In early June, the Mail Online ran an article headlined: “British towns that are no-go areas for white people.” This inflammatory story, based on material in Ed Husain’s new book, Among the Mosques: A Journey Across Muslim Britain, generated widespread condemnation. Subsequent articles focused on the Mail’s caricatured version of the book rather than engaging with Husain’s central arguments.
“The Daily Mail focusing on one conversation out of tens, if not hundreds, is emblematic of the problem,” Husain, 46, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, tells me via video call from his home in Essex. “But I think it goes both ways.” As well as rebuking those on the right who portray all Muslims as intolerant, Husain warns that the left’s insistence that all is well among Britain’s Muslim community is deeply problematic because “all is not well”.
Among the Mosques records Husain’s study of the fastest-growing faith group in the UK. He encountered many liberal, progressive Muslims championing causes such as LGBT rights. But he also identified serious problems. In town after town, he found mosques that discriminated against women and taught a highly literal interpretation of Islam. Husain also came across books by authors banned in parts of the Middle East for being extremist, and mosques that conducted Islamic marriages without legal registration and the protections that come with it. “There are large numbers of people in activist sections of Muslim communities who think creating a caliphate [a state under a single Islamic ruler] is a good thing,” he tells me.
Husain was born in east London into a religious family – his mother was from Saudi Arabia and his father was born in British India. After leaving Stepney Green School, Husain became involved in the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, before later disavowing fundamentalist beliefs – a journey he described in his first book The Islamist (2007), and which led him to co-found the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam (which was dissolved earlier this year).
Husain’s bookshelves – his backdrop on our call – display Arabic classics interspersed with works on European history and philosophy. This is no accident. Husain cites the conservative thinker Edmund Burke as his greatest philosophical influence and sees no inherent conflict between Islam and the West, and certainly not between Islam and the UK. “Islam and Muslims are firmly part of the story of these islands,” he writes in Among the Mosques.
Husain believes it is vital that the UK discusses the issues around Muslims’ place in wider society. He’s confident that as a “deeply tolerant country… we can now talk about this with confidence and openness”. Why, then, does he think these conversations aren’t happening? “I think people don’t want to be seen to be picking on minorities,” he replies. “That’s a good thing, but that impulse shouldn’t then end in a place where we can’t have free conversations in a respectful manner.” Husain fears that if these conversations don’t happen, “people just bottle it up, and it has ugly expressions”.
Despite his belief in free discussion, Husain is under no illusion that talking alone will solve the problems he has identified. “Into what are [Muslim communities] supposed to integrate?” he asks in his new book. Instead, Husain calls for an “inclusive patriotism” flowing from a reaffirmation of Britain’s liberal tradition and concepts such as gender equality, individual liberty, the rule of law and racial parity. These values constitute modern Britain, he argues, and promoting them will undercut extremist views.
The French president Emmanuel Macron is one politician who has responded to Islamist extremism with an assertion of values. Macron and his interior minister Gérald Darmanin have been accused of pandering to the reactionary right. Husain, however, believes that Macron is correct to “identify radical Islamism as a rising problem among activist Muslims in France”. In a speech last October, Macron said he wanted France to become a country that could teach the work of Islamic thinkers such as Averroes and Ibn Khaldun. Husain describes it as “a breath of fresh air that a European statesman is referencing a great Muslim philosopher, Averroes, who helped shape the Enlightenment”.
Husain is less complimentary about Britain’s politicians. “Neglect and fear by the centre-left and right of British politics makes this challenge grow and grow, not go away,” he warns. Husain, who worked as a senior adviser at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change from 2015 to 2018, believes Keir Starmer is “terrified” of confronting the problem, and that Conservatives are also paralysed by “fears of being accused of Islamophobia”.
The sensitivity of the subject makes their reticence understandable. Terms such as “integration” and “multiculturalism” are laden with the baggage of an older, uglier debate about Muslim communities’ relationship with the rest of society.
Husain believes fostering a sense of “belonging” to Britain is a better solution because of its emphasis on a shared identity that enables people to “disagree and get along with it”. “I’m increasingly not interested in integration,” he says. “If [people] feel they belong, and they have a sense of ownership and love for this land, we will be fine.”
This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us