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

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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