The Islamist by Ed Husain–Book Review

The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left by Ed Husain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Saw the author on “The Doha Debates” last year.  During the program he was very articulate and dedicated to combating extremism.

This book is Ed Husain’s story of his personal journey into and out of the Islamist movement in the UK.  As Husain depicts it, Islamism is the idea that the Islamic faith requires an Islamic political state–that political power and religion are one.  Husain’s family, from India/Bangladesh, practiced a Sufi Islam which focused on spiritual connection to God and to other humans and he sees this as a more “mainstream” Islam.  Living in Jordan, a moderate Islamic state, I’m not sure that his Sufi brand of Islam would necessarily be accepted–though most of the Muslims I know here do support secular governance.

The first few chapters, relating his time in the islamist movement, including Jamaati-e Islamia and Hizb tTahrir, were distanced, written almost dispassionately.  It is like he can’t even relate to the boy he once was.   This was frustrating for me, as I’d hoped the book would help me grasp the emotional and intellectual pull of such movements for the young people raised in the West.   However, as he related the incidents which brought him out of the movement, including the violence, hypocracy, and time spent, ironically, in Syria and Saudi Arabia, his passion in delivery grew.  By the end, he was writing eloquently and passionately against Islamism.

I learned quite a bit from the book:

1–Husain related how the Islamists gained power in Britain (and similarly in the US) until the British authorities believed them to be speaking for and representing the views of all Muslims.  This gave them legitimacy–whereas most of these groups were outlawed in the Middle East.

2–Husain argues that Islamists must be countered, fought, and challenged.  I realized that in all my studies of Arabic and Islamic culture, we never talk about the extremists: Islamists, Wahabis or others.  I had never heard of most of the groups Husain mentioned tho they are well-known here in Jordan and elsewhere (especially Hisb Tahrir which has many factions and is involved in violence in Palestine, Bagladesh, and I believe India among other places).  Husain implies, and I agree, that the refusal to talk about such groups in mainstream education means that we don’t understand the movement and can’t launch effective opposition to it.   Our courses should not ignore such groups–nor suggest that “all” Muslims belong to them.  Acknowledging and debating their merits would be much more effective.

3–Husain traveled to Saudi Arabia (where I have never been and have NO desire to go) where much of the desires of the Islamist movement are fulfilled and was appalled at what he saw there.  He strongly denounces the Wahabi form of Islam (a very repressive one) which funds a great deal of the Islamist movements and seeks converts around the globe.  Husain reported that it is a country where the more women are wrapped and hidden away (women must wear full-face veils and long, loose black robes in public, must only go out with close male relations, only recently gained the right to drive, etc.) the more Saudi men objectify them.  He said that his wife, dressed appropriately, was often leered at, insulted, and propositioned even while he accompanied her.  Others I know in Jordan who’ve lived in Saudi report conflicting stories–that on the compound everything is fine and there’s no reason to “go out”, that Saudi men are very respectful during the Hajj, etc.   I don’t know from personal experience, but from the public behaviors of Saudi men in Morocco and here, I can’t believe it is a place I would ever want to go.

4–Husain described all the ways the groups in which he participated manipulated the laws, freedoms, and rights of British citizens.  The police seem, from his telling, to be naive in their treatment of Islamist youth groups; universities and other moderates completely incapable of countering their methods.   We need to teach our youth how to think critically about what they see and experience around them, to look beyond what such people say and see clearly what they do, believe, and propagate.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about the inside of the Islamist movement, particularly as an introduction for one mostly unfamiliar with the phenomenon.

FYI Ed Husain co-founder and co-director of The Quilliam Foundation, a think-tank devoted to combating Muslim (and I assume other forms of) extremism.

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The Deeds of the Disturber by Elizabeth Peters

The Deeds of the Disturber (Amelia Peabody, #5) The Deeds of the Disturber by Elizabeth Peters

Still enjoying this series. The tendency of the heroes to get rescued by their (growing) son is a bit irritating, but the language, puzzles, and atmosphere are still lovely.

Oh, and did I mention the heroine is a tough, capable, rational, intellectual woman in her middle years?  Of COURSE I love it! 🙂

The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology by G. Gregg

The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology (Culture, Cognition, and Behavior) The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology by Gary S. Gregg

Very interesting, insightful, yet easy-to-read, this is a great overview of Middle Eastern society in the first 3 chapters, then of the development of the people who live in them for the final 7 chapters.  I especially enjoyed that the author used many Arabic sources, and used ethnographies and sociological studies rather than purely “psychological” literature to understand the complexity of this culture.

Best points:

1) Gregg takes a big-picture view and notices that cultural structures and value systems are created in an ecological context. Hence shifting alliances evident in Middle Eastern and North African societies respond to the dynamic availabilities of food, forage, and environment in the region.

2) Gregg spent a whole chapter delving into the different value systems of the honor/modesty code and Islam. They are not one and the same (even if many tie them together), sometimes Islam supports, sometimes conflicts with, the honor-modesty code. Also, the whole male-protector (machismo) and female-secluded and protected aspects of the region (the honor part of the honor-modesty code) are prevalent throughout the Mediterranean area–which is why southern Italy treats women very similarly to Jordan. It is NOT simply a part of Islam–Italians, Greeks, and Spaniards tie it to Christianity. I think it’s really important not to assume that such things are tied to the religious beliefs or dogma when they may be socio-cultural (or even ecological) in origin.

3) Terrorism/Violence/Authoritarianism is NOT part of “traditional” society. Rather, they are a result of underdevelopment where powerful interests control the benefits of modernization and the majority are excluded from them. This is something I’ve been trying to articulate to people in the U.S. for ages–it’s not inherent in people, it’s tied to the oppression they face every day. According to Gregg, the authoritarianism especially is a result of both tradition and modernity failing.

In brief: if you’re interested in Middle Eastern and North African societies cultures and value systems, read chapters 1-3. If you REALLY want to understand how these people develop over a lifetime, or are a psychology buff, go beyond to chapters 4-10.

Regional Reading: North Africa and Christie

Haven’t added much to my book reviews as I just finished A Traveler’s History of North Africa–a very dense but very good history of the whole region.

A Traveller's History of North Africa (Traveller's History) A Traveller’s History of North Africa by Barnaby Rogerson

rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a well-researched and detailed history of (surprise surprise) North Africa. A bit dry, but so informative it should be a reference book. Plus he sourced “Lords of the Atlas” one of my favorites about the Moroccan Berbers of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

For quick refreshment after the Traveler’s History, I picked up Christie’s They Came to Baghdad.

They Came to Baghdad They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie

rating: 3 of 5 stars

More of a spy thriller than a mystery. Not quite classic Agatha, but still a fun read with lots of twists and turns. Doesn’t hurt that it’s set (mostly) in Baghdad, great sense of what the colonial life used to be. Could use a character list though, we get introduced to lots of people in short succession and it’s easy to lose track of which is who. Good read, but I don’t need to own it.

BTW, I tried to read “A Girls Guide to Kissing Frogs” but couldn’t get past the third or forth chapter–banal and vapid.  Now I’m digging into Good Faith–as of page 13 it’s readable but I’m not yet hooked.

Get reading folks!!  And join Goodreads.com–great place to learn about books!