by Ed Husain
Raised in a devout but quiet Muslim community in London, at sixteen Ed Husain was presented with an intriguing political interpretation of Islam known as fundamentalism. Lured by these ideas, he committed his life to them. Five years later, he rejected extremism and tried to return to a normal life. But soon he realized that Islamic fundamentalists pose a threat that most people-Muslim and non- Muslim alike-simply don’t understand.Based on first-hand experiences and written with pervasive clarity, The Islamist delivers a rare inside glimpse of the devious methods used to recruit new members, and offers profound insight into the appeal fundamentalism has for young Muslims in the Western world.
First off, I want to give extremely high praise to this book. It was extremely well written and engaging. It had a great overall narrative and also was insightful and educated. While it is definitely autobiographical it has a broad application and is able to elucidate a whole spectrum of issues that are relevant today in a variety of contexts.
The background of the story: Ed Husain (his full name is Mohammed Mahbub Husain but was shortened to Ed, to my surprise, while he was in Syria, not to appear more Western. You’ll have to read the book to get the full, and somewhat humorous story of that.) was born in Britain and grew up largely within the significant immigrant community of London’s East End. As he describes himself he is “British by birth, Asian by descent, and Muslim by conviction.” His story is one that explores the struggle of coming to grips with these identities. Here is his own description of the book.
This book is a protest against political Islam, based on my own experience as a British Muslim who grew up in London, became an extremist – an Islamist – and saw the error of his ways.
His first exposure to Islam came through his travels with his grandfather. He was a well respected spiritual leader who during his visits to Britain allowed Ed to travel with him to various speaking engagements. Through this he was exposed to an Islam that was internal, primarily concerned with one’s own relationship with God. However, it was not long before Ed came to reject this sort of Islam as dated and out of touch.
A young boy’s company determines his destiny. – Eastern proverb
As Ed entered his teenage years he was exposed to an Islam shaped by the writings of Mawdudi, Sarwar, Qutb and others. This Islam was not concerned with an individual’s relationship to God but with a political agenda. It was one that used religious rhetoric to justify it’s political ideas. As Sarwar writes “Religion and politics are one and the same in Islam. They are intertwined.” Ed soon became involved with groups in Britain that appealed to young Asian’s (many Pakistani and Bangladeshi) to give themselves to the cause of the “Ummah.” They were not to identify as “British Muslims” but as “Muslims living in Britain.” They were living in London yet it was a completely isolated experience.
I was sixteen years old and I had no white friends. My world was entirely Asian, fully Muslim. This was my Britain. Against this backdrop, the writings of Sarwar’s guru, Mawdudi, took me to a radically new level.
In this world of Islamism Ed engaged in organizing events and recruiting others to join their cause. He was part of groups that gave a visible identity to the children of British immigrants. It seemed at the time to be much more exciting and relevant than the old “spiritual” Islam that his parents and grandfather practiced. It led to him leaving home and being embraced by this new community. In this new community they took it upon themselves to enforce an external Islam on those around them. They strongly “encouraged” changes in dress (growing beards, wearing robes, women wearing headscarves) and actions and opposed any who did not join them.
It is interesting to me that for these people who were living in Britain and allowed to voice their views only because it was a democratic society were arguing loud and long against that same society. To them “democracy was haram.” Yet it was only democracy – a place for dissenting voices – that allowed them to express their views.
For how much longer, I ask, will we tolerate the hypocrisy of such people enjoying British life while calling for its destruction? When will Islamists halt this doublespeak?
However, as his story progressed, especially during his time abroad in Syria and Saudi Arabia studying Arabic, Ed came to see the shallowness and emptiness of the Islamist movement. At the height of his Islamist activities his actual observance as a Muslim was at an all-time low.
My life was consumed by fury, inner confusion, a desire to dominate everything, and my abject failure to be a good Muslim. I had started out on this journey ‘wanting more Islam’ and ended up losing its essence.
It was at this point that he began to search for spiritual solace and meaning for life and would turn to whoever could give it. It was largely through exposure to the writings and sermons of some American Muslim’s that Ed ultimately returned to an Islam in many ways similar to that of his grandfather. It was largely shaped by Sufi influences like Rumi. It was ultimately about an individual’s relationship to God.
Of his previous Islamist ideology he writes this:
My time in Saudi Arabia bolstered my conviction that an austere form of Islam (Wahhabism) married to a politicized Islam (Islamism) is wreaking havoc in the world: Baghdad, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Cairo, Istanbul, New York, Madrid, London . . . the list of cities that have suffered Islamist wrath goes on. This anger-ridden ideology, an ideology I once advocated, is not only a threat to Islam and Muslims, but to the entire civilized world.
There is far more in this book. It provides a great backdrop for a number of extremely relevant issues. For one trying to understand the psyche of Muslims in Britain and the challenges they face this book is extremely helpful. For those worried about the dangers of homegrown terrorism this book is extremely helpful. For those who want to better understand how to relate to their neighbors of a different faith this book is extremely helpful. For those who are trying to get their heads around the concepts of democracy and religious pluralism this book is extremely helpful.
Ed’s conclusion to the book is fitting and definitely worth sharing:
Islam is the antidote to extremism, to Islamism. It’s important to remember that ordinary Muslims have been the greatest victims of Islamist terror, and that their desire to put an end to the threat is perhaps greater than ours.We must recapture Islam from Islamists, neutralise radical theologies, and empower pluralist Muslims.This is our first line of defence against terrorism.