Book Review: The Islamist by Ed Husain

July 06, 2008


Unlike The Reluctant Fundamentalist, The Islamist is a true story, the story of Muhammad Mahbub Husain, who became an Islamic fundamentalist, saw the light and then went back to civil society.

Husain’s main thesis which runs through the entire book as he tells his story is very simple. There are two types of religious Muslims. The ones like his father who are extremely religious, but have the sense to keep their religion private and never let it influence their political views and outlook. And there are others – the fanatics – who believe that Islam is a complete solution which teaches men how to pray, govern themselves, conduct wars, dress, interact with others etc. The second group is much smaller than first group, but is a lot more vicious and has been spoilt by democratic and tolerant Britain.

Democracy, or people’s rule, is anathema to fundamentalist Muslims since only Allah should govern (and the Koran contains Allah’s words and will). Using the democratic institutions they seek to subvert, Fundamentalist Muslims have wreaked havoc within Britain, especially within the Islamic community in their quest for a global Islamic state. Husain calls upon the British authorities to crush the fundamentalists, for the fundamentalists cannot be reformed. Fundamentalists Muslims will always try to subvert democracy and civil society, even if they are allowed to preach and practice their version of Islam. It is incorrect to say that past injustices against Muslims have given rise to Islamic Fundamentalism of the type preached by Omar Bakri, the erstwhile leader of the Hizb-ut-Tahir.

Husain’s book was released in May 2007 at a time when the British government was facing a great of criticism for having invaded Iraq and fuelled the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq and elsewhere. This book was gratefully seized upon by prominent commentators and journalists in the UK as proof that growth in Islamic fundamentalism is not the result of the Iraqi invasion or any British foreign policy mistake.

Husain has a straightforward style which makes his book easy to read. However, Husain’s story is not as straightforward as his style.

Husain claims to have had a happy childhood, surrounded by his doting family and caring teachers. His father came to the UK in 1961 and is an ex-restaurateur. Husain doesn’t tell us what his father did after he stopped running a restaurant. Husain’s family lives in a three storied Victorian terraced house at Limehouse. Young Husain spends a lot of his time with his father’s spiritual guru, Shaik Abdel al Latif, who hailed from Fultholy (is it a place in Bangladesh?) and preached a benign version of Islam. Husain addresses the Shaik as ‘Grandpa’ and learns a lot about Islam from him, an Islam based entirely on piety, devotion to God, love for the Prophet, and which does not try to influence an individual’s politics.

Later his parents move him to the boys-only Stepney Green School, contrary to the advice given by his primary school teachers. He is in a classroom full of boys from Bangladesh who watch Bollywood movies, indulge in gang warfare and have little in common with mainstream Britain. On his own initiative, Husain starts taking extra lessons in religious studies along with another student Falik. It is not very clear why Husain would want to do that. I assume not many 15 and 16 year olds would opt to spend a few extra hours at school learning about religion. But Husain and his friend do exactly that. They start with Gulam Sarwar’s book on Islam which apparently is taught in British schools even now. Gulam Sarwar talks of the political system of Islam. An impressionable Husain is led to believe that religion and politics are one and the same. Islam is a complete way of life. Sarwar tells his readers that currently there is no pure Islamic state, but wants his readers to try and create one.

Husain’s study-mate Falik is a member of the Young Muslims Organisation, the YMO and very soon, before you realise what’s happening, Husain is a YMO member. The YMO is a front organisation for the Jamat-e-Islami, a fundamentalist outfit started by one Abdul Ala Mawdudi. Mawdudi is a man who wanted to create a global Islamic state. The tactic advocated by Mawdudi for doing this is the gradual infiltration of political systems and the takeover of sovereign states, especially in the middle-east.

So, by the age of sixteen, Husain is a full-fledged member of YMO, distributing pamphlets and sticking posters on walls. Husain takes great pains to explain how he had to hide his ideology from his parents, especially his father, who never approved of Mawdudi. Later when his father finds out about Husain’s work for the YMO, he is very angry. Husain actually leaves his parents and lives in a mosque for three nights before his father takes him back, such is his pious father’s hatred for political Islam!

But Husain does not stay with the YMO for long. He switches to the Hizb-ut-Tahir, an even more virulent organisation run by the notorious Omar Bakir. Unlike the Jamat-e-Islami, the Hizb-ut-Tahir advocates a violent overthrow of governments for the establishment of a global Islamic state. By now, Husain is a student at the Tower Hamlets College. They persuade women to wear the hijab, convert non-Muslims to Islam, break up meetings of rivals and aggressively promote their brand of political Islam. Husain’s parents are very upset with Husain, but there is little they can do about his activities. Husain is slightly troubled by the fact that Hizb activists are not spiritual at all. They spend little time in prayer. And when they do, they pray bare-headed. Ordinary rules of Islam don’t seem to apply to them. Husain is troubled with all that, but he stays on as a member, mainly because he likes the idea of a global Islamic state.

Husain meets Faye at the Tower Hamlets College. Husain does not detail the courtship, but we are given to understand that after a period of cold-shouldering by Faye, Husain manages to win her heart. Faye accepts Husain’s marriage proposal, but tells him that the nuptials can take place once after they complete their studies.

One day, things change all of a sudden in Husain’s life. There is a knifing inside the college campus and a Christian Nigerian is murdered by a Hizb activist. In Husain’s own words, ‘that murder – the direct result of the Hizb-ut-Tahir’s ideas, served as a wake-up call for me.’ This is very interesting in that, till then Husain has been working for a global Islamic state, to be achieved by the violent overthrow of sovereign states by military coups and the like. And then, when blood is spilt for the first time, he is distraught. Husain is all of 20 years old when this happens.

Husain’s grades suffer as a result of his Hizb activities. But after he becomes disillusioned with the Hizb-ut-Tahir, he works hard and manages to clear his A levels. Faye and Husain join the University of North London. Husain cuts himself off from the Hizb. But Husain is still not ready for a purely spiritual Islam even though he wants to ‘flush out the Hizb within him’. He joins the Islamic Society of Britain and starts learning Arabic. He hopes that reading the Koran in original Arabic will teach him more about spiritual Islam. But he does not last very long at the ISB which has ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Husain wants to lead a normal life. He votes in the 1997 general elections (for Labour and Tony Blair) despite a Hizb injunction that democratic elections are haram. At the age of 22, he applies to HSBC and gets a job. Within two years, he is managing portfolios worth half a million pounds. But Husain is not very happy with the way the Bank makes its money. Though HSBC does nothing illegal, Husain finds it to be too greedy, not always acting in its clients interests. Money making is given priority, something Husain cannot stomach.

In August 2000, Husain and Faye get married. They go to Turkey for their honeymoon. Husain admires the Sufism he finds in Turkey, but describes Kemal Ataturk a ‘secular fundamentalist’. Clearly, Husain is not in favour of a situation where religion is kept totally private and the separation between the Mosque and the State is absolute.

In the middle of 2001, Husain quits HSBC and downgrades to a clerical job in local government so that he can focus on his Koranic studies. In early 2002, Husain and Faye register themselves for part-time Arabic studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. They make plans to go to Syria to study Arabic. After 2 years in Syria, they move on and go to Saudi Arabia where Husain’s disillusionment with Islamism is complete. Between the time Husain arrives in Damascus and the time he leaves Saudi Arabia to return to England, he is totally transformed. It is as if a genie from Arabian Nights decides to make over Husain so that he is acceptable to mainstream British society. Husain talks of how in Damascus he and Faye start to prefer the company of non-Muslim Britons to other Muslims. Islam can only be a spiritual community, never a political bloc, Husain declares. Husain speaks approvingly of Tony Blair in a couple of places. He is happy when in August 2005, the government prosecutes an array of Islamic organisations. He cannot understand why Arabs hate Jews. The distinction between Zionism and Jews, which many Arabs make, is dismissed. Suicide bombings have only brought misery in Israel and Palestine, Husain emphasises. The flaws and injustices in Arab society, especially in Saudi Arabia, makes Husain open his eyes and realise how wrong he has been all along.

At Damascus, Husain and Faye teach English at the British council, which helps them support themselves. Syria is full of surprises. Husain is shocked to find Syrians travelling to Iraq to fight the coalition troops. Why should there be a Jihad in favour of a military dictator such as Saddam? Husain wonders The Islam practised in Syria is to Husain’s liking. Women have a lot of freedom. Christianity is tolerated. Sufism is widely practised. When Husain spots a couple of Hizb activists at Damascus university, he actually tips off Syrian intelligence. The biggest surprise for Husain is when he realises that there is nothing like a global Muslim community. Regionalism dominates. People question his about his origin. He is brown skinned and can’t be an European. He is not Arab. So what is he? He can’t be just a Muslim. The Syrian’s hate the Turks who once ruled over Syria. Syria and Egypt had once formed a single country – the United Arab Republic, which hadn’t lasted very long.

In Saudi Arabia, racism is rampant, but luckily, Husain is able to pass for an Arab since he can speak good Arabic. Black Muslims are treated like dirt. Foreigners can never become Saudi citizens. Most Saudi men are lecherous and nasty towards women. Students at the British Council download pornography from the computers there, something not possible outside the British council. Many Saudis support Osama bin Laden, condone attacks on western targets and hate Israel. Husain quite rightly blames the policy of segregation practiced in Saudi Arabia for this state of Saudi society. At Mecca, the Wahhabi guards are abusive. They are unable to make a distinction between worshipping the Prophet (which is forbidden) and showing love for the Prophet, as a result of which they kick anyone who as much as bows at the Prophet’s tomb.

When Husain returns to the UK, he starts missing Arab society. He is not entirely happy with the state of British society. How does one integrate into a society where the pub is the centre of all social life? Husain wonders. Not for Husain a society where he is forced to hide all traces of his religion as is done in Turkey or one where, even an iota of spirituality is treated with contempt, as in the UK.

Husain ends on a positive note. Each country has its version of Islam. Husain definitely approves of the milder versions practised in Malaysia and Syria and hopes that a British version of Islam will evolve soon.

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Husain when one finishes the book. However, I will not be surprised if Husain writes another book where he talks of how disenchanted he is with a writer’s life, how the publishing world is full of hypocrites and how he looks forward to a world where writers get published and sell their books without any hype or unnecessary marketing and publicity.

Vinod Joseph is a lawyer based in the UK. When Vinod gets some free time, which is not very often, he likes to write. When he is not in the write frame of mind, he reads. Vinod’s first novel Hitchhiker was published by Books for Change in December 2005. Vinod blogs at
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