There have already appeared a number of well-informed refutations of the main arguments from 'The Islamist' so I pray that readers will forgive me this little indulgence. My only plea is that I personally knew the author of 'The Islamist', Mohammed Mahbub Husain, for a short period circa 1996 after he had stopped attending Hizb ut-Tahrir meetings and he began attending some Islamic study sessions in East London with me for a while thereafter. Still, we soon lost touch with each other and then only around 18 months ago, out of the blue, I got a phone call from him saying that he intended to write a book about his time in HT.
Well, Husain's book formally went on sale in the UK on May 3rd 2007. However, fairly extensive extracts from the book had already been published in the Sunday Times some days prior and they gave some indication as to who Husain had in his sights.
The Sunday Times extracts focused on Husain's time in Saudi Arabia in 2004/5 where he worked for the British Council and, in particular, on Husain's description of his horror at the racist manner in which some non-Saudi citizens, particularly women from Africa, were being treated in this self-proclaimed Islamic country. Husain's revulsion at the treatment of many non-Saudi citizens will undoubtedly strike a chord with those familiar with behaviour and attitudes in the Gulf countries. But what is the conclusion that Husain draws from this episode: that prejudice based on skin-colour is sadly to be found everywhere and should be combated? That Muslims - whom Islam famously teaches to be colour-blind when it comes to human relations - must try harder to live up to their Islamic principles? No. Here is what Husain has to say:
"The racist reality of the Arab psyche would never accept black and white people as equal." (p241)
So, bizarrely, Husain appears to respond to the racist treatment of others in Saudi Arabia with a rather generalised and frankly racist sentiment of his own.
Upon the book's official launch, there appeared a number of very positive reviews of Husain's book from the likes of Melanie Phillips, David Cohen of the London Evening Standard and David Aaronovitch of The Times.
Melanie Phillips, in particular, was especially fulsome in her praise:
"Muslims like Husain need our support, encouragement and protection... 'The Islamist' should be sent to every politician at Westminster, put on the desk of every counter-intelligence officer and thrust under the supercilious nose of every journalist who maunders on about 'Islamophobia'"
Phillips is, of course, renowned for her pro-Israel tirades, her anti-Muslim bigotry and her loopy belief that Iraq really did have WMD's except that they managed to spirit them away to Syria just in time so that the Americans could not find them. Now what would cause such a staunch Zionist like her to display strong support for Husain's book?
You do not have to get very far in reading The Islamist to find out. Right at the outset, in his preface to the book, Husain says:
"This book is a protest against political Islam, based on my own experience as a British Muslim who grew up in London, became an extremist - an Islamist - and saw the error of his ways."
So, in Husain's worldview, 'political Islam' = 'extremism' = 'Islamists'. And who exactly does Husain identify as 'Islamists/extremists'? It is not just the pre-1996 Omar Bakri-led Hizb ut-Tahrir, but also the Young Muslim Organisation, Islamic Forum Europe, UK Islamic Mission, JIMAS, the Muslim Association of Britain, the Islamic Society of Britain and the Muslim Council of Britain, amongst others. In short, many of the most active and dedicated Muslim organisations in the country. No wonder Mel P was grinning!
In brief, 'The Islamist' sees Husain describing his own personal journey growing up in Limehouse in the 1980's and how, in 1990, when Husain was 15, a friend at school first introduced him to the work of YMO based in the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. After spending about three years with YMO he becomes dissatisfied and then turns towards Hizb ut-Tahrir whose leader at the time was Omar Bakri and whose 'mastery of the Arabic language' (p82) and arguments for the necessity of an Islamic state Husain at the time found convincing. After spending another couple of years with HT, Husain again becomes disillusioned and this time is introduced to the Islamic Society of Britain. Very soon, however, he renounces all these organisations and embarks on a sufi path to which he claims to have remained to this day. Members of the other organisations listed, he believes, are better described as being 'Islamists' rather than Muslims.
Husain clearly regards HT as a sinister organisation. He cites the case of Omar Sharif Khan - who reportedly tried to carry out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv in 2003, but the device failed to detonate and he is said to have drowned in the sea while trying to escape. According to Husain, it "is beyond doubt that Khan was introduced to radical ideas by the Hizb as an undergraduate" (p263). Husain appears here to have adopted the Daniel Pipes theory of HT as being - if not actual terrorists themselves, then at the very least they are - a conveyor belt for graduation to terrorist activities. So, Husain goes on to express his disappointment when New Labour fail to carry out their threat to ban HT (p266) after facing opposition from various Muslim groups and the police.
I suspect many Muslims would agree that the Omar Bakri-led HT (up until 1996) was a deeply unpleasant organisation whose members often behaved like street thugs. I can recall meeting after meeting of different organisations being disrupted by HT followers at the time, and Husain also provides his own examples (p124).
Still, those were the events of over ten years ago. The worst of the HT membership at the time left and duly followed Omar Bakri into his new al-Muhajiroun outfit. Today, although it is true that HT still cling on to their discredited policy of non-participation in the UK democratic process, their leadership cannot, I think, fairly be described as extremists. I have met, discussed and debated with some of the most senior HT figures in the UK including Jalal Patel, Dr Imran Waheed, Dr AbdulWahid Shaida and Taji Mustafa. I have many strong disagreements with some of their ideas and their tried and failed methodology, but Husain goes much further than that and tries to establish a link between HT and violent extremism in the UK. Noticeably, he fails to provide any evidence to justify his assertions.
Furthermore, in supporting Blair's attempt to ban HT, Husain coyly fails to elaborate on whether he would also similarly support a ban on the many other organisations (the London Muslim Centre, the Islamic Foundation, JIMAS, MCB etc) that he also describes as being 'Islamists'.
There is now a widespread consensus among just about every section of society - barring Tony Blair himself and the die-hard neo-cons - that Britain's participation in the disastrous 'war on terror' in Afghanistan and Iraq and Blair's support for Israel's massive and murderous bombardment of Lebanon last summer has only served to exacerbate the terror threat against us and has undoubtedly contributed to the increased radicalisation of some young British Muslims that we are seeing.
What does Husain's book have to say about these tumultuous events? Well, incredibly, Husain fully embraces the neo-con narrative at this point, saying:
"In early 2003 Saddam Hussein effectively invited the US army to invade Iraq by playing cat-and-mouse games with United Nations arms inspectors." (p216)
Oh dear. Even the chief UN weapons inspector to Iraq at the time, Hans Blix, has described the war against Iraq as being "clearly illegal" and added that "the US, after all, were witch-hunters. They wanted to see anything as evidence that the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction." (Guardian Online, March 12th 2007)
In a very supportive profile by the Islamophobic features writer David Cohen in the London Evening Standard which I referred to earlier, Husain was quoted as saying:
"There is no doubt in my mind that what happened in London on 7 July had nothing to do with the war in Iraq..." (Evening Standard, May 1st 2007)
There is no question that the 7/7 bombings were barbaric and completely unjustifiable. However, to claim that the extremism we sadly saw on display that day was in no way linked to the UK's participation in the Iraq war is surely to put one's head in the sand. Even Tony Blair has now acknowledged a 'blowback' effect as a result of the war against Iraq.
Ironically, Husain, tries hard in the book to portray himself – and not the dreaded 'Islamists' - as being in tune with the majority of Muslim opinion in the UK. Readers will no doubt make up their own minds.
Husain also provides a very misleading description of the Muslim Council of Britain which according to him (p167) is merely a front for the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood. Husain does not mention that the MCB's over 500 affiliates come from a very diverse range of organisations representing many different strands of thought present among British Muslims, sunni and shi'i. No national Muslim body comes anywhere close to achieving the broadness of representation that the MCB has, alhamdulillah, achieved in recent years. Husain derides the MCB's 'many politburo-styled committees' (p215) but fails to explain what he means by the use of that term. Yes, the MCB has around 18 different committees peopled entirely by volunteers who give their time and energy freely to deal with legal affairs, medical affairs, the media, youth work etc. Now what is 'politburo-style' about that? Husain does not say.
Furthermore, Husain says that the MCB's own "extremist sympathies was to come to the fore after the [7/7] terrorist attack on Britain" (p215). What 'extremist sympathies'? Again, he fails to substantiate this serious accusation with any actual evidence. As a parting shot he alleges that "no one from the Muslim Council of Britain leadership ever attends" Mawlid gatherings (p285). This is simply untrue - I myself have attended a number of such events in different cities over the years. Husain's research for this book clearly leaves much to be desired.
Strangely enough, only 6 months ago, in a thread on the Muslim portal, Deenport, Husain was giving this piece of advice to other Muslims:
"Must we wash our dirty linen in public? Clearly, there are issues inside the Naqshbandi-Haqqani tariqa that the elders and murideen are trying to rectify. But why battle it out in public? So sad ... Personally speaking, I'd much rather the Sufi Muslim Council represent us with Shaikh Qabbani than the MCB with its Jamati zealots."
Husain is of course welcome to give his backing to the Sufi Muslim Council, but the advice about washing dirty linen in public sounds distinctly hollow after reading what he has written in his own book.
Some other passages in 'The Islamist' simply serve to raise more questions. Take this, for example, where Husain refers to the guards at the Prophet's mosque in Madina:
"Arrogant guards looked down with contempt at the visitors - to them we are mushrikeen, polytheists, like the 'misguided Christians' who deify Jesus." (p267)
Aside from the fact that one is puzzled as to how Husain - a self-styled sufi, remember - quite managed to peer into the hearts of the guards to ascertain what they were thinking about him, we are also left with a question as to why exactly Husain put the words 'misguided Christians' inside quotation marks. Does Husain not believe that Christians who deify Jesus are indeed misguided according to Islam? The teachings of Islam are clear enough on this point. Jesus was a prophet, he was not God incarnate or part of a Trinity. Those who deify Jesus are clearly misguided according to Islam.
Husain rails against the contemporary use of the Qur'anic word 'kafir' as being, in his view, "as derogatory to non-Muslims as 'wogs' is to non-whites" (p36). It is true that regrettably some Muslims do use the term 'kafir' in a derogatory manner, but that should not detract from its validity where appropriate. Andrew Booso answers this point particularly well in his review of Husain's book. But the main reason I raise this is because Husain himself seems more than content to repeatedly describe those who claim to follow the path of the salaf with the knowingly derogatory term 'Wahhabis' throughout the course of his book. Why the dual-standard?
Husain also engages in the unfortunate practice of caricaturing and misrepresenting the arguments of his opponents.
"Wahhabis are a deeply literalist sect. Metaphors, allegories, love, and transcendence have no meaning for them. They are exceptionally harsh towards Muslims expressing love and dedication to the Prophet. To Wahhabis, that borders on worship and is therefore idolatrous." (p234)
This is clearly nonsense. All devout Muslims from all the main tendencies try and express their love and appreciation for the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) while being careful to ensure that this enhances and does not in any way detract from the sole worship due to the One God.
In her review for the Guardian, Madeleine Bunting made this observation about Husain's book:
"It is as if, just as Husain once swallowed large chunks of Hizb ut-Tahrir propaganda, he now seems to have swallowed undigested the prevailing critique of British Muslims. He has no truck with the idea of Islamophobia, which he dismisses as the squeal of an Islamist leadership pleading special favours...One suspects the naivety which took him into Hizb-ut Tahrir has blinded him as to how his story will be used to buttress positions hostile to many things he holds dear - his own faith and racial tolerance, for example. A glance at the blog response to a Husain piece in the Telegraph reveals how rightwing racism and anti-Islamic sentiment are feasting on his testimony." (The Guardian, May 12th 2007)
In summary: I found Husain's book to be deeply flawed and full of very confused thinking. Husain moves from group to group and points his finger of blame in many directions. I really wish that instead of blaming so many others - often very unfairly - his experiences would instead have led him to question himself more and take more responsibility for his own actions. The narrow sectarian outlook which Husain finally embraced, I believe, will not find much favour among many British Muslims who are rightly wary of such divisive antics and have seen the rancour and even bloodshed it has led to in other countries.
Still, it will no doubt be welcomed by the warmongering sections of the present government and perhaps even help explain how the book came to receive such generous plaudits from Melanie Phillips and Co.
By Inayat Bunglawala