The en­emy within

Ed Hu­sain was a sol­dier in the army of Is­lamist ex­trem­ism. He ex­plains to Peter Wil­son why he walked away

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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’’.

Un­able to

re­late

to

the

Hindi

songs

and

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

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