Radical departure

Ed Husain is a former Hizb ut-Tahrir member who has campaigned against the ideology of Islamism. B

When I was a student at Newham College in the East End of London in the 1990s, and an activist of Hizb ut-Tahrir, "Islamism", or political Islam, seemed to have answers to difficult questions about identity and belonging. It offered an explanation of the world as I found it.

It offered solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It gave definition and direction to a global social network of savvy, supremacist Muslims, who were in revolt against the status quo at home and abroad. My teenage rebellion was channelled into conflict with my parents' much more sober Islam.

Eventually, I grew out of Islamism, but many of my old comrades remain staunch advocates of a rigid, separatist ideology, as are many younger Muslims on Britain's university campuses.

Open-mindedness and pragmatism are not characteristics of my younger co-religionists. Many are rightly concerned about the killing fields of Iraq; about Israel's siege of Gaza; about the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment across Europe; about the lack of a sense of cultural belonging in Britain. They are angry, disaffected and often unable to resist the propaganda of the Saudi-trained clerics who still dominate religious discourse in Britain, especially on university campuses.

Founded in 1953 in Jerusalem, Hizb ut-Tahrir works towards the overthrow of every government in Muslim-majority countries, aiming to create a united, confrontational empire for a billion Muslims worldwide. The irony is that Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain owes a great deal to the Socialist Workers Party, through one of HuT's earliest and most energetic activists, Farid Kassim. He started his political life in the party, and introduced much of the SWP's organisation and doctrine into his new group.

You can call activists such as Kassim "Muslim Trotskyites". They believe that "democracy is hypocrisy" and the "man-made ruling system" must be overthrown as a matter of religious duty. Their primary concern - as with their violent offshoots - is to create an "Islamic state" in an Arab country, supported by a nuclear-armed Pakistan, under the rule of their caliph, in which their particular interpretation of sharia law will become state law.

In my student days, I, too, was a Muslim Trot and believed that political Islam, or Islamism, was an ideology that would unite all Muslims. I was part of a vanguard, with a quasi-Marxist world-view. We replaced "workers" with "Muslims" and swapped "Islam" for the "social" in socialism.

Different from Hizb ut-Tahrir is the political activism of groups such as the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). These organisations are fronts for the Middle Eastern political party the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the south Asian party Jamaat-e-Islami. Although both parties are also committed to creating an Islamic state, the focus of their British supporters' most visible activism is Iraq and Palestine. To that end, the IFE and the MAB have joined forces with George Galloway's Respect party and squandered the raw talent of a generation of bright, young and educated people.

On the other extreme are those Muslims, and non-Muslims, who rather implausibly claim that Islam is only a private and personal religion, with very little to offer its adherents by way of practical solutions to political and social problems. But not only is it intellectually dishonest to deny that religion can provide believers with a political compass; it makes it more difficult to argue for a modern form of western Muslim political identity - one informed by faith but which can also withstand the manipulation of both mainstream and radical Islamism.

Critical state

The original advocate of an Islamic state was the Pakistani journalist and founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Abul-Ala Maududi (1903-70). He campaigned for a separatist, confrontational Muslim political bloc, defined in oppo­sition to the west. In Britain, Maududi's thinking has influenced prevailing Muslim activism. Ask any leading British Muslim organisation to jettison Maududi's teachings and just watch how it recoils.

“Islam wishes to destroy all states and governments anywhere on the face of the earth which are opposed to the ideology and programme of Islam," Maududi wrote. One response to his separatism comes from India and the unlikeliest school of Muslim thought: the Deoband movementGranted, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban were produced in Deoband-influenced madra­sas in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. And yes, in Britain, the most insular Muslim communities in, say, Blackburn or Dewsbury are of the Deobandi school. But to blame the Uttar Pradesh-based scholarly Deoband seminary for these developments is like arguing that Cambridge University is responsible for the views expressed by Nick Griffin.

It would make more sense to remind hardline Deobandis here in the UK of their pluralist heritage and of their forebears' history of opposing Maududi's destructive separatism.

Indian Muslims, numbering more than 138 million, are an instructive political example for British Muslims. Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, for example, was one of India's greatest Islamic scholars, a supporter of Mahatma Gandhi and a genuine democrat. He was vice-chancellor of the Deoband seminary, controlled to this day by Madani's descendants and students. Sonia Gandhi, chair of the Indian National Congress and a female, unveiled non-Muslim, sat with Madani's son recently at a huge gathering of Deobandi clerics. Would British Muslim Deobandi seminaries in Bury allow for such a gathering with, say, Harriet Harman?

Madani supported the Indian National Congress, opposed the creation of Pakistan as a separate "Muslim country", argued for a secular state in India and advocated "composite nationalism", in which people from different faiths were bonded together as human beings first and foremost. This is the mainstream Deo­bandism of India. Yet our view of Deobandi Islam has become fixated on its fundamentalist fringe - the Taliban.

With just under half of all British mosques and many more madrasas in northern English towns under the control of the Deobandis, Madani's life and legacy would be a powerful argument with which to convince these segregated commu­nities to engage with the British mainstream, politically and socially.

Just as Madani, as an observant Muslim and scholar, allowed for Islam to inform his progressive political thinking, Christian Democrats in mainland Europe follow a similar trajectory. They are not a monolith, but vary from one country to the next. They borrow from liberalism, conservatism or socialism on different policy issues, but broadly remain social conservatives.

In Britain, the old saying that "Labour owes more to Methodism than Marxism" is testament to the strong Christian socialist tradition within the Labour Party. Keir Hardie was a Methodist; the Independent Labour Party was founded in what was a Methodist chapel. So if Christianity can inform political thinking across Europe, why can't Islam? It can. And it does. Muslims should be proud of it, while ensuring that Maududite Islamism does not creep in through the back door.

Two thinkers, in addition to Madani, help guide Muslim democratic political engagement. The first is the great jurist Imam Shatibi, who wrote and lived in Granada, in Muslim Spain, during the 14th century. For Shatibi, sharia law could be encapsulated in the maintenance of religious freedom, life, offspring, reason and property. Any mode of government that provided for these five principles was Islamic government. (Some Muslims have bravely argued that, by this definition, Britain's government is already an Islamic government, because it provides security for religious freedom, life, offspring, reason and property.)

In reality, how do we achieve the five principles? Here, I turn to a non-Muslim thinker, the great philosopher John Locke, and his doctrine of religious toleration. Locke (1632-1704) believed that the state, or "earthly judges" (flawed and fallible human beings), cannot decide on the competing claims of "Truth", based on religion. Even if those earthly judges were to know the "Truth" (the Islamist project is based on imposing such a truth), this could not be enforced by state power - beliefs cannot be forced on free people. Moreover, coercion would result in hypocrisy and social disorder. A more desirable state of affairs is one that allows for religious diversity and pluralism. And it is in such a free market of ideas that we in Britain, Muslims and non-Muslims, compete. Or at least we should.

Angry young men

It has been a long journey for me to reach this point of understanding. My political awakening came with the outrage I felt at the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. That outrage was exploited by Brit­ish Islamists. Today, another generation of angry young British Muslims is being radicalised by ideologically skewed interpretations of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, as well as social displacement at home.

It will take time for them to mature politically; in the meantime, we must allow them the space in which to grow, develop and change, but still ensure that all of us challenge their preconceptions and prejudices - without assuming that the label "Islamists" will stick for life. We should not forget that several members of the current British cabinet were once on the far left.

I'm far from pessimistic. The UK is much more enlightened than many other European countries. Our public space is secular, but not in the same way as in France, a revolutionary republic in which legislators want to criminalise veil-wearing Muslim women in order to "free" them. Britain, on the other hand, shows how Muslims can engage in a religiously neutral public space, and at the same time allow their religious convictions to inform their political choices.

Ed Husain is the author of "The Islamist" (Penguin, £9.99) and co-director of the Quilliam Foundation.

The NS profiles the ten most influential Muslim intellectuals of modern times at: newstatesman.com/topics/religion

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Everything you know about Islam is wrong

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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