[The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left, Ed Husain, Penguin, 304 pages]
ED HUSAIN--the Ed is short for Mohammed, not Edward--was born in Britain to Muslim parents from the Indian subcontinent and raised in the East End of London. This is the poorest part of the city, for centuries home to the cockney working class and successive waves of penniless immigrants. The mosque where Ed Husain prayed with his parents had been built as a Calvinist "temple" for Huguenot refugees from Louis XIV's France. Later it served as a synagogue for Jews escaping the pogroms in Russia.
What became of these minorities is pertinent to the theme of this book. As they prospered, the Huguenots and the Jews moved out of London's East End. The Huguenots were assimilated into British society and are no longer identifiable as a distinct minority; the Jews, on the other hand, though they are fully integrated into the social and political life of the nation, retain a distinct identity, as they do in the United States. Like other identifiable minorities, they are mostly to be found in cities such as London and Leeds. Urban Britain in the 21st century is as much a melting pot as New York and, by and large, Britain has been successful in absorbing immigrants from all over the world. The sons and daughters of Irish labourers, Indian shopkeepers, and Cypriot barbers are now surgeons, bankers, and corporate lawyers. Their religious beliefs as Catholics, Orthodox Christians, or Hindus have no relevance to their status as citizens of the United Kingdom.
Is the same true for Muslims? As a child Ed Husain was told by his father "that Islam was spiritual, internal and about drawing closer to God and not about radical politics ..." His father's heroes were Mahatma Ghandi and Winston Churchill, and his spiritual guide a mystic guru from Sylhet on the India-Bangladesh border, Shaika Abd al-Latif. The secular education Husain received at his local comprehensive school was compatible with this spiritual understanding of Islam.
There were tensions. Husain was the butt of racial abuse, and there was a conflict between the values of Islam and "cool Britannia":
My generation of young British Muslims was torn between two cultures. The mainstream British lifestyle of dating, pre-marital sex, living together, and dissolution of partnerships with comparatively little fuss was not something that appealed to us. Simultaneously, the customs of our parents' generation--arranged marriages with cousins--were equally abhorred.
Ironically, it was the teacher of religious education at his school, a Mrs. Rainey, who set young Husain on the path toward Islamic extremism: she gave him the school's set book on Husain's own religion, Islam: Beliefs and Teachings by Gulam Sarwar. "Religion and politics are one and the same in Islam," Sarwar wrote. "They are intertwined." Sarwar lamented the absence of any truly Islamic state in the world today and recommended movements that sought to bring one about--the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and Jamat-e-Islami on the Indian subcontinent.
With his friend Falik, Husain began to pray at the East London mosque that "housed the infrastructures of activist organizations" such as the Young Muslim Organization, the YMO. The early chapters of The Islamist require concentration: it is difficult to comprehend the complexities of Islamic activism both on a practical and theoretical level. Husain cites the different ideologues such as Abul Ala Maududi and Syed Qutb and the different factions such as JIMAS (Movement for the Revival of the Prophet's Way), Salafism, Wahhabism or the Hizb ut-Tahrir. The ideological infighting reminds one of similar bickering on the Left--Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Leninists, Trotskyists, Stakhanovites, and so on. There are further parallels. Islamists like Communists are universalists …