The Islamist – by Ed Husain: Book Review

The Islamist is the story of a young man’s journey in and outside of radical fundamentalist Islamic groups in Britain in the 90s and early 2000s. In this memoir he writes of his youth, college and university years, his time as a graduate working at HSBC, and travels abroad to as a TESOL teacher in Syria and Saudi Arabia before returning to the UK. In The Islamist he provides and insightful, reasoned critique of the political philosophy of radical Islam.

Although his family followed a spiritual form of Islam, Husain was later recruited by a school friend and took on the radical invective of political Islam through associations formed in the notorious East London Mosque, becoming a member of the Young Muslim Organisation UK – The youth movement of the Islamic foundation of the UK, supporters of Jamat-e-Islami, openly calling for the creation of an Islamic state.

Through college, Husain was a leading member of the YMO, campaigning aggressively to build the Islamist group in opposition to the Socialist Workers Party on campus, Husain was central to their undertaking a number of controversial media stunts to build support and media attention.

Later during the Bosnian war, part the partition of the former Yugoslavia, the students on campus railed against the atrocities therin and sought to stop the genocidal war. Against the parochial outlook of the YMO, in it’s exclusive focus over the Indian subcontinent, and its inability or unwillingness to send speakers for students events on these questions, the students began to invite speakers from Hizb-ut-Tahir and other Wahabi groups to the campus. The world view and system of thought in the Hizb were seen to be more comprehensive and wide ranging than the YMO, which led to support for literalist interpretations of the Koran on campus.

Husain being one of those students, he soon changed his organisational commitment, attending private study, building and attending events and canvassing for Hizb.

Through his dedication Husain was soon seen as an active leading member, until a terrible episode of intramural violence on campus led him to reconsider. Combined with rampant organisational hypocrisy, thus began his gradual period of turning away from fanaticism.

“Establishing the Islamic state was more important than minor matters such as praying, reciting the Koran, giving to charity, or being kind to parents or fellow muslims.. .. My life was consumed with fury, inner confusion, a desire to dominate everything, and my abject failure to be a good Muslim. I had started out on this journey ‘wanting more Islam’ and ended up losing its essence.” (148)

Though this is not all, his story is unique. What makes this book special is as a former insider and social sciences student, he was able to study and work through the Hizb’s writings and internal documents, thus in the process of overcoming them he critiqued the political philosophy of the Islamists of its founder, Nabhani. In its ‘original pure Muslim doctrine’ he found it constituted an immense intellectual fraud, and in some cases outright plagiarism.

The prescribed writings of Nabhani borrowed heavily from European political thought, based heavily on the thought of Hegel, Rosseau and Gramsci.

“My new readings of Nabhani’s writings suggested that his conceptual framework of a so called Islamic state was not the continuation of a political entity set up by the prophet, maintained by the caliphs down the ages (however debatable) but in fact Nabhani’s response to the circumstances he encountered: secular modernism” (161)

“Nabhani’s ideas were not innovatory Muslim thinking, but wholly derived from European political thought. In and of itself this was not a negative development. My objection, was and removing, the deception of the Hizb -ut-Tahir in claiming that it was ‘pure in thought’, not influenced by Kufr.” (162)

“Nabhani’s major mistake was to accept an emphasis on the state over other social structures, and then assume that the prophet Mohammed had struggled to establish a political entity. Rather than approach the life of the Prophet in its proper context of seventh-century pagan tribalism, which the Prophet marvellously reversed to the belief in the one god and Abraham. Nabhani saw only the political office of the prophet and have precedence over all else.

In my mind Nabhani had fallen from his pedestal. And with him, all of Hizb Ut-Tahir’s claims to political purity, intellectual superiority, deep thoughts and the dressing up in religious terms of a political agenda born in the 1950s. Islamism became an empty bankrupt ideology”. (164)

Husain then turned away from the Hizb, in what he calls an identity crisis he began a short association with the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB), which he found equally repugnant. In the closed Koran study sessions, it was more of the same.

“Among Islamists I was a ‘brother’. I was not to dispute our unquestioned perceptions: hatred of Jews, Hindus, Americans, Gays, the subordination of women” (171)

Though there was one upside to this brief association, through the ISB he discovered the spiritual Islam of Imam Hamza Yusuf Hanson by chance. A prominent islamic scholar advocating for the resurgence of the spiritual movement of Islam, he held a profound grasp of theological questions, finding support for his positions by quoting heavily from the poetry of the Koran.

This revelation preceded Husain’s return to the spiritual form of Islam, coming a full circle, to the form of Islam practiced in his youth at home. His views were later reinforced by observing devout Sufi Muslims while travelling in Turkey, learning Arabic, his time in the predominantly Muslim societies of Syria and Saudi Arabia as a TESOL teacher, and an avowal of non-violence after seeing violence on campus, 9/11 and the 2005 London Tube attacks.

As a short popular memoir he it could be said he necessarily glosses over some pressing questions of the day that deserve wider investigation and discussion i.e. the promotion of identity politics, the cultivation of nationalism and chauvinism, nor does he account for his personal support for war criminal Tony Blair and the Labour Party. Despite the obvious restrictions of its form it would appear at the time of its writing the Islamist has no answers for the aforementioned.

Despite this Husain achieves his objective and provides a well rounded, thorough critique of Islamism in the UK with references to his experiences as a young man through the 90s and early 2000s. This along with his vignettes of student politics, the inner life of various Islamist groups and his travels abroad, the book is worthy reading. The Islamist is its own small contribution to uniting the working class, overcoming xenophobia and nationalism in a common struggle across race, religion and nationality.

There is some promise in Husain, as he has since gone on to write a short history: ‘The house of Islam: A global history’ published in 2018. The blurb reads:

“Today, Islam is to many in the west an alien force with Muslims held in suspicion. Failure to grasp the inner working of religion and geopolitics has haunted American Foreign policy for decades and has been decisive in the new administration’s controversial orders. The intricacies and shadings must be understood by the West not only to build a stronger, more harmonious relationship between the two cultures, but also for greater accuracy in predictions as to how current crises, such as the growth of ISIS, will develop and from where the next might emerge.”

Perhaps this next instalment as it were will go some way to redressing the foibles and weakness of Husain’s first work?

The Islamist: Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, What i saw inside and why I left
Ed Husain
Penguin books

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