Wednesday, 21 January 2009

"The Islamist", A Review

I read Ed Husain's book on Islamism in Britain at a particularly interesting time. The Israeli attack on Gaza had just ceased, and Husain's anti-Islamist think-tank has just been awarded a million pounds of government money. So what insights exactly are we paying for?

Husain's story begins in the East End of London during the Balkan Wars. Against the will of their parents, young Muslim men and women are creating radical Islamist groups fuelled by their frustration at massacres of Muslims in Bosnia. These groups, it turns out, are based on fantasies comparable to old Communist Party fantasies about the Soviet Union. Bearers of "true Islam" emanating from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan all come to London and find small crowds of Britons willing to listen to their messages and give their political backing to varying utopian visions of the Islamic state.

Husain's picture of the East End is worth noting. The only people willing to listen to and engage with angsty teenage Muslims are political Islamist or Trotskyite groups. The Socialist Workers Party pops up again and again as the only part of the scenery able and willing to challenge political Islamism by providing other solutions. As Husain's dad rages when he finds his son involved in extremist politics, "If you want politics, join the Labour Party", but apart from canvassing at election times, they aren't there.

One particularly appealing aspect of his analysis is an ongoing narrative about the history of different political Islamist factions. They are often based around particular ethnicities, but they have histories of splits and infighting to rival the British far-left: like the British far-left, they have developed their own political language and there is always a jockeying for position as different groups try to benefit from different issues by provocative grandstanding. But this world is a far tinier one than the British far-left. Husain knew the 7/7 bombers and knew most of the other active political Islamists in London at that time.

When he decides to split with the movement and teach English in Syria and then Saudi Arabia, the book changes noticeably in register, tone and opinion. Syria appears in the book as a good place to be: a place visited by British wannabe political Islamists who find that the locals don't really share their enthusiasm for jihad. Saudi Arabia, however, is a different story. The Saudis fund one of the three main strands of British Islamism highlighted in the book, but Husain's visit leads him to realise just how much of the liberal political atmosphere in Britain he has taken for granted. It also leads to several instances of more-than-casual racism, where Husain (himself a Bengali) damns the idea of an Islamic state because "[t]he racist reality of the Arab psyche would never accept black and white people as equal".

Ultimately the picture Husain paints is of a Britain where some young Muslims have created a political movement out of frustration and angst, have found funding from external sources to be no problem at all, and have created Leninist organisations mimicking the Trotskyites they competed with (a note here: Husain calls Hizb ut-Tahrir a "cell" organisation, but it has a clear hierarchy as described elsewhere in the book). Since many of these are gang-like (Hizb was certainly gang-like when it was still at SOAS) you get competition for turf. There is secrecy and hatred stirred up at non-Muslims ("kuffars") and attempts at creating 'party lines' so that all members know which lines to say and when. A surprising amount of "Islamic" material turns out to be Marx, Rousseau, Nietzche and Heidegger in disguise.

As history turns full circle, we need to show that it isn't only politicised Muslims who care about the slaughter of Muslims in Gaza. Husain gives his befriending of a self-described "liberal" American girl as his turning-point away from extremism. Bosnia radicalised him: Gaza may have radicalised thousands more, but it is only because Muslims felt alone in opposing the Bosnian killings that radicalisation felt like a reasonable option. I wonder what this foundation will do to prevent that.

Update: Better informed opinions can be found here and here.

No comments: