The strange allure of our 'exes'

To declare that you are an ex-fanatic or ex-Muslim is now the shortest route to fame and fortune

It has become quite fashionable, in certain Muslim circles, to be an ex. We have a number of ex-fundamentalists and ex-fanatics, such as Ed Husain, promoting themselves as experts on fanaticism and terrorism and advising various branches of the government. We have a group calling itself the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, which specialises in denouncing all things Islamic. We even have an odd ex-terrorist or two seeking book deals.

I have nothing against people who want to make a new identity for themselves. That is their right. But it does seem strange to me that those who want to distance themselves from a certain kind of Islam, or Islam itself, still use Islam to describe their new identity. We don't have reformed criminals calling themselves ex-criminals. Indeed, we don't even have ex-atheists. So why ex-Muslims or ex-Islamists?

The answer tells us a great deal about contemporary Britain. When it comes to Islam we are ready to believe anything and everything. Anything that seems to help us fight fundamentalism is deserving of uncritical support. The exes also enable us to perform a neat con-trick. By embracing them and their call for "Islamic reform", we appear to demonstrate our support for the Muslim community - thus drawing attention away from the fact that we continue to discriminate against, and marginalise, the majority.

The uncritical embrace of exes is justified by the assertion that they bring insider knowledge. They have been there, so they know what it's like to be a fanatic, an Islamist, or a puritan Muslim. They are thus in a good position to provide useful insights into fighting the nasty Muslims and stopping their nefarious plans. This is a rather odd argument. How can someone who didn't have the intellectual or spiritual capability to resist being brainwashed lecture other Muslims on how to avoid such traps?

The exes themselves have realised that they are on to a good thing. To stand up and declare that you are an ex-fanatic or an ex-Muslim is now the shortest route to fame and fortune. One of the first to realise this was Tawfik Hamid, a former member of the Egyptian terrorist group Gama'a al-Islamiyya, who now lives in the US. Just over two years ago, he declared himself an ex-terrorist and instantly found himself on Fox News and CNN. Offers for confessional stories and books flooded in. He became an expert on "terrorism" and "Islamic reformation" for the neoconservative Hudson Institute.

The exes in Britain have followed similar trajectories. Who had heard of Ed Husain, now jetting around the globe advising all and sundry about reforming Islam, a few years ago? Or of Maryam Namazie, the "voice" of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain? Has no one noticed that the Council consists largely of Iranian exiles, card-carrying members of Mujahedin-e-Khalq, the revolutionary Trots who fought the shah? They were hardly Muslims in the first place.

I have nothing against these folk (though I think those who take them seriously ought to be put in a straitjacket). Indeed, I am going to take a leaf from their book. This will be my last column for the New Statesman and I am therefore establishing a Council of Ex-Columnists. But I plan to parade my knowledge in longer articles for this magazine and elsewhere, thus enhancing my considerable fame and fortune.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party