A former British Islamist warns that extremists have infiltrated the U.K.
THE ENEMY WITHIN
A former British Islamist warns that extremists have infiltrated the U.K.
In the summer of 2005, Ed Husain, a British Muslim from the east end of London, was living in Saudi Arabia, teaching English to locals. When terrorists blew up three subway trains and a bus in London, killing 52, Husain and his wife stared at their television for hours in horror. His sister had avoided one of the bombings by four minutes. But Husain was also gratified to watch injured Londoners emerge from smoking subway stations with defiant dignity. It made him feel proud to be British.
Two weeks later, one of Husain’s young students asked how he could get to Britain. “Teacher, I want to go to London next month,” the student said. “I want bomb, big bomb in London, again. I want to make jihad!” Another student raised his hands and shouted, “Me too! Me too!” Others applauded. Husain walked out of the classroom to jeers and catcalls from his students, but he could not have been shocked by their hatred. He himself had spent five years in the ranks of radical Islamists in Britain and was well-acquainted with the ideology that inflamed young British men to murder their fellow citizens.
Husain defines Islamism as a political doctrine that preaches hatred of the West and
dismisses centuries of traditional Muslim scholarship in favour of an extreme brand of Muslim supremacy preached by 20th-century ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb, Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, and Taqiuddin al-Nabhani. Husain rejected this thinking several years before the July 7 attacks. He returned home after the bombings, hoping that his fellow Britons would have woken up to the growing danger of the radicalism he knew so well.
Husain was in for a disappointment. In an effort to reach out to British Muslims, the British government met with their self-declared spokespeople and representative bodies. Most prominent was the Muslim Council of Britain, the largest Muslim organization in the United Kingdom, with more than 400 affiliates. Tony Blair invited Iqbal Sacranie, then leader of the MCB, to Downing Street to ask for help in rooting out religious extremism from British Muslim communities.
But the MCB’s own affiliates include groups such as Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith UK, an organization with 40 branches across Britain, whose website posted an article telling readers that the ways of Christians and Jews are “based on sick and deviant views of their societies.” Another major affiliate, the East London Mosque, has close ties to the South Asian Islamist organization Jamaat-e-Islami, which has been linked to the Kashmiri terrorist group Hizb-ul-Mujahadeen. The East London Mosque has hosted Saudi cleric Abdul
Rahman al-Sudais, who refers to Jews as monkeys and pigs and in 2004 was denied entry into Canada. Muhammad Abdul Bari, who was MCB deputy secretary general at the time of the bombings and now leads the organization, is chair of the East London Mosque.
The Muslim Council of Britain itself boycotted Holocaust Memorial Day in 2005, saying they would not attend unless the “sufferings of all peoples” were mourned, specifically “other ongoing genocides and human rights violations around the world, notably in the occupied Palestinian territories, Chechnya, Kashmir, etc.” Sacranie, who once mused that death was perhaps too easy for Salman Rushdie, called the boycott “principled.” Sacranie was knighted in 2005.
“You had people who were essentially Islamists walking in and out of Downing Street, up and down Whitehall, pretending to be ordinary Muslims,” Husain told Maclean’s. “Just as we don’t go to extreme right-wing fascists to understand the concerns of the white working class, we don’t have to go to Islamists to understand the concerns of Muslims. Yet our government was repeatedly giving these people a platform.”
Husain believed he needed to speak out. The result is his recently published memoir, The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left. The book, which Husain calls “a protest against political Islam,” describes how, as a teenager, he gravitated toward the Young Muslim Organization UK, an Islamist front for Jamaate-Islami, once running away from home to stay at the East London Mosque because his parents were horrified by his religious extremism. Islamists at the mosque told Husain that his parents were only “partial Muslims” and their opposition was a test from God.
At Tower Hamlets College in east London, Husain helped transform the student Islamic society into a recruiting base for Jamaat-eIslami. He then joined an even more extreme international Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which rejects democracy and wants to establish an Islamic caliphate that will Islamize the rest of the world. It claims to oppose violence, but Husain says Hizb members understood that the caliphate’s creation would involve military coups and would be followed by war with the non-Muslim world. Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned in several European and Arab countries, but not Britain.
During Husain’s membership in the early and mid-1990s, the group flourished on campuses, often under the guise of front organizations that obtained generous funding from student unions. Its members believed that in the coming war, British Muslims had an obligation to attack Britain from within. “A home front would open up
in the coming jihad,” he writes.
Husain’s commitment to radical Islam began to waver while he was a student at Newham College, an institution with a heavy Islamist presence. Scuffles were common between Muslims and black Christian students, with Husain and his Islamist cohorts whipping up crowds. At one such standoff, a Muslim man murdered a Christian student with an ornate dagger. Husain felt responsible. “It was we who had encouraged Muslim fervour, a belief that Muslims were worthier than other humans,” he said. Meeting a fellow student named Faye, whom he would eventually marry, also eroded Husain’s extremism. He had grown up in a pious household, but the deeper he immersed himself in political Islam, the more distant from God he felt. Faye, a fellow British Muslim, reminded him that God was forgiving, loving and merciful—rather than the vengeful punisher in
which Husain had come to believe.
It took several more years for Husain to completely pull away from religious extremism. Key factors were reconnecting with the non-political Islam of his parents and studying the mystical Sufi strain of Islam. Today, Husain feels a strong commitment to Britain and wants to stem the growth of Islamism. But he believes the government and mainstream institutions are not interested in addressing the problem, or even recognizing
it. “There is not stomach for a fight,” Husain says. “To confront these people you need to define what Britain stands for, to ask ourselves as a nation does liberty have limits? We’re not prepared to go that far in this vague, fluffy notion of Britishness and liberalism.” Husain agrees that truly moderate British Muslims should take a stronger stand against religious extremism, but says it’s hard for them when the non-Muslim establishment won’t. Muslims across the country have thrown Hizb ut-Tahrir activists out of their mosques, he says. “But where do Hizb ut-Tahrir and others go for refuge and to recruit? To universities and community centres. University chancellors and community centres are quite keen to allow these people to have a voice in the name of multiculturalism and minority rights. So if mainstream Britain is content to allow these people free rein, then why should minority British Muslims turn against their own?”
TO CONFRONT THEM YOU HAVE TO DEFINE WHAT BRITAIN STANDS FOR. DOES LIBERTY HAVE LIMITS?’
What mainstream Britain should be doing, Husain says, is redefining what it means to be British and liberal. “Liberty has always had limits,” he says. And just as Britain has banned extreme right-wing organizations, radical Islamist organizations should be proscribed as well. Circulating these opinions has earned Husain the censure of some nonMuslim liberals. Writing in the Guardian, Seumas Milne called Husain a “neo-con pinup boy.” (Husain belongs to the Labour party.) Madeleine Bunting, another Guardian columnist, described him as naive.
“The problem here in Britain is that we’ve got sections of the left that sympathize with Islamists,” Husain says. “They see Islamists as anti-capitalist, anti-Iraq war, pro-Palestine, anti-Israel, comrades in a global movement against capitalism. What they fail to understand is that the Islamist solution to those
problems is radically different from the socialist solution.” Some of Husain’s fellow Muslims have also been critical, accusing him of working for the government or of being a Zionist agent. But others have thanked him. “That’s the sort of stuff that keeps me going,” he says.
Husain believes Islamists can be fought on a spiritual level. “One thing you can’t take away from Islamists and jihadists is that they’re extremely sincere religious people, and that’s based on a certain reading of scripture. We can tackle this on theological grounds, if we’re prepared to put in the resources exposing them to serious religious scholars.”
Promoting a tolerant, integrationist brand of Islam in Britain will be a struggle. A poll of British Muslims in July 2005 suggested
that one in 10 supported the London terrorist attacks and five per cent believed more attacks would be justified. Another poll showed that almost one-third of British Muslims believe that Western society is decadent and that Muslims should seek to bring it to an end.
Husain admits there are many reasons to be pessimistic. But he points to British Muslims who are comfortable with an identity that is both Western and Muslim as a reason for hope. He is also buoyed by educated Muslims who are confident enough to challenge extremists on religious grounds. Ultimately, however, he says those Muslims who are willing to confront the Islamists in their midst need the resolute support of the British state. “Without a doubt, a British Islam is emerging,” Husain writes. “It remains to be seen whether it will be in harmony with the world in which it finds itself, or if it rejects and repels it. The direction we take at this critical juncture will determine the type of Islam we bequeath to future generations.” M
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