Talking about Islamism

Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer

We’ve just completed our program in which Krista interviews British activist Ed Husain. Ed Husain spent several years in the 1990s in ideologically radical Islamist groups in the UK, where he was born and grew up. He wrote a book about these experiences, The Islamist, which has generated some fierce debate in Britain. (Check out our Particulars page to find links to some of that criticism.)

In his book, he makes a case for banning radical groups that he was part of, and makes causal links between those ideological groups and other, more violent groups that encourage terror tactics and violence. All of this has come in the wake of the July 7, 2005, bombings in London that, like the terror attacks here in 2001, have been emblemized by two numbers: 7/7.

(Photo by Jan van der Crabben/Flickr)

Much of the debate has spun around whether or not such causal links do in fact exist, and whether or not his own experiences can speak to any sort of trend responsible for radicalizing youth in Britain’s Muslim communities.

It’s a sensitive topic, one that is difficult to remain objective about one way or the other. One thing I’ve experienced in reading the bubbling blogosphere is the cynicism the Muslim community feels toward the media. We’ve seen all sorts of talking heads and policy experts on the airwaves, telling us why terrorism has become a tactic used by Islamist revolutionaries. In fact, they rarely even frame it that way. The whole focus on terrorism — to the exclusion of positive developments — is problematic. Instead of opening up discussion, it paints people into corners, puts them in boxes, labels them as somehow different to “us.”

It’s this sense of “us” and “them” that Ed Husain talks much about in the show, particularly in the uncut interview. Having grown up in Britain, he has some quite pronounced views on social stratification and class segregation there.

But — and this is a big but — it seems to a cynical Muslim audience that it’s a short leap from calling something Islamism to stripping away that –ism, and just blaming Islam. The search for “moderate” Muslims by the media is held up proof of the media’s ignorance and complicity in framing how Muslims are portrayed. We’ve even had discussions here about what words we use to promote this show: do we catch the ear by offering insight into suicidal terrorism, or do we say that a radical has turned to a deeper spirituality?

In some sense, the whole usage of the term “moderate” reflects to what degree we view everything, in the US, through the lens of politics. Moderation is stressed repeatedly in the Qur’an as something to strive for, but no one within the Muslim community comes out and says, “Hey, world, I’m moderate!”

People do split into broad camps of conservatives, traditionalists, progressives, liberals, secularists, or what have you, but there’s a lot of debate over the terminology of these various shades of experience. Terms like conservative, moderate and progressive, having no real scriptural basis, seem borrowed from American media parlance. They can be useful shorthand, but sometimes obscure the nuance and complexity of today’s intellectual ferment. They can turn real people into distant intellectual constructs.

Some want to call this period of Islamic history the “Reformation,” borrowing again from an outside frame of reference. It honestly doesn’t matter what we call it. What matters is the substance, the story of our time in history, the opportunity, and the stakes we play for. People will criticize someone like Ed Husain for focusing on radicalism and calling for more discussion, for associating the Muslim experience with some problematic social malaise, or some violent ideology, when the daily lived reality is so far from that.

I myself find the issue of identity boring, because it doesn’t satisfy the real weighty questions that I wrestle with, things that are light-years away from the questions the media focuses on. I’m more concerned about purpose in my life, about goodness, about the music inside language, about if I should play PlayStation for another half-hour or start making dinner.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that someone like Ed Husain doesn’t have a story to tell. One can be self-critical without being self-hating. And I can’t say firsthand what it’s like in the UK, because I haven’t lived there. But Ed Husain talks about the North American Muslim community as a source for direct inspiration for him — there’s a strong streak of civic and social engagement in the Muslim community here. Just look to Krista’s interview with Ingrid Mattson or a recent interview on Altmuslim with Zaid Shakir. A great, high-profile British blog, Pickled Politics, seems to have a good pulse on the same reality in Britain.

That’s why Ed Husain has not abandoned Islam nor found it to be somehow inherently broken. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have criticism to offer about people who preach violence “in our name.” And nor does it mean, because he stakes out a claim, that he has the final, definitive answer. He doesn’t claim to, either, but he is part of a larger conversation. And if you have stories that inspire you, why not share them, and keep us honest?

(Photo by Chan’ad Bahraini/Flickr)

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