A kinder, gentler Islam

Ed Husain, on leaving the extremists

When is a Muslim man an “Islamist”? When he disregards the peaceful, intellectual and worshipful qualities of traditional Islam in favour of jihad against non-Muslims – as Ed Husain did.

A close acquaintance of Omar Bakri Muhammad (who called for the assassination of John Major during the first Gulf War) Husain has manned stalls with Eisa al-Hindi (convicted last year of conspiring to explode a radioactive bomb) and knew Asif Khan, who became Britain’s first suicide bomber when he blew himself up in Tel Aviv.

For his own part, Husain has held some pretty repulsive views about homosexuals, Jews, and others – in the 1990s, he was filmed by ITN hectoring crowds about kufr, or non-believers.

But that’s all in the past. Husain has renounced his old friends and published a gripping and insightful account of his time inside radical Islam.

In person, he’s nothing like I expected. He’s shortish, clean-shaven, and wears western clothes. He has a warm smile and a winning, modest curiosity. Under his arm he carries hard-core academic textbooks about the politics of the Middle East – the subject of a PhD he started last year.

“The person I am now finds it difficult to recognise the person I once was,” he concedes, in the course of a conversation in a crowded London café. Indeed, his account of personal acquaintance with suicide bombers turns heads and permanently silences people sitting nearby.

The oldest child of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, he grew up in East London. His first name is Mohamed but in Syria, where he lived for two years, that name is reserved for the Prophet. Ever since, he’s been known by the last syllable.

His parents were religious and had close ties to an internationally revered Muslim scholar, Sheikh Abd al-Latif, whom young Ed called “Grandpa”. Grandpa helped to perfect his Arabic accent, which held Ed in good stead in the Middle East years later.

His earliest childhood experiences included friendly relations with other traditions. But after leaving primary school he found himself almost exclusively surrounded by Bangladeshi Muslim boys. Asking for extra-curricular religious education, he found himself with just one other student, Abdullah Falik, who invited Husain to join the Young Muslim Organisation at East London Mosque. Husain knew that his father, who prayed at Brick Lane, would not approve, so he went along without telling him. He found East London Mosque was full of young, English-speaking Muslims like himself, and decided to keep going. “I was betraying my parents, beginning to lead a double life,” he acknowledges.

His new friends and mentors encouraged him to record his daily activities: how many times he prayed, how much of the Koran he recited, what else he read, how much time he spent with family, or dedicated to the movement, how many new members he recruited. It was a competitive, programmatic approach that would lead others to get involved in jihad.

His new friends introduced him to a world view heavily influenced by Saed Qutb’s book, Milestones and taught him the Arabic term kafir – as derogatory to non-Muslims as “wogs” is to non-whites.

When his parents discovered where he was going, they protested. His mentors warned, “Your parents will be an obstacle,” Eventually his father gave him ultimatum: leave the Islamists or leave my house.” Ed let home, taking refuge in the mosque. His mother phoned, accusing activists of kidnapping her innocent son.

“It dawned on me how much pain I had caused,” he says. “I wanted to go home, but that would be seen as backing down. I had to win. The Islamic movement had to prevail.” After three days, having “defeated” his loving parents, he returned home.

Some readers of his book may struggle to keep track of the various opposed factions within Islamism. But it’s clear that, between them, they set the agenda within the wider Muslim community.

The most insidious of the groups is Hizb-ut Tahrir, which is banned in many Muslim countries. Husain became part of a five-strong cell that met each week in East London. On campuses across the country they used intimidation against administrators and swiftly radicalised fellow students. “‘Your sisters and mothers are being raped in Bosnia,’ I would shout, ‘and yet you simply pray.’”

As president of the Islamic Society at Tower Hamlets College Husain was responsible for securing a base there for the Hizb. “The dynamism we created spilled out into the community. The sisters who wore the hijab put their mothers and older siblings to shame.”

Some of his friends went to train for jihad in Afghanistan. Others who remained in Britain drove cars without insurance on a point of principle: they refused to support the kufar economy.

But when a Christian youth was murdered by a Muslim, Husain realised it was a direct result of the hateful atmosphere he had helped to create. “I had advocated the ideas of Muslim domination, confrontation and jihad.”

That murder marked the start of Husain’s withdrawal from Islamism. He was helped by Faye, a fellow student who later became his wife.

Determined to understand the Koran properly, he learned Arabic and spent years with Faye in Muslim countries. They returned feeling more British than ever.

But he also regained a spiritual, non-political faith much like that of his Grandpa. “Sufi teachers taught me not to look down on non-Muslims,” he says, “because you never know who is revered in God’s eyes.”

No longer believing in a clash of civilisations, he points out that it was Muslim scholars who kept alive Greek philosophy and science, and reintroduced it to Europe. “We form part of Western tradition. It’s our tradition!”

What happened to him, and others, is the result of misplaced policies. “In the name of multiculturalism we have created ghettos,” he says. “In East London you can go to a nursery and then a school and then get a job and almost everyone in your life will be a Muslim. There is a Muslim underworld here, and that is the only frame of reference for young Muslims… We are sitting on a time bomb.”

What can be done? “We have to get our hands dirty and redistribute communities. We need to stop the obsession with going “back home”, which has a negative effect on the children. People must learn English.” He pauses. “And there’s not enough intermarriage.”

Perhaps most importantly, mainstream, peace-loving Muslims need to find a voice. And that doesn’t mean the Muslim Council of Britain, whose head, Dr Abdul Bari, chairs East London mosque.

Prince Charles and the government minister Stephen Timms both recently visited the mosque, but presumably they didn’t visit the bookshop – which sells a new edition of Milestones containing appendices discussing, among other things, “The Virtues of Killing a Non-Believer”.

Organisations that promote these ideas, such as the Hizb, should be banned. Tony Blair talked about banning it, Husain points out, but then backed down. A terrible mistake, he believes. “You can’t say you’re not talking to Hamas, when you are talking to people who believe the same thing here – and you’re also funding them.”