'Islamism is not Islam': confronting Europe's terrorism problem

Distinguishing between Islam and Islamist extremism; calling terror attacks for what they are; backing tolerance. Three very different thinkers grapple with one of Europe’s most vexed issues.
On a grey London afternoon in 1995, Ed Husain was sitting quietly in the public library opposite Newham College of Further Education, cramming for his upcoming exams, when he heard a commotion in the street below. The 19-year-old glanced out the window to see a small crowd gathered around a young man lying in a large pool of blood. As he was to later discover, a local Muslim youth whom he knew quite well had calmly plunged a knife into the chest of a Nigerian student leader, a Christian, killing him. The incident followed an argument over a pool table, and weeks of escalating tension between gangs of youths.
Husain tore down the stairs and helped police disperse onlookers. When he left the bloody scene later that day, he was overwhelmed with guilt, even though it wasn't clear whether religion was the catalyst. As an activist with the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, he'd encouraged his fellow Muslim students to disengage from kafirs (non-believers), to believe Muslims were superior to others, that democracy and freedom were Western constructs.
Husain and his fellow Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters had recruited scores of students on campus to the cause of Islamism, by definition the imposition on others of a political rather than spiritual interpretation of Islam. They'd plastered posters over campus such as "Islam: the Final Solution", organised talks such as "Hijab: Put Up or Shut Up", called for Sharia law to become state law – all ideas inspired by Hizb ut-Tahrir, which translates as "party of liberation".
The stabbing was the first of several wake-up calls for Husain. Just as it had taken a few years for him to become an Islamist, to adopt Islam as a political ideology rather than a faith, so it would take years to expunge the hard drive of indoctrination. "I didn't realise how deeply Hizb ut-Tahrir had penetrated my teenage mind," recalls the affable 43-year-old Brit, between sips of a flat white at the Good Weekend offices in Sydney. "I'd failed to comprehend the totalitarian nature of what they were promoting. That's what ideology does; it blinds us."
Author Ed Husain explains why it's so important to identify the political ideology that underpins radicalisation, and Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks, in this exclusive interview with Good Weekend.
The teenage Husain had revelled in how easy it was to manipulate the liberal academics at the college, out of their fear of being labelled racist. His loving parents, with whom he was still living in London, were often brought to tears by their son's radical turn, which he describes movingly in his 2007 debut book, The Islamist. But Hizb ut-Tahrir leaders had drummed into him that the Islamist movement was more important than family.
In the days following the stabbing, the Hizb ut-Tahrir leadership released a statement condemning the murder, trumpeting that it was a non-violent group. Husain knew this to be a lie, that the modus operandi of Hizb ut-Tahrir, founded in the 1950s by a Palestinian Muslim cleric, was first political subversion and later military jihad in its quest for the establishment of a caliphate. UK investigators, however, accepted Hizb ut-Tahrir's statement on face value.
Born in London's East End to Muslim migrants from British India who followed a gentle, spiritual form of Islam based on Sufi traditions, Husain, the eldest of four children, attended Sir William Burrough primary school in Tower Hamlets, East London, a school he describes as a "happy melting pot" of races, religions and tolerance. But at his all-boys high school in Stepney Green, where 90 per cent of students were Asian and Muslim, he found he didn't have a single white friend.
The education system seemed to be scared of asserting European values for a fear of appearing racist. It's a fear that has to go.
Ed Husain
"In the name of multiculturalism, modern Britain created these monocultural ghettos," observes Husain, who now advises political leaders on Islam, and whose 2018 book, The House of Islam, suggests peaceful paths for the future. "Multiculturalism is a noble idea, but there was no 'multi' in the high school I and many other Muslims attended; on the contrary, every provision seemed to be made for our separatism.
Ed Husain: “I’d failed to comprehend the totalitarian nature of what they were promoting. That’s what ideology does; it blinds us.”
Ed Husain: “I’d failed to comprehend the totalitarian nature of what they were promoting. That’s what ideology does; it blinds us.”Credit:PAUL STUART/CAMERA PRESS/AUSTRALSCOPE
"Our lives revolved around faith schools, mosque and Islamic extracurricular activities. The education system seemed to be scared of asserting European values for a fear of appearing racist. It's a fear that has to go, because this isn't racist at all. If young people aren't exposed to the complexities of life, they can become susceptible to simplistic world views and dogma."
At Stepney Green, Husain became involved with a group called Jamaat-e-Islami, whose Pakistani founder, Abul Al'a Maududi, was one of the godfathers of modern Islamism. "We were constantly reminded of Islam's political superiority over the West at Jamaat-e-Islami events," he recalls. Jamaat-e-Islami's testosterone-fuelled young leaders, who showed off their kung fu moves in the mosque hall, defied the police and were all-round "bad" boys, were a strong drawcard for the teenage students.
Husain gradually abandoned the form of Islam he'd grown up with, embraced by his grandfather and parents, for a political one his family loathed. From this point, it wasn't such a big jump to the radicalism of Hizb ut-Tahrir at college, where he studied history, politics and sociology. But in the months after the stabbing, he distanced himself from the group and spent the next few years trying to reconnect with the deeper roots of his faith.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, he and his wife, Faye, whom he had met while in college, travelled through the Middle East, where he was taken aback by the level of anti-Semitism in the media, and the way in which conspiracy theories about Jews ruling the world were accepted as fact. Racism, too, was endemic. Working for the British Council in the heartland of Islam, Saudi Arabia, Husain saw how its seven million immigrant workers were treated as third-class citizens. In Jeddah he met black immigrants who'd been living there for decades without passports, eking out squalid lives in cardboard shanties under concrete flyovers. He compared this to the situation in his homeland, Britain, which had given refuge and public housing to thousands of Somalians. "Judge a society by how well it treats its minorities," he says meaningfully.
Husain observed Saudi men hissing obscenities at women as they walked past, occasionally accosting them, including Faye, who always wore the long, black abaya in public. He was told of the abduction of women from taxis by sexually frustrated Saudi youths. "Almost every challenge in the house of Islam, sadly, is being fought over the bodies of women: how they should dress, whether they should divorce or not, drive or fly alone, whether they're entitled to a full education," he says. "Fix that inequality and you fix 52 per cent of society."
As a teenage Islamist, he'd come to see women wearing short skirts or bikinis as a sign of sexual availability or promiscuity. "It took me a long time to get out of that narrow, petty mindset," he recalls. It was only much later in life that he learnt where the hijab came from. "It was originally worn by Jewish and Christian women in the Levant," he writes in The Islamist. "The Prophet Mohammed had not invented the hijab, merely adhered to the dominant dress code of the time."
Husain, who has two daughters, tells me that when his father passed away in 2016, he insisted that part of his inheritance go to his sisters. "I guess it's male guilt," he laughs. "But I thought it was the right thing to do, because Muslim inheritance is part of the problem. Why is it women can only inherit one-third of what a man can? Why is it that a female Muslim's testimony in court is worth only half that of a man? It's not Islamophobic to question these things."
The rigidity of life in Saudi Arabia could easily have repelled Husain from Islam, but he remains a devout Muslim. He insists he's much closer to God – and a far superior Muslim – for having rejected Islamist ideology. But when he returned to Britain in 2005 – his youngest sister escaped death by minutes in the London Tube bombings on July 7 that year – he was alarmed by the number of organisations dominated by men with Islamist sympathies, including the Islamic Society of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain. In 2008 Husain, who has a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies from the University of London, launched the world's first counter-extremism think-tank, Quilliam, with his friend from college, Maajid Nawaz, who had also defected from Hizb ut-Tahrir after spending time in an Egyptian prison.
"Too often, the spiritually oriented, mainstream Muslims are drowned out by Islamists, who grab the media's attention," says Husain, who is now a senior fellow at Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society in London (he's no longer involved with Quilliam). "You don't fix a problem by being quiet."
Just as criticising the Chinese Communist Party is not to attack all Chinese, rejecting Islamists is not to attack all Muslims.
Ed Husain
After November's terrorist attack in Bourke Street, Melbourne, in which 30-year-old Hassan Khalif Shire Ali stabbed three people, killing popular cafe owner Sisto Malaspina, most Islamic leaders, in a now highly familiar pattern, called for it not to be labelled an Islamist attack to protect the Muslim community from being stigmatised. While the jury is still out on whether Ali was mentally ill, police maintain he harboured radical views, had links to Islamic State (IS) and had his passport cancelled in 2015 when ASIO believed he planned to travel to Syria. In an email exchange with me days after the attack, Husain is emphatic: "We must name a problem to confront it: most Muslims know that Islamism is not Islam," he writes. "Just as criticising the Chinese Communist Party is not to attack all Chinese, rejecting Islamists is not to attack all Muslims. Muslim leaders have a responsibility to root out Islamism and its terrorist manifestations, not campaign for using language that gives Islamist terrorists anonymity."
Husain blames this refusal to have a frank and difficult conversation about the darker depths of political Islamism for fuelling the rise of the right and the alt-right, which have been able to stoke social frustration over the vacuum of discussion about the ideology underpinning terrorist attacks. "We must name it because if we don't, the far-right make the political centre look weak."
It's ordinary Muslims across the globe who've suffered most from extremism, who make up the masses mourning their dead, Husain adds. That's why it's so important for Islamism (the political ideology) and Islam (the faith) to be plainly separated in the public mind. If community leaders had rejected Islamists and articulated this difference years ago, he insists, "we wouldn't be in this mess now". He draws parallels between the values of the Jew-hating, gay-hating, women-subjugating Islamists, and white supremacists, who sing from the same male power song-sheet. After Sadiq Khan, the socially liberal Muslim mayor of London, voted in favour of marriage equality in 2013 when he was still a Labour MP and government minister, he was inundated with death threats from Islamists – and also bullying messages from members of the far-right group Britain First.
Back in 2007, when Husain warned of the threat of a caliphate metastasising in the Middle East, he was branded alarmist by some media commentators. Six years later at least 10,000 militant volunteers from the West and 25,000 from 85 different countries joined IS. "We still haven't punctured a new generation's confidence in the possibility of a glorious utopian Islamist state," he says gloomily. "In the 20th century we fought the communist and Nazi utopias; in the 21st we're fighting the Islamist one."
It's a particularly dangerous moment in history, warns Husain, with terrorism, hate speech, and distrust of the press being manipulated by a new wave of charismatic, authoritarian leaders across the globe, who represent threats to democratic institutions. The second- and third-order consequences of this global turn to the right have only just started, at the very time the gulf between Islam and the West is widening, with countries like Pakistan and Indonesia becoming more fundamentalist, says Husain, who describes himself as a Muslim liberal.
"Which means," Husain sums up, "things could get a whole lot worse for both Muslims and non-Muslims."
Douglas Murray: “When you insert a strong religious culture into a weaker, relativistic one, it’s going to make its presence felt over time.”
Douglas Murray: “When you insert a strong religious culture into a weaker, relativistic one, it’s going to make its presence felt over time.”Credit:Getty Images
The man Ed Husain calls his "frenemy" is sitting opposite me in the expansive marble lobby of the Sofitel in Sydney's Phillip Street. Douglas Murray is a dapper 39-year-old British writer with a boyish face and floppy light brown hair, whose bestselling 2017 book, The Strange Death of Europe, takes the long view of mass migration and Islam, after he spent a year travelling across the continent to the many points of entry and residence of recent immigrants. While Murray shares some of Husain's views, as a self-described neoconservative he offers a far bleaker future vision of the capacity of Western Europe to successfully absorb its growing Muslim population.
"We assume liberal societies move in one direction – towards ever greater tolerance, pluralism and maturity – but we can't take this for granted," says Murray, only hours before appearing with US philosopher and Black Lives Matter supporter Dr Cornel West at Sydney's Enmore Theatre. "When you insert a strong religious culture into a weaker, relativistic one, it's going to make its presence felt over time."
Europe has lost its willingness to stand up for its core values, insists Murray, while the US, by contrast, still has a strong sense of itself. "Amid the endless celebrations of diversity, the greatest irony of all remains that the one thing people cannot bring themselves to celebrate is the culture that encouraged such diversity in the first place," he writes in The Strange Death of Europe.
Like Husain, Murray believes the solution isn't to disengage for fear of being labelled Islamophobic, but to challenge – in civil conversation – the political narrative underpinning Islamist extremism and brittle issues like anti-Semitism, forced marriage, female circumcision, honour killings and unjust pressure to wear the veil. "We have this oddity of liberal societies going quiet on bigotry just because it's coming from certain elements within an immigrant community." By being silent, he warns, we're doing a big disservice to liberal and moderate Muslims, who should be able to speak out without fear of being threatened or physically intimidated.
Murray grew up in London, in the middle-class area of Hammersmith, and went to a local state school before later studying English at Oxford University. Well known in the UK through his frequent media appearances, in which he talks about free speech and immigration, Murray is founder of the Centre for Social Cohesion. "I've always been comfortable with diversity," he says. "I went to school with kids from India, black kids, and after I graduated from university, I drifted for years across Europe, experiencing different communities."
There's no tippy-toeing around the fact that the vast majority of terrorist attacks across Europe since September 11, 2001 have been Islamist-inspired, says Murray, who is also an associate editor of The Spectator magazine. Although the vast bulk of Muslim Europeans reject extremism and violence, there is a growing pool of hard-core extremists – no doubt still inspired by the disaster of the Iraq War. Ten years ago, 3000 potential Muslim jihadists were being monitored by the British security services; this has now ballooned to 25,000, with three attacks on Westminster over the past two years, according to Scotland Yard. Murray asks whether Europeans are willing to accept terrorist attacks as the new normal. If not, are they willing to discuss the political narratives that drive radical Islamists, instead of simply putting them down to disenfranchised youths, mental illness or so-called lone wolves?
There are 26 million Muslims in Europe now, a figure that could double by 2050, according to the Pew Research Center, bringing the percentage of Muslims by that year to nearly 20 per cent in Germany, 18 per cent in France and 30 per cent in Sweden under continued high-immigration scenarios. Even if Muslim migration to Europe ceased tomorrow, numbers on the continent would still increase, because the typical Muslim is younger (by about 13 years) and more likely to have children (at least one more) than other Europeans. Despite high-profile cases like Sinead O'Connor, conversions to Islam don't appear to play a factor in these changing demographics, with roughly 160,000 more people leaving Islam in Europe than converting to it between 2010 and 2016.
Germany was already taking in a generous 200,000 immigrants a year ("the front door was already ajar", according to Murray), when Chancellor Angela Merkel yanked the door wide open in August 2015, declaring Wir schaffen das ("We can do this") in a spontaneous, heartfelt response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. More than 1.1 million migrants poured into Germany before the end of that year, with Saudi Arabia offering to build 200 mosques across the country, while not taking a single soul. "Perhaps 80 per cent of the people coming in were young men," contends Douglas. "It's rare for Muslim women to travel unaccompanied, especially for a journey as dangerous as this one."
Welcoming people was the easy part. "If multiculturalism wasn't working with much smaller numbers in Germany each year, how on earth was it expected to work with nearly 30 times that number coming in one year?" asks Murray.
It was at this moment in 2015 that the European dream of a borderless continent began to die, he contends. The following year, the British voted in support of Brexit, in part out of fear of Europe opening the floodgates. But the ugly, bitter calls to send the newcomers back had already started in Europe, following sexual assaults in the 2015-16 New Year's celebrations in Cologne Square, which involved 2000 Middle Eastern and African youths, often acting in groups. There was outrage the mainstream German media didn't report the assaults on hundreds of women until days afterwards, unwilling to stigmatise Muslims, but finally driven to do so by a tidal wave of stories on social media. (Other group sexual assaults later came to light, from Hamburg in the north to Stuttgart in the south.)
The following year, the EU promised Turkey €6 billion in financial aid to assist Syrian refugees but also to close its borders. (This was only a stopgap measure and there are now reports of an upswing in arrivals from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.) "It's not in Europe's power to solve the world's problems," says Murray. "But any criticism of terrorism, mass immigration or even sexual assaults can be seized upon to accuse someone of racism when they're not racist at all."
Flowers inside bullet holes in the window of Le Carillon restaurant, where the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015 began to unfold.
Flowers inside bullet holes in the window of Le Carillon restaurant, where the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015 began to unfold. Credit:Getty Images
Murray attributes Europe's guilt complex to its past sins of colonialism."It's only the nations of Europe that allow themselves to be judged by their lowest moments," he suggests. "What about the 600-year Ottoman Empire, which Islamists idealise as the caliphate, that used its military might to invade other countries, impose its religious and cultural values on others, and in its death throes after World War I oversaw the massacre of a million Armenians?" He continues: "If we blame those fighting the Crusades, why not the Mongols who invaded Aleppo, Harem and Baghdad in the 13th century, slaughtering hundreds of thousands? What of Turkey invading Cyprus in 1974, killing Greek Cypriots and driving them from their homes?"
On mass immigration, do we consider Japan a barbarous country because of its strict migration laws, when it has an economy larger than any single country in Europe, Murray asks. Where European guilt becomes dangerous, he warns, is in how it directly feeds into the standard Islamist narratives of al-Qaeda, IS and other radical groups: Western colonialism as history's arch villain, responsible for all the problems in the Middle East today, plotting to destroy Islam. Murray acknowledges the West has made some very grave blunders and miscalculations in the Middle East, but asks whether it's more responsible for the region's continuing ills than the two great duelling Islamic powers, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, and their endless proxy wars and export of fundamentalism.
While it's hardly surprising that Muslim populations tend to be more conservative, Murray, who is gay, says this is brought into sharp relief by attitudes to homosexuality. He cites a survey carried out in 2016 by the polling agency ICM that found 52 per cent of British Muslims thought homosexuality should be made illegal. More revealing was a national YouGov poll carried out in 2015 which found that 16 per cent of Brits thought homosexuality was morally wrong; but in cosmopolitan London, the figure was almost double that (29 per cent). "Rather than being more tolerant, the ethnic diversity of the capital reflected greater prejudice," he notes. While acceptance of homosexuality is also lower in many Christian countries such as Poland and Russia, Murray points to an international survey undertaken by the Pew Research Center which found the global divide was the most stark in Muslim countries, with 93 per cent of Indonesians, for example, finding it morally unacceptable.
In his book The Islamist, Husain relates a disturbing story of his time in college, when Hizb ut-Tahrir arranged for a firebrand American imam to speak. After the lecture, a mature-aged student politely handed the imam a slip of paper with a question about Islam and homosexuality. Before the student had a chance to return to his seat, the imam yelled out, "I knew you were a faggot by the way you walked up here!" to laughter, hoots, and hissing from the audience. At the time, Husain's own response was "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve", a response that now brings him considerable shame, but he adds that religious history is bursting with delicious ironies, such as the fact the Ottoman Empire or caliphate decriminalised homosexuality in 1858.
Murray doesn't blame Muslim immigrants for being more conservative or wanting to maintain their culture, but he does believe they have a social contract with the country that provides them with a safety net. He faults the British and German governing classes for taking six decades to introduce firmer immigration laws requiring knowledge of English or German for work permits and citizenship. More seriously, he blames European governments for a cowardly avoidance of dealing with the rising tide of anti-Semitism across the continent, resulting in armed guards outside synagogues after fire bombings, and an exodus of Jews from Europe to Israel, Canada and the US (it's estimated that 7000 Jews are leaving France alone each year).
Life in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, known as Europe’s biggest breeding ground for Islamist terrorists, in 2015.
Life in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, known as Europe’s biggest breeding ground for Islamist terrorists, in 2015.Credit:Getty Images
On a warm, still July evening, the type in Europe that pushes residents onto the streets, I'm strolling through Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels less than half an hour's walk from its World Heritage central square, with its opulent guild halls and town hall. Home to 90,000 people, 80 per cent of whom are Muslim, Molenbeek's narrow streets are lined with clothes shops, halal food outlets and signs in Arabic. Small groups of middle-aged men mill about smoking, women bustle past in hijabs, one whose face is completely shrouded in a niqab, while a couple of surly youths crouch outside a blue doorway. An elderly gentleman gives me a broad smile as he walks past.
On outward appearances, it's hard to believe this area has been branded the biggest breeding ground for Islamist terrorists in Europe. But the nine jihadis behind the November 2015 Paris attacks, in which 137 people were killed, were linked to this area; the bombings at Brussels airport in March 2016 were plotted here; and it's where the terrorists who slaughtered 12 staff at Paris's Charlie Hebdo offices in early 2015 obtained their high-powered assault weapons, the type outlawed in France. I'm here an hour or so after speaking with Thomas Renard, a senior research fellow at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations, housed in a high-security, wedding-cake building across town. "Molenbeek isn't as bad as you might think," smiled the 35-year-old expert in counter-radicalisation. "It is not the nicest part of Brussels but it's not a war zone."
Like Husain and Murray, Renard believes it's important to call out Islamist-inspired terror attacks once security services have confirmed that to be the case. "There shouldn't be avoidance; the media is there to report," Renaud insists. He acknowledges that his country has a problem with radical mosques and preachers, but the legal grounds for prosecuting someone for hate speech "aren't always self-evident" in a country of three official languages and different jurisdictions. (Belgium has produced more jihadi fighters, per capita, than any other Western European nation.)
Thomas Renard: "The reason deradicalisation attempts fail is because you can't change someone's ideology by the force of persuasion."
Thomas Renard: "The reason deradicalisation attempts fail is because you can't change someone's ideology by the force of persuasion."Credit:Bea Uhart
"There's this myth about lone wolf attacks, and the media participates in it," he says. "An attack or a failed attack is reported to be the result of a sole operator, a 'lone wolf' unknown to the authorities. The media covers it extensively for hours or days, then moves on. Later we find out that in fact the 'lone wolf' was in touch with a radical imam, or had met a fighter from Afghanistan or Iraq; he was much more connected than we first thought."
Renard believes it behoves Western societies to challenge radical ideas and bigotry no matter what segment of society they come from, because once someone becomes radicalised, it's extremely hard to wind back the clock. "The reason deradicalisation attempts fail is because you can't change someone's ideology by the force of persuasion. This doesn't mean people can't deradicalise – some do. But that's the experience of their own personal trajectory, a result of their own motivation." The best outcome for deradicalisation training, Renard explains, is to prevent an extremist from turning his or her ideas into violent actions.
Belgium is making progress, according to Renard. Since 2015, hate speech has been punishable by the criminal code and the names of hate preachers have been added to a new national database. "There has also been progress in the great mosque of Brussels, a symbolic place where radical Islam was taught and everyone knew it." A study undertaken this year by the Belgian security services showed that about 60 per cent of foreign fighters in prison were showing signs of "disengagement", although 40 per cent were still considered "hard core". Meanwhile more than 550 armed soldiers still patrol the streets – down from 2000 immediately following the 2016 terrorist attacks – and the terminals at Brussels airport are still circled by huge concrete bollards.
No one is underestimating the challenges ahead. But what it boils down to is the battle of ideas, insists Husain: making Muslims feel part of a society that values freedom, equality and openness. Middle Eastern countries could learn a lot from the European model, which is why he believes a Middle Eastern union is possible.
"The West isn't about brownness, whiteness or blackness, despite pockets of prejudice," he says. "It's about ideas."
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.
Armed troops, such as these around the Eiffel Tower, have become a familiar sight in Europe following a string of deadly terrorist attacks.Credit:Getty Images


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