Interview with A Militant
A Young British Muslim Turns From Violence, and Struggles to Explain the Roots of Extremism; Christian Cummins Speaks to Author Ed Husain
Why do young European Muslims become extremists? That’s a question Ed Husain thinks he is very qualified to answer. For several years, he claims, he was a committed member of one of Britain’s most extreme Islamist movements - a group called Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Every week the young Husain discussed inflammatory political materials in secret meetings. He and his colleagues dreamed of Jihad, fantasizing about revenge for the perceived humiliations Muslims had suffered across the globe. Until, one day, words turned to action, and he lost his appetite for extremism.
Husain became disgusted when a murder was committed on his college campus. He realized the killing was a result of the sort of ideas that his group was advocating.
"It was them and us, Muslims against the non-believing Infidels. Other students took those teachings to their logical conclusion. I didn’t have to pull the trigger myself - I knew something was seriously wrong."
Yet Husain admits it took him a good six years to "totally decontaminate my mind." The extremist indoctrination he had undergone for years refused to let him go. He says he had left Hizb ut-Tahrir behind him, but continued to see the world through the prism of their entrenched beliefs.
"To do away with that overnight is impossible."
He’s done away with it now - due partly, he says, to a period of travelling and study. He says that the friends he made - including an American feminist - forced him to challenge and examine all the convictions he had so fervently held. The Jul. 7, 2005 bombings in London did the rest.
The change in outlook came slowly, but then dramatically. He’s now seen as one of the most fervent opponents of radical Islam in Britain. He’s written a best-selling book, entitled The Islamist, describing the ultimately empty seduction of life as a militant. The book describes his path to disillusionment and ends with an oath:
"I vowed, in my own limited way, to fight those who had hijacked my faith, defamed my prophet and killed thousands of my own people: the human race."
He must have known that his means weren’t so limited. This is a story Europe has been waiting to hear for years, and his book has been devoured by a nation desperate to find an explanation for the roots of "home-grown" terror. The mere blurb on the book cover must have had politicians and newspaper editors cocking their ears. An authentic but regretful militant! And such an eloquent regret!
There were lessons to be learned here, but which ones?
The story of how the teenaged Ed Husain became attracted to the extremist group in the first place is sadly familiar, reminiscent of the allure of street gangs and cult groups the world over.
"I think because they offered people like myself a share sense of belonging, a clear identity," he said. "And they offered us something that Britain in the 1990’s didn’t - a sense of purpose."
He says his political interest was triggered by the events in Bosnia in the early 1990s. He felt outraged that thousands of Muslims were being slaughtered in the centre of Europe and, in his view, the West was doing nothing to help them. There was a feeling of impotence. There was a gap. And that gap was filled by extreme organisations that told young Muslims they could take action: They could organize rallies, call for Jihad, raise funds and send arms, they could do something.
"We thought we were making a new world," he says today.
Interestingly, throughout his days with Hizb ut-Tahrir, he never considered himself an extremist. He says there is almost a mental block, a refusal to accept the judgment of outsiders. Husain’s parents saw things differently. They were horrified at their son’s involvement with the group and for three years they nagged him to dump the extremists. In the end his father gave Husain an ultimatum:
"He told me that either I lived under his roof by his rules, being devout but in a moderate way - as billions of people had been doing for thousands of years. Or I moved out. I called his bluff. I ran away."
Husain talks of a "civil war" within the Muslim community for the "soul of Islam." The same was going on in his heart as he left home. The extremists had won the first battle, but he says the regret he felt at breaking bonds with his family meant that ultimately, the moderate influence of his father won the war.
The university campus, where Husain’s love affair with jihad ended, is also where it began. Most mosques, he claims, have banished the militants, and so the world of academia has become the chief recruiting ground for extremists. Husain says he was approached by a qualified medical doctor - a man who enjoyed both social standing and financial wealth, but didn’t feel the West had anything to offer him. It’s a baffling paradox. Husain tries to explain it as a sense of political disenfranchisement, but it’s a premise that doesn’t quite satisfy.
At the beginning of our conversation, Husain had told me that he had been driven to extremism by a sense of not belonging to mainstream British society. I ask him whether he thinks that the sometimes vicious portrayal of the Muslim community in parts of the British press was driving more young Muslims to feel alienated. Instead, he strongly defends the negative press coverage, saying it provides a harsh mirror for young British Muslims; and it was important that they were forced to look into it.
He points out that the tabloids in the U.K. had jumped on a recent story in which a young Muslim taxi driver had not allowed a blind man to take his guide-dog into the cab, because a first Millennium religious text has deemed the dog unclean.
"We’ve got a problem with the Muslim mind-set. That has to change." he says. "The press has to decide whether to ignore such a story because it will offend Muslims, or to highlight it because that might bring change. That sort of media pressure can help, and I say: bring it on."
With such forthright views on a subject that has often been straight-jacketed by well-intentioned political correctness, it’s no wonder that Husain has caused such a stir in Britain. He’s even entered politics, for the British Labour Party, and has a verbal alacrity that reminds you of the young Tony Blair. Like Blair, the 32 year-old is not short on advice for the future of multiculturalism. He insists that the "ghettos" must be brought down ("demolished" is the word he used) since they are a barrier to intercultural dialogue.
Neighbourhoods have to become more ethnically mixed, even if this means people on housing benefit are no longer allowed to choose in which neighborhood they live:
"They should be grateful that the state is giving them a house. They should accept it if the state decides they should be placed among people of other faiths and communities. Then there will be a better cultural mix," he says.
He also condemns "white flight", where white families put out the "For Sale" sign as soon as Afro-Caribbean or Asian families move into the neighborhood.
It is this very directness, however, that has also earned Ed Husain criticism. The liberal press has accused him of swallowing the prevailing critique of British Muslims just as he once swallowed large chunks of extremist propaganda.
Meanwhile, just as he feels his faith has been hijacked by the extremists, there is also the risk that the tolerant message of The Islamist will be commandeered by readers of the right-wing Daily Mail, whose internet-forum posters were enchanted by Husain’s censure of Islam.
Predictably, the criticism has been the most vehement from within the Muslim community, where he’s already been condemned as a pawn of the government, a spy or even a fake.