“The Islamist”, in which Muham(Ed) Husain describes his journey from one form of over-simplification to another, is a story worth both telling and publishing. It works as a local story, of one Bengali-Indian-Briton growing up in Muslim Tower Hamlets in the 1990s and becoming obsessively involved in Wahabi-tinted London Muslim politics. Other east end Muslims might have become involved in business of some form or other, or rap music, or gangs, but Husain’s story provides a detailed look at one of Britain’s tiny subcultures, amateurish and naïve Islamism, and this is interesting. I can even vaguely identify with the earnest silliness of the whole thing, having spent cold mornings as a teenager selling the Socialist Worker newspaper to uninterested nurses and marketmen. And I wholeheartedly admire Husain’s rejection, by the end of the book, as he visits Syria and Saudi Arabia, of Islamism’s scriptural literalism and state-obsession in favour of more traditional and Sufistic forms of Islam.
A great local story, which fails when it makes grandiose claims to universalism. At such moments (perhaps it was the Penguin editors imposing sexiness) the style descends to tabloid: “Lurking in the background were forces preparing to seize the minds of Britain’s Muslim children,” Husain screams, and it may have looked like that to a young man who kept his company and came from his sheltered background of limited cultural interaction. But there were hundreds of thousands of ‘Britain’s Muslim children’ whose minds were occupied by other things. I would suggest that there were plenty who grew up with a lot more knowledge about the politics of various Muslim countries than Ed Husain, and who were therefore not so gullible when (and if) they met a Hizb ut-Tahrir loon.
In penance for his previous Islamism, Husain overcompensates. And, just as he’d done as an Islamist, he oversimplifies. All Islamic organisations other than Sufi groups (not only in London but abroad) are described as Islamist, and all are therefore Wahabi-oriented, intolerant, potentially violent. All of them are what Husain thinks he used to be when he was an Islamist. But understanding Ed Husain and his psychic projections does not help us to understand organisations ranging from the Taliban to Turkey’s ruling party, via Hizbullah and Rashid Ghanoushi’s Tunisian opposition, all of which have different definitions of ‘Islam’, different motivations and goals. Ed Husain is really not that important.
Once Husain’s absurd Islamist reasons for hating America, Israel, and the rest of it, have been exploded, he is unable to see any other reason why people might be angry with America or Israel. The only cause of anti-Zionist anger, as he sees it, is anti-Semitic Islamism. This will be news to the Jews, Christians and atheists, and the non-Islamist, non-Jew-hating Muslims, who oppose the Zionist state and its crimes. But Husain is unable to hear these voices, despite his stay in Syria, because he’s reading the Middle East from his bitter Tower Hamlets perspective. The Middle East here is important only as part of the psycho-drama.
Almost all of his criticisms of the Saudis, in particular, are entirely accurate. And he manages to write, “Neither is there an excuse for state terrorism: the governments of Britain, the US and Israel are as guilty as any 9/11 hijacker.” Yet he doesn’t write about US-corporate control of governments and markets in the Middle East, or about the US role in projecting Wahabism worldwide, first as a weapon against the Soviet Union, and then (and now) against Iran. He doesn’t at any point explain genuine Muslim grievances such as American military bases and control of economies, the long destruction and now occupation of Iraq, the Palestinian tragedy caused by the establishment of a Jewish state. (Why is Husain not as outraged by the Jewish state as he rightly is by the inexistent ‘Islamic state’? Zionism and Islamism are, after all, two very similar examples of religions, under great and traumatic change, coming unhinged from spiritual tradition and attaching to statist politics instead).
Discounting the historical experience of various Muslim populations, discounting political context entirely, results in a failure to understand these people’s ideas. Husain is amazed when educated Syrians express support for attacks on Israeli civilians, even though “these were not Hamas or Hizbullah supporters, just ordinary Syrians expressing a commonly held viewpoint.” He concludes that this is a result of the ever-expanding phenomenon of ‘Islamism,’ against all the evidence. Arabs of Christian and Muslim background have been engaged in war with Zionism for many decades, since long before Islamism emerged. Their opinions are not directly tied to Ed Husain’s Tower Hamlets experience.
The combination of wide-eyed naivety and racist over-simplification is unpleasantly apparent in the following passage, describing the London bus and tube bombs on the morning of the G8 summit:
“The summit, thanks largely to the combined efforts of Tony Blair and Sir Bob Geldof, had been set to tackle poverty in Africa. Now it was forced to address Islamist terrorism; Arab grievances had hijacked the agenda again. The fact that hundreds of children die in Africa every day would be of no relevance to a committed Islamist....Who in the Arab world cares that some 6000 people die each day in Africa from AIDS. Let them die, they’re not Muslims, would be the unspoken line of argument.”
Here is analysis as biting as a BBC royal correspondent’s. Husain now inhabits a nice world ruled wisely by nice people. Tony and Sir Bob were about to abolish African poverty, when baddies ruined the plan. And then he talks rubbish. In reporting of the London bombs and at the summit, Arab grievances weren’t even raised, let alone allowed to hijack the agenda. Surely it would have been a good thing if Palestine and American imperialism had been forced onto the summit agenda, but in reality there was familiar shoulder-to-shoulder and civilisation-versus-barbarism grandstanding, and silence on the tragedy in Iraq. Finally Husain slips unconcernedly between ‘Arab’ and ‘Islamist,’ ending with the slander that no Arab cares about AIDS in Africa.
It’s a great shame that the quote from The Times on the front cover says “A complete eye-opener.”
At another point Husain jumps from a discussion of Wahabi intolerance to the “racist Arab psyche,” even the “racist reality of the Arab psyche.” Although it’s undoubtedly true that Saudis and other Arabs can be guilty of savage racial, sectarian and class prejudices, I dislike this generalising and essentialising language to describe hundreds of millions of people. I too have been appalled by Arab behaviour, particularly in Saudi Arabia, but the Arabs I live with and mix with socially oppose racism and sectarianism. There are plenty of Saudis, too, who are appalled with their own government and religious authorities. Discriminating Arabs (a lot of Arabs) will talk about ‘neo-con racism’ or ‘Zionist racism,’ but avoid expressions like ‘crusaders’ and ‘Jewish racism.’ Ed Husain, remember, is now too civilised and grown-up to use expressions like “racist Jewish psyche.”
But it looks like I didn’t like the book. I did, except for the slanderous and overly silly bits. I wish Ed Husain success not only in learning more about the big world out there, but also in the continuation of his authentic path towards God and the Prophet.