The enemy within
Ed Husain was a soldier in the army of Islamist extremism. He explains to Peter Wilson why he walked away
ED Husain is the man we were all looking for after the 7/ 7 bombings in London two years ago. Not to ‘‘ help police with their investigations’’, as they still say during police manhunts, but to help stunned nation understand what had happened to it.
Like dozens of other reporters, I walked the streets of Leeds talking to the friends and families of three of the July 7 bombers in an unsuccessful attempt to understand how three boys born there and a fourth who had emigrated from Jamaica as a baby had turned into homegrown Islamic terrorists, young men capable of playing a friendly game of cricket one summer evening and then blowing up trains and buses jammed with their fellow Britons the next morning.
Husain knows how that transformation happened because he has been through the same process of alienation, grooming and indoctrination. The East London- born son of Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants spent five years moving deeper and deeper into radical Islamist circles in London and has written a book explaining his time as an active player in the groups that he now believes prepare young Muslims to be potential terrorists.
That book, The Islamist , is the first such account by a highly articulate young Briton of his journey into and out of that mindset, and it has been eagerly welcomed by British commentators and politicians who are still desperately trying to understand what leads to such extremism, and how to battle it.
Husain, a 32- year- old PhD student in political science and part- time language teacher, says his tale is just as relevant in Australia, as hardline Islamic groups here look to England for ideas and inspiration, as well as for translations of radical texts. The suggestion last year by Sydney imam Taj Din al- Hilali that women who did not dress modestly were inciting rape had ‘‘ given the game away’’ by showing that hardline Islamists would never happily accommodate Western society.
It tells you something about a certain mindset that can’t accept difference, and that is what Wahabism [ the aggressive brand of Islam born in Saudi Arabia] is all about, not being able to tolerate difference.
His comments about women were so stupid and they were an indication to me that extremism isn’t only about politics, it is about other issues like the basic social values of Western society.
Yes, their demands might be about Iraq today and Palestine tomorrow, but if you appease them on those issues what comes next, and how far are you prepared to go? I have been a part of it, I have shared that mindset and I can tell you its demands just can’t be satisfied.’’
Husain does not look like a young man who once shared that or any other hardline mindset. He spent most of the 1990s wearing the ‘‘ jeans and a beard’’ uniform of Muslim activists in university campuses and working- class neighbourhoods, but he arrived for our interview in a neat jacket and business shirt that matched his middle- class, educated accent and supremely calm manner.
He is now as mainstream as a British practising Muslim can be. A middle- of- the- road member of the Labour Party, he uses Ed instead of his full name Mohamed, and largely relies on his wife’s income as a high school teacher to fund his doctoral studies.
We met in the cafe of a Gower Street bookshop just 200m from Tavistock Square, where the youngest of the 7/ 7 bombers, 18- year- old Hasib Hussain, set off a backpack bomb on a red double- decker bus, ripping his own body apart and killing 12 other passengers.
Husain had already abandoned extremism when that bus and three underground trains were blown up, and was working with his wife Faye in Saudi Arabia, teaching English for the British Council.
In Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states he found the local brand of Islam harsh and unappealing, but ‘‘ in India, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt . . . the form of Islam people manifested was very humble, internal, spiritual, harmonious’’.
‘‘ I came back to Britain and it was all about identity, confrontation and politics. It just seemed out of sync with the Muslim world.
‘‘ I decided that in view of 7/ 7 and looking at the dominant form of Islam that was being developed in Britain it was imperative that somebody spoke out from within to challenge that. And the best way to do that was with my own story.’’
His story is one of drifting away from the tolerant and prayer- based faith of his parents and becoming ‘‘ an Islamist’’, somebody who sees Islam as an aggressive brand of politics rather than a form of spirituality.
Growing up as the eldest of four children in working- class Mile End, he was sent to the local state primary school and taught by his parents that there was no conflict in being ‘‘ British by birth, Asian by descent and Muslim by conviction’’. The family shopped at a Jewish bakery, were friends with the Catholic nuns who lived opposite their home and helped out each year at the local church’s jumble sale.
Things changed when his father insisted that he should go to an all- boys high school that was dominated by boys from the sub- continent.
After a primary school where his classmates included ‘‘ Jane, Lisa, Andrew, Mark, Alia, Zak . . . here everyone was Bangladeshi, Muslim and male’’.
Bollywood movies that obsessed his new classmates — many of whom were recent immigrants — Husain was bullied and became an unhappy loner.
Taught at home to study the Koran, he took a special interest in religious studies and bonded with Falik, another misfit with a strong commitment to Islam.
But the first text they were given to read at school, Islam: Beliefs and Teachings by Gulam Sarwar, declared that ‘‘ religion and politics are one and the same in Islam’’, and praised Jamat- e- Islami, a group working in the subcontinent ‘‘ for the establishment of Allah’s law in Allah’s land’’.
Husain now considers that book a form of propaganda that should never be fed to children, but it was convincing enough at the time.
His friend Falik later introduced him to the Young Muslim Organisation, a front group for Jamat- e- Islami.
Hiding this involvement from his parents, who opposed the politicisation of Islam, Husain plunged in deeper, finding a new sense of identity, comradeship and self- esteem in progressively harder- line groups.
By the time he was 16 he had no white or nonMuslim friends and spent all his free time organising prayer groups and meetings, recruiting other students, and studying Islamist texts.
When his parents realised what he was doing and demanded that he stop, the teenager ran away from home to live in a mosque, returning after a few days when his worried parents buckled and tacitly agreed to accept his activism.
The YMO took over its members’ lives like a cult, insisting that they fill out daily activity sheets listing how many prayers and recitations they had performed, how many hours they had dedicated to the movement and how many new recruits they had targeted that day.
‘‘ At the end of every week I attended a meeting where we reported our week’s achievements,’’ he writes.
‘‘ We wanted to outdo one another and those who underperformed were often subjected to strict questioning.’’
Revelling in the regimentation and training, Husain eventually became a leader in Islamic student groups at university and a member of Hizb ut- Tahrir, or the ‘‘ Party of Liberation’’, which campaigns for the creation of a caliphate or single Muslim government to run all Muslim countries by sharia law rather than ‘‘ man- made’’ law and democracy.
Banned in Russia, Egypt and several Muslim countries, and operating under legal restrictions in Germany, HuT members generally boycott democratic politics, but try to lay the ground for coups that they hope will one day install a caliph or ruler in one Muslim country after another.
Husain casts the group’s rhetoric as racist and dangerous, presenting all non- Muslims as inferior. The rhetoric was about jihad and martyrdom, but the tactics were straight from the extreme Left of the 1960s, training small and secretive cells of members to infiltrate other organisations, take over or disrupt meetings and generally use their zeal and discipline to have an impact beyond their numbers.
Taking advantage of British tolerance and political correctness, Husain and his colleagues reviled Jews, homosexuals and all non- believers, spreading a bile that he says cleared the way for young men such as those in Leeds to take things further.
‘‘ Homegrown British suicide bombers are a direct result of Hizb ut- Tahrir disseminating ideas of jihad, martyrdom, confrontation and antiAmericanism, and nurturing a sense of separation among Britain’s Muslims,’’ he writes.
The British Government considered banning HuT after the 7/ 7 bombings, but accepted MI5 advice that there was no evidence that the group was involved in terrorism, a decision that was repeated in Australia.
‘‘ Hizb ut- Tahrir in Australia take their lead and all their publications from England and if you go to their website, the translations of Arabic literature that they read have been published in London,’’ Husain says.
‘‘ So London is like the headquarters for English- speaking Islamists and also for Arabicspeaking ones to some extent.’’
Husain’s second thoughts about his comrades began with his observation that many of these fanatical Islamists did not seem to be overly interested in actually reading the Koran or praying. When one of his colleagues stabbed and killed a Christian student during a college confrontation Husain was shocked out of his zealotry, a process that seems to have been reinforced by meeting his future wife.
Husain now calls for outlawing rhetoric that paves the way for violence, saying that such a ban would empower moderate Muslims to root out radicals, even though it would also restrict civil rights in a way that would worry many Britons and Australians.
‘‘ It can’t be acceptable in modern Britain that people go around saying that we are working towards a jihadi [ holy war] state in the Middle East that will ultimately turn on the West,’’ he says.
‘‘ It’s not even ‘ ultimately’. It’s from day one. If you read the literature they keep for their private meetings, its aim is to attack the West, destroy Israel and to kill non- Muslims and Muslims who oppose us.
‘‘ Homophobia is illegal, anti- Semitism is illegal, racism is illegal, but for Islamists to call for destroying non- Muslims remains legal and I don’t understand that.
‘‘ The problem is the agenda for action that they tell people to engage in, and that is what has got to be challenged and changed.
‘‘ The various groups will just change their names and set up new front groups so you have to target the rhetoric and the ideas, not the organisations. You ban the advocating of that sort of rhetoric.’’
Bemused by recent government calls for university staff in Britain to monitor extremism on campus, Husain says university authorities and teachers are more concerned about protecting freedom of speech than protecting people’s lives.
‘‘ Since coming back to Britain last year I have approached two university authorities, complaining about this violent rhetoric in prayers and meetings, and the response from both those universities has been: ‘ We are awfully sorry, it is their freedom of speech, we can’t do anything’.
‘‘ That is why the debate goes back to whether it is legal or illegal to call for a jihadi state dedicated to overthrowing governments in the Middle East, destroying Israel, killing Muslims and non- Muslims who oppose it and eventually turning their guns on the West. That’s their rhetoric, that’s their belief.
‘‘ At the moment in Britain it remains legal and acceptable for that sort of rhetoric to be articulated and for as long as it’s there, there’s no point in ordinary Muslims who can identify it trying to combat it because we can’t do anything.
‘‘ Many, many Muslims have complained and have been slapped in the face. I have had that experience.
‘‘ MI5 is just as bad. July 7 was a fundamental failure for them, but even now they are not prepared to accept the true nature of the threat. The security agencies say that Hizb ut- Tahrir isn’t linked to violence and terrorism and therefore, it shouldn’t be banned. That is absurd. I’m sorry, but we have got a huge problem in that we still just don’t understand the way modern terrorism works.
‘‘ In 1997, Hizb ut- Tahrir’s demonstrations in London attracted about 300 people at a push; now it attracts nearly 1500 people. Let these people continue and their rhetoric gain more and more acceptance, and by 2017, 2027 we have got real problems.
‘‘ Moderate Muslim groups should identify extremists and inform the police, but they don’t bother because the police aren’t doing anything. The message from government authorities is ‘ tolerate extremism’.
‘‘ If the Government and the wider country don’t want to do anything about it, well don’t come running back to the Muslims in three or four years’ time when there’s a terrorist attack and say: ‘ Well, why didn’t you stop it?’
‘‘ You have to outlaw these groups and empower mosque committees and individual Muslims to report these people in our midst, have them arrested.
‘‘ There are some people who are beyond call, hell- bent on destruction and violence; they are gone and should be locked up. But a lot of others who think it’s legal, it’s acceptable to go down that road can still be reached and they will be forced to shift their rhetoric if it is made clear to them: ‘ Look, guys, we no longer play that game.’
‘‘ At the moment these people are free to recruit others and continue with that whole game . . . the game I used to play.’’
While insisting that he has had overwhelming support from ordinary Muslims since the launch of his book, Husain has also been vilified on Islamic websites and he admits that ‘‘ there have been a couple of threats’’.
‘‘ I don’t travel to certain parts of London and I have been warned by friends of threats from certain quarters. There has been a sustained campaign on the internet, accusations of treachery, slander and character assassination.
‘‘ But I’m not surprised; that’s what I expected from Islamists.’’ The Islamist by Ed Husain ( Penguin, $ 24.95) will be published on July 2. Peter Wilson is The Australian’s Europe correspondent.
Extreme influences: Clockwise from left, Ed Husain in London; Leeds, an Islamic heartland in Britain; the wreckage of the bus in Tavistock Square