs to themselves - might have been amongst the best of people: bright, serious, all too righteous. Ed picked up those beliefs, and dropped them, pretty easily. Maybe he was never a real extremist. Maybe he was at root too religious to be quite interested enough in worldly politics. Maybe he had a saving grain of sweetness. Perhaps, if he had had a scintilla more toughness, he might now be savouring the delights of 75 virgins.

Luckily, he's still down here with us. The drawbacks to The Islamist partly spring from the nature of the author, and partly from his publisher's approach. Ed Husain is so called perhaps because he'd like to be thought a hip or streetwise Edward, but he says that part of it is that "Ed" is the last two letters of the prophet Mohammed's name. So even here, in his very friendly recently-adopted moniker, there's an element of dissembling. It's a feature of his whole life, as he progresses out of assimilation and into different fringe groups, and back again. Ed is not quite solid. He doesn't deserve the condescension of Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian, but he isn't home free, either.

This is not to say that this book is likely to be a deception. As he takes us from his being a cheerfully colour-blind primary schoolboy, and on to his becoming a spiritual (but increasingly isolated) Muslim, and then a democratic, political Islamist, and then an extremist, and then anti-Islamist, everything about his writing makes us believe he is telling us the truth as he sees it and that he sees it about as clearly as anyone. Now, he tells us, he's back with a version of the spiritual Islam his forbearing father espoused all along, and is - one guesses - a really quite devout Sufi. One supposes he may move on yet again.

Along the way he was taken in by people of a brain-aching nastiness and narrowness of view. As he joins first the Young Muslim Organisation and then Hizb ut-Tahrir, and then renounces them, he is being swayed by groups which have evolved from much earlier ones. These currents reflect the geographical and historical varieties of Islam and their fierce loyalties and divisions and internecine rows and wars.

It is also comical to note, as does Ed, that the desire for a modern caliphate derives from a hotchpotch of Western (not to say Jewish) secular revolutionism. As a fascinating Economist (21st July 2007) survey of Iran shows, the theologians of Qom, "the Shia Vatican", are almost as keen to maintain a distance between religion and politics as are those in the Italian one. Still, by the standards of modern Islamism, even Catholic and protestant religious schism or communist revolutionary factionalism were jolly disagreements amongst light-hearted souls. It's appalling that the half-baked scribblings of theorists half a world and half a century away could fire up Muslim Brits with the whole wide world of wisdom and excitement laid before them. It is a fine thing that Ed has done: he has made some of this seem, if not attractive, at least comprehensible.

As he makes this journey, there seems to be a worrying naivity. At every stage, he Tiggered onto the next level. There is no hint of the scepticism which surely ought to be accumulating with the torn-up credos, or of the education he seems to have been acquiring for too many years to too little effect. This becomes a bit irritating until one remembers that if he hadn't been a serial dupe, we wouldn't have had this wonderful story.

His passage is of great interest. Britain wants to know how it is that lots of lucky Muslim boys decided that they had to reject Western society. Ed's account confirms that it has nothing to do with their "objective" experience. His drift into extremism seems to have been like the drift of 1960s bourgeois Continentals into extreme leftism, or even of 1970s, '80s and '90s working-class English West Indians into ghettoism. He - and they - seem to have had difficulty accommodating their parents' sometimes uneasy accommodations with the world around them. It is tempting to say that this diagnosis suggests that it is very hard to do anything very quickly about this sort of reaction but that people - societies - seem to grow out of it. Or rather, there's always some troubled minority or other and some dopiness for them to believe for a while.

I'd guess that most readers will more or less sympathise with Ed. At least if his account is true, we non-Muslims don't have to feel we let Ed down in any way. If anything, we were too nice. We were suckers to let the extremists get such a hold on vulnerable minds in educational institutions. But education managements were in a tricky position. It is not political correctness run mad to assume that freedom of speech and religion are as necessary on campus as elsewhere. One imagines that in the 1990s it wasn't easy even to imagine the seriousness of what was going on.

Still, we pore over this book to know more than Ed is really equipped to tell us. That's to say, we want to know whether "moderate" Muslims now are all that moderate, and which Muslim groups are now fronts for various sorts of extremists who go in for various degrees of dissembling. We want to know who, if anyone, now represents "moderate" Islam. We want to know which Muslims are really trying to help erect decent distinctions and keep them in place. Who is working out where the line between politics and religion, and the line between democratic and extreme activism, really lie?

Doubtless, the British authorities have been too soft on the Islamists. There seems good evidence that at every level, including the most senior, institutions rolled over for, and sought dialogue with, extremists. But the important nuts and bolts - good hard recent evidence - of this process is not to be had from Ed's book. We need the work of people like Martin Bright for that.

For all that his picture of recent times is sketchy, Ed seems pretty sure he knows what's going on. In his book, any of the groups we've heard of is likely to be led by activists who have extremist form and maybe should not be trusted even now. Some of Ed's erstwhile co-conspirators and campaigners have gone on to flourish in semi-official groups.

This all gets murky. I'd guess that plenty of Muslims are a bit prone to a sort of victimhood and a wilful historical ignorance. They think there's a lot of Islamophobia about when the real miracle is that there isn't lots more. Plenty and perhaps most seem to think Jews are a considerable enemy, and a powerful one, almost anywhere. A good many Muslims not merely disapprove of the West's recent military activity but also seem to think that it was directed against them. So we know that the activist has a considerable sea of dissent to swim in. And we guess that there are few formal or informal structures within which moderates can seek safety and support.

It is very tempting to accept Ed Husain's view that many of the extremists he knew are out there, and having an untoward influence. They have been so because the non-Muslim mainstream has to deal with somebody and because the Muslim mainstream doesn't organise itself to "out" them and find better representatives. It is quite tempting to assume that Ed is right when he says we ought to be sceptical of most Muslim bodies, and actually ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, for instance.

But then, hang on, we think, why trust nice, gullible, Ed to be much of a guide to this propaganda and anti-terrorist war? He doesn't approve of the government's laxity, and yet there is something to its view (repeated on the Today programme referred to earlier) that banning even quite extreme groups is not much use. Why glamorise them? Ed might agree with the laws under which we have just jailed extremists for six years for being loud-mouthed. But aren't they absurd too? It matters that bearded loons demand that cartoonists or even our own soldiers be beheaded. But how much? Wouldn't it be wiser to lock up such people for a year for their impertinence and intemperance or something gorgeous like sedition and then keep them and those like them out in the open where they can hang themselves with their own rope?

Ed Husain's book doesn't have an index. As a monoglot white wrestles with the foreign names, it's tiresome to track people's progress. The book needed to be stiffened and reinforced by appendices or footnotes. The publishers could have taken as a model a book by a Belfast extremist's moll (Jackie "Legs" Robinson). As noted here, her account of life on the Shankill, In Love With a Mad Dog, was reinforced by June Caldwell's journalistic parallel account of the political context. Ed Husain didn't need that amount of hand-holding, but he needed more than he got. Perhaps Penguin were blinded by the modern passion for testimony and memoir, and forgot the big picture. They had a bright star, but with a bit more effort he would have become a better guide to his firmament.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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seems half the books wasn't even written by him but "ghostwritten" with personal details thrown in:

Posted by: Kevin at July 25, 2007 04:30 PM
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