The Lib Dems' core principles include opposition to conformity and ignorance. I suggest we had better all read Ed Husain's new book The Islamist published by Penguin last month. It is his story - at times a deeply personal memoir - and much more besides.
The early chapters of the book centre on places I know quite well: Limehouse and Whitechapel. The author was born in Mile End, east London, in the mid-1970s. His childhood was spent in Limehouse. It was happy at first, but his parents believed in single-sex schooling, and so sent him to Stepney Green, the nearest boys-only secondary school. He describes his first year there as the worst year of his life. "Here everyone was Bangladeshi, Muslim, and male," he writes.
He read avidly, and in one of his schoolbooks - Gulam Sarwar's Islam: Beliefs and Teachings - he first encountered the notion of Islam not as a religion but as an ideology. The textbook stated that there was no state in existence in which Islam was a system of government, and commended various organisations dedicated to the creation of 'truly Islamic states'. One such organisation was called Jamat-e-Islami. It had been founded in British India in 1941 by a journalist called Abul Ala Mawdudi, who, says Husain, was first to rebrand Islam as an ideology.
Through a friend from school, the author joined the Young Muslim Organisation UK (YMO) and, whereas his family worshipped at Brick Lane mosque, he started to attend the East London Mosque. He calls it a "strategically placed institution, at the heart of the densest population of Muslims in Britain". It is a building I have often passed by in my travels over the years. It is, as he describes, custom built with minarets and a dome. Often as I passed I would see crowds of unsmiling young men outside. I was unaware that it had received donations from Saudi Arabia and employed Saudi-trained imams. I was unaware that throughout the late 1980s the mosque had been the site of a bitter power struggle between rival factions of the Jamat-e-Islami.
By 1991 the author, then aged 16, had no white friends and his time was filled with YMO activities instead of revising for his GCSEs. Mawdudi's writings encouraged him to distinguish between 'true Muslims' - not partial ones like his own parents - and kafirs, a derogatory term for everyone who was not a 'true Muslim'. By the summer of 1992 his involvement was deep. When his father found Jamat-e-Islami leaflets at home, he gave his son an ultimatum to leave Mawdudi's Islamism or leave home. Husain left home.
Husain writes that he and his associates at that time "knew that the world we espoused was underpinned by the writings of Mawdudi and another, more crucial, character: Syed Qutb." Qutb "declared that a total jihad was the only way to remove the disbelieving presidents and princes of the Arab world", in order to abolish all systems that fell short of the true Islamist state. Nasser's government imprisoned Qutb and executed him in 1966, but not before he had smuggled his book, Milestones, "the Communist Manifesto of Islamism", out of Egypt.
Husain became an activist at Tower Hamlets College where among their activities his associates put up posters bearing the slogan: "Islam: The Final Solution". They despised Jews and gays: they agreed that "faggots would go to hell". Determined to be confrontational, they engineered a showdown with the liberal, secular college management about prayer facilities and were exultant when the management backed down. Among their oher activities they put pressure on women students to wear the hijab.
From Qutb's teachings Husain progressed to Hizb ut-Tahrir. An adherent told him: "The world today suffers from the malignant cancers of freedom and democracy... we will deliver the Islamic state through a military coup... The flag of Islam will rise above Downing Street..." Heady stuff for an 18-year-old.
Hizb was dedicated to the re-establishment of the caliphate. It was founded in 1952 by Tazi Nabhani (born in 1909 in what became Palestine). It was banned from the outset by the Jordanian monarchy and subsequently in other countries of operation. Hizb leaders targeted Tower Hamlets as the UK's most densely populated 'Muslim area'. The key to its progress was the dubious premise that the Islamic state was a religious duty or wajib.
The author attended a conference at LSE where, impassioned by the conflict in Bosnia, the audience soaked up Omar Bakri's advocacy of an Islamic state with a powerful army. Husain writes: "At one stage Omar Bakri was delivering as many as twenty-nine lectures a week... While the British state fed Omar, he sowed the seeds of terror in British Muslim minds." (Omar Bakri was banned from the UK in 2005. The BBC programme Real Story of 5 April 2004 states: "Omar Bakri's version of Islam is disputed by most Muslims.")
In passages suffused with irony, Husain explains some of the unshakeable and preposterous beliefs held by his zealot associates. For instance they "knew" that the prevention of escalation of the Bosnian conflict was only a pretext for the international community's refusal to arm Bosnian Muslims: the real reason was "a conspiracy to reduce the numbers of Muslims in Europe".
Thus the author was sinking into a quicksand of ignorance, arrogance and intolerance which led to some of his associates being convicted of serious crimes. He, however, got a wake-up call when an African Christian student was murdered outside the library where Husain was studying. He saw the body and the blood on the pavement. The victim had been involved in a dispute over use of a pool table. The author's Islamist associates were convinced of their own superiority over everyone else, and one of them knifed the student for having offended them. The killer was later convicted of murder. The author drew back from militancy from that day onwards.
Husain warns that trained members of the Hizb organisation "knew how to deny, lie, and deflect"... lying and deception were simply strategies of war. Besides, our enemies were kafir, not deserving of our honesty or integrity..."
In his later chapters, Husain describes how he was helped to "regain my sanity" by Sufi scholars, all of whom, ironically, were American citizens. He has acute observations on life in Syria. His comments on Wahhabism and his impressions of Saudi Arabia as a sick, sexist (as well as sex-starved) and deeply racist society policed by arrogant bigots, both fascinated and dismayed me, especially against the background of the BAE bribery scandal and the recent new arms deal between UK interests and the Saudi regime which I believe is extremely unwise.
Husain concludes with much to say that is relevant to security policy. He has trenchant criticisms of some prominent British Muslims such as Iqbal Sacrani, who supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. (Now both of them are knights.) He tells of the activities of George Galloway's Respect party in Tower Hamlets, accusing them of using colour, religion and language as if they were political beliefs in their own right. He is critical of the open sale of books such as Milestones in bookshops here. And he calls for a ban on the Hizb organisation. He asks how much longer we will tolerate the hypocrisy of Islamists enjoying British life while calling for its destruction.
An important question, indeed.
You can watch Ed Husain on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbmvYdAfQRM
When watching, you can decide whether you think Husain or the Hizb spokesman is telling the truth. One of them isn't.