The Pathology of Faith
The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left
By Ed Hussain (Allan Lane / The Penguin Press 288pp £8.99)
Ed Husain begins one of the chapters of The Islamist with a quotation from Syed Qutb, the chief intellectual founder of Islamism, outlining the purpose of Qutb's most influential book: 'I have written Milestones for this vanguard of Islamists which I consider to be a waiting reality about to be realised.' Qutb's use of the concept of the vanguard reveals one of the paradoxes of political Islam: a movement that is avowedly anti-secular, anti-modern and anti-Western, it has been profoundly shaped by modern Western secular ideologies. The idea of a revolutionary elite dedicated to leading the deluded masses to a perfect society is a borrowing from Lenin and the Jacobins rather than anything derived from Islamic theology, and - though the fact is rarely noted - the type of terrorism with which Islamist movements are most often identified originates not in the twelfth-century Assassins but with a present-day Leninist party. Suicide bombing is a technique that was pioneered and developed by the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist-Leninist organisation that until the Iraq war had committed more such attacks than any other single group. For all its talk of reviving a mediaeval caliphate, Islamism owes large debts to the European revolutionary tradition, and despite its tabloid description as Islamo-fascism radical Islam is better described as Islamo-Leninism.
Nearly all media commentary accepts Islamism at face value and endorses its self-image as the mortal enemy of the modern West. In contrast, Ed Husain, who has the penetrating insight of a former insider, is clear that this is the opposite of the truth. The idea of a pure Islamic state, he writes, is 'not the continuation of a political entity set up by the Prophet, maintained by the caliphs down the ages (however debatable)'. Rather, it is a response to secular modernity. It is striking how much Islamists have taken from Western thinkers who rejected traditional religions in order to promote surrogate political faiths. Husain shows how Taqi Nabhani, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who left to found the more radical Islamist organisation Hizb-ut Tahrir that Husain joined in his late teens, was much influenced by Hegel and Marx, while Nabhani's contempt for liberal democracy echoed that of Rousseau. 'Nabhani's ideas', Husain concludes, 'were not innovatory Muslim thinking but wholly derived from European political thought.' He might have examined other, more contemporary examples: for example, Ali Sharati, the predecessor of Ayatollah Khomeini as leader of Iranian Islamists in exile during the reign of the Shah, took his conception of martyrdom as a type of chosen death from Martin Heidegger, who for a time saw himself as the philosopher of the Third Reich. Rather than recovering Islamic tradition Islamist thinking has been shaped by the Western ideologues who - whether they realised it or not - supplied the intellectual armoury of twentieth-century totalitarianism.
A uniquely well-informed guide to the netherworld of British Islamism, Husain illuminates its many similarities with the Western-inspired revolutionary movements that wreaked such havoc in the twentieth century. All the telltale signs of totalitarian thinking were present in the Islamists with whom he worked. They believed Zionist agents staffed the management of Tower Hamlets College where Husain moved to do his A levels after beginning his drift to Islamism at Stepney Green, an all-Muslim boys' school. In the prayer room at Tower Hamlets there was talk of a 'gay-Jewish conspiracy' to undermine Islamist efforts. Husain was inducted into a culture of secrecy - familiar to anyone who knows the workings of communist and Trotskyist parties - which aimed at penetrating other organisations (including George Galloway's Respect party) and using them as front organisations. Like movements of the far left in the past the Islamists were riddled with bitter internal conflicts. But in the eyes of the world they struggled to maintain a united front, and as Husain observes they did have one thing in common: 'we all despised traditional Islam'. Far from being an attempt to return to mediaeval conditions, Islamism is a prototypically modern ideology. A by-product of the dislocations of globalisation, it aspires to a new universal identity based on rejection of the past.
For Husain, during his period as a part of the self-styled vanguard of radical Islam, rejecting the past meant repudiating his family, and The Islamist is as much a memoir of personal struggle and inner growth as it is a report on a new type of extremism. Rebelling against his father (a pious Muslim appalled by his son's attachment to radical Islam), Husain came to see the easy-going pluralism of Britain today as a form of decadence. Under the influence first of a school textbook that emphasised Islam's incompatibility with secular politics and then of a friend with links with the radical East London mosque, he began to view himself as a jihadist committed to the violent overthrow of Western governments. It was as much the cruelty as the unreality of this vision that triggered Husain's disillusionment. Traumatised by the murder of a Christian fellow student and horrified by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he explored the subtle spirituality of the Sufi mystical tradition. Coming into contact with more scholarly and orthodox Islamic thinkers, he found an incomparably more humane version of his religion than that promoted by Islamists. From his confusion - which he recounts with fearless candour - he achieved a sense of spiritual purpose, which rather than alienating him from British society enabled him to appreciate its virtues.
The Islamist is first and foremost a riveting personal narrative, but it also carries a powerful and - for some - unfashionable message. Particularly among the new army of evangelical atheists, there will be those who see his story as another proof of the evils of faith schools and of religion in general. Yet Husain did not finally sever his links with Islamism by becoming a militant atheist and converting to an Enlightenment faith in humanity - as secular fundamentalists urge. He did so by rediscovering what he describes as 'classical, traditional Islam', which includes Sufi mysticism. At the same time as he rejected the pathological hostility of Islamists to the West he returned to a tradition that had not been deformed by Western political religion. Islamism is a real threat to peace and freedom in Britain just as it is in Muslim countries. But it is such a threat in virtue of what it has in common with creeds such as Leninism, from which it largely derives. Aside from all its social and geopolitical causes Islamism is at bottom an expression of the pathology of faith, and it will not be cured by another dose of the secular ideology it so faithfully mirrors.