The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left, by Ed Husain (Penguin Books, 304 pp., £8.99)
The author of this memoir is a young man of Bangladeshi descent, born and brought up in London’s East End. He went to elementary school with a mixed population and got on very well there, his teacher making unobtrusive efforts to introduce him to English culture. Unfortunately, when he left for high school, his father insisted that he go to a boys-only school, and the only one within range was among the worst in England. Gang warfare was endemic; a wing of the school burned down in an arson attack; an African teacher lost his job for incompetence, and held demonstrations outside the school calling for his reinstatement, until the police had to mount guard to prevent violence. This was not an atmosphere in which a studious and intelligent young boy such as the author could flourish.
His father was a pious Muslim, of the quietist variety. He did not approve of political Islam, and believed his religion offered both a guide to good conduct and a consolation for the sorrows of human existence. There was a strong mystical component to it; not for him the Islamist nostrums of Sayyid Qutb or Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, obsessed as they were with the current political, economic, and social backwardness of the Muslim world. He despised and hated Islamism, regarding it as virtually heretical.
At 16, having felt socially isolated at school because he wanted no part of gang or popular culture, the author began his adolescent revolt. He fell in with Islamists at the East London Mosque, who were much frowned upon not only by his father, but also by the congregation of the Brick Lane Mosque (once a Huguenot church, then a synagogue, and now a mosque, reflecting the successive waves of immigration into the East End over the last three centuries), which the author had previously attended.
The East London Mosque was the scene of struggles, sometimes violent, between various Islamist factions, whose adherents were all young men. They disagreed over such matters as whether it was permissible to take part in the British political system, and whether the best tactics were mass preaching or the establishment of an Islamist conspiratorial vanguard. The parallels with the history of communism are striking. Like Marxists, Islamists also believe that a state of affairs can come about—if only one follows the correct prescription—in which all human problems as we have known them will disappear.
As is often the way with young men who join cults, absorption into the world of the Islamists answered some of the author’s personal problems—his need for friends, for example, and for a sense of transcendent purpose. Alienation from his parents only confirmed his view that he was taking a courageous path.
The author attended a college in the East End, and became the leader of its Islamist students. With immense energy, he organized activities and meetings, arguing against opponents with the single-minded ferocity known only to those in thrall to an ideology. He and his associates managed—without much difficulty—to intimidate and bully the college authorities into providing a prayer room for Muslims, though the college was avowedly secular. The authorities were, however, powerless to resist because they were uncritical adherents of multicultural pieties. (By contrast, the dean of the medical school where I used to teach told me that Islamists had approached him, demanding a prayer room, to which he acceded on the condition Christians and Jews could use the room on the same terms—whereupon the demand was withdrawn and never heard again.)
After a few years, the author grew disenchanted with Islamism. This, too, is not uncommon among cult adherents as they mature. The incident that spurred his break was the murder of one Islamist by another. But he was already tired of the endless squabbling of the Islamists and their habit of regarding all people of different opinions as inferior beings, to whom one owed no decency.
He resumed his education, graduated from school, and soon found an excellent job in a bank, with prospects for rapid advancement (so much for the notion that the cause of Islamism in Britain is a lack of economic opportunity). However, he was not cut out for life in the bank, and decided to study history at university, at the same time returning to his father’s more contemplative form of Islam. This impelled him to learn Arabic, which he studied in Damascus for two years with apolitical Sufi scholars. His mastery of Arabic helped him find employment in the British Council in Saudi Arabia. His experiences in that country—the gross and grotesque disparities of wealth, the cruel maltreatment of racial minorities, the lack of freedom, the oppression of women, the ignorance and superstition—finally convinced him that a secular democracy such as Britain’s was not without many virtues.
The author retains his Islamic faith, however; he believes that it is compatible with democracy and that its message is essentially one of peace. I am glad that he believes so, for it means that there is one fanatic less. However, his view is largely wishful thinking, however decent and honorable the wish may be, and can be held only by ignoring the contrary evidence. Islam expanded by force, and with a great deal of slaughter; much in the Koran enjoins and extols violence; Islam, whether Sunni or Shia, has still not learned how to coexist as an equal with other religions when it has the upper hand, for reasons having to do with doctrine itself; apostasy is still not permitted.
The author lets us see from the inside what combination of circumstances can produce a fanatic in a society such as Britain’s. If even as decent a person as he can be lured into fanaticism, there is much to worry about. Personal angst and sociological structure are not sufficient to explain his trajectory: an ideological ingredient was necessary. And that ideological ingredient was ready to hand: plausibly, if not indubitably, inevitably, or invariantly, derived from Islam.
One small point, not without interest: the Ed of the author’s name is short for Mohammed, not Edward. It is a sign of his attempt to integrate his complex social and cultural identity.