Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Islamist

"We take up the sword to take the sword out of madmen's hands. Today the sword is once again in the hands of the madmen." (Ed Husain)

Long before Salman Rushdie got his knighthood, the honour was bestowed on Sir Iqbal Sacranie a leader of the Muslim Council of Britain who had enthusiastically supported the Ayatollah's fatwah against the annoying author for reasons other than literary. Sacranie also supports a number of Islamist organisations that operate in the UK and came out publicly against the proposal to ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the group that represented the final stage of Ed Husain's journey towards ever-more extreme, politicised interpretations of Muslim duty. (Husain reports that at the MCB bookshop you can still buy a paperback version of Sayeed Qutb's Milestones with an article in the appendices titled The Virtues of Killing a non-Believer.)

Husain's insider account of Islamic radicalism in Britain is very interesting indeed. There can be few better ways of gaining an understanding of what is at stake in Britain today, and how and why young people come to form confrontational public identities that dehumanise the whole of the rest of humanity (and Jews in particular).

Mohamm-Ed Husain is the British-born son of Bangladeshi immigrants in London's East End and during his late teens he was sucked into ever more radicalised versions of his parents' religion. Yet he had an adolescent grounding in the more mystical, devout forms of Islam, and it was to these that he later returned when confronted with the violent, street-level consequences of his extremist ideology.

I found it rather scary to think about Husain and his fellow students at the Tower Hamlets college (right on my own doorstep) dreaming of a new world order answerable only to God, harassing their Jewish, gay or "confidently secular" teaching staff and putting up posters with the words Islam the Final Solution...and all this many years before September 11, 2001.

"We were talking of crusades long before George W. Bush," he recalls.

Husain began to fall in with this crowd shortly after his transfer to an all-boys (all Muslim boys that is) school in East London. There he was presented with a textbook, Islam: Beliefs and Teachings by Gulam Sarwar, which taught him that religion and politics are one and the same. He and his peers rejected immigrant culture, with its nostalgia for Bangladeshi villages and adoration of Bollywood actresses, for they were now inclined to believe that members of the Muslim ummah have no nationality, for there is no sovereignty but that of Allah.

He compares some of the essentialist ideas he became exposed to as "like the Amish, but without the humility". Both he and several of his Muslim reviewers have also compared the various flavours of modern British Islamism to the strands of radical thinking in Russia before the revolution: Bolshevik, Menshevik, Trostskite etc. However, none seem willing to make the other obvious comparison: Like the Nazis but without the nationalism.

Having first become a part of organised Islamism at the East London mosque (his more traditional parents belonged to the Brick Lane mosque) he wound up in Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an organisation that preaches to its followers that fostering the Islamic state is wajib: a religious duty like daily prayer.

Even after he drifted away from the Hizb Husain still felt he was "carrying" the ideas inside of him, like a little alien waiting to pop out. A 'free thinker', in private at least, he was still not entirely committed to the notion of Islam as a purely spiritual pursuit. He reckons there are tens of thousands of similarly "confrontational" Muslims in Britain today, sleeper Islamists, that are not actively involved in the movement (but who can be activated whenever knighthoods are conferred on over-rated blasphemous novelists).

He eventually turned to Sufism, something that caught my interest at school too, back in the days when any set of ideas that flourished in the twelfth century was bound to fascinate me. "For me God was beyond gender, limitation even conceptualisation," he now realised. "God was a human construct, a human projection. God had been belittled by organised religion, particularly by literalist extremists of all persuasions."

He now saw that the notion of an Islamic state is a modern invention, that the West and the Ummah are equally myhological, and that the Christian folk of Britain were not kafirs but masihiyyeen, people of the Messiah. Out in the Middle East he was pleased to note too that Arab Christians refer to their God as Allah and that one did not have to wear ethnic clothes to appear modest.

According to Husain, Islamism in Britain today is a bubbling mix of austere Wahhabi literalism and the politicised faith of Qutb and the other Islamist ideologies. He has some especially harsh words for the Wahhabi bigots that run the show in Saudi Arabia, providing many examples of how the use of the veil results in all the negative social effects of pervasive sexual frustration. The West is no more decadent than the East, he concludes. "The difference is that in the west we are open about these issues."

He reports how devotees of the cult of Abd al-Wahhab run the Haj at Mecca and are especially harsh towards pilgrims that appear to want to express their love for the Prophet: idolatry in the eyes of the Wahhabis. And he offers this further telling condemnation of Saudi society:

"How is it that Britain, my home, had given refuge to thousands of black Africans from Somalia and Sudan: I had seen them in their droves in Whitechapel. They prayed, had their own mosques, were free, and were given government housing. How could it be that Saudi Arabia had condemned African Muslims to misery and squalor."

Husain recognises that young Muslim's face difficult choices in Britain. "When the centre of social life in Britain is the local pub, where do Muslims fit in?" Yet his message to his co-religionists is this: reclaim our faith and reject the monolithic approach to life.

He is adamant that the Hizb should now be banned because it uses the UK for media access and continues to find fertile recruiting grounds here. Blair's government proposed doing this, then back-tracked.

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