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.
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