Renouncing Islamism

Criminal acts like those by Major Nidal Hassan at Fort Hood raise the question of how a native-born son of an inclusive, democratic nation like the United States or Britain could turn against it and hold in their heads ideas that mere common sense would dispel.

The commentary is comprised of four parts, and is seemingly out of order: The discussion of why Britain gives birth to extremists is the third act. This is the part I’ll post below.

Renouncing Islamism: To the brink and back again

As children and teenagers, the ex-jihadis felt Britain was a valueless vacuum, where they were floating free of any identity.

Ed Husain, a former leader of HT, says: “On a basic level, we didn’t know who we were. People need a sense of feeling part of a group – but who was our group?” They were lost in liberalism, beached between two unreachable identities – their parents’, and their country’s. They knew nothing of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or the other places they were constantly told to “go home” to by racists.

Yet they felt equally shut out of British or democratic identity. From the right, there was the brutal nativist cry of “Go back where you came from!” But from the left, there was its mirror-image: a gooey multicultural sense that immigrants didn’t want liberal democratic values and should be exempted from them. Again and again, they described how at school they were treated as “the funny foreign child”, and told to “explain their customs” to the class. It patronised them into alienation.

“Nobody ever said – you’re equal to us, you’re one of us, and we’ll hold you to the same standards,” says Husain. “Nobody had the courage to stand up for liberal democracy without qualms. When people like us at [Newham] College were holding events against women and against gay people, where were our college principals and teachers, challenging us?”

Without an identity, they created their own. It was fierce and pure and violent, and it admitted no doubt.

To my surprise, the ex-jihadis said their rage about Western foreign policy – which was real, and burning – emerged only after their identity crises, and as a result of it. They identified with the story of oppressed Muslims abroad because it seemed to mirror the oppressive disorientation they felt in their own minds.

Usman Raja, a bluff, buff boxer who begged to become a suicide bomber in the mid-1990s, tells me: “Your inner life is chaotic and you feel under threat the whole time. And then you’re told by Islamists that life for Muslims everywhere is chaotic and under threat. It becomes bigger than you. It’s about the world – and that’s an amazing relief. The answer isn’t inside your confused self. It’s out there in the world.”

Many of the ex-Islamists discovered they couldn’t ignore the fact that whenever Islamists won a military victory, they didn’t build a paradise, but hell.

At the same time, they began to balk at the mechanistic nature of Wahabism. Usman says he had become a “papier-mâché Muslim”, defining his faith entirely by his actions, while being empty inside. “Wahabis are great at painting themselves [an Islamic] green on the outside, but when it comes to that internal aspect, it’s not there. You pray five times a day, but why? Because God’s told you to pray five times a day. You pay your charity – why? Because God’s told you to pay your charity. This God of yours is telling you a lot. And why does he tell you to do that? Because if you don’t do it, you’ll end up in a fire. It’s all based on being frightened. There’s nothing to nourish you.”