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Former Islamist radical Ed Husain wants to quell the fire in the House of Islam

Ed Husain: “My life was consumed by fury, inner confusion, a desire to dominate everything, and my abject failure to be a good Muslim.” Photo/Getty Images
“There’s a verse in the Quran that says, ‘Speak the truth, even if it be against yourself.’” Ed Husain, on the phone from London, is explaining how he came to write, in 2007, a book with the risky title The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left.

“Yeah, it was risky, because I didn’t know if I would be arrested for it. I wrote it just two years after the 7th of July bombings in London.” His sister escaped death in that attack by minutes. “There was still a palpable anger in the air. I could easily have been arrested or at least interrogated, put aside for some kind of special treatment or stopped from travelling. Or all the people I’ve known over years would probably get visited.”

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The Islamist charts the path of Mohamed Mahbub Husain – at school he became “Ed” – from “a sort of Muslim choirboy” to someone who hung out with jihadists. At college, he became increasingly radicalised, putting up controversial posters. “Islam: The Final Solution”, read one. Other provocations included organising talks with such titles as, “Hijab: Put up or Shut up”. He joined a circle of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist organisation that strives for a global caliphate.

It was all a long way from the mainstream Muslim faith of his increasingly horrified parents. He was born in East London’s Tower Hamlets in 1974, the child of migrants from British India and East Pakistan. From the time he was 16, there was a growing rift with family. “My life was consumed by fury, inner confusion, a desire to dominate everything, and my abject failure to be a good Muslim,” he writes.

He was studying at London’s Newham College. There was a row over the use of a pool table. A Nigerian-British Christian student was stabbed to death. Husain wasn’t involved, but the incident marked the beginning of the end of his extremism. It wasn’t a sudden epiphany. “No, no, in a strange way these things never happen as a very short, sharp moment. There was a police investigation going on. The entire mood on campus was morbid. I just didn’t want to have anything to do with it or to be seen to have had anything to do with it previously. Someone’s just been killed because of the rhetoric we’d put out there.”

He felt let down by Hizb ut-Tahrir. “They said they had nothing to do with it, but I knew they had everything to do with it because, had it not been for their encouragement, we wouldn’t have invited jihadi people onto campuses. Once you inject people with that inclination for violence … it just comes home.” He’d never walked the violent path. “That was always off the radar for me. I think it’s that critical thinking, just knowing that that’s entirely wrong. It stopped me from supporting Hamas physically or, in those days, Al Qaeda.”

Muslims at a 2011 solidarity rally in London to support uprisings across the Arab and Muslim world. Photo/Getty Images

A devout Muslim

These days, Husain is still a devout Muslim. He follows the path of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. He demurs when I ask if he is a Sufi. “I don’t claim it. It’s something I aspire to being.” He has described himself as “conservative with a small c” and “unashamedly Burkean”, after 18th-century British philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke, who believed that religion is the foundation of civil society. Husain is a former adviser at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and co-founder of counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation. He has a beautiful speaking voice, impeccable manners and a sometimes old-fashioned turn of phrase: “Our friends on the hard left”; “with the greatest of respect to our gay friends …”

Abandoning extremist thought took time. He writes about attending a Sufi gathering in 2001, immediately after the 9/11 attacks. “I asked what we were doing to celebrate,” he writes in The Islamist. “Celebrate what?” was the reply.

Does he recognise the person he was then? “This is the strangest thing about life: I can’t, I don’t. I recognise the ideas, the narrative, the journey. I recognise the consequences of that behaviour. But that feeling, that moment of being, the rawness … that’s gone.”

Was it partly normal teenage rebellion taken to extremes? “Definitely. If my parents were in this mainstream, compassionate, kind, soulful form of Islam, well, I was going to do something different. I’d also grown up my whole life with my father and others warning against this form of Islam, so there was probably a little bit of an experiment to see what this other enemy was all about.”

The Islamist was a bestseller, critically applauded, but it also provoked displeasure. “It is important not to draw general conclusions from Husain’s narrow experience,” wrote Sameer Rahim in the London Review of Books. “There is also a problem with the term ‘Islamist’. The effect of repeating the term, as Husain does, is to reinforce a connection between Islam and extremism.”

New York on September 11, 2001. Photo/Getty Images

Islam and extremism: that’s a connection Husain sets out to disrupt in a new book, The House of Islam: A Global History. It makes the case for the traditional, mainstream faith as opposed to extremist, political Islam. Husain is well placed as a self-described “insider” in Western culture and the House of Islam.

The book tells the story of the Prophet, the origins of the Quran, the Sunni-Shia schism and sharia [law based on the Quran]. It’s an often beautiful narrative. “Islam and Muslim history has made a rich contribution to civilisation and has this deep, rich, beautiful millennium-long tradition,” he says. “What we were not talking about was this tradition of, broadly speaking, civilisation, compassion, kindness, inner balance that led to great calligraphy, art, architecture. The Blue Mosque or the Alhambra or the Taj Mahal – those were external manifestations of a much deeper, joyous existence.”

He also says, “The House of Islam is on fire.” The book explores Saudi-sponsored Salafism, a fundamentalist movement within Sunni Islam, and Wahhabism, which he refers to as an “extreme, puritanical, literalist” sect. “We can’t blame the rest of the global neighbourhood for the fire we’ve lit in our own home,” Husain told the Guardian.

“Every time people talked to me about Isis,” he says, “there was a hint, here in the UK and also the US, of ‘How can these people remain Muslim?’ Every night, Muslims were in the news for being slave owners and misogynists and homophobes. So, how can you remain Muslim?” The House of Islam attempts an answer. “I was trying to explain what it is that keeps me inside the house, why the house is on fire and what we can do to put the fire out.”

He’s inside the house. The house is on fire. It sounds like an uncomfortable place to be. “See, yeah, there you go. That’s what drove me to write it. That discomfort the minute that Islam came up. It’s discomfort perceived from the outside.”

I meant it sounded uncomfortable for him. But he seems committed to discomfort. The Islamist was personal. That can be tricky for family. “Dad got it. He understood the importance of refuting that stuff. My mum was a little worried. ‘Why do you have to keep doing these things? Why are you always in the middle of a storm of some sort?’”

The storm, when it came, was brutal. “My wife was concerned. She was right to be concerned, because we got a lot of hatred and the death threats. The heat was so high. That’s one reason we went to spend four years in the US. It was a way of getting away from the activism and the community tensions.”

A UK Muslim protesting against French plans to ban hijab. Photo/Getty Images

Control of women’s sex life

Husain argues that violent extremists must be expelled from within Islam. “It’s almost shameful that one has to say this, that if someone’s calling for violence and supports violence, they shouldn’t have a safe space in mosques, community centres, publishing houses, popular websites … Ordinary Muslims ought to reject them, expel them, condemn them. This idea that we need to create an Islamic state, that we must have a sharia-compliant state, we must have a government that’s confrontational, that wants to destroy Israel, that wants to attack the West … No.

“We can respect that old Islam of heart and mind and beauty absolutely and that has a place all around the world. But we reject the caliphate. And too many of us haven’t said that.” It’s about removing violent extremism from the menu. “If you’re calling for violence, if you’re killing people and if you are committing suicide in the process or supporting that, I’m sorry, you can’t be included inside the Muslim civilisation.”

Expulsion – takfir – works, he says. “I was rejected by my family, by my local community again and again. It makes you wonder, after a period of time, is all this worth it?” Yet the “hard left”, he says, have been reluctant to speak out. “It’s kind of, ‘Well, if that’s what Muslims want, what’s wrong with it?’ It’s not what most Muslims want. It’s ordinary people having the courage to stand up against fascists who want to create a state that kills those who disagree with them and has a constantly expansionist territorial mindset. Ten years ago, when I spoke about that, people said I was being an alarmist. Now, after Isis, it doesn’t sound like alarmism any more.”

The book has a terrible story of religious extremism. In 2002, there was a fire in a girls-only school in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It was a hot day. The students had taken off their abayas – their black robes – and headscarves. When the fire broke out, by Husain’s account, some girls were stopped at the gate by Saudi religious police and forced back into the blazing building to cover up. Fifteen died.

“Their lives could have been saved, but Saudi Salafi Islam prioritised the rules on women’s dress over the sanctity of human life,” Husain writes. “At the core of controlling female appearance, presence, behaviour and education lies a Muslim male fixation with trying to control women’s sex life.”

2005 protest against Islamophobia in London. Photo/Getty


Fires are burning not just within the House of Islam. In the UK, where Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has attacked conservatives for Islamophobia, Husain has joined voices condemning anti-Semitism on the left. “The old anti-Semitic accusations that Jews somehow control the world and they’re really wealthy – all that old ugly stuff that we thought had gone with the Nazis – is lingering in the British left again,” he says.

In the past, he’s been highly critical of Israel. In The House of Islam, he writes of times in Middle Eastern history when Jews and Muslims lived in peace. “There will be two billion Muslims worldwide within three decades … The Muslim world’s treatment of Israel and Jews, that beleaguered minority of only 20 million people, is among the greatest tests for Muslim civilisational coexistence.”

Coexistence: it’s his solution to putting out the fire in the House of Islam, along with capitalism and conservatism. Of course, conservatism can become fundamentalist and puritanical. “Yeah, so it has the caveat of coexistence. Conservatism that doesn’t come with coexistence is conservatism that, yes, can lead to excesses.”

And surely inequalities, economic and social, in Western capitalist societies contribute to the radicalisation of Muslim youth. “What one is thinking about is a more compassionate form of capitalism. I don’t think it’s calling for protectionism or the extremes of the Donald Trump world view.”

Trump. As we speak, the President’s immigration policy is separating parents and children at the Mexico/US border. “This is what happens when you have a historically illiterate president,” sighs Husain. “He can’t chime with his own self that this is just too close to Auschwitz, too close to the trains going off across Poland and families being divided. That’s what happens when you get a real-estate guy running a country. There’s a reason Plato wanted, in his terms, philosopher princes, philosopher kings. People who had a grasp of history, past, present and future.”

The book argues strongly for a Middle East union. “Whenever I’m in the Middle East, people look to the European Union and aspire towards that. It’s a real model.” If that sounds far-fetched, he points to Europe on fire in the mid-20th century. After World War II, the Holocaust, who would have predicted France, Britain and Germany sitting around the table? “It happened in Europe despite tens of different languages, at least two different variations of Christianity and centuries of warfare from the Reformation onwards, even before then. Don’t forget the Crusades were pillaging and raping Europe before they got to the Middle East.”

A Saudi motorist legally behind the wheel following the lifting of a ban on female drivers in June. Photo/Getty Images

‘Democracy derailed’

Things can change. Extremism can be reversed. A truer religion can be regained. But isn’t all religion susceptible to being perverted to bad ends? “Hannah Arendt makes a similar point about patriotism, nationalism that can then lead to Nazism. Almost every great idea in the world can be perverted, can be taken to an extreme. Look what’s happening to democracy in America, as we speak. That’s democracy derailed. Similarly, socialism, when taken to extremes, what we have is communism, the gulag and the emergence of Stalin. With Islam, we have a similar derailment issue that can lead to Al Qaeda, Isis and jihadists.”

The book is a call for change and, in the time Husain has been writing it, things have changed. “And changed, I’m afraid, for the worse. Just here in the UK, we now have 20,000 young Islamist radicals who are being actively monitored by the Home Office. That’s a phenomenal number. People who are being monitored because they wish to do harm to people here or to leave this country and to go and do harm to themselves and others elsewhere.”

There are signs of hope. “Look at Saudi Arabia. Three years ago it was inconceivable that the religious police would be controlled in the way they’ve been controlled. Women are able to drive. It sounds strange, but that is a mark of victory in a country like that. Women can now travel without male relatives’ permission.”

The #MeToo movement has had an effect. “What you have is Muslim women going after Muslim scholars.” He’s talking about charges against Swiss Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan, accused of rape. “Muslim women in Iran [are] removing their headscarves repeatedly as a mark of protest.”

Change can be hard. Husain, small “c” conservative, was taken aback on a recent visit to King’s College, London. “They’ve got gender-neutral toilets. It’s strange going in where a lady doesn’t have her privacy and a man doesn’t have his privacy.” He can’t see the Muslim world embracing such innovations any time soon. Isn’t that sort of divide in social thinking a barrier to the co-existence he advocates for? “It is, I think. At the same time, Muslims can’t run away from the real world. If you’ve decided to come here, it’s not just an economic arrangement. It’s a social contract. If there are people here who want to change their gender, we may or may not recognise it, but you’ve got to respect it.” Muslims are having to accept their children coming out as gay. “Those are the real consequences of freedom. I think the alternatives aren’t appealing.”

As for the threat of terrorism, he is not optimistic, “because of the number and the scale of the threat. While in Europe we’re all obsessed with Brexit or immigration, and in the US we’re all focused with a madman in the White House, this huge problem is just growing in our midst, I’m afraid.” On Brexit, he’s a “reluctant remainer”. He doesn’t like Brussels bureaucracy. But the idea is worth preserving. “The European Union was a peace project. That’s what it was.”

Swiss Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan, who has been accused of rape. Photo/Getty Images

Speak the truth

There has to be a conversation, he says. He’s doing his bit, adding a voice of hard, sometimes extreme, experience. Of writing The Islamist: “I felt it was the right thing to do and the most just thing to do, both as a sign of contrition, but equally as a warning for others and an explanation for what went wrong in our midst for a whole generation.”

The House of Islam attempts to offer another, older construct. “We’re up against these very organised and mobilised groups. But young Muslims also read. Show them that this is your history, this is your heritage, this is how you’re supposed to be. Don’t forget that and adopt this perverted form of extremism and political activism and mistake it for religiosity, because it’s not.”

Speak the truth, even if it be against yourself. “The most amazing thing that Arendt did in her book [The Origins of Totalitarianism] was to warn us that the healthy notion of an idea only sustains itself when there’s scrutiny of it and protection of it. That’s why it’s up to us who are journalists, writers, thinkers, musicians, actors to safeguard that space. Because if we don’t, then it’s very easily derailed by populist fascist leaders who exploit a vacuum,” he says. “It’s the same with Islam. Unless there’s scrutiny, unless there are multiple voices, you very quickly hand it over to the extremes.”

The House of Islam: A Global History, by Ed Husain (Bloomsbury, $32.99).

Ed Husain appears at the WORD Christchurch Festival on August 31 and September 1.

This article was first published in the July 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.