‘The Islamist’

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

Reviewed By Robin Walsh | April 2008

Ed Hussein’s tale of his time as a member of Hizb ut Tahrir is part memoir of misspent radical youth, part post-911 exploration of Islamic extremism. But despite falling between two genres known for their tendency towards the hysterical, Hussein’s book is both engaging and quite revealing about a number of aspects of contemporary society. 

I’m not quite sure what is says about me, but I found Hussein’s move towards Islamic extremism in the first half of the book both very exciting and completely understandable. If Hussein is trying to warn youth away from taking his path, he singularly fails to do so. He and his Islamist brothers are interesting, disciplined, engaging and engaged, trying to shape the world around them – in stark contrast to the rather insipid normality offered as an alternative, summed up by Hussein’s father in the depressing line “If you want politics, why don’t you go and join the labour party?”

In the second half of the book, where he basically goes and does just that, he still manages to engage – his description of his conversion to Sufism is very well put across; a counterweight to what you might call the “Dawkins” depiction of Islam, as is his description of discovering a wider intellectual landscape at university. But whilst he’s probably a far better Muslim now, you can’t feel a little bit nostalgic for the extremist organiser.

Beyond the personal tale, the book touches on a number of broader issues.

Firstly, there’s the whole debate around “radicalisation” – I think it’s pretty clear that Hussein wasn’t brainwashed into becoming an Islamic extremist; he was simply in the right place at the right time, and convinced by ideas that made sense to him. Also the fact he was “unconvinced” later, suggests that there’s more room for subjectivity than the debate around extremism lets on. It’s also encouraging that the intellectual traditions of the west that Hussein encountered at University are still powerful enough to turn him back.

But despite this Hussein still advocates their banning. Whilst it’s possible to understand why he’d see Hizb as a cult who need to restricted – they don’t seem to have the highest levels of internal democracy or intellectual life – this demand does suggest a suspicion of political organisation per se. Their single mindedness and discipline, which was so attractive to the younger Hussein, seems scary to his older counterpart in a world where that kind of dedication is rare.

Hussein’s book also touches on how contemporary radical groups often repackage and regurgitate mainstream concerns. In Hizb ut Tahrir’s case this was the war in Bosnia, and the trend towards cultural separatism found earlier expressions of Identity politics; in the case of some other groups, for instance greens, the issue is global warming. Whilst the mainstream wrings its hands about these issues, it’s unable to offer much beyond platitudes. These groups, by offering a radical solution to the problem, gain a large deal of credibility in front an audience put off by mainstream hypocrisy.

Despite the superficial otherness of Islamic extremism, the ideology formerly advocated by Hussein and his later opposition to it both represent a profoundly British phenomenon – our contemporary political and social disorientation. Its clear to anyone of a leftie bent that Hussein’s student antics bore more than a passing resemblance to earlier generations of far-left activity; as many have noted, contemporary Islamism owes more to Marx than Mohammed, at the very least tactically. Hizb’s success in the early 90s was built on the left’s collapse at the same time – the Islamists were simply the last oppositional voice left out there. Similarly, Jihadists give mainstream society a sort of “red peril” to people like the older Hussian to point fingers at, something to cohere their increasingly shaky ‘liberal values’ against. ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘islamofascism’ are two sides of the same coin – ciphers for a society that is unable to talk itself, so projects its crises onto one of its most marginalised communities.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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