Reflections of a Former Islamist Extremist
Ed Husain is a former fundamentalist and member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and author of The Islamist.
January 14, 2010
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today I speak with Ed Husain. He has sparked soul-searching in Great Britain with his memoir, The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left. He illuminates some of the most pivotal territory of modern life, the nature of Islamism, the personality of a suicide bomber, and the critical inner dialogue of Muslims in and with Western societies.
MR. ED HUSAIN: Most non-Muslims, including most Americans, simply don’t understand the stakes that we are playing for here in that this phenomena, or whatever you want to call it, it threatens Muslims first and foremost before it goes out to try to undermine the West. And that’s why it’s not a cliché to say that the West and normal Muslims — moderate Muslims — have common cause in trying to defeat this extremist mind-set.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. My guest this hour, Ed Husain, has written a memoir that has sparked debate and soul-searching across British society. His story has the marks of many a classic coming-of-age tale: seduction by revolutionary ideas, estrangement from immigrant parents, and a true love that jolts him back to what matters in life. But Ed Husain’s intellectual dalliance was with radical politicized Islam flourishing at the heart of educated British culture. He shrank back only after coming close to a murder. People he loved and admired became suicide bombers. He found an antidote to extremism by digging deeper into Islamic spirituality itself. And so Ed Husain’s personal story illuminates some of the most dangerous territory of modern life. And he offers a fresh and daring perspective on Muslim faith in Western societies. From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Reflections of a British Muslim Extremist.” Muslims comprise 3 percent of the British population, which makes them the second largest religious group in an officially Anglican yet culturally secularized society. Half of British Muslims are originally from Pakistan, which was created as British colonial rule in India ended. And they are the economically poorest group in British society. Yet when two cars filled with explosives were discovered in central London last summer and a burning jeep driven into the Glasgow airport, the perpetrators were doctors, engineers, medical students, and lab technicians. The suicide bombers who killed themselves and 52 others in the London transport system on July 7, 2005 — known in Britain as “7/7” — were led by a teacher. Ed Husain’s book, The Islamist, took that country by storm after it was published in May 2007. In a fervor to deter terrorist acts, he says, Britain and the West have utterly failed to understand the complex and subtle mind-set, which make him and others susceptible to radicalization in the first place.
MR. HUSAIN: For most policy makers, their concern is when is the next bomb going to go off and how are we going to prevent that from happening. As long as we are secure, who cares what’s going on along with minutiae details of Muslim communal discourse? And as a result, they just think pumping money into resources, be it social economic, or tweaking foreign policy is somehow going to fix this problem. It’s not. It’s much deeper.
MS. TIPPETT: I wanted to speak with Ed Husain to understand those deeper dynamics that he began to know intimately at age 16 and the implications of his experiences for other Muslims and Western societies. His parents came to Britain from India and East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh. But he grew up middle class and well educated. Ed is short for Mohammed.
MS. TIPPETT: You were born and raised in Britain. You were not an immigrant. You were perhaps living in a culture that was defined by immigrants but, you know, talk to me a little bit about your British identity and why your link to that was susceptible or vulnerable or tenuous so that you were captured by some of these ideas.
MR. HUSAIN: We have a real problem in Britain. It was the case when I was growing up and it’s still the case now in that it’s extremely difficult to define Britishness. Whereas in America it’s different. You have a very clear sense of national identity. We don’t have that here. There’s the Welsh issue, the Scottish issue, and the Irish issue that compounds this problem. And then bring into the mix people who arrived in Britain in the 1960s after the winding up of the British Empire in the West Indies and in India. You have a group of people who arrived here, you know, my parents generation, initially for economic purposes with some hope of, you know, going back as it were one day. That going back never happened. So my generation, born and raised here, we’re confused as to where our parents stood. At home we were exposed to one culture; at school we were exposed to another. So Britishness was never clearly defined for my generation growing up. And the fact that we’ve got communities up and down the country that live totally separate lives — I mean, in the name of multiculturalism we’ve created these monocultural ghettos in Bradford, Birmingham, Burnley, parts of London where there is no interaction between, you know, native white English communities and the children of immigrants. And so it’s very much a live problem here in Britain.
MS. TIPPETT: And I have a sense that when you first became attracted to a kind of politicized Islam, initially not necessarily extremist, but just that some of the words you used to describe what you found worthy in what you were experiencing was that, you know, it sounds like it almost seemed to bridge some of these different aspects of your identity that weren’t bridged in the culture. You said it was English-speaking, educated, rooted in faith.
MR. HUSAIN: You see when we went to mosques — when I went to mosques — the most of the imams came from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India. They spoke about an Islam that was very much village-based, a folkloric Islam. It wasn’t something that people like myself born and raised here in Britain in a different cultural social political setup could easily relate to. We were always given Islam in a second language, the language of our parents — Urdu, Bengali, whatever. But suddenly when I reached my teens, there were these young people who spoke Islam in the language that I easily identified with, i.e., English. So it took me a while to cotton on to the fact that the sort of Islam they were trying to sell to people like myself was an Islam that was at odds with my parents’ more Sufistic, traditional orthodox Islam. But the English-speaking radicals were trying to promote a sense — a type of Islam that was, you know, Islamist — politicized. But against that, there was something else going on in the early 1990s here in Europe that people often forget. And that was the entire Balkan crisis.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. HUSAIN: Between ’91 and ’94, you had large numbers of Muslims in Bosnia, who were white, blond, blue-eyed, being slaughtered in their thousands. And when people from you know Arab countries who had taken political refuge in Britain — Omar Bakri and others — came and said to us that, ‘Look, two hours away from London’s Heathrow Airport, you’ve got people who are being slaughtered in their thousands despite being European Muslims for 600 years. What chance do people like you and I, who are brown-skinned, black-haired, got in the long term here in Britain? So for a 16-year-old who is not entirely comfortable in being in Britain, that message, you know, has a strong resonance.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You were really galvanized by events in Bosnia, weren’t you?
MR. HUSAIN: Certainly, yes. And I think the same thing is going today with Iraq with lots of young people, but most certainly Bosnia politicized me. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think what’s also important, that I’d like to just hear you talk some more about is, you know, it wasn’t just that you were discovering a way of thinking about Islam and about faith, but really a view of history that in some ways was very empowering — challenging and empowering.
MR. HUSAIN: Yes it was a view of history which was empowering, but at the same time it was a view that was very simplistic. Looking back, I think Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto started by saying that the history of all societies hitherto has been a history of class struggle — in other words, “them” and “us.” Similarly, the kind of history that I was understanding while being, you know, beside people who had an extremist worldview was very much the same thing. That all history is a history of struggle between good and evil and “them” and “us,” and the good in this case tended to be Muslims, by and large, and evil everybody else.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. HUSAIN: So it was looking at the world through that prism — and everything started to make sense when you looked at the world through that set of spectacles — that the entire world was somehow out there to undermine Muslims. There was global conspiracy against Muslims — Freemasons, Jews, Americans, everybody but Muslims themselves. It was blaming the other constantly throughout history and in today’s world. And it’s a very powerful grip on one’s mind. And in my case it took years to shed that influence.
MS. TIPPETT: British Muslim author and former radical Ed Husain. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today exploring Ed Husain’s unique perspective on Islam, British culture, and Western society as revealed in his memoir, The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left. Husain describes his progressive radicalization beginning at age 16 from an initial curiosity to the exhilaration of jockeying over ideology and power with other student groups and then helping lead a Muslim students association to what he calls an Islamization of the public space at an east London college. Central to Ed Husain’s passion was the concept of the ummah, the global Muslim community, which could transcend other identities, boundaries, and balances of power. He came to feel most powerfully part of the ummah as an active member of Hizb ut-Tahrir an organization with a prominent presence in British mosques and universities. Hizb ut-Tahrir is fully sanctioned by the British government as an expression of multiculturalism. And Ed Husain is quick to add that it is not a terrorist organization. But in the absence of a larger context of societal integration, he says a group like this can incline vulnerable young people to a separatist and potentially violent path. There he first read the work of the post-colonial Egyptian author Sayyid Qutb, an original ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood. In his books, including Milestones, Qutb presented a politically radical and religiously puritan reading of Islamic history and of the Qur’an. He remains a globally influential revolutionary Islamist writer today. Ed Husain calls Qutb’s Milestones “the Communist Manifesto of Islamism.”
MR. HUSAIN: Qutb spent time in America in the 1950s, and there was something about Qutb that made sense for us. I guess the fact that his book was translated into English and the fact that he was in prison and he stood up to tyranny. He had commentated on the Qur’an and he was seen to be a martyr, because the Egyptian government hanged him in 1966. So all of that combined gave him hero status among young Muslims on college campuses in the 1990s, more to the point young Islamists, i.e., people who believed in politicized from of religion in a very post-modern society — it’s a new development. Sayyid Qutb had that powerful capture over our minds. I mean, I’m not suggesting for an instance that everybody who reads his book becomes a terrorist, but those who read his book and then impart those ideas to those who then attend meetings up and down Britain and, you know, Europe and the Middle East, and so on, are grabbed by the fact that he defined the world very much in a bipolar sense, that there was the Muslim vanguard who was over and above other Muslims. So it’s very much a Marxist-Gramscian way of looking at the world. Not just Muslims but you have a vanguard Muslim group over and above everybody else, who leads the Muslim community into confronting the West, into confronting the nonbelieving world. And he compounded the Dar al-Islam, the world of Islam, Dar al-kufr, the world of nonbeliever hypothesis down to its maximum. And I think his power lay in the fact that he even argued that the vast majority of Muslim governments were non-Muslim, that they came from what he called jahiliyyah.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You were not just opposing the West. I mean, this worldview had a lot to conquer in the Muslim world as well.
MR. HUSAIN: Well, this is the key and this is where I think most non-Muslims, including most Americans, simply don’t understand the stakes that we’re playing for here in that this phenomenon, whatever you want to call it — political Islam, extremism, al-Qaeda, worldview, Wahhabism, whatever you want to call it — it threatens Muslims first and foremost before it goes out to try to undermine the West. And Sayyid Qutb’s worldview was very much based on the fact that we’ve got to overthrow the Egyptian regime and bring about the holier-than-thou state, which he called an Islamic state, in itself a myth. But that’s what he called for. And then that state would go out and attack and undermine Israel and then, you know, the Americans and then, I mean, he laid this out and other groups that influenced him have put this down in writing in their constitutions. So there’s no surprise that there’s a strong political component to this, and that’s why it’s not a cliché to say that the West and normal Muslims — moderate Muslims — have common cause in trying to defeat this extremist mind-set. Because it threatens both of us.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And over the years I’ve spoken with a number of people who — and not just Muslims, who as young people, you know, tends to be the rule became drawn into extremist movements. And, you know, one of the things they’ve talked about to me is the intoxication and the power that comes with that that meets something in adolescence and young adulthood, where one’s identity is fragile, where one is looking for a cause and identity. Was that your experience too, I mean, could you talk about the appeal of this idea to you at that point in your life and in this milieu, you know, you really describe British universities and schools where these kinds of ideas were everywhere.
MR. HUSAIN: Among activist Muslims, and there are plenty of Muslims who got on with their lives and went and did normal things. But those who became part of the activist hub affiliated by and large with either Islamists or Saudi Wahhabists or Indian Deobandis, there are various traditions, but the first two are more problematic than the third one. And yes, you are right, it is about identity and that’s only attractive to us because we didn’t have a strong identity to start off with. So when in that void Islamists come onto the scene and say that hey you’re not just Muslim, you’re more than being an ordinary Muslim. You’re a true Muslim with a capital T and capital M. And your religion lies to the global ummah. But alongside that they brought on board ideas of elitism and secrecy and global power. So being part of this movement meant that you were several cuts above ordinary Muslims. You know, you are by and large superior to non-Muslims, but of course even among Muslims you are seen to be several cuts above others. But also the group I was with for over two years was a very secretive movement that had global cells.
MS. TIPPETT: And is this Hizb ut-Tahrir?
MR. HUSAIN: Yes, Hizb ut-Tahrir.
MS. TIPPETT: Which tends to be referred to in British newspapers as HT, so we can do that as well, I think.
MR. HUSAIN: Yes. Yes. HT was very secretive, very elitist. So you get that extra buzz of trying to keep global secrets. And this elite movement that was always full of people who were accountants, doctors, lawyers — so you know you were mixing with the upper crust of society, but at the same time having a worldview that was different from most normal people and planning something, i.e., an Islamist state in the Middle East that would be expansionist and totalitarian. But of course at the time we didn’t see it as totalitarian, we saw it as a true faith-based state, which of course is a misnomer.
MS. TIPPETT: The world you describe of this student activism is full of drama and factions and, you know, one journalist wrote in The Guardian: “Set aside the Muslim names of the people involved and the names of their organizations, and it’s a typical tale of student politics: endless argument, rabble-rousing, leafleting, wildly idealistic theorizing, and some dirty tactics in committee meetings.” And I have to say I had that impression as well that in some sense this was a student movement like many student movements. But I want to ask you what has changed what has ratcheted up when religion in general and Islam in particular — radicalized Islam — is in that mix?
MR. HUSAIN: Yes. Yes, I know the article you refer to; I know the journalist you refer to. And he’s right in his assertion. And he’s right, because Islamism as a political ideology — and I’m not talking about Islam the faith, but the ideology here — was influenced directly by Marxism. So it’s no surprise that you find those very same tactics being employed by Islamists on university campuses. But what’s different and what white liberal Westerners tend not to understand especially here in Britain, because we’re such a secular society. It’s not about activism to bring about a better tomorrow or a communist state in which everyone’s equal, but it’s about doing this in the name of God. And doing this not only just for this world but having a better afterlife. So what would be seen as acting ethically for bringing about a better world on the far left, in Islamist circles that and becomes compounded with a sense of religion, a sense of superiority over the inferior non-believer and also looking forward to an afterlife in which if you don’t do what they suggest that you must do, you’re actually brought to account and in their world sent to here for not standing up for God and establishing what they call an Islamic state in this world. So there’s this fear factor put into this that you are actually carrying out religious obligations and the failure to do so means eternal damnation in the hereafter. So it’s quite powerful.
MS. TIPPETT: Author and former British Muslim extremist Ed Husain.
MS. TIPPETT: And all right. Here’s something else: I think in the United States, people tend to think about al-Qaeda, just al-Qaeda or Wahhabism as the center of the greatest threat. The world you describe is much more diverse and varied and chaotic. I mean, I do wonder where was Wahhabism in the mix for you? Does the existence again of this global movement like al-Qaeda also ratchet up that picture even more?
MR. HUSAIN: Al-Qaeda came on the scene much later. Before al-Qaeda there was, as you currently identify, a Wahhabist mind set. And I for a second don’t want to imply that all Wahhabis are terrorists. They’re not. But most terrorists tend to share a Wahhabi theology. So throughout the 1990s, ’80s, there was this literalist reading of scripture and you find this widespread not just in Saudi Arabia but every Muslim community that succumbed to Saudi influences. And that’s the danger that most Islamists politically may well lean towards creating this utopian state. But theologically they are very much Saudi based or Wahhabism based. So it’s a combination of Saudi/Wahhabi theology based with revolutionary Islamists politics that produces the bastard child which is Islamism that al-Qaeda aspire towards. So — but it must be said that al-Qaeda is just a name. It’s really a mind-set that we must be tackling, literalist, rejectionist, Islamist worldview. And not necessarily al-Qaeda as an organization because that can become defunct, but those ideas still remain. So it’s not a war on terror as the American government has gone out of its way to suggest, but it’s actually a battle of ideas.
MS. TIPPETT: And my sense is that although you were deeply involved and more and more involved and eventually completely estranged from your family because of this, it was when you came very, very close to terror — when you in fact were kind of on the periphery of a murder — that you personally began to shrink back from this.
MR. HUSAIN: Now I was part of HT and I just thought talking about the jihad or unwarranted killing in the Middle East or calling for the army of a future caliph going into Bosnia — I mean, all that seemed like abstract rhetoric that might be relevant to the Middle East. Not for a moment did I think that once that voice was put out there, once those ideas were implanted in peoples minds, that someone somewhere would actually act on that and act on my own doorstep, in my own college campus. So seeing Muslims shout the sort of slogans you hear in Palestine or in Kashmir here in London, and then seeing other Muslims literally take up weapons in the name of faith, and to see a dead body in front of one’s eyes as result of those ideas being advocated, I mean, you’ve got to take responsibility and say, yes, organizations such as HT may not pull the trigger — and they don’t; I’m not suggesting they’re a murderous organization for a minute — but they create an environment in which it makes it easier for others to do so. And so I saw that happen quite early on. And therefore slowly started to move back.
MS. TIPPETT: And that was the murder of a Nigerian Christian by a Muslim who was part of the circles in which you were living and working?
MR. HUSAIN: Yes. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: I was also really struck by you were close to people who did actually fall off that cliff, who became terrorists. You knew Asif Hanif, who became the first British suicide bomber in Tel Aviv in 2003. And the way you described him as a human being is you said he was a teddy bear of a guy that he was generous and kind and selfless and committed.
MR. HUSAIN: He was, he was, and this is another point that many of us fail to comprehend, that suicide bombers aren’t some evil human beings walking in our midst. They’re normal caring individuals, and it’s that normality and that sense of being caring when exploited by others that turns them into being suicide bombers. We might not like to hear this, but that’s what they are.
MS. TIPPETT: You said his very selflessness was the quality that led him to be the person who would strap bombs onto his body.
MR. HUSAIN: Yes, because he didn’t care for his own self and he cared for the Palestinian cause and for Palestinians in their repression as he saw them in Syria and also in the Palestinian territories, but it was that selflessness that he could give up his own life in order to serve them.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder how that memory even mobilizes you now. I mean, there’s always a grief when someone dies, when someone we know dies, but to have someone who you clearly have such affection for and even admiration, to have that as part of your experience.
MR. HUSAIN: It brings it home for you. It takes it beyond media headlines and newspaper clichés that these are real caring human beings, and it’s those qualities that we must continue to foster in order to make them understand that, by being selfless and killing themselves, they don’t advance the cause of the Palestinians one iota. In fact, if anything, it’s done them a disservice. Israel has put up this huge wall, and Israel’s response has been strongly recriminatory every time there’s a suicide bombing that goes off. So it doesn’t do them any favors. And it’s not just a strategic thing it’s morally wrong. It’s disgusting. You don’t take your own life to sort of kill other people. But all of that said, we must be honest about this, that there is a sense of real persecution and powerlessness on the part of people who go and become suicide bombers. Either they fail to understand other ways of addressing this issue, be it parliamentary democracy, be it lobbying, be it creating public awareness, be it engaging the political process, or they’ve deliberately disavowed that route and gone down the route of violence. Whatever it is, that mind-set needs to be opened up and explored and rejected. Right now, throughout the West, we’re steering away from trying to understand. So in British government circles, the entire focus is on violent extremism. Without understanding it’s actually extremism that you’ve got to deal with in order to prevent violence.
MS. TIPPETT: Author and former British Muslim extremist Ed Husain. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, Ed Husain’s sense of his place and the important and difficult internal dialog among Western Muslims and his understanding of the North American Muslim community as a beacon to Europe. We’re weaving in new ways to include you in our production process at speakingoffaith.org. In my complete, unedited conversation with Ed Husain, there’s much more detailed discussion of the ins and outs of Islam and British cultural dynamics. Download the free MP3 through our Web site, e-mail newsletter or podcast, and now through our blog, SOF Observed. Engage with us at speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today I’m speaking with Ed Husain, who’s published a controversial memoir in his native Britain. It’s called The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left. Ed Husain has been compared to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born former Dutch Parliamentarian whose own memoir, The Infidel, details her traumas as a Muslim woman growing up in Africa. She has rejected Islam as fundamentally incompatible with Western culture and democracy. Ed Husain’s path and his prescriptions for Muslims and Western culture are quite different. In Islamic scholarship and spiritual practices, he discovered an antidote to what he calls political Islamism that exploits Islam’s adherence, but is remote from Islam’s teachings. He discerned, as he describes it, that Islam at its core does not teach a monolithic approach to life. He writes, “When the Muslims of Indonesia, India, China, Persia, and Africa embraced Islam, they did not disavow their own native cultures. In Mecca, I met Muslims who were unlike in their background and culture, but united in their belief.” “For me,” he concludes, “that is the true ummah, a spiritual community, not a political block.” In contrast to Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others, Ed Husain also insists that Islamic devotion can be reconciled with vigorous, responsible citizenship in Western democracies, and he points to the North American Muslim community as an evolving model of this idea.
MR. HUSAIN: Those who think that Ayaan and I have anything in common just don’t understand the nature of the debate we’re involved in. Rejecting Islamism’s particular ideology doesn’t meant you reject a spiritual tradition of 1,400 years. The renaissance that came about in Europe came about directly as a result of the contributions of Muslim philosophers such as Averroes and Avicenna made. My forefathers preserved Greek heritage that was then bequeathed to the West, so I’m not an apologist for the West since I am myself a Westerner. And for my community, especially the Muslim community, I want the very best for my community. I’m not hammering my community because I want them to hunker in and avoid debate and discussion. We can’t move forward as a community unless we openly have a discussion about issues that trouble fellow Westerners. And my faith is very much based on the fact that here in the West, Western Muslims — Americans, Brits, Spaniards, French — we can fix it here among ourselves before we turn on the Muslim East and suggest, look, issues such as stoning the adulterer, amputating the arm of a thief, or, as happened recently in Saudi Arabia, the flogging of a gang rape victim, those are barbaric practices. Unless we in the West, Western Muslims, stand up and make that case, I am afraid that, in the long term, we’re going to have more Ayaan Hirsi Alis and more Solomon Rushdies in which people continue to reject their Islamic faith under being battered from the Western liberal intelligentsia. So for me, it’s about bridging that gap and producing a generation of young, confident, dynamic, articulate Muslims who can stand up for themselves in the West and then go back into the Muslim East and shine a beacon of hope and say, ‘Look, we’re fixtures in the West, we’re equally Muslim, and you too can do the same.’
MS. TIPPETT: Tell me what you discovered that really did change your life at this later point, as an adult, what you discovered in Islam.
MR. HUSAIN: Much of this goes back, I must say, to American Muslim influences in that you’ve got fascinating scholars such as Imam Hamza Yusuf Hanson from California who I was exposed to here in Britain in the late 1990s. In him and in others, I saw Muslims who were Westerners, who were American, who were English-speaking, who were intelligent and deeply erudite and connected to a sense of prophetic Islam, connecting themselves right back to the prophet Mohammed. And they embodied that persona of compassion, of justice, of love, of humanity, and it was really getting more and more sort of involved and close to people like Imam Hanson and others here in Britain that helped me intellectually come to terms with Islam, away from Islamism, the political ideology, and more importantly, discover a spiritual tradition that sits comfortably with other spiritual traditions and looking at human beings as just that, as fellow human beings, and it’s not our duty to judge others and ultimately it’s them and their relationship with God. It’s having that inner sense of relationship with God that manifests in your actions on the outside that I personally found worked for me. I’m not suggesting this is a panacea for everyone, but it’s something that worked for me, and it very much set at home with my parents and my family and friends.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder if you have a sense of why the North American Muslim experience is so different from the experience you had as a British Muslim?
MR. HUSAIN: My impression is that it’s the fact that you have a very strong national identity that people who, as you say, fresh off the boat can come and sign up to something in America.
MS. TIPPETT: And the fact that identity is more porous somehow?
MR. HUSAIN: Yeah, it’s there. It’s palpable. The American Muslims are deeply patriotic and deeply proud of being American and being Muslim. Here, we don’t have that. You’d be hard pressed to find Muslims in the north of England saying that they’re British Muslims. It just doesn’t happen.
MS. TIPPETT: So there’s a different kind of foundation that new generations of North American Muslims are building on, um-hum.
MR. HUSAIN: Well, exactly, yes, and you see that. I mean, take, for example, the large conferences you have in America among American Muslims. I think one of the motions that was passed was that the Jewish synagogues in America were twin with Muslim mosques. Phenomenal.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. The Islamic Society of North America.
MR. HUSAIN: Yes, exactly. ISNA conference. That’s a fascinating example from which not just Europeans, but also Arab Muslims can learn in terms of maintaining positive ties between different faiths. Try suggesting something like that to the British Muslim Council here. Almost impossible. Only after six years of kicking and screaming have they decided to attend Holocaust Memorial Day. I mean, that’s what we’re up against. It’s a good marrying up of English anti-Semitism, which is very much hush-hush, which is still out there, and then that’s married up with that being very vocal from among certain sections of the Muslim community. But it must be said, I mean, post 7/7, the most anti-Semitic groups, HT among them, have toned down their anti-Semitism. Now whether it’s a question of strategy or principled change, it remains to be seen.
MS. TIPPETT: With 7/7, you’re referring to the July 7 terrorist attacks in 2005, is it? Fifty-two people killed, the largest attack like that on British soil since the war. And this all happened far beyond the period of you being radicalized. How has that imprinted British society and the development of all of the aspects of what we’re discussing, about these dynamics in British society?
MR. HUSAIN: Well, 7/7 was a huge wake-up call to Britain. Prior to 7/7, everybody more or less was quite content to allow for Muslim separatism — extremist organizations, to quite openly discuss whether they were British or whether they were Muslim and then decide in a conference of about 10,000 people here in London that they were just Muslim and Britishness had nothing to do with them. Very deep separatism was developing here in Britain, and it was considered acceptable because it was all done in the name of multiculturalism, that it’s acceptable to have difference at that level. So it was multiculturalism gone wild, and then suddenly we needed something as horrible as 7/7 to remind us that you allow people to develop in an underworld in which ideas of parliamentary democracy, of liberalism, of secularism, have no meaning. Then people resort to these ugly means to express their grievances. So since 7/7, there have been several initiatives to try to come to terms with what it is in British society that allows for an underclass to develop that’s totally disconnected to the mainstream. On the one hand, you’ve got that extreme that refuses to acknowledge the fact that multiculturalism has been conducted wrongly and we’ve made mistakes and we need to correct those. On the other extreme, you’ve got the far right that are suggesting the whole problem has to do with immigration. So between these two extremes, I think there are some of us who are trying to carve out a middle path where to say that, yes, there are problems within the Muslim community that need to be addressed, you know, scriptural, social, political, economic, and there are problems with the mainstream, you know, cultural snobbery, arrogance, a sense of history that needs to be addressing. So it’s a two-way street. So we’re in the middle of that discussion as a nation, I think, but the jury is out to where I guess we’ll end up.
MS. TIPPETT: Author and former British extremist Ed Husain. At speakingoffaith.org, you can read some of the internal debate about Islam and British identity that has taken place on the pages of British newspapers. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media, today exploring Ed Husain’s distinctive perspective on the way forward for Muslims and the West. Ed Husain disavowed radical, politicized Islam when he was 22. In the intervening years, he’s been joined by other high-profile defectors from Islamic radicalism. Maajid Nawaz was a contemporary of Ed Husain in Hizb ut-Tahrir. He was imprisoned and reportedly tortured in Egypt as a member of that organization. After his return to the U.K. in 2006, he announced that he, like Ed Husain, had been reformed by discovering new substance in Islamic spirituality and theology. Nawaz is currently traveling and speaking across Western Europe, spreading this message to young people he influenced previously towards radicalism. But even this kind of positive development is leading to more public discussion with and about religion than is usual or entirely comfortable in mainstream British culture. In the left-wing newspaper The Guardian, for example, the journalist Madeleine Bunting asked, “Multiculturalism has toppled the notion of being British as being white. Can it also become true that British identity will no longer be synonymous with Christian secular accommodation?”
MS. TIPPETT: You know, something you mentioned a minute ago about how God has absolutely been taken completely out of the public sphere in Britain. What’s fascinating is how Islam and British Muslims may now be forcing or intensifying a cultural reevaluation throughout British society of the place of religion in culture and public life.
MR. HUSAIN: You’re absolutely right and that’s why there’s such a feisty defense of atheism suddenly in Britain. It’s amazing that people like Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and others, especially Hitchens, I think, the name he gave his book was a direct defiance of the Muslim ritual prayer opening. Yeah, God Is Not Great, because we say, “God is great.” So that’s very interesting and, you know, he takes several pops at Muslims in his book. And Martin Amis, one of our top writers, has gone on the record recently trying to assert that tradition of a God-free society where we are as a country 300 years on from the entire sort of reformation renaissance experience and it took two world wars to defend this strong liberal tradition. And I don’t advocate the mixing of religion and politics in the public domain, but at the same time, people who have faith-based convictions shouldn’t be shut out of the public debate. Just as you have Christian democrats in Central Europe, we can have Muslim democrats in Western Europe who, much like Tony Blair who derived his passion and sense of justice for politics based on his understanding of scripture, but without shoving it down peoples’ throats.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, he kept it almost very secret and compartmentalized or at least out of the limelight while he was prime minister.
MR. HUSAIN: But that’s because he was advised by people [unintelligible] who said we don’t do God. And that’s part of the problem, I think, that Muslims here feel that their sense of identity when it comes to religion is shunned upon because they can’t express themselves for what they are, what we are, same as in France. But in America, that’s another crucial difference in that God is out there in the public domain, so most Americans understand what it means to worship the same God.
MS. TIPPETT: Not always uncontroversially, but there’s a sense that we do God.
MR. HUSAIN: Yeah, but your presidents repeatedly say, “God bless America.” Can you imagine our prime minister saying, “God bless Britain”? People would freak out.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder, you have been very critical and yourself have been criticized for pointing at, you know, kind of an almost vibrant world of many, many different kinds of politicized Islamic groups, themselves not necessarily terrorists, but perhaps inclining some young people to that. But I also sense as I read some of what you’ve been saying recently and look at your book, you know, that you do see in the very diversity of the Muslim — the varied spectrum of the Muslim community — you do also see that as a source of hope and you point to that that is not one thing to be Muslim in Britain.
MR. HUSAIN: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, Islam has never been and will never be a monolithic entity. It’s always been diverse. It’s the attempt by people who have a politicized version of Islam, post-1960s, to impose their brand of Islam on everybody else that vexes me and so many other people. You know, you can go and practice your politicized Islam and go and call for your destruction of Israel and go and call for your confrontation with the West, and you go deal with it. But don’t go and do that in the name of my faith and don’t expect me to back you because you’re somehow a fellow believer. I’m sorry, that’s not going to happen. I think it was Booker T. Washington, the great American civil rights campaigner, who said, “Cast down your buckets where you are.” We’re here and we will cast down our buckets here in the West.
MS. TIPPETT: I did write down a sentence in your book. You said, “Even today a primary reason for Western failure in the war on terror is an innate inability to understand the Islamist psyche.” So this is one thing you would want policy makers in the West to be attentive to. And what else? What else needs attention and understanding that simply escapes a lot of the public discussion that we now have?
MR. HUSAIN: For most policy makers, their concern is when’s the next bomb going to go off and how we’re going to prevent that from happening. As long as we’re secure, who cares what’s going on among the minutiae details of Muslim communal discourse? But there’s also the other factor that, you know, most of our politicians here in Britain at least are from the 1960s generation. You know, most of them don’t understand what it means to have faith. And when you don’t understand what it means to be a Christian in your own tradition and what the power of the belief in an afterlife can do to you when perverted, that basic fact hasn’t been deeply appreciated by our policy makers here. As a result, they just think pumping money into resources, be it socio-economic or tweaking foreign policy, is somehow going to fix this problem. It’s not. It’s much deeper.
MS. TIPPETT: So clearly every human being today has a stake in Muslim communal discourse and yet outsiders, non-Muslims, can’t lead really or guide or even contribute to that Muslim communal discourse. I mean, how can non-Muslims, both governments and citizens, be constructive forces so that that…
MR. HUSAIN: …by engaging, by engaging on key ideas, by engaging and putting out a clear idea of what the West stands for. But for me, it’s about getting our house, the Muslim house, in order so that we can stand up and become a dynamic community that’s not a burden, but an asset to the West. That’s why I think it’s vital to people such as myself who’ve lived in the Arab world, who’ve gone through the extremist experience in Britain, who are now on the other side and sees Islam to be a totally different thing than we saw it then. I mean, it’s almost like a religious and human duty for us to speak out. And if by doing so, we upset people who are on the far left and people on the far right, well, you know, I’m sorry, but we’ve got to do what we’re doing.
MS. TIPPETT: Many people will ask someone like you or other Muslims, and we’ve spent some time on this today, what is it that draws Muslims to violence? But I want to ask you the converse question, you know, from your experience. This would also be the story of someone like Malcolm X, who became a mainstream moderate Muslim late in his life after he encountered traditional Islam, Islamic spirituality. You know, what is it conversely about Islam that you find redemptive, not just an antidote to extremism, but that really galvanizes you as a human being now, as well as a public figure?
MR. HUSAIN: There was an incident when, you know, at the time of the prophet, young girls who were born to families were always buried because they were considered to be a sense of shame. One of his companions came up to him and said that, in the past, I buried my daughter and, as I was burying her, she was wiping off the soil from my clothes and, looking back, I feel extremely bad about what I did. Do you think God will ever forgive me? And the prophet smiled and touched this companion of his and spoke in Arabic and said that God is most compassionate, most forgiving. Forget that and try to do good for people. But I recently had a baby daughter and those memories come back. Not just that particular teaching of the prophet, but also looking at my daughter, I want her to grow up in a world in which she doesn’t succumb to the pressures that I succumbed to, she doesn’t buy the extremist mind-set that I ended up buying. So it’s not just looking at the past and finding redemptive lessons within the Qur’an, within the teaching of the prophet Mohammed, but also looking to the future and trying to build a future for the next generation.
MS. TIPPETT: This notion of ihsan was important to you as you were coming back to Islam.
MR. HUSAIN: Ihsan is the highest way of being Muslim. In other words, manifesting one’s godliness or one’s sense of compassion to fellow humans. Without doubt, I mean, it’s something that one aspires to, but often it’s not something that’s easy to attain, especially in the modern world.
MS. TIPPETT: How do you translate ihsan? I know different people use different English words to translate it.
MR. HUSAIN: Attaining spiritual excellence. That’s just a stab at it. These are spiritual matters and I leave those to masters such as Hamza Yusuf Hanson and T.J. Winter from Cambridge and others. I try not to delve into that (laugh). My fight is with people who want to perverse my faith.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, this is my last question. I mean, as you think about your baby daughter, I mean, do you worry about how you will raise her to bring together her Muslim sensibility, her Muslim faith with her British identity? How do you think you’re going to tackle that?
MR. HUSAIN: I mean, this has been on my mind not just from the moment she was born, but before that. And the community that she will be interacting with is not an easy community to interact with as it stands now. So, for example, when my wife and I named her, we gave her a name that worked in both communities. For example, in Arabic, her name Camilla means someone who’s complete and perfect. Translated into English, Camilla, it also works in English-speaking circles. So it’s those things, you know, so that she feels part of both worlds as I do now and not part of any particular sectarian community. Muslims aren’t a tribal people, where we always have been inherently humane and outward-looking. In recent years, we’ve become inward-looking. And if Camilla can grow up and be an outward-looking, compassionate human being, then I think, you know, 20 or 30 years later, we would be successful in developing a Western Islam that’s progressive, that’s dynamic, that’s at home with its surroundings, and can continue to produce people who are part of both traditions and comfortable in being so.
MS. TIPPETT: Ed Husain lives in London. His book is The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left. It’s not yet published in the United States. Contact us at speakingoffaith.org and let us hear your voice. To make this an hour of radio, we had to cut some interesting discussion about British society and Ed Husain’s sense of what Western cultures need to understand about the radicalized, politicized Islamist mentality. You can download an MP3 of that entire unedited interview through our Web site, podcast or e-mail newsletter and now through our blog, SOF Observed. Also at speakingoffaith.org, find a free six-week discussion outline for your book club, for example, or your congregational study group using Speaking of Faith (the book): Why Religion Matters and How to Talk About It. This emerged from my life and reading and conversations, but it’s really about how we can all begin to speak in a new way about religion and the big questions of our time across predictable divides. Learn more at speakingoffaith.org. The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, with assistance from Anna Marsh. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.