Monday, 21 May 2007

A couple of reflections on The Islamist

I've just finished reading Ed Husain's The Islamist. The book has already received plenty of attention in the media and the blogosphere and I've mentioned it myself on a few occasions, but here are a couple of additional reflections.

Husain's early chapters, in which he describes disowning his parents' mild-mannered spiritual Islam for a succession of increasingly extreme Islamist groups, reminded me eerily of my own mis-spent evangelical Christian youth. There were many parallels: the attitude of callow superiority towards the faith of one's parents and elders, the continuous, restless search for more 'authentic' forms of belief (in my case, the charismatic movement), which of course involved looking down on the faction you'd just left, and the peculiar energy and rage that derives from repressed youthful (usually male) sexuality.

Of course, there was one key difference. Our prayer groups may have been annoyingly intense , but we had no interest in politics (that was all far too 'worldly') and certainly no thoughts about creating, or reviving, a Christian political order. To find a parallel to one of Husain's Islamist groupings, you would have had to cross-fertilise our school Christian Union, or charismatic house group, with the grubby band of International Socialists (this was the 1970s) who sold papers in the town centre on Saturdays.

On another issue: Husain's book is a powerful argument in favour of an open, plural and secular society, all the more powerful because its author is still a practising Muslim. His disillusioned account of life in theocratic Saudi Arabia should be read by all who yearn for a fusion of religion and the state. And looking back on his youthful experience of battling the authorities at his London further education college on behalf of Islamism, Husain is clear now about the secular values that allowed him the freedom to do so. Having described in lurid terms the casual antisemitism and homophobia in evidence at an event organised by the college Islamic Society, he goes on:

The following week the management commitee went to great lengths to drum into the Muslim students at college that homophobia, a new word for us, would not be tolerated. Homophobia and sexism, just like racism, were disciplinary offences. We, however, failed to understand that the secular liberal ideals that allowed Muslims to congregate at college in Britain were the very same ideals that tolerated homosexuality. It was secularism that allowed Muslims to build mosques, worship freely, and live in harmony - not Christianity. But my appreciation of secularism came only later in life; for now, we had Jews and gays to battle.

Those religious commentators who rail against secularism should take note. I agree with David Aaronovitch that The Islamist should be required reading for those, including Church of England bishops, whose efforts to 'understand' the roots of fundamentalist terror often lead them into positions of frightening naivety. Aaronovitch quotes Ed Husain's statement that Hizb ut-Tahrir, the most extreme of the factions with which he was involved, 'would argue that every British Muslim difficulty, from terrorism to poor community relations, was the result of British foreign policy', and notes that a recent Church of England report on global security appears naively to parrot this line. He cites evidence from Husain's book that it was events in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir that fired the righteous anger of his fellow-Islamists and comments: 'If there’s a common theme, it is the total absence of British foreign policy.'

Aaronovitch wonders why the bishops just don't get all of this and speculates that 'at a time of struggle with atheists' there 'may be a lack of willingness to confront the implacable nature of an ideology embarrassingly based on faith'.

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