Wednesday, November 26, 2008

BOOKS: Ed Husain and political engagement ...

Well, I did say that I’d be focussing on posting old stuff. So much for that.

Hopefully I’ll be getting my manuscript back on Monday. I’ll then have 14 days to do the final editing and chiselling of the text.

My book is about how young Muslims I grew up with during the 1980’s and 90’s navigated our way into, through and out of various forms of political Islam. No doubt some will compare the book with Mohamed Mahbub (Ed) Husain’s The Islamist: Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left, which was published by Penguin in the United Kingdom in 2007.

Husain claims to have spent five years dabbling in various forms of political Islam, from the Jamaat-i-Islami style of Sayyid Maududi to Hizbut Tahrir (HT). He says that he felt compelled to leave after he witnessed someone at his college being murdered. It isn’t clear exactly how this murder was in any way related to HT, apart from the person alleged to have been the culprit having a particular mindset that was apparently fostered by HT.

Husain’s preface outlines the purpose of his book ...

This book is a protest against political Islam, based on my own experience as a British Muslim who grew up in London, became an extremist – an Islamist – and saw the error of his ways ... This is the story of my journey from the inside, in the fullest sense of the word: inside today’s Islam, inside Britain’s Muslim communities, inside my own heart.
I can’t but help wonder if Husain’s work is less one of analysis and more of hubris. Just how many British Muslim communities was he exposed to? Just how many forms of political Islam did he encounter? To what extent was he really a leader in any group?

The utility of Husain’s book is that he explores his own thinking with a fair degree of honesty, warts and all. However, I wonder whether it was the various forms of political Islam that is at issue here or rather his own interpretation of them?

In saying all this, I am in no way suggesting that Husain’s work can be dismissed. I’ve reviewed Husain’s book here and here. However, I did make some critical notes about the book which I was unable to incorporate into these reviews due to word-count restrictions.

Husain claims that his parent’s Islam had little or no political content. He appears to have come from a family that followed the Barelwi school of thought, and speaks about frequent mawlid gatherings in his home and dhikr sessions at the Brick Lane mosque. His parents followed a Bangladeshi Islamic scholar and sufi shaykh named Abdul Latif Fulthali (or “Abd al-Latif Fultholy” as spelt by Husain). On page 9, Husain describes Fulthali as

... a master of five Muslim mystical orders, as well as the founder of over 400 religious seminaries in India and Bangladesh.
Husain says that both his father and Shaykh Fulthali were critics of Sayyid Maududi and the Jamaat-i-Islami. On page 10 he writes:

I heard names such as ‘Mawdudi’ being severely criticised, an organisation named Jamat-e-Islami being refuted and invalidated on theological grounds. All this was beyond me.
I also heard similar stuff throughout my time and still do. However, I eventually learned that much of the attack on Maududi was based not just on theology but also on political grounds.

One chap I met in Sydney during the early 1990’s was named “Sufi Javed”. He was founder of the Australian branch of a mild Barelwi group called Idara Minhaj al-Qur’an. But Sufi Javed was anything but mild. The first time I sat with him, I was with an old friend of Fiji-Indian background I refer to in my book as “Shaf” and another friend of Lebanese extraction nicknamed “Shamir Yahood” (his actual name in Arabic rhymed with this). Sufi Javed’s words in Urdu are still ringing in my ears:

Maududdi bohot bara aalim tha. Aur bohot bara CIA agent bhi tha! ("Maududi was a big scholar. And also a big CIA agent!")

Apparently being a CIA agent was regarded as a bad thing. It probably still is. I’m sure glad I’m not one.

Sufi Javed also hacked into other groups. Shaf was a huge fan of the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) and a staunch critic of Maududi. Shaf was smiling broadly when he heard Sufi Javed declare Maududi to be a CIA agent. His smile didn’t last for long when Sufi Javed proclaimed the founder of the TJ, Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalwi, to be an Angrezo ka jaasoos ("spy to the British"). Kandhalwi founded the TJ in Delhi before Indian independence and Partition.

This kind of sectarian and political hyperbole was common in Muslim discourse, at least in Sydney. And apparently in India and Pakistan also. Kandhalwi’s son-in-law, Muhammad Zakariyya, wrote a book called Fitnat-i-Maududiyyat (literally “the Chaos resulting from Maududiism”), which Shaf often harped on about. I never could locate an English language edition of the book, but I did read badly-translated excerpts in a book many years later.

So much of this hyperbole was just sheer hypocrisy. Ed Husain seems to suggest his father’s spiritual guide (or pir), Shaykh Fulthali, was not interested in politics. I’ll believe that when someone can convince me that John Howard and Pauline Hanson are both members of the Aeora Aboriginal nation.

Husain was very fortunate to be in the company of a pir from a young age. But his family pir clearly had a deep interest in politics. Shaykh Fulthali stayed with Husain’s family in the summer of 1990. At the time, Husain was 15 years old and preparing for his GCSE exams. However, studies didn’t concern Husain as much as the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and the resulting war.

Husain refers to Shaykh Fulthali as “Grandpa”. He writes on pages 16-17:

Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president, had invaded his small neighbour. Grandpa would return home every night and ask me for the latest news. The first time he asked, I had no idea where Iraq was on the map, let alone what its leader had done.

Very quickly I sharpened up my geography of the Middle East. But that was not enough. The following day he asked me how the international community had responded. What was going on at the UN? What were other Arab governments saying? Astounded, I wondered how I was supposed to know. But I knew I had to know. Pleading ignorance was not an option.

I grabbed pen and paper and started watching news bulletins in the mornings and afternoons. I took copious notes. I did this for about five months while Grandpa stayed with us, providing him with the details of Saddam’s rhetoric, Tareq Aziz’s interviews and John Simpson’s bomb-ducking analyses. ... Before my sixteenth birthday my father’s interest in current affairs and Grandpa’s delegation of news monitoring to me meant that I had become politicized.
This degree of political engagement with overseas conflicts would never have been tolerated by my Jamaat-i-Islami relatives so close to major exams. It would never have been tolerated under any circumstances in the TJ.

To be continued ...

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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