THE ISLAMIST, Book Review by Amir Taheri  

During the past six months, more than 300 Muslims have been arrested in five European countries, and charged with involvement with terrorism. Most are young, often aged between 16 and 30. Almost all were born in Europe and hold the nationality of the European country in which they were plotting terrorist operations. European intelligence services claim that large numbers of young Muslims may have already stepped into the antechamber of terror. In Britain alone, the number of young Muslims suspected of flirting with terror is put at over 4000.

What is happening? Why are these young European Muslims drawn to terror? What should Europe do to integrate them into its pluralist culture?

All those pondering such questions would find Ed Husain's autobiographical book, "The Islamist", an interesting read.

This is not a work of academic scholarship or political analysis. It is one young man's personal story of how he was attracted by radial Islamist ideas at the age of 16 and how he spent more than five years of his life in a labyrinth of fanaticism, conspiracy and terror. Husain's book bears a subtitle that states his purpose in writing the book: Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw, and why I left?

Husain, who is of Bangladeshi origin, shows how Islam is used by some Britons of Asian background as the matrix of a peculiar form of identity politics. To these Britons who face or at least fear racism because of the colour of their skin, Islam becomes an invisible form of bonding. It is against that background that Husain, echoing the prevalent misunderstanding in Britain, speaks of "Muslims and whites" as if Islam were a form of racial identity.

Once Islam is adopted as a form of racial and ethnic self-expression rather than a religion with a universal appeal, the neo-Muslim of the type that Husain was starts looking around for opportunities for highlighting his Muslim-ness.

Husain's involvement with radical politics in the name of Islam included many episodes of duplicity, intimidation and even violence but stopped short of actual terrorism. Throughout those turbulent years, Husain's parents, devote traditional Muslims, opposed his politics and even banished him from their home.

Husain shows how little he and his militant colleagues knew about Islam as a religion.

Because they knew neither Arabic nor Persian, the two key languages of the Islamic civilisation, they had no access to the immense literature of Islamic theology, philosophy, history and jurisprudence.

Instead, they had to rely on a small number of pamphlets written by the late Pakistani militant Abu al-Ala Maudoodi and a certain Sheikh Nahbani, an obscure Jordanian cleric who founded the so-called Islamic Liberation Party (Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami).

Husain relates how he decided to travel to Syria to learn Arabic and to see how a Muslim society works.

After just a year in Damascus, however, he was disappointed. He found that most Syrians were not interested in religious matters, and dreamed of the freedoms and living standards available in Europe. Husain whose original first name is Muhammad claims that the Syrians he met found it bizarre that he bore the Prophet's name. This is why he decided to retain only the last two letters of his original name and transformed himself into Ed Husain.

Having decided that Syria was not the ideal Muslim society he wanted, Ed, by now married to a Bengali-British girl of equally fundamentalist persuasion, decided to move to Saudi Arabia. But even there, Ed and his wife did not feel happy. Ed says he dressed up as a Saudi sheikh and was thus able to avoid some of the racism that he claims is directed against people of Asian origin in the kingdom. He claims that young Saudi men harassed his wife while young Saudi women made passes at him.

At any rate, Ed and his wife ended up homesick for England, and realised that, whether they liked it or not, they were Britons.

Part of the book is devoted to Husain's effort to prove that his radical colleagues were wrong on virtually every point. The problem, however, is that Husain bases his arguments on his interpretation of the Koran. That can only lead to a war of interpretations in which Husain's former comrades could claim that he is wrong and they are right.

Husain has not taken the decisive leap that could set him free: that is to say thinking for himself rather than relying on the interpretation of this or that text. For example, do we need a hadith that killing innocent people in the name of whatever cause is a heinous crime? Cannot we reach that conclusion by using our own reason or simply by remembering that murder is a crime under British law?

In Husain's case the answer is no. This is why, having abandoned radical Islamism, he found a new home in a new brand of the faith that he labels "moderate Islam". From his account, it is hard to understand what this means. But it seems to be a mélange of half-baked Sufism and a pseudo-mysticism known as Hababib from Hadhramaut.

Husain claims that this new brand of the faith is conquering Britain and "re-injecting Muslims with love, compassion, and attachment to the Prophet."

Adepts of this new version of the faith come together in "gatherings remembering the Prophet's birthday, or mawalid (sic), replete with metaphysical meanings" and "lead lovers of the Prophet in song and emulate the Beloved's exemplary conduct."

Husain emerges as a confused young man whose quest for some form of certainty in an age of uncertainties has led him to many strange shores.

In the 1960s, he might have become a leftist terrorist, as was the case with many young Muslims.

With leftist ideologies all but dead, various brands of Islamism are in vogue. A generation ago, many Britons of Indo-Pakistani background were attracted to Trotskyism and other offshoots of Communism. Their children have become Islamists largely because radicalism of the left has lost its attraction.

Trying to understand Husain and other young Europeans of Muslim birth through the prism of religion would be a mistake.

Husain clearly shows that while he knows something about political issues such as Palestine, the war in Iraq and Kashmir, his knowledge of Islam as a religion is not of the highest kind. For example, he claims that the birthday of the Prophet is a " highlight of the Muslim cultural calendar across the Muslim world", implying the existence of a personality cult that has never had a place in Islam. Muslims honour and respect the Prophet but do not venerate or worship him. His birthday is not a kind of Islamic Christmas.

Husain says that while he was in Damascus he often went to the shrine of Hussain Ibn Ali, the third Imam of Shi'ism. But the shrine he went to is the burial place of Zeynab, Imam Hussain's sister. The Imam's own shrine is in Karbala, Iraq.

Husain's account of what he calls Wahhabism is based on the caricature peddled by the Western media. As a result he describes as Wahhabi a good part of the Salafi belief system.

Despite his break with Islamism, Husain is still unable to appreciate the core values of modern Europe.

He writes: " Many of my Muslim friends {in Britain} rightly ask what we are supposed to integrate into. ' Big Brother' life-style? Ladette culture? Binge drinking? Gambling?"

The implication is that Britain is that and only that.

However, Husain and his " Muslim friends" could integrate into a democratic system of politics, the rule of law, freedom of religious belief and practice, the universal charter of human rights, and educational, cultural and economic opportunities that the majority in the Muslim world could only dream of.

Nobody asks, let alone force, British Muslims to indulge in binge drinking or gambling. Nor are they even invited to abandon their weirdest doctrines and prejudices as long as these remain at the level of ideas and opinions. All that the British Muslims are required to do is to live their lives, practice their faith, and refrain from forming secret cells to plan and carry out mass murder.



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