The Islamist seems to have been drafted by a Whitehall mandarin as a PR job for the Blair government, while Journey into Islam is quite insightful and reads in places like an anthropological text, says Ziauddin Sardar
Two Muslim men go on a voyage. One plans his expedition carefully. The other foolishly drifts into a journey that takes him in and out of radical Islam. Both emerge enlightened, eager to tell what they have learned. Have they learned anything of real significance? Should the rest of us listen?
There is nothing really new in Ed Husainís story. An East London boy, born in Britain to Indian parents, wants to discover his religion. He learns what he can from his parents, then gets involved with various Muslim organisations. He does what numerous politically inclined young people throughout Britain do every day: he organises meetings, lectures and demonstrations. Eventually, he comes under the influence of the extremist cleric Omar Bakri, and joins the atrocious Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Husain tells us a lot about Hizb ut-Tahrir: how it organises its cells, brainwashes its followers, its political tactics (imported from the Socialist Workers Party); and its programme as explained in the "System", written by the founder, Taqi Nabhani. Some folk may find his account of life inside a radical organisation illuminating. But we know how a Trotskyite cult like Hizb ut-Tahir functions from accounts of numerous other cults.
It is, however, disingenuous to imply that Husainís is not a unique journey, undertaken by someone whose critical faculties are conspicuously absent, but a route that can easily be followed by a vast majority of young Muslims. Young Muslims are no more likely to join Hizb ut-Tahrir than young Christians will join the Moonies. You have to v be of a certain bent to come under the influence of a cult and join as a fully paid-up member. Fortunately, in my experience, the vast majority of young British Muslims have more sense and critical acumen than Husain.
The suggestion that the radicalisation of Muslim youth can be laid firmly on the door of Hizb is also hard to swallow. The anger of young Muslims against the West has a much broader context. There was a great deal going on during the 1990s that agitated young Muslims and brought anti-western sentiment to the fore ó from the first Gulf War to the genocide of Muslims in Chechnya. But Husain sees the world in reductive, one-dimensional terms.
When he finally realises his folly, and bids farewell to Hizb, Husain continues to be a reductive extremist. Now, the entire blame for the radicalisation of Muslim youth is placed on multiculturalism ó the very idea that gave Husain all the opportunities he had in life! Terrorists, he tells us, are a product of sexual frustration. So we ought to provide them with generous doses of sex to usher them towards peaceful directions.
Hizb ut-Tahir should be banned so that they can take their nefarious activities underground and become even more difficult to tackle. Muslim organisations are secret terrorist sympathisers. Husain doesnít tell us what we should do with them. But I suspect he wants everyone locked up, leaving the terrain open for his brand of neocons to run amok.
In contrast, Akbar Ahmed wants a dialogue. He drags two of his students, a male and a female, around mosques, shrines and madarasas of the Muslim world and engages with everyone who would sit down and talk. And, like a good anthropologist, he goes out of his way to provide conceptual and political contexts. There are rational reasons, he suggests, why people think and act as they do.
In Damascus, for example, he is shocked to discover the love and respect that Syrians show towards Saddam Hussein. A little diversion on the notion of honour and the Syrian obsession with the "heroic ideal" puts the whole thing in perspective. Saddamís public humiliation had turned him into a hero for the Arabs. Tyranny had been domesticated.
True enlightenment comes when Ahmed and his students visit the "den of the enemy". In India, he visits the famous Deoband seminary. The austere Deobandis are supposed to be militant jihadis, closed to discussion. But Ahmed discovers that they are amenable to dialogue. The enemy turns out human after all.
Both Husain and Ahmed incline towards Sufism as an antidote to militant versions of Islam. But while Husain sees the world infested with radical Muslims and has to go looking for Sufism, Ahmed finds Sufism everywhere he goes. He describes the different kinds of Sufism he encounters in Indonesia, Iran, India and Somalia as though they were anthropological curiosities, while insisting they are a living, global reality.
So whom should we listen to? The occasional insight of Husainís memoir notwithstanding, The Islamist seems to have been drafted by a Whitehall mandarin as a PR job for the Blair government. While Journey into Islam reads in places like an anthropological text, it is quite an insightful book. Ahmed shows that one of the prime causes of Muslim rage is globalisationís tendency to "flatten" all cultures, banish diversity, and reduce space for difference. And I would definitely pay heed to his assertion that western foreign policies have a great deal to do with the emergence of jehadi politics.
ó By arrangement with The Independent