Approaching Ed Husain and The Islamist

One person we’re pursuing for an interview is Ed Husain, British Muslim and author of the controversial book The Islamist. We have a copy of his book at the office, and I picked it up and read it voraciously over the past few days. This upcoming show is one I desperately want us to get right.

Let’s talk a bit about the book first. I’m going to drop a few spoilers, so if you’re planning to read it, I suggest you skip ahead a bit (or even wait until you’ve read the book).

Synopsis and my thoughts

The Islamist is Ed Husain’s memoir of his time in the radical Islamic movements in Britain in the 1990s, then his departure from those movements in this decade. It’s an emotional read. The course he describes of his own descent into the movement reminds me so much of what I know about extremist ideological of various sorts. I’m no expert on extremism (religious or otherwise), but anyone who has seen Jesus Camp, American History X, or is familiar with the life of Malcolm X will see how similar the patterns of hatred are in the British radical Islam movement.

Actually, I think it’s helpful to draw a comparison between the fertile civil rights movement in he 1960s in the US, and the current time period in Islamic thought. Like Malcolm X, Ed Husain was pulled into a supremacist ideology, advocated radical separation, resistance and militant confrontation (the specifics of methodology between Malcolm X and the radical Islamic movement are different, though). Like Malcolm X, he began to see cracks in the movement’s ideological foundation, and left the movement to embrace mainstream Islam, traditionalist Islam in the case of Malcolm X, and Sufism in the case of Ed Husain.

That’s the overall arc of the story in the book. I was deeply attached to his narrative voice, and found some similarities between his life and mine, albeit minor. I grew up in a very diverse milieu. I was exposed to some of the very basic conservative (even fundamentalist) texts like Maududi’s commentaries on the Qur’an and tracts like Let Us Be Muslims, a book Ed Husain describes as mandatory reading for Islamists he encountered.

I was never able to get far in those types of books. I’m trying to recall the words I used in my mind to describe why I didn’t like those books. As a teenager, I thought of those books as being too “traditional” or “strict.” Whatever the terms, I was turned off by their negativity and conservatism, not to mention all the talk of infidels and non-believers. Prior to 9/11, most Muslims would encounter texts such as these before others. They were sold at mosque functions and congregational prayer. There was no critical analysis done of these books; they were merely taken at face value as being devotional literature.

Still, I identified that brand of religiosity as being “too Muslim.” It was only as I learned more and more in the years after 9/11 (due to heightened curiosity, my own years of trying to understand the response to Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and the increasing availability of “liberal” English texts) that I found what I was looking for, what’s really the core of Islam.

I can easily accept that I’m not “Muslim enough” for a conservative view. I also never particularly felt “brown enough,” considering that my circle of friends was diverse, not an ethnic clique, the kinds that are increasingly predominant in public schools in Montreal. I think gang mentality is becoming more common. It’s not that kids are becoming more violent, but that segregation is increasing, and ethnic pride is becoming one of the defining characteristics of peer group formation.

Anyway, that may be why I feel a certain affinity for Ed Husain in the way he approaches the story of the past 20 years of his life.

Critical reactions to the book

The book, though, touched off major controversy in Britain when it was released in early 2007. Muslims were deeply critical of the book, in no small part because non-Muslim commentators were so welcoming of it. Among those non-Muslim commentators are the usual xenophobes and right-wing ideologues who love finding “ex-Muslims” to fuel their own hate-filled ideologies.

So, that being the case, we have to wonder which criticisms are fair and which aren’t, as we prepare to approach the topic behind The Islamist.

First among criticisms is the use of the very term “Islamist.” As far as I know, and I’m not an academic expert, the usage of “Islamist” in the West is different from how the term is used in Muslim countries. I think back to Orhan Pamuk’s novel about present-day Turkey, Snow, in which various groups of Muslims vie for power over the course of the story.

In the context of that novel and, presumably, in Turkey and other parts of the Muslim world, “Islamist” merely means anyone who believes that Islam has a role to play in the political or civic methodology of society. That doesn’t mean theocracy, though it can to hardcore conservatives and radicals. However, a liberal, progressive, modern intellectual Muslim thinker can also be considered an “Islamist” if they believe that the core values of Islam—social equity and spiritual awareness—should be present in culture in a constructive fashion. To the extent that I vote for left-leaning parties in elections is a reflection on my feelings that I see commonalities between some strains of leftist thought and what I view as Islamic values.

What we need to be careful about, though, is thinking that anyone who has a political vision rooted in Islam is automatically a radical extremist. The majority of civic-minded Muslims are what I would call “traditionalists.” This encompasses a very mainstream, devout religious attitude, one that firmly demands social action in the world, if only to reclaim the middle of the spectrum post-9/11. Pre-9/11, traditionalist belief, as far as I encountered it in my own family circle, was rather apolitical.

One important question has been asked in regards to this book, especially Ed Husain’s implication that much of Muslim politics in Britain is influenced (if not outright controlled) by fundamentalist ideology. Is it that ideologues are deeply influential by drawing a political, bastardized vision of the faith? Are Muslims, with their desire to engage actively in the socio-political realm for the betterment of society and (let’s face it) themselves, susceptible to ideology because they want to be civically engaged? What role do centuries of Islamic law play in the formation or receptivity of Muslims to the idea of Islamic engagement in the social realm?

Admittedly, Husain approaches these underlying questions from his own subjective point of view. He has to. He never claims to be an academic expert. Nevertheless, doesn’t his personal experience—years spent in the radical movement—qualify him in some way? Apparently, according to many Muslim critics, it does not. Does that make any sense?

There are a couple of reasons why people have reacted the way they have. I think the most balanced review of the book has been that of Yahya Birt, as many others have noted. I also appreciated Altmuslim’s interview with the author himself, to let him speak for himself, rather than do the deconstructionist analysis that is so common among Muslim intellectuals and, frankly, quite annoying and self-righteous and boring.

But it’s understandable where such semiotic analysis comes from. We live in an era when so much of politics is rooted in public relations, when truth is scripted and lies can become the basis of international policies. Semantics isn’t to be dismissed, because terms like “war on terror,” “weapons of mass destruction,” “terrorist,” “moderate,” “homeland security,” and many others are loaded with meaning and are designed, often, to be vague euphemisms.

What I find quite strange is that people have taken to using personal attacks on Ed Husain as an attempt to refute what are, essentially, his personal views based on his life experience. For example, someone who has spent years working on Wall Street ought to be qualified to talk about corporate financial culture. Instead, several critics have come out and basically blamed the victim, accusing Husain of being either too gullible or too dumb or too sycophantic to resist the pull of radical ideology.

As always is the case in our public discourse, we look for one source to a problem, and deny that problems are usually multi-dimensional. It’s a basic nature-nurture argument that is being played out. Was Ed Husain too gullible, or are Islamic political organizations too radical and too influential?

Moving beyond criticism

The reality, undoubtedly, lies in the middle. The truth is that fundamentalist thought does have influence among Muslims, confusing ethnocentric fervor for religious devotion. When I think of a religious person doing something of worth in the world, I can look to modern examples (which have been trotted out ad nauseum before me) such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Mother Teresa. Looking at Islamic activism, though, you can notice how strong the ideas of anti-colonial resistance still affect it. There remains much reactionary thought, but so too is creative and original thought growing by leaps and bounds, day by day.

There are inevitable questions that arise from reading or even approaching The Islamist. Are we, at SoF, going to fall into the same trap that so many other media outlets fall into, namely relying on some “expert” or “talking head” to come explain a problem to us? I hope not. But the majority of our audience is indeed non-Muslim, just based on the demographics of the US. That being said, the prominent question is always, “Is this guy going to give us the so-called solution to that Islamic problem?”

There is plenty of criticism aimed at refuting the idea that Ed Husain has anything to say about the current state of Islamic organizations in Britain (mainstream, spiritual, conservative, traditionalist, fundamentalist, or otherwise). He left the radical movement years ago, and many critics try to make it seem like things have changed completely, and that Ed Husain is off his rocker when he talks about the radical groups.

It’s a touchy subject because there are many large Islamic organizations in the UK, with wide memberships, so to criticize any one movement threatens to marginalize thousands of people. Splinter groups and radical factions do exist out there, but to what degree? To name a Muslim group as radical tars the entire membership, when possibly its leaders are more hardcore than the followers, or even when the leaders (targets for government scrutiny) moderate but their constituents do not.

It’s a very, very complex situation, a nuanced one. But let’s not live in denial. Radicalism and fundamentalist thought do remain present. 7/7 did happen. The ideological arguments used to recruit young Muslims into the radical movement have not lost their potency, with the wars across Muslim Asia raging.

The battle within the Muslim community for the soul of our religion continues now, as it has for decades. It started before 9/11 and it will continue after Iraq is emptied of American soldiers. I’m against fundamentalist thought because it’s life-denying, hate-filled, and overbearing, not to mention at odds with the background I come from. I’m against terrorism because it’s murder. That doesn’t make me some kind of Christopher Hitchens-like atheistic evangelist and hawkish warmonger. I’m also against blatantly militaristic regimes such as the current American government. It doesn’t mean I’m going to turn into some kind of militant revolutionary. Labels have power in our culture, and that’s why so much of Muslim intellectual activism is heavily into semiotics and deconstruction, areas of postmodern philosophy that concern themselves with the meanings of words and their effects on human thought.

Muslims themselves are challenging each other and moving in a more fruitful direction. That’s what many critics point out. That’s not to say that fundamentalism isn’t still alive and well, a point that gets glossed over. There is a prevalence of political discourse in modern-day Islam—talk of spirituality is rarely broached despite the fact that we are dealing with religion.

The question I’d have to ask, then, after reading the book is what healthy ways can exist for a Muslim who is devout and who feels the necessity to turn the ideals of justice into social action? I myself felt that call, and I spent a lot of time letting myself grow and mature before taking practical action: pursuing a career in journalism.

We aren’t afforded any patience anymore. Everything is so cataclysmic. We have to rise us and revolt right now! But I’ve never been an advocate of revolution. I find it’s simply too passionate, too fickle, too impermanent, a flash in the pan, sound and fury in the end signifying nothing. Real, lasting change comes from steady movement, baby steps.

Charting our approach

So as we approach The Islamist, we have to make sure that we name these concerns, air them out, allow room for Ed Husain’s personal experience to speak to his credibility, and offer food for thought. That’s the format of SoF. We aren’t a hard-news program.

How do we approach the concerns brought up by a book like The Islamist without getting caught up in the rhetorical war being played out in the media and in politics? How do we engage in healthy debate about such a volatile issue? After all, the Muslim community at large has been put under scrutiny by ill-conceived and ill-implemented anti-terrorism laws, not to mention lazy, sensationalist reporting. An Islamist extremist under scrutiny then can very easily feign innocence and cry out, “I’m under attack! The Muslim community is under attack! They’re insulting Islam!”

One serious problem is that, in the current climate, many in the Muslim community expect that every Muslim out there is out to champion Muslimness, rather than what we really are supposed to champion, which is truth. There is a pervasive sense of denial out there is even a problem, or that it’s all been completely manufactured by the media, or that 9/11 and 7/7 and 11-M were all just covert CIA operations or an Israeli conspiracy (I want to punch someone in the face when I hear such blatant denial of facts).

This is all compounded by the fact that right-wing ideologues can and do court so-called “ex-Muslims” who have become disenchanted with Islamic culture for a whole host of reasons. By having an “ex-Muslim” speak their own criticisms, the right-wingers are given carte blanche to pursue any anti-Muslim policy because a Muslim validated their viewpoint.

The basic script of a regular media interview with Ed Husain would be to set him up as the expert on British Islamic extremism, to ask him how and why 7/7 happened, to ask him what’s going on in Britain’s Muslims communities (with the subtext of asking him if terrorism is going to happen again). It’s coming to the table with a set of biases about how Muslims should be spoken to, even self-confessed “reformed extremists” talking about their reformation and their extremism.

Western ideologues want desperately to extrapolate the idea of “reformed extremist” to “reformation of Islam” where Islam is used interchangeably with extremism. The idea is that if “we” understand the extremism in Islam, “we” will understand Islam. And if “we” understand how an Islamist is reformed, “we” will know how to reform the so-called delusion of Islam itself, thereby conducting whatever foreign policy “we” want and not worrying how it affects our citizens.

What, exactly, is the purpose of reforming “Islam” from the outside? Is it to prevent terrorism? Stopping terrorism requires a vast cultural shift in mentality, from all sides. It means a reformation of foreign policy (both hard and soft power), a reformation of foreign diplomacy, a reformation of domestic political culture, a reformation of international media coverage, and a reformation of institutional behavior. In short, it means revitalizing the guts of true liberal democracy. Without doing that, just rounding up a bunch of people based on their dress or reading habits isn’t going to lead to some mythical security.

At SoF, we simply cannot afford to re-hash that same script. I trust that we won’t, because the track record with the topic of Islam is excellent, one of the few places in the media that covers the current struggle within Islam correctly.

We can and will approach Ed with an eye to his personal experience. That’s primary. He can authentically speak to how he went down a path, and why it simply did not work for him. The question remains, however, how this show is relevant to a listener, in this age of scripted truths. I think there are more interesting questions beyond, “Is another 7/7 going to happen?” or “What’s wrong with Muslims today? Why is fundamentalism so big?”

We need to ask, rather, are there healthy ways in which a person of faith can be political? I seriously don’t want to go down the line of questions that asks if Islam and modernity or Islam and democracy are compatible.

I do anticipate that this is going to be a very, very touchy subject. It already has been in the UK, and will continue to be so here, especially when our interview will likely be coming out of production during Ed Husain’s American book tour.


Islam, journalism, Religion