March 11, 2009

The Islamist – book review

Ed Husain’s The Islamist was published in 2007, and since then it has become probably the most referred to work so far on radicalisation in Britain. There was a point last year where nearly every conversation Londonstani had started with; “Have you read The Islamist? Amazing book! So brave.” It got so bad, that Londonstani started thinking that the Home Office and the Foreign Office had bulk-buy deals with the book’s publishers.

In Londonstani’s opinion The Islamist’s limitation is that it doesn’t live up to its self-proclaimed hype. The book is definitely “articulate” and “impassioned” as Simon Jenkins’ endorsement deems it to be on the back cover. But that passion prevents it from answering the central question it claims to address; “why are young British Muslims becoming extremists?” And this is a question that needs to be answered now more than ever. Particularly since the CIA thinks the threat from British extremists is severe enough to warrant running a massive surveillance operation in its special friend’s back garden.

If the news reports are true, the CIA and State Department have probably just put in their own block orders for Ed Husain’s book in the hope that it can provide the context for the information they seek to gather. Londonstani’s advice would be; yes, OK. Read the Islamist. But then go talk to Claire Alexander, who wrote The Asian Gang. Ethnicity, Identity and Masculinity. And then go talk to Antonio Giustozzi, who wrote Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop about the link between radicalisation and the failure of traditional social structures.

Read the Islamist by Ed Husain and what you can expect to get is an impassioned refutation of Islamist ideology and practice. Unfortunately, that’s all you’re going to get. The problem is that Husain’s passion subsumes his ability to provide a rational assessment of why Islamism has attracted, and will continue to attract, thousands of young British men and women of different backgrounds and even religions.

Husain starts his narrative from his time at primary school (from 6 to 11 years of age), and goes on to explain how he abandoned his family’s “traditional” and “spiritualistic” practice of Islam for confrontational Islamism in the guise of various different groups. He then charts his disillusionment with Islamism as an ideology after the hyper divisive student politics practiced by Hizb ut Tahrir in 1990s London led to a student's murder. Husain’s gradual self extraction takes him through the fringes of other Islamist groups and on to Syria and Saudi Arabia, where reality rudely and conclusively shatters the “real Islam” fantasy that many Muslims develop growing up in Britain.

Husain’s story is of a young man who fell out of love with Islamism. He is, in effect, Islamism’s jaded ex flame. And as you might expect from a bitter lover, he portrays his one-time seducer as a venomous spider that held him – inexplicably - under its spell. Husain does a good job of explaining how the group he spent most of his time involved with, Hizb ut Tahrir, targeted and recruited young Muslims. And then how recruits were indoctrinated. At one point he describes it as a cult. However, even though that might be an accurate characterisation, it’s also a cheap get-out clause that Husain uses to avoid having to delve into the social mechanics that left young people like him vulnerable to recruitment in the first place.

The real culprit here is the one factor that Husain singles out for his highest praise. Throughout his narrative, Husain portrays the “traditional” Islamic practices rooted in the culture and history of the subcontinent as the “real” Islam, and by extension, the antidote to the sort of combatitive religion and identity based politics of the likes of Hizb ut Tahrir.

But angry Islamist politics doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s a reaction. Some older British Muslim grandees at least acknowledge that. However, they then put the blame fully on the shoulders of foreign policy. But the roots actually lie in the Islamic practice Husain is praising and its inability to adjust to life in Britain. This is the real flaw in The Islamist; Husain’s inaccurate – and overly rosy – portrayal of his community’s traditional Islamic practice.

Husain mentions his family’s connection to a Sufi-type religious figure from Bangladesh. He describes all the positive personal qualities that the revered figure embodied and the high esteem Husain’s community held him in. The image is of a non-political religious outlook that esteems family values and communal stability. This kind of thing, of course, is music to the ears of local and national government. But Husain’s description leaves out the vital details that help explain the gaps that Islamists step into.

Some of Husain’s omissions can be found between the lines of his writing. He mentions that despite his primary school teacher’s personal appeals, his parents were against sending him to a mixed-sex school, and instead enrolled him in a sub par boys’ secondary school.

This doesn’t sound like the biggest deal in the world, but rigid ideas about sex and free mixing dominate the concerns of many Muslim families in Britain. Outlooks that are explained to children as being based on religion make it difficult for Muslim youth to interact with their peers in conditions that are considered normal by wider society. Later in the book, Husain explains how male and female members of Hizb ut Tahrir effectively went on dates and the group developed a new theology that removed the stigma from such interaction. But he fails to see how Hizb ut Tahrir was attracting followers by sanctifying something forbidden by the stifling mores of the “traditional” outlook he sees as providing the answer.

This “traditional” outlook is in general terms shared by most (if not all) immigrant Muslim communities. Husain comes from a Bengali family background, but the cultural outlook he describes is shared by Pakistanis, Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Somalis and Nigerians. That’s not to say all these cultures are exactly the same, but in the main they exhibit large measures of racism (often against each other), sexism, tribalism and a quietist approach to dealing with the outside world that fail to meet the challenges their children experience in reconciling their backgrounds with their everyday lives.

In a depressingly high frequency of cases, these “traditional” outlooks result in harmful and exploitative practices. Two years ago, I got to know several young men from Bengali backgrounds who lived in housing estates in Husain’s old stomping ground. One of the guys, Fasial, I knew from the local gym. He was bearded and religious, and an upstanding member of his community. Three times a week he helped organise a bus that took elderly residents of his housing estate to their local church. And could be found most afternoons teaching football to pre-teens in the estate’s playground.

After knowing Fasial for about six weeks, he started telling me how he had been a gang member until a visit to Bangladesh, where he found religion. A couple of weeks after that initial conversation, he told me how he had ended up in Bangladesh against his will because his father wanted him to marry his cousin. At his extended family’s village, Faisal had been poisoned by relatives angry that his intended bride had chosen him instead of another cousin who lived in the village. Faisal was sick for weeks and thought he might die. He found religion on what he thought would be his deathbed. When he got better, his newly acquired religious persona allowed him the gravitas to resist community pressure and reject his father’s plans.

The other friends I had made had equally horrific stories. And some were plain surreal involving severe beatings as part of what can only be described as a voodoo ritual to banish the evil eye.

Islamism addresses the questionable “traditional” practices of the families its raw recruits come from. This is a large part of its appeal. If you find yourself in a lecture hall where young Muslims are told the way of life they struggled to follow is actually itself “un-Islamic”, you will be able to hear the collective intake of air and the surprised mumblings of the crowd.

This is what Husain doesn’t provide in his book; the context of Islamist appeal. If you want that, it’s best to look elsewhere. Such as the work of Louise Ricardson, the new principal of St. Andrews University. Richardson talks about terrorism, rather than Islamism, and it’s important to note that the two are not the same. However, Richardson’s approach applies to both. She says; “Most terrorists see themselves as altruistic and noble – Davids against Goliaths – and their objectives are rationally calculated.” We could replace the word “terrorist” with “Islamist” and the sentence would still ring true.

If you’ve heard about Richardson, chances are you know that as a Catholic teenager in southern Ireland, she, in her own words, “would have joined the IRA in a heartbeat.” Whereas her youthful attraction towards radical, extremist political expression gives her penetrating insight, Husain’s closer participation with the Islamist variant of extremism thought blinds him to its causes.

In my view, as someone who grew up in similar surroundings to Husain at roughly the same time and saw the pull of Islamist extremism first hand, it’s Richardson who best describes the world I saw, and still see, around me when she talks of her own childhood in another time and another conflict.

Her comment that she was “overwhelmed by the perceived injustice”, “so full of fury and disbelief” belongs with her observation that the “attraction of joining a terrorist (or Islamist) group is that it provides a strong cultural community.” I would go a little further and draw attention to the sociologists working in this country and the scholars and counterinsurgents working in Afghanistan who have noted that young men seem drawn to violent, confrontational activity as a surrogate method of winning their masculinity. Taken to its logical conclusion, this would suggest that radical, extremist – call them what you will – Islamists provide young British men and women a community where they can express their fury and work towards winning their self respect by challenging their authority figures.

Framing the solution, as The Islamist implies, as a matter of “right Islam” versus “wrong Islam” is therefore misleading and inaccurate. If Islamism is being used as a bridge over a social gap, the solution is unlikely to be theological. The image of easy going weed-smoking free love (Islamic style) Sufis has always appealed to some in the West. After 9/11, it has gained new supporters who see it as a “form of Islam that we can live with”. Quite a few Muslims seem to have become drawn to Sufistic approaches to Islam precisely because it seems more West-friendly.

But politics is not the right reason to adopt or support an ascetic and esoteric religious path. It’s also misguided. Sufis can fight when they want to. The Bektashi order filled the Ottoman Army. Bektashi Janissary officers welcomed new recruits into their fraternity with wine, bread and cheese. While at the same time, they enthusiastically laid waste to large chunks of Europe. The Naqshbandi fought Russian expansion throughout Central Asia in the 19th century. And in Libya, Omar Mukhtar of the Sanussi order, fought Italian colonialism in the early 20th century.

The best way to see The Islamist is as a love letter in reverse. It could well be summed up in the sentence; “Islamism. I loved it…. The bastard.” But you wont find a solution in its bitter recrimination. A far better approach would be the one Richardson suggests; “The first step is to understand its appeal to those that practise it.” And unfortunately, in its 286 pages, The Islamist fails to explain that appeal.