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The Islamist

‘The Islamist’ by Ed Husain; Penguin, 2007. 288pp

Reviewed By Martin Earnshaw | November 2007

Since 7/7 made us aware that Islamist terrorism is as more likely to be produced at home than abroad, there has been a hardening of attitude towards the “extremists” in our midst and calls for “moderate” Muslims to disown them. 

Ed Husain’s book is a well-timed intervention in these debates, billed as an insider’s account of what goes on within Islamist groups. Despite the fact that it mainly describes the rise of Islamism among students during the 1990s, commentators have seized on its expose of the more unsavoury aspects of Islamism and its criticism of Muslim “community leaders”.

Having turned away from Islamism, Husain is now adamant that British society has not fully faced up to its threat. Husain’s argument is similar to that put forward by critics such as Michael Gove and Melanie Philips, that Islamism represents a threat to Western values, and that moderate Islamist groups represent the first rung of a conveyor belt to terrorism. Husain plays upon his experience of Islamist groups, not only accusing Hizb-ut-Tahir of exercising a cultish hold over its members, but also claiming that it took years for him to “detoxify” his mind from Islamist influences.

The problem with Husain’s view of “toxic” Islamism is that his account also seems to suggest that these groups fill a void in oppositional politics. Reading the descriptions of the student politics, sectarianism, and intellectual pretension of young Islamist politicians brings to mind stereotypes of old Trotskyites. The politics of student Islamism seems similar to the left counterculture.

Muslim girls who covered up did so on explicitly feminist grounds. Husain describes some young women who wore the full burka as saying that they were “free from men”, an echo of radical feminism. Ironically, this also gave rise to experimentation in relationships. Young Muslim men and women made instant marriage proposals based on perceived piety. This form of “Islamic love” was in fact a rejection of both the serial monogamy currently practiced in the West and traditional arranged marriages. Not that these marriages lasted.

It is the controversial organisation Hizb-ut-Tahir that most sums up the essential non-religious character of Islamism. Young Muslims were attracted to Hizb because it offered a more global perspective than other Islamist groups. Husain like other young Muslims of his generation could not identify with, say, the political situation in South Asia, which some groups in the Bangladeshi community were preoccupied by. It could be that one of the secrets of Hizb-ut-Tahir’s success in the UK is it has no attachment to place, but rather to a mythical global community. This makes it the perfect organisation for alienated youth of any background. In Husain’s account, there seem to be a large percentage of white converts among Hizb’s supporters and the party’s interpretation of Islamic doctrine is eccentric to say the least.

Husain would dispute the view that these groups are just like other radical organisations, noting the way that they divide the world into Muslim and Kaffir and their rhetorical commitment to Jihad. There is also an implicit criticism of “moderate Islamism”, particularly Muslim “community leaders” who foster division and make the world safe for extremists.

If one is to go down this route, however, it is worth asking whether there is much essential difference between the Islamist paradigm and the self image of the West. Islamist criticisms of British society often mirror those voiced by our own elites. Husain notes, “Many of my Muslim friends rightly ask ‘what are we supposed to integrate into? Big brother lifestyle? Ladette culture? Binge drinking? Gambling?”

Of course these are legitimate questions, but the problem is deeper than this. If Britain was confident about its values, Islamism would present no threat at all. After all, more profound threats to the established order such as world communism have been faced down before without resorting to the banning orders advocated by this book. Helpfully, Husain defines what exactly it is he finds desirable about British society, namely its freedom and tolerance. The problem is the saying that freedom or tolerance is the only thing that defines British society is insufficient to create a confident culture. The UK’s belief in liberty is so shaky at the moment that it is under a host of threats from smoking bans to crusades to regulate what we eat, without worrying about what religious extremists might think. It is this essential mismatch between the rhetoric and the reality of Western values that tends to shift the problem onto Muslims. Husain’s suggestion that the (peaceful) Sufi branch of Islam should be given a larger voice within the Muslim community implies a retreat from this broader question of what British society as a whole should stand for.

Buy Ed Husain’s The Islamist here