The Ranting Kraut

19.3.2006 – 27.9.2010

Two Books on Islamism

Posted by rantingkraut on August 6, 2007

Two books on Islamism have hit the UK book market this year. One, “The Islamist” by Ed Husain is a biographic account by a former Islamist activist; the other “Rethinking Islamism” by Lord Meghnad Desai is an extended essay, based on arguments in an earlier letter to the Financial Times. With a personal account on the one hand and a more detached, academic approach on the other, both titles could well complement each other. Yet, one of the two is clearly a more rewarding read.

Rethinking Islamism

Lord Desai makes the point that Islam as a religion should be distinguished from Islamism – a political ideology. He provides what looks like a thorough analysis of bin Laden’s ideology and surveys a fair amount of general recent history: the evolution of communist ideology through the cold war, past episodes of terrorism and the disintegration of empires all get a hearing.

There is little new in this for the reasonably well informed, politically conscious reader. Some of Desai’s interpretations are also distinctly odd: Rousseau, the Ku Klux Clan and the Baader Meinhof gang, for example, are all categorised as anarchist while libertarianism is largely identified with the conspiracy driven lunatic fringe of US politics.

Desai makes it clear that Islamism is a vile ideology that needs to be combated. He also clearly states that global Islamism aims at world domination and, whatever their prospects for success, is unlikely to settle for a settlement based on mutual toleration. There are some interesting observations on the parallels between Islamism and Nazism, and between Islamist and Communist political strategies. It is important too that these remarks are coming from a prominent figure of the centre left.

He is less persuasive when it comes to fighting global Islamism. Desai observes that, generally speaking, Muslims and Muslim countries have not suffered much more than others and that it is up to Muslims to improve their own situation. However, with regards to Muslim minorities in the West he sees the solution mainly in trying to better understand Islam.

With reference to the infamous Danish Cartoon controversy, Desai’s preferred solution would have consisted in highlighting the fact that depictions of Muhammad were common in traditional Muslim societies. The desired effect would presumably have been to distance Muslims receptive to such arguments from the interpretation offered by Islamist ideologues.

It is far from clear though that such a strategy would have worked. It would, in any case have been a move in the wrong direction: what Desai proposes here is to find a way of reconciling a particular instance of free expression with the religious demands of Islam. In doing so, he implicitly accepts religious sensitivities as a limiting factor on free speech.

This approach also highlights another crucial weakness in Desai’s argument: He sees Islamism as a problem in so far as it leads to terrorism. By limiting his focus thus, he ignores the wider problem of theocracy. If subjectively held beliefs and superstitions are given legal power, freedom of religion and freedom of expression are necessarily under threat. This threat is coming not only from Islamist terrorists but also –if not more so—from moderate theocrats who aim to instrumentalise the state for their ideology.

The Islamist

The Islamist is an autobiographical account by Ed Husain, detailing his journey from the spiritual – Muslim tradition of his childhood to radical Islamist involvement with a number of extremist groups in London. Husain eventually became disillusioned with political Islam. His experiences living overseas, in Syria and Saudi Arabia, serve to highlight the ideologically motivated distortions and simplifications of the Islamist world view while exposing an ugly reality of endemic racism and religious intolerance in Saudi Arabia.

As an autobiographical account, this book is short on general analysis by design. Even though, it contains interesting reflections on Britain’s Islamist scene and characterisations of a number of Islamist groups. In contrast to Desai, Husain does not limit himself to the writings of bin Laden, but covers a wider range of the ideological spectrum. He also shows how different groups use different tactics and that quite a few radical Islamists are not themselves involved in terrorism, show no moderation in their ultimate political objective.

Husain, thus confirms Desai’s observation of functional similarities between Islamist and communist groups. There are detailed descriptions of how Hizb-ut-Tahir follows the kind of decentralised cell structure known from left wing urban guerilla outfits as well as accounts of deepening contacts between radical Islam and the far left around the Socialist Workers’ Party. On the other hand, the author recalls how Islamists influence the government via organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain.

In the end, Husain turned his back on Islamism while remaining a pious and religiously active Muslim. His account is invaluable not only because it gives a concise overview of the Islamist political spectrum, but also because he addresses some widespread misconceptions about political Islam. The author repeatedly reminds us that Islamist hostility to Western democracy and support for Jihad predate the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and that Islamists called their coreligionists to a crusade long before Bush used the term.

Of the two books, I found “The Islamist” to be the more rewarding and informative. Aside from covering Islamist ideology in more depth, this book combines the close up view of personal involvement with the clear-headed analysis of a well educated author who has gained some distance from his subject. Desai’s “Rethinking Islamism looks superficial by comparison and is marred by some fairly idiosyncratic interpretations of history.

However, both books do provide a vital addition to the ongoing debate: they firmly reject Islamism as an ideology from a centre left position (both authors are members of the labour party). Coming from an atheist and a practicing Muslim respectively, it would also appear extremely implausible to dismiss their judgement as an expression of reflexive Islamophobia by the Christian conservative establishment. Rather, these contributions help to establish the dividing line between a pluralistic Western democracy on the one hand, and a totalitarian theocratic ideology on the other.

Meghnad Desai “Rethinking Islamism: The Ideology of the New TerrorI B Tauris (The publication date given by the publisher on-line is 2006, while 2007 is printed inside the book cover).
ISBN-13: 978-1845112677

Ed Husain “The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I LeftPenguin Books 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0141030432

2 Responses to “Two Books on Islamism”

  1. Ranting

    Interesting review. I will make sure i check out The Islamist. Is this the best of the curent crop of books on Islam, in your opinion?

  2. Of the current crop (of books on Islamism) I only read the two titles in the review. But even when taking a longer time horizon, ‘The Islamist’ is certainly one of the most informative books I read on the topic. (I have Munira Mirza‘s Policy Exchange report (‘Living apart together’) next on my list.)

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