This book has courted controversy in all quarters. It’s not hard to see why – read some of the different reviews linked here (which range from secular adulation to inevitable Islamist repudiation, via moderate Muslim dissatisfaction). The important thing is that it is a personal memoir by someone who escaped Islamist fanaticism by being drawn to the more individually ‘spiritual’ world of Sufism. He had been sucked in as an impressionable and rebellious teenager, only to see the error of his ways as acquaintances from Hizb ut-Tahrir were involved in the murder of a non-Muslim undergraduate.
As critics have therefore frequently noted (including this one from Hizb ut-Tahrir themselves), this makes for an inevitably partial and subjective account of developments from 15 years ago in London’s East End. It does not necessarily describe today’s realities. But that is to miss the point – not least because, while there may be various inaccuracies, this book helps one to understand the mental journey that leads people to descend into barbaric inhumanity. More than anything else I have read (which, frankly, is not very much at all), this has given insight and awareness to what has clearly been going on in significant quarters of Britain’s Muslim communities. It is about psyche and worldview, motivation and attitude. And as such, it has made me pause. Well, stopped me in my tracks, to be more precise. From 3 perspectives, really: as a human being; Briton; Christian.
reflections from a fellow Human Being
Ed Husain (picture courtesy of Penguin Press) seems like an approachable chap. And I’ve no doubt that writing this book took guts, since he more than many knew the sorts of reactions it would provoke (he has inevitably received death threats – which in itself seems to prove something about how little has perhaps changed since ‘his day’). But it is also Husain’s humanity that permeates the book. Human life matters – always. And it doesn’t matter whether that life is Muslim, Christian, Communist, prostitute, politician or terrorist. Life matters. Full stop. And that is what makes his frequent accounts of pervading attitudes within some extremist quarters so chilling. Even more chilling is when some of these quarters are heralded as moderate spokesmen for the British Muslim community and end up on Channel 4 news. The reluctance of some famous names to reject the fatwa on Salman Rushdie (however heinous his crime might have been) seems to be a case in point. If that’s moderate, well…
Of course, people are usually quick to point out that there are Christians who appear to speak in similar terms, even if jihad isn’t exactly part of their vocabulary. So what?! I would disagree with such positions as well! Despite having friends who are of a more dispensationalist predisposition, I find some of the pre-mill / Christian Zionist / Armageddon rhetoric very difficult to stomach as well. Surely wenever winlives round to the truth by taking lives? It merely generates fear and a kowtowed resignation. Surely the truth stands unaided on its own two feet?
Husain describes how 9/11 exposed his own latent Islamist views, despite his own shifts in view:
Even though I had accepted Sufi Islam, and consciously tried to decontaminate my mind, there were still aspects of Islamist political strategies that I thought of as ‘normal’: an acceptance of terrorism, an unconscious belief that those who ‘opposed Islam’ were somehow less than human and thus expendable in the Islamist pursuit of political domination over palm and pine. (The Islamist, p202)
Scary also, are his findings on a return visit to the bookshop at East London Mosque in Whitechapel (a place that had played a role in his teenage years) in 2006.
At the bookshop, I bought an updated copy of Qutb’s Milestones, published not in Riyadh but in Birmingham, England, in early 2006. It contains lengthy articles in the appendices from leading Wahhabis, chapter headings such as ‘The Virtues of Killing a Non-Believer’, and ideas such as ‘Attacking the non-believers in their territories is a collective and individual duty.’ Just as I had done as a sixteen-year-old, hundreds of young Muslims are buying these books from Islamist mosques in Britain and imbibing the idea that killing non-believers is not only acceptable, but the duty of a good Muslim. I showed the passages to a Muslim friend that evening and we shook our heads in disgust. From such messages are suicide bombers born. (The Islamist, p280)
One of the most poignant paragraphs was his note about the timing of the London 7/7 bombings – how ironic that they occurred precisely the same time as the Gleneagles G8 summit in Scotland which was debating issues of African poverty, Third World Debt Relief and Fair Trade (at the instigation of the likes of Blair, Bono & Geldof).
The fact that hundreds of children die in Africa every day would be of no relevance for a committed Islamist. In the extremist mind, the plight of the tiny Palestinian nation is more important than the deaths of millions of black Africans. Who in the Arab world cares that some 6000 people die each day in Africa from AIDS? Let them die, they’re not Muslims, would be the unspoken line of argument. As an Islamist, it was only the suffering of Muslims that had moved me, that provoked a reaction. Now, human suffering mattered to me, regardless of religion. (The Islamist, p256-7)
Amen to that. Isn’t that one of the lessons of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan?
reflections of a fellow Briton
The 7/7 bombings went off in a sort of ring around where we now live – on the day before we returned to London from 4 years in Uganda. I’ll never forget, watching the news in Entebbe, thinking that we had to be mad to be returning to London – Kampala was a far safer place to live. Husain and his wife Faye were actually watching the same reports while working for the British Council andliving in Saudi Arabia, just a few days before their return to Britain. Like many ex-pats, being abroad made them feel more British. When in England he felt more Muslim. And yet London is his birthplace and home. Now, such tensions between faith and nationality are not unique. But his experiences of the quality of life in Saudi for Muslims, let alone non-Muslims, is certainly chilling (and they chime with plenty of other accounts) and the grass in Britain was made to look far greener.
Husain has been accused by some of being a Labour stooge for Blairite multiculturalism – and he certainly makes no secret of his political affiliations – especially because to play a part in the democratic process is regarded with deep suspicion if not hostility by key Islamist elements. This is not to say that he gives British society a clean bill of health – with its culture of ASBOs, high abortion rates, addictions, city centre pub crawls and happy slappers. I don’t know anyone who thinks that these anything but grounds for real shame. But what is clear that many people in the Islamist movements are quite prepared to bite the hand that feeds them: they take advantage of Britain’s freedoms and safety nets when they want to preach their ‘concepts’ or need protection or consular support when languishing in Middle Eastern jails. They’re wanted men in Syria or Egypt but free to hold fort in this country. Husain is understandably astonished by this – whether outright banning will achieve anything, I’ve no idea – but he is certainly highly (and rightly) critical of political correct spinelessness and a plain old fear of standing up to things. For tolerance of ideas MUST have boundaries (as the PC brigade are only too quick to mention when it comes to orthodox Christianity – they just can’t bring themselves to do it for Islam as well).
One of the things that most struck me was that many of the places mentioned in the East End are familiar, especially because my wife trained as a nurse-midwife at the London Hospital. Meeting rooms at the hospital itself as well as houses and streets around (including one or two where Rachel actually lived) were places where rabbles were roused, and at some points, weapons were stashed. We drive past the East London mosque very regularly. So this is not some far off conflict – this is on the streets of my home town, by people who share the same passport as me. As a British non-Muslim, i’m only grateful that people like Husain are willing to speak his mind.
reflections from a Christian friend
But I suppose I should say something about all this from a Christian perspective. There is much to admire and respect in this book. I was impressed by Husain’s honesty, charm and humility. And I certainly wouldn’t expect an apologia for why he is not a Christian – that would be absurd. Still there were a few moments where I was frustrated by the grounds for his rejection of the gospel (those old chestnuts of difficulties in understanding the Trinity, and of the apostle Paul’s so-called invention of Christology). But there is no hostility or aggression to his arguments, and he admits a curiosity about Jesus having been born on Christmas Day as well as a respect for other ‘people of the book’. Such aggression belongs to the attitudes of the Wahhabist/Islamist world from which he has escaped.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help spot a number of uncomfortable parallels with extremes of Christianity. And that is surely something to learn from?
Activism without piety – it was when Husain began to appreciate his total lack of spiritual vitality that he realised that his entire lifestyle revolved around a political agenda (largely but unconsciously derived from Marxism and western enlightenment philosophy and not ‘pure’ Islamic state or caliphate at all- oh ironyof ironies!!). And that agenda was power and domination. How easy it is for us all to slide into such an attitude – both of activism and power-hunger. How elements of the US Christian right appear to have missed something here perhaps. But would we be prepared to learn lessons from an ex-Islamist who has learned the error of his ways?
Faith without context – Husain’s shift was in part the result of the discovery of the importance of culture. We are shaped by our cultural and historical contexts so much – and this is especially the case with those who claim to be able to restore a ‘pure’ form of belief system. Particularly telling were his discoveries that the hijab/veil originated and still are found amongst Arab Christians – there is nothing intrinsically Islamic about them. He also discovered first hand the dangers of selling one’s soul to the thought of one or two charismatic leaders as if they themselves were not the products of their age. Likewise, it would be foolish for Christians to think that Luther or Calvin had it all sussed. As a Christian I would say they are only ever right insofar as they are faithful to the ancient faith in the scriptures.
Devotion without grace – and this is the clinching difference between us, in the end. For all Husain’s piety and impressive dedication to rid himself of pride, in the end my fear is that it is beyond him. It is Pharisaic works righteousness of a classic kind. What we need is not law-keeping, but grace. And in the end, that is what Jesus brings. That is the good news of the gospel!