The Islamist

by Mary Jackson (Dec. 2007)

A few months ago Ed Husain, the Islamist – or rather the ex-Islamist – was never out of the news. To see what the fuss was about, I read his much-praised book The Islamist, in which he describes his involvement with Hizb ut Tahrir and other “extremist” or “Islamist” organisations, his rejection of their doctrines and his intention to promote “moderate Islam”.


I was less than impressed by the book, and I am not inclined to remove any of the inverted commas in my first paragraph.


Before I go any further, I must admit to a prejudice. If a new book by a young, photogenic member of an ethnic minority is praised to the skies, I generally assume that it is overrated, a rule that has served me well in avoiding disappointment. If that person has changed his or her name in a pretentious or affected way – Mohammed to “Ed”, Sadie (Smith) to “Zadie” – my dislike is compounded. That said, if the book is good, like Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, I can overcome my prejudice. But this book wasn’t.


Husain’s journey from a moderate, personal, “spiritual” form of Islam into political “Islamism” was very believable. Students often drift into radical, extremist politics, and for someone who is already a nominal Muslim, Hizb ut Tahrir, rather than the Communist Party, is a natural choice.


Much of the book is taken up with explaining the various “Islamist” parties, groups and groupuscules – useful information as far as it goes. One is reminded, however, of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which the People’s Front of Judea is pitted against the Judean People’s Front and the Judean Popular front. Sects, sects, sects, as a character in that film cries – it’s all he thinks about.


The problem is that the sects all say pretty much the same thing. And it’s all in the Koran, the Hadith and the Sira. And this is where Husain’s account falls down. The sects and groups he now claims to reject can back up their claims to be the true Islam. Husain is “horrified” to learn that these groups and parties divide the world into Believers and Infidels, segregate the sexes, allow killing of non-Muslims, demand world domination and treat Jews and Christians as second class citizens. Yet this is mainstream Islamic doctrine. And the moderate Muslims? As a fond mother said of her son as he and his platoon marched past, they are the only ones marching in step.


Husain trumpets his embrace of moderate Islam. We are supposed to praise him for this, as the newspapers and television have done. But what exactly is moderate Islam? Husain doesn’t explain; he merely says what it is not, but fails – and must fail – to prove that the beliefs he has previously embraced are not Islam.


Is he sincere? Possibly, but sincerity is not enough. He has not confronted those tenets of Islam that have wreaked havoc on this earth for the past fourteen hundred years. If he genuinely believes that it is wrong to hate and kill Infidels, why continue to hold to Islam? Why not give up the religion altogether, or at least try to reform it?


Husain ducks out of this question by means of the term “Islamism”, which he claims is an aggressive, political version of Islam, distinct from Islam itself. But can that one suffix,  that –ism, do so much work? Charles Moore, writing in the Telegraph, thinks – or rather hopes – that it can:

“The main Muslim bodies, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, get very annoyed when people speak of ‘Islamic terrorism’ or even (a better phrase, because it draws attention to the fact that the terrorism is inspired by a version of Islam rather than by all Islam) ‘Islamist terrorism’.”

Hugh Fitzgerald comments:

If there exists a version of the Qur’an, or a collection of the Hadith judged by Muslims to be as reliable as those of Bukhari and Muslim, or a Muslim life of Muhammad, different from all those that have heretofore appeared, that do not insist that Jihad to spread Islam until it everywhere dominates, that leaves out all the injunctions to fight the Infidels, to strike terror in their hearts, and so on — then Charles Moore should produce them. But if he cannot, he should instead consider carefully what it means to put one’s hopes on the existence of an “Islam” different from what he calls, and perhaps too fondly believes exists, “Islamism.”

As Ibn Warraq said, there are moderate Muslims but there is no moderate Islam. A distinction should be made, not between fundamentalist and moderate Islam, nor between Islam and “Islamism”, but between Islam the ideology  and Muslims the people. Muslims may or may not practise Islam. To the extent that they practise it, they are a danger to society. If they do not practise it, or practise only certain rituals, but do not renounce it, the true Islam remains intact for the next generation to discover.


Why should we pay heed to the writings of Ed Husain, rather than those of Ibn Warraq, Hugh Fitzgerald or William St. Clair Tisdall? Does the voice of youth have any particular insights to offer? Judge for yourself – here is Husain on Christianity, to which he has given “much thought”:

I gave much thought to Christianity. Since my birthday is on Christmas Day, I have always felt a certain empathy with Jesus. But in my mind, if there was a God out there, God did not have children. And certainly man did not, could not, become God. And the idea of the Trinity, despite my many attempts to understand it, always seemed incredible to me.


C. S. Lewis’ comment about “the man with the old pair of field glasses setting out to put all the real astronomers right” is almost too charitable. And another observation of Lewis – “it is the simple religions that are the made-up ones” – springs to mind.


We cannot, then, expect great insights into religious doctrine from Husain, but what about the politics of religion? Opposed as he is to political Islam, Husain should have something to say about the abuse of religion for political ends. And so he has. In a Guardian article, he amplifies sentiments expressed in his book, alleging equivalence between Islamism and Zionism:

Zionism and Islamism are both political perversions of ancient Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Islam…. Disregard for the sanctity of human life is a hallmark of both Zionism and Islamism…Just as Israel is an expansionist state which remains in occupation of the Golan Heights, Islamists plan for a state that would have an occupying army to support ever-expanding borders Just as Zionists claim territory based on notions of “Jewish land” and God-given rights, Islamists wish to reconquer India and Spain as “Muslim land”, once ruled by Muslim monarchs…Zionists have achieved their state; Islamists are busy trying out every conceivable option to bring their dream Zion to fruition. For centuries, Jewish people said “Next year in Jerusalem”, and for decades for now, Islamists have been repeating “Caliphate by next Ramadan.”Behind every single world event, from the Holocaust to 9/11, Arab Islamists blamed a global Zionist conspiracy. Similarly, in Jewish circles, Zionists from Binyamin Netanyahu to Daniel Pipes have made careers out of lambasting Islamists. But are Islamists and Zionists really all that different, despite their blatant enmity? I think not.


Well, for one thing, I’m not worried about a Zionist blowing himself up and killing me next time I use the underground. Nor is it any part of Zionist doctrine to divide the world into Zionists and non-Zionists and convert, kill or subjugate the latter. Husain’s remarks are at best ignorant, and at worst plain anti-Semitic. Commenting on this article, Andrew Bostom says: “Ed Husain has merely exchanged his turban for the more acceptable Islamic Antisemitism/Anti-Zionism expressed at Durban.” Bostom has a point. Israel is a litmus test for deciding whether a reformer of Islam should be taken seriously. Husain, with his culpable, wilful ignorance of Israel’s history and his farcical equation of a desire for a homeland not much bigger than Wales and a desire for world domination, has failed spectacularly.

Recently, Husain has been fêted, not just by The Guardian and wishful thinking members of the public, but by those who should know better: Douglas Murray and Melanie Phillips. Fame is going to his head, and his guard may be slipping. In the last week of November, he wrote another article in The Guardian, announcing, in effect, that Islam may not be criticised, and if we do criticise it we may fuel Muslim extremism, a remarkably combustible material:

When ex-Muslims such as Hirsi Ali ignore the nuances, complexities, and plurality inherent within Islam and allow the actions of a minority of Wahhabite-Islamists to speak for a billion Muslims, then she plays into the hands of extremists and allows their discourse to dominate one of the great faiths of our world. Worse, it creates a public space in which attacking all Muslims and Islam becomes acceptable, even fashionable. Demonising Europe’s second largest minority helps nobody. No good can come of ratcheting up the prejudice against them. Yes, identify and combat extremists and in that fight you will find orthodox Muslims as partners. But continue to attack with ignorance, spite and hatred our history, our prophet, our scriptures, our scholars: then you confirm the al-Qaida narrative of a war against Islam. No, there is no moral equivalence between Bin Laden’s murderous worldview and his critics. But a damage is being done that may take generations to repair.

It’s all our fault, you see. Robert Spencer dissects Husain’s article in detail here, commenting in direct response to the veiled threat just quoted:

When Muslims such as Ed Husain ignore the deep scriptural, theological and legal foundations of Islamic violence and supremacism, rather than acknowledging those foundations and calling for reform and reinterpretation of those aspects of Islam, then he plays into the hands of extremists and allows their discourse to dominate one of the great faiths of our world. For it will continue to dominate as long as it goes unchallenged, and Ed Husain and others like him hinder genuine reform by attacking those who are trying to call attention to these aspects.

Husain is by no means alone in his ignorance about Israel and his reflexive blaming of Israel and Western critics for Islam’s ills. Nor is he alone in his failure to confront Islam’s failings and to subject the Koran, Hadith and Sira to critical scrutiny. Sadly, his opinions are all too commonplace, no worse than those of many non-Muslims. But if he is nothing special, why should we listen to him and praise him? Why should we believe that he can do for Islam what so many have failed to do? He has been on a journey, from Islam-lite to Islam and back. He no longer associates with those who advocate violence. So what? Must we be grateful?  

Christians and post-Christians warm to “the sinner who repenteth”. It seems unchristian to reject him. But tempting as it is to see Husain as a prodigal son, I think we should hold off killing the fatted calf and save it for the apostates. With the proceeds of his book, his Guardian columns and television appearances, Husain can afford a herd of his own. Pickings are slimmer for Ibn Warraq, Wafa Sultan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ali Sina. 

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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome. 


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