I heard Ed Husain being interviewed on the radio in London last summer, and knew I wanted to have him on our show. His memoir has not yet been published in the U.S., but it has put him at the center of an historic moment of debate and soul-searching in his native Britain. As our conversation goes to air, tragically, the news is full of analysis of suicide bombers and Islamism, the term political analysts seem to have settled on to describe a defining current religio-political reality. Ed Husain sheds fresh and unfamiliar light on this, and some of his insights do not fit comfortably into our usual cultural dialogue.
Husain is 33 years old, and on the surface his story has the marks of a classic, coming-of-age tale — seduction by revolutionary ideas, estrangement from immigrant parents, and a true love that jolts him back to what matters in life. But his intellectual dalliance was with radical, politicized Islam flourishing at the heart of educated British culture. He shrank back only after coming close to a murder. People he loved and admired became suicide bombers.
He now lives something of a mission — a "solemn duty" — to speak out and embolden public conversations that he sees as critical to our common future: the internal dialogue among Western Muslims and the shared vocabulary of thought and action they must develop with fellow citizens of Western nations.
Ed Husain's most challenging assertion, perhaps, is that in a fervor to prevent and punish terrorist acts in these years since September 11, 2001, Western governments have failed to comprehend and address the real nature of the deeper, long-term threat. He sees Al Qaeda, which so dominates American imaginations, as fragmentary at best. Behind it, powering it and other future organizations, is a "complex and subtle" mentality to which many are susceptible globally.
Some themes of this conversation echo a program from the early days of Speaking of Faith that was formative for me, "The Power of Fundamentalism." I interviewed three men — a Christian seminary president, a Jewish journalist, and a Muslim lawyer and humanitarian. Each had been drawn into fundamentalist thought and camaraderie for a time in his youth. Using different words, these now erudite, accomplished men all recalled the "exhilaration" and "intoxication" of that experience, a sense of empowerment and belonging that perfectly met the longing and irascibility of youth.
Ed Husain describes this too, and adds new nuance to my understanding of contemporary Islamism in particular. The term Ummah — the ideal of the global Islamic community, which is meaningful for many Muslims — has been in the news in recent days as analysts retrace the history and reemergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. An exclusionary, politicized concept of a revolutionary Ummah — aggressively transcending other identities, allegiances, and balances of power — was a galvanizing principle for soldiers who originally came from many lands to aid in Afganistan's struggle against the Soviet army.
The Ummah was also a galvanizing concept for Ed Husain between the ages of 16 and 22, as he became a progressively active member of Hizb ut-Tahrir — an organization with a prominent presence in British mosques and universities. Hizb ut-Tahrir is fully sanctioned by the British government as an expression of multiculturalism, and Ed Husain is quick to add that it is not a terrorist organization. But in the absence of a larger context of societal integration, he says, a group like this can incline vulnerable young people to a separatist and potentially violent path. He describes the compellingly political, ideological appeal of today's Islamism, which "exploits Islam's adherents" though it is "remote from Islam's teachings."
In fact, Islamic scholarship and spirituality themselves provided a corrective to Ed Husain's Islamist mentality. Through digging deeper into Islam he came to see the Ummah not as a political ideology but a spiritual community of vital diversity. And he insists that Islamic devotion can be reconciled with vigorous, responsible citizenship in Western democracies. He points to the North American Muslim community as an evolving model of this idea.
I take much away from this conversation that helps me assess unfolding events. And Ed Husain's story on the whole underscores the most urgent conclusion I've drawn from the sweep of my conversations with diverse Muslims these past years — a message that starkly contradicts the language of the "clash of civilizations" that took hold in the immediate days after September 11, 2001 and has distorted our collective vision ever since. At risk of repeating myself, I'll offer it here in his words:
"This is the key," Husain says, "and this is where I don't think most non-Muslims — including most Americans — simply don't understand the stakes that we're playing for here. This phenomenon, whatever you want to call it — political Islam, extremism, Al Qaeda world view, Wahhabism — it threatens Muslims first and foremost, before it goes out and tries to undermine the West… And that's why it's not a cliché to say that the West and normal Muslims, moderate Muslims, have a common cause in defeating this extremist mindset. It threatens both of us."