Over five years after 9/11, a slew of books have emerged to describe the social, religious, and political lives of Muslims living in the West, including non-fictional memoirs such as Imran Ahmed’s Unimagined, and fictional stories like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Books such as these have helped push the often uncomfortable debate about extremism forward from a Muslim point of view. But few of these books have caused as loud a debate as Ed Husain’s “The Islamist”, a book published by Penguin last month in the UK, Australia and (possibly) soon in North America. Husain’s book documents his 1990’s involvement in Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the global movement pushing for a restoration of the caliphate in the Muslim world that is banned in many Muslim countries (though as much for challenging autocratic regimes as anything else) and in some European ones (for engaging in anti-Semitism). The book has drawn support from a number of prominent British critics of Islam and Muslims, notably Londonistan author Melanie Philips, who praised Husain’s “honesty and guts.” But it is precisely this support that has led to raised eyebrows among some British Muslims, particularly those in other politically-orientated Muslim organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain and, of course, Hizb-ut-Tahrir itself, both of whom have been dismissive of his analysis and conclusions (Husain argues for a ban on Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which was proposed and withdrawn after the July 7th London bombings). Despite the criticism, Husain makes no attempt to temper the thrust of the book – a blunt warning against Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s extremism – and the subjectivity of his own experiences and political transformation, as even his critics have acknowledged that the time of Husain’s peak involvement with Hizb-ut-Tahrir to be the group’s most volatile, spinning off the Al-Muhajiroun group and it’s founder, Omar Bakri Mohammad by the late 1990’s. Still, Husain is at pains to engage Muslims in the debate he has helped accelerate, emphasising his religious sincerity and his desire to broaden the public discourse, even at the expense of his own comfort. We spoke with Ed Husain recently to find out what motivated him to write about his experiences, why Hizb-ut-Tahrir hasn’t changed enough, and… er, the most obvious question.
You’ve obviously titled your book “The Islamist,” which is a bit of a loaded word these days. What is your definition of “Islamist” as you’re using it in this book?
Ed Husain: In very broad terms, three things. Firstly, there’s the rejection of 1400 years of Muslim traditional scholarship and re-reading of scripture with political lenses. Secondly, they advocate a world view that’s based on eventually at some stage confronting the West. And thirdly, they reject mainstream Muslims and give us all sorts of labels such as ‘non-practising Muslims’, ‘jahils’, ‘partial Muslims’, and so on. Generally it’s those three things and all of this is underwritten by the works of particular writers – to be more specific, Sayyid Maududi, Sayyid Qutb, Taqiuddin al-Nabhani and, in our times, Fathi Yaqoun, and so on.
It’s a really important question, especially from a Muslim point of view because many Muslims confuse Islam with Islamism. The lines have been blurred and my qualm is with Islamism – the ideology that’s been set up in the name of the faith – and not against Islam, the religion that our Prophet left us and which was developed by our scholars of all traditions – Shia, Sunni, whatever. My qualm is with Islamism and not with Islam. I think increasingly Muslims, thanks to Islamist propaganda, have failed to see the difference between the two.
Your experiences, of course, centre around Hizb-ut-Tahrir in the 1990’s, which has been the group most discussed by the UK government and media in terms of extremism. One of the key things you talk about is how too little was done before 7/7. What are the practical things that could have been done to stem extremism from a Muslim point of view?
From a Muslim point of view, I think in the 1990’s, we failed to articulate a clear understanding of Islam that resonated with young people who were born and raised here – my generation, Asian Muslims who were out of place in mainstream Britain as well as out of place in their ancestral homelands – Pakistan, Bangladesh, India. The whole understanding of Islam, the whole Barelvi-Deobandi divide, and the failure of our imams to articulate a form of Islam – and our failure to try and reach out to them and understand what Islam was as they understood it. Islam’s been in India for a very long time, they have an understanding that’s deeply rooted in their culture and a tradition of Islam that’s in harmony. Well that generation failed to give it to us and we failed to reach out to them and try to understand it. That gap was filled by Islamists. So perhaps, more of that would have helped that understanding.
And also, in the mosques, our elders also failed to detect the likes of Omar Bakri. I remember going to lots of Barelvi mosques with Omar Bakri and doing Mawlid sessions, for example. Omar was clearly against all of that, but he was quite happy to talk about the Prophet in Barelvi terms in order to appeal to that generation. That older generation gave these people platforms as well in the 1990’s. But then when they woke up – it’s on record, people like Omar Faruq, a free thinker, from the Islamic Society of Britain in the mid-1990’s, called for Hizb-ut-Tahrir to be banned but that call was ignored then.
People like Kamal Helbawi – I remember hearing him after a conference organised by the Islamic Society of Britain in Worcester. He was asked what he thought about about Omar Bakri and Hizb at the time. And his point of view, backed up by other Islamist leaders at the time – Rachid Ghannouchi was with him – they were saying at the time that Hizb-ut-Tahrir was nothing more than an MI5/MI6 front to subvert the Muslims.
And from a government point of view?
Even at the level of Islamist leadership – never mind ordinary Muslim leadership – at that level there were real concerns about Hizb-ut-Tahrir and those concerns were articulated to the government. And Tablighi Jamaat again and again made petitions to local councils in the sort of area that I was working in. But local councils and local government ignored us because there was this feeling that it’s a problem in the Middle East. These dogs may bark but won’t bite us here, so lets let them continue.
Leaders of Hizb-ut-Tahrir were quite confident that whenever the caliphate came about, people like Bakri would be the ambassadors of the Caliph here in Britain. Their impression was that Britain knew that this was inevitable and therefore Britain was giving Hizb-ut- Tahrir a head start. Looking back, there might be some credibility to that argument in that even now the Foreign Office is quite content to deal with Islamist organisations abroad, fund Islamist NGOs and so on, in the hope that if one day these guys come to power, particularly in Egypt, then the British government would have a head start, a track record of co-operation. So it seems to me that that sort of strategy was in place then, that as long as they don’t turn on Britain and British people then good luck to them, carry on.
Having these people here was used as a brow-beating instrument with Muslim leaders in the Middle East. “Look, we’ve got some of your most radical preachers, Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza, Omar Bakri, Mohamed al-Masari and others here in Britain.” Even the Saudi government was protesting against giving these fanatical individuals a total free ride in Britain. When Yasser Arafat visited Britain, Hizb-ut-Tahrir people went up and harangued the man. When King Hussein of Jordan visited, they harangued him. And the government was quite happy to let these people have a free pass.
But reading Yahya Birt’s review of your book, while he acknowledges a lot of the points and experiences that you’ve shared with us, he does feel that things have changed significantly in the past few years to allay some of these concerns.
That’s true. I don’t disagree with Yahya Birt at that level. I make the point that Hamza Yusuf Hanson pre-9/11 and now post-9/11 is now different. The hallmark of intelligence is that when the situation changes, we must adopt and change but remain true to our core values. God did exactly that for and with the Prophet before and after the Hijra – the language and content of the Koran changed. So I make the point that Hizb-ut-Tahrir people, Majid Nawaz and others from the Hizb leadership that I’ve met since I’ve come back from the Middle East, have made that very claim that Hizb has changed. I make that point in the book.
But my contention is that it hasn’t changed enough. At its core, it still remains committed to an expansionist, totalatarian, Islamist state in the Middle East with jihad as its foreign policy. And I use “Islamist” as opposed to Islamic deliberately. And also the commitment to the annihilation of Israel, the taking out of Muslims who oppose them, the hell-bent desire to confront the West, it’s all in their literature and used for private instruction in cell meetings. In this, I’m backed by Majid Nawaz who, alhamdulillah, recently left Hizb-ut-Tahrir partly as a result of conversations we had about these issues, and more importantly, his exposure to traditional Islam in its all its diversity. Soon, Majid will speak publicly and I ask Hizb members and others to listen and learn from Majid’s wisdom, knowledge, and experience.
Now the good news is that Hizb-ut-Tahrir has proven in Britain that it can change and when pressure is applied it has changed. And I’m hopeful that this pressure that’s on them now – exposing those core fascist values – that exposure will cause them to change those ideas and come on board the mainstream Muslim caravan. By all means, continue critiquing the government – they do a good job of that, much like Marxists. We need that criticism. But don’t back it up with an alternative that’s almost Nazi-like – Muslim supremacism, one Caliph for the whole ummah, I’ve got a problem with all that.
One of the things that strikes me about Hizb-ut-Tahrir in their view of the world is that it seems to rely on a critical mass that contradicts the pluralism within Muslim communities in Britain and the Muslim world in general. What prevents these issues from being hashed out in public? It would seem that debate would quash a lot of the rationale behind Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s rhetoric.
As a community, we’re afraid of debate and discussion. In the past, we were very open about it. If you look at the lives of people like Sheikh Abdul Qader al-Jilani, he openly debated and discussed and preached to people of other faiths � and no faith � in Baghdad. Abu Hanifa was renowned for having debates with people of other faiths and atheists in particular. We shy away from all of that now. It’s part of our siege mentality. I’m hopeful, to some extent, that this book helps open up a debate and discussion not just among Muslims but with fellow human beings.
That debate helps because one of the reasons for my personal rejection of extremism was that I couldn’t sustain those extremist ideas in the real world. It doesn’t work. But when you are, sort of, protected in that underworld where jihad, khilafah, talking about kuffar � all those ideas in those meetings that they have � they’re not challenged. But when you put them out into the real world in the light of day, somehow those ideas don’t seem practical and relevant and applicable. And slowly you move away.
Taji Mustafa of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (UK) has written an article saying that your book plays up on Muslim stereotypes. What is your response to that?
Taji has failed to understand the difference between Muslims and Islamists. Again and again on their website, they’ve used this reference that Islam is being blamed. No, no, no, no. Islam isn’t being blamed. Islamism, the perverse ideology set up in the name of our noble faith is being blamed. Taji’s fallen prey to the very ideology that he’s advocating, trying to hide behind the mask of being Muslim.
Being Muslim is a very simple identity. We’re at a stage now where we’re beyond Hizb-ut-Tahrir and beyond things in just black and white. That’s what the problem is. Islamist stereotypes are being exposed, yes. And so they should be. Islamists are being exposed, and so they should be. We’ve had enough of them.
But I don’t think most Muslims out on the streets feel that they’ve been stereotyped in any way. If anything, a thorough reading of the book shows that you can be a Muslim, a westerner, and at peace with the rest of the world, and that’s what the ultimate message of the book is. We’re here. We’re here to stay, and we’re sons of the soil. Islamists have been exposed as have their stereotypes, but not Muslims.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir cites polls throughout the Muslim world that claim a majority of Muslims want a Caliphate of some sort. If that’s the case, what’s wrong with it?
Very cunning of HT to employ those polls! I cite countries such as Indonesia and Bangladesh, the most populous Muslim countries in the world, who have repeatedly – at free and fair elections – rejected Islamist groups offering them a mythical Islamic state. That said, you know, in the Arab world most people would say yes to any alternative, any opening of political plurality so those polls do not surprise me. But tell people that a Caliphate, as proposed by HT, entails every Muslim giving ba’iah to the HT caliph in waiting, Abu Rishta, and the rejection of doing so is a sin for which a Muslim is killable and then I think the poll findings will be interestingly different.
One of the things that surprised me a little bit, not knowing earlier how Hizb-ut-Tahrir has been organised in this country, is that there may be a perception that a lack of education or knowledge would allow an ideology like theirs to continue. But a lot of the people involved with them that you met were educated in university or skilled in professions. Wouldn’t educated people would be more open minded about what they’re buying into?
Good point. There are two other issues to bear in mind. Most of these people that are �educated� have a technical education. Most of these guys are � with respect � doctors, accountants, or have a science background. Very few of them were lawyers or humanities-educated. Those who were, or are now, tend to be in the more moderate wing – if there is such a thing – within HT. And those who eventually left, most of them were politics graduates, law graduates, and so on.
The second point is that many of these individuals were recruited when they were 16, 17, 18. Their critical faculties hadn’t been developed properly. Then you have the same individuals married within Hizb-ut-Tahrir. So it’s like a cult. By the time they actually become critical, it’s too late to leave. Leaving means divorce. Leaving means cutting family ties. I’m not making this stuff up. People who have left recently have gone through that very experience. And it’s not easy to reject Hizb-ut-Tahrir once you’re married into the party. Your whole world revolves around it.
A third point is that many of them are of the belief that their form of Islamism is the only way of being a Muslim. I know of someone who left HT six years ago and he now wants to get his wife to leave, because she’s a fully fledged member. But she isn’t prepared to discuss their love life or to discuss their children with him. Because for her, her allegiance to the party and the leadership of the party is her way of having fidelity to God. Her husband takes second priority. So he can’t talk about her because she thinks she’s betraying God by betraying the party. That sort of fanatical, zealot’s understanding of the world has led him now to divorce his wife without having any discussions because she just can’t talk to him without reporting their discussions back to the party leadership.
Sounds like Scientology.
Yeah. It’s not just Hizb-ut-Tahrir. It’s the same as the al-Muhajiroun fanatics. They have indoctrinated people’s minds to the extent that they live inhumane lives. They think that Islamism is Islam and because they haven’t had any other experience of being a Muslim, they’re like born-again Christians � that that’s the only way they can identify as being Muslim is by being HT.
I was blessed � Allah bless my parents and give them a long life � in that I was raised in a normal Muslim tradition. So I knew what it meant to be a normal Muslim without having to be an Islamist. Many of these guys don’t have that experience because of the failure that we spoke about earlier. For them, HT is Islam, HT’s education is their only education, and their ties are so deep with the party that they can’t escape.
So on one level, they’re educated. But on another level, Ayman al- Zawahiri is a paediatrician whose extremism has blinded him to humanity.
You write about how your trips to Syria and Saudi Arabia enlightened you in terms of the dichotomy between society there and society in Britain. Is that the kind of journey you recommend people make if they’re trying to learn more about their faith and the political interpretation of their faith?
Yes, but with one condition. Go with an open mind. Don’t go there to have your Islamism or Wahabbism confirmed. If you do, you’ll come back with that. When I was in HT, they used to say you should visit the Muslim world because our perception of it now is different and we’re going there with “our concepts.” So they go out there and they come back with their world view confirmed. And lets not forget that some of the people that went out to the Middle East from Britain sadly became suicide bombers in Tel Aviv.
So it’s crucial that people go out there with an open mind and ask themselves how is it that these people in Syria and Jordan and Lebanon and other countries have been Muslim for 1400 years and they don’t share that world view of radical overthrow of government and confronting the West at that level. Go and sit at the feet of their ulema and learn from them. It’s good to go over there and come back with a deeper level of enlightenment. Its been documented by the hundreds who have left in recent years and come back now, alhamdulillah. People like Sheikh Yahya Rhodus, Imam Zaid Shakir, and many, many others.
The British government sought the help of the Muslim Council of Britain in the past, especially after 7/7, but now they’ve fallen out of favour. Now the government appears to be looking towards other Muslim organisations, such as the Sufi Muslim Council, as an alternative. Is that the right approach? Should they get different Muslim representative groups together and help them come to a consensus? Or are they pitting Muslims against Muslims?
I’m in two minds about this whole � the creation of different Muslim organisations and, as you say, pitting Muslims against Muslims. Why can’t Muslims just be Muslims and participate in civil society as citizens? Why do we need to have all these forums? They inevitably bring on board certain types of individuals and certain groups come with their own agenda and their own baggage. It’s like Mosca said, the Italian thinker, that it’s the organised minority controlling the discourse of the disorganised majority.
Why can’t we just be human beings, be Western citizens of different countries, engage with the existing structure, be it through the political parties or whatever it is that takes our fancy or wherever it is we feel our niche lies � Greenpeace, for example? Engage at that level. Why do we need to have these councils where again and again they’ve always thrown up that sort of leadership that young Muslims � children of this soil � feel inherently uncomfortable with?
Are you optimistic about change from here forward?
Yes. Last night I was at an event where there were lots and lots of young Muslims who were listening to talks by Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad from Cambridge and Imam Hamza Yusuf Hanson. There’s something in the air that’s very promising, without a doubt.
I share your affinity with Sheikh Hamza Yusuf. Having come from San Francisco myself, it was the tradition I was fortunate to come in contact with.
Alhamdulillah. Without that, I probably would have been a suicide bomber. Seriously, I’m not joking.
But that led me to be active in doing something. It makes you want to do something constructive. That really is the answer, that kind of inspiration, isn’t it?
You make a good point. It is inspiration. You found your niche and you’re developing a project. It’s the same for everybody else. Wherever people’s strengths lie, we should just engage. On the point of optimism, there is also the point of pessimism in that Saudi Islam hasn’t gone away. We need to be aware at the same time there are problems on campus, that Hizb-ut-Tahrir is still recruiting, that many of our campuses are controlled by people who have Salafi literalist bents.
There are issues that we need to confront, but at the same time there is a huge, huge silver lining in the cloud. And that, alhamdulillah, is the people who have been to the Middle East and have come back with the deen that the Prophet left us.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.