I’m almost exactly the same age as Ed Husain, and we got involved in politics at the same time, in the early 1990s. While Husain joined a series of radical Islamist groups in London, most significantly Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Hizb), I joined the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in Glasgow. And while one organisation was working for submission to God in an Islamic state, and the other for the liberation of humanity from self-imposed constraints, certain parallels are unavoidable. Both put a premium on intellectual rigour and organisational professionalism, and, partly as a consequence, both were heartily disliked by other radical groups in their respective milieux.
Husain left the Hizb after only a couple of years, and eventually turned against Islamism as a political creed altogether. In The Islamist he argues for a return to a more traditional, spiritual version of Islam drawing on Sufism, and implicitly endorses conventional liberalism as the best political alternative to religious extremism. He also wants the liberal state to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir. The book is part mea culpa, part j’accuse (indicting the establishment that allows Islamism to flourish as much as the movement itself). But in fact, The Islamist is a critique of radical politics and political organisation in general as much as Islamism in particular. This makes the book more interesting than just an insider’s exposé of the movement for national security boffins and Islamoraks. It exhibits an unease about politics, and a suspicion about political activity, that extends beyond concerns about the rise of political Islam, and reflects the small-c conservatism of contemporary Western culture.
I never left the RCP: the organisation folded in the mid-1990s, but few of us actually ‘recanted’ our ideas. Instead we resolved to support one another more informally as we pursued our political tradition as individuals, or launched new projects with more general aims that have also engaged people from different traditions, or none. These include spiked and the Institute of Ideas, where I now work. It must be said that this development annoyed our political opponents immensely, and a cursory Google search (try ‘LM network’ if you have time to kill) will return a plethora of exposés purporting to show that former members of the RCP are involved in various sinister conspiracies. In short, even in its afterlife, the RCP remains as controversial as Hizb ut-Tahrir, though fortunately nobody is trying to ban ‘us’. In fact, the impossibility of simply doing away with a school of thought that is no longer attached to an organisation is perhaps what annoys our opponents most of all.
Of course, Islamism has come to prominence in recent years because of its association with terrorism, but aside from some rather unconvincing attempts to link the Hizb with actual violence, Husain’s critique is focused on the more prosaic politicking of his former comrades. For example, he seems to have been shocked on his realisation that the leadership of the Young Muslim Organisation, the first group he joined, expected him to use his college Islamic society to recruit new members. Similarly, he recounts in disapproving tones how the Hizb would use slick arguments to browbeat opponents and win new supporters. And while Husain suggests that the Hizb’s claims to intellectual rigour may be weaker than they like to think, ultimately he objects to their intellectualism per se; for Husain, their focus on ideas and ideology puts them at odds with Islam as a religion. (The same basic objection was made by another recent defector from the Hizb, Maajid Nawaz, who gave a less than Earth-shattering interview on the BBC’s Newsnight on 11 September 2007.)
As it happens, a disdain for ideology perhaps causes critics to overlook ideological differences, or underestimate their significance. While Husain argues that Hizb ut-Tahrir has been responsible for leading Muslim youth astray, and even inspiring suicide bombers, it is clear that the organisation is distinct from and indeed hostile to the Wahhabi strain in Islamism, which is the one most strongly associated with terrorism. Islamism is apparently as divided as the political left, with its legendary splits and sectarianism. (As if to complete the cosmic joke, some of the Hizb’s rivals who were associated with the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood later formed the Muslim Association of Britain, and joined up with the RCP’s old friends the Socialist Workers’ Party to form RESPECT, the party headed by George Galloway.) According to the caricature of Trotskyism, splits are the result of idle vanity and foolishness – a prejudice popularised in Monty Python’s Biblical comedy The Life of Brian, with competing tiny splinter groups of the Judean People’s Front etc. In reality, organisational splits and divisions often reflect important political differences.
When these differences are blurred or fudged in the name of unity, organisations and movements tend to lack political clarity, and in fact this seems to be a bigger problem for Islamism than an excessive focus on ideology. In political terms, one of the main intellectual weaknesses of Islamism, the Hizb included, is the tendency to think of ‘Muslims’ as a ready-made constituency. Husain makes the point that political Islamists are often disdainful of ordinary Muslims who simply go to the mosque and pray rather than getting involved in politics, even arguing that they are not ‘real’ Muslims. Despite this, Islamist groups continue to limit their activities to within existing Muslim communities, drawing on loyalty to Islam as an identity rather than any kind of intellectual conviction (‘Fear Allah, brother’ is apparently a favoured non-argument). While political Islamism is supposed to be a rigorous intellectual doctrine, then, it is in fact parasitic on identity politics. There is a parallel with left-wing organisations who feed off residual identification with the working class or the downtrodden as a pseudo-creed, rather than trying to win people to a positive political vision, and who thus end up espousing a conservative and backward-looking worldview. Given that Islam is an actual religion, and one strongly associated with a sizeable ethnic community in Britain, the temptation for Islamists is that much greater.
The defining issue of the early 1990s, when Husain and I got involved in politics, was the conflict in the Balkans. For the Hizb, the suffering of the Bosnian Muslims, and what they saw as the West’s complicity in it, showed the need for a unified Islamic state, or Caliphate, in the Middle East, whose military forces could protect Muslims globally (Husain says the ultimate plan was to conquer the whole world for Islam). The Hizb hoped to use the war in Bosnia to stir up fellow-feeling among British Muslims and thus win support for their cause. According to Husain, they succeeded quite easily in winning support for an Islamic state among a radical Islamist milieu that had hitherto been concerned only with the politics of the Indian subcontinent and turf wars over the control of local mosques. While the Hizb remained marginal organisationally and never succeeded in recruiting significant numbers of ordinary Muslims to its political programme, it helped shape the politics of Islamism more generally, defining what it meant to be a ‘real’ Muslim.
The RCP saw the war very differently. Its monthly magazine Living Marxism (later LM, in its post-RCP incarnation) opposed Western intervention on traditional anti-imperialist grounds, and thus warned against the tendency to moralise the conflict – with Muslims portrayed as the victims and Serbs as the villains – which was fuelling the clamour for military action. As with the Hizb, it was the moralised view of the war that dominated in the Western media, and especially ‘left-liberal’ publications like the Guardian and the Independent, which supported military intervention. Serb forces (though not only Serb forces) undoubtedly committed many atrocities, but the most horrific stories about dedicated ‘rape camps’ and gruesome mutilations (also circulated by the Hizb) were never substantiated. In any case, with a few exceptions, almost a whole generation of leftish thinkers called for and then supported Western military force against what they characterised as a barbaric, or even fascist, Serb regime. Of course, Bosnia was also a formative experience for the actual combatants, including Islamist fighters later to adopt the banner of al-Qaeda – causing the neocons, in an ironic turn, to take aim at ‘Islamofascism’. For the British left, though, the wars in the Balkans formed a political watershed: arguments were heated, and the resulting acrimony persists to this day in some quarters.
Crucially, however, the RCP was less interested in arguing about which position was the correct one for ‘socialists’ than in making the case against Western intervention to the wider public, and seeking – through sharp analysis and appeals to human rather than particular solidarity – to win fresh support (and recruits!) for our own political project. Though it never resulted in a popular movement against Western intervention, this approach at least allowed for an open and dynamic engagement with the ideas of others at a time when politics was changing fast, and prospects for radical change seemed increasingly remote. Having a political agenda and arguing for it in public seemed much preferable to the resigned cynicism that was increasingly common at the time. Ed Husain’s father, who always disapproved of his son’s involvement with Islamism, told him, ‘If you want politics, join the Labour party’. Even before Labour came to power in 1997, this must have been depressing advice for an idealistic young man, Muslim or otherwise. As long as the choice is between extremism, however dubious, and settling for the stultifying politics of ‘there is no alternative’, there will always be those who opt for the former, and that in itself is no bad thing.
The ex-radical’s memoir has become a distinct genre, documenting intellectual journeys from Marxism, fascism and now Islamism. While some are more thoughtful than others – Husain’s book is certainly a good read – as a genre it is ultimately conservative, imploring the reader to learn from the author’s mistakes and not stray from the path of moderation. But we should not let the undoubted failings of many radicals past and present make us dismiss radical alternatives altogether. It is even possible to learn from our own mistakes without turning our lives into cautionary tales. Looking back on my political life so far, I can think of many things I wish I had done differently; that’s a normal part of life rather than cause for an existential crisis. It is the radical groups that are least able to learn from mistakes and develop their ideas that are most likely to suffer dramatic defections, and it is perhaps unsurprising that converts from such groups retain some of that rigidity of thinking, even if they invert the categories.
It is also important to avoid becoming complacent about mainstream thinking. It is too easy for those who disdain radical movements as ‘sects’ to style themselves in contrast as free thinkers who have nothing but pristine, original thoughts. But organisations hardly have a monopoly on intellectual conformism. Arguably, unaligned individuals are more susceptible to passing fads than those with the discipline of a worldview shared with others; the careers of more than a few newspaper columnists are testament to that. But in fact, it is possible to start off with conventional ideas, then join a radical movement and adopt its thinking wholesale, and then leave to embrace conventional thought once more, all without asking a single serious question.
What’s important for a healthy political culture is not so much the particular ideas people hold, as whether they are able to take part in critical discussion about them. Being part of an organisation, or subscribing to a school of thought, is no more a barrier to this than it is an insulation against conformity to wider prejudices. We would all do well to think critically about our own ideas and assumptions, and to recognise that irrational beliefs are not the preserve of extremist weirdos. The attempt to ban the dogmatism of others is perhaps the first sign of dogmatic thinking. Challenging backward ideas and prejudices is the business of politics, not the law. Our culture is sorely in need of more rather than less political mobilisation, and even, whisper it, ‘radicalisation’.
This review was originally published in the September 2007 issue of the spiked review of books.