Walled in against the modern world

According to this book, Islam outside the West preserves much of its traditional character, but Islam within the West is in danger of petrifying, says Paul Goodman

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In 2010, between leaving politics and resuming journalism, I wrote two chapters of a novel. It emerged from my experience of representing in parliament what was then the highest number of Muslims in any Conservative-held seat, Wycombe.

Among the Mosques: A Journey Across Muslim Britain by Ed Husain, Bloomsbury, £18.99

It imagined a future in which Britain had been riven by plague. Islamist extremists had carved out enclaves in cities governed by ISIS-style sharia. Most of the countryside was ruled by white crime gangs, which were ethnically cleansing any land they seized.

Caught between was the suffering majority of all faiths and none. The heroes of the tale were a chain-smoking imam, a transvestite former MP (no relation), and a would-be military dictator: focused, grim-jawed, female, a dead shot, and bearing a distinct resemblance to my former colleague Pauline Neville-Jones, now a peer, formerly chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

The chapters that survive show it up as what must surely be one of the most execrable novels ever attempted. Nonetheless, its preoccupation has shed its skin, like the ugly chrysalis it was, and somehow been transformed into this butterfly of a book by Ed Husain — minus chain-smoking, Baroness Neville-Jones and, as far as I can see, transvestites of any kind.

Husain made his name with The Islamist, the best account to date of having been one, and has been writing about religion, politics and culture ever since. His latest venture is based on a tour of some of Britain’s largest cities, or those with a significant Muslim presence; Blackburn, Belfast, Dewsbury and Manchester.

“I see us becoming an apartheid city,” Husain is told in Bradford by Louise, the director of a theatre company that helps disabled children. “We’ll have parties like Nazi Germany organising against immigrant and Muslim populations.” In Belfast, paramilitaries firebomb the homes of people who have converted to Islam.

In Yorkshire, a man called Tom says a neighbour was refused permission for a flagpole to fly the Union Flag. But the conversations with white non-Muslims are essentially noises off: the point of the book is to travel from mosque to mosque, supported by his knowledge of Arabic, Bengali, Urdu and Persian.

He writes so lightly that the butterfly comparison isn’t out of place. But, as Mohammed Ali once put it, float like a butterly, sting like a bee — and there is a sharp point to this book. My main experience of Islam in Wycombe came via the Barelwis — a Sufism-flavoured form of Islam, which its Muslim critics claim is compromised by Hindu influences.

At one point during my time in the Commons, I and others had high hopes of them — believing that they might provide a counterweight to the reductionism, anti-Western reflexes and rote-learning of the Salafis and Deobandis. According to Husain, I was wasting my time. The Barelwis are now polluted by the belief that any lover of Mohammed, an Ashiq-e-Rasool, must kill any heretic, any Gustakh-e-Rasool.

He finds the spirit of extremism at work everywhere — and especially in the treatment of women as possessions of men. What is going on? Perhaps the answer comes in a conversation at cross-purposes. Husain asks an interlocutor if he has ever been to Nizamuddin. After a while, it becomes clear that the two men are talking about two different places.

He finds the spirit of extremism at work everywhere — and especially in the treatment of women as possessions of men

Husain’s Nizamuddin is in Delhi, where “songs of love were sung by both sexes, men and women danced, and the colours of their clothes and the ecstatic climaxes they reached as they whirled or clapped was deeply moving for people like me watching from the sidelines”. So is his companion’s: but it is the Nizamuddin of the Tablighi Jamaat, the fundamentalist movement whose headquarters is here in Dewsbury.

According to this book, Islam outside the West preserves much of its traditional character, but Islam within the West is in danger of petrifying — walling itself in as a protection against secular culture: anti-western, anti-gay, anti-democracy and anti-women, at least in any sense that the majority of their fellow Brits would understand.

Husain lights a few candles. There is hope in a Muslim soldier in Glasgow, the hijab-wearing woman at a Birmingham LGBT clinic, and the women who run a Belfast mosque: “There is a new Western Islam progressing here; it is just that the people who are developing it are shouting less loudly than the caliphists.”

The rule of law, individual liberty, gender equality, openness, uniqueness and racial parity are cited as “defining traits” that can, if upheld, stave off the prospect of “social separatism, communal domination, conflict of some form, partitions of towns and ultimately mass deportations”.

When bombs are not exploding on the London Underground, or a car isn’t driven into a crowd of Muslims outside Finsbury Park mosque, or there is no war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Husain’s dystopian warning will seem remote, if not obsessive.

But, as Gerry Adams once said of the IRA, Islamist extremism and other forms “haven’t gone away, you know”. Perhaps we should send for Baroness Neville-Jones after all.

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