I return today to the strange psychodrama of Ed Husain, or Mohammed Mahbub Hussain to give him his proper name. The celebrity ex-Islamist has spent years annoying the hell out of longer-established spokesmen for British Islam for his pro-Western rhetoric, but he now seems to be back where he started, in the arms of the radicals. The other day I remarked on the distracted tone of some of his recent articles and press-releases, and expressed some puzzlement at his role as signatory and presumed author of an obscurely menacing open letter to Gordon Brown. Today, though, Comment is Free carries another piece of his in which what remained of his mask finally slips. It is not quite a call to arms for international Jihad, of the sort he believed in during his Hizb'ut Tahrir days. But it comes pretty close.
Husain writes that he was "deeply troubled" by the violence in the Gaza strip. Fair enough: many people have been deeply troubled: the sight of people being killed in a war is always deeply troubling. Husain, however, seems incapable of getting beyond his emotional response. Indeed, he wallows in it:
The images of innocent, wounded Palestinians being carried on stretchers to hospitals as they recited the Muslim testimony of faith called out to me. On my deathbed, I will recite the same Islamic declaration of faith. Like a billion Muslims across the world, I identified with the Palestinians.
Here, he defines his emotional response to the violence not as a human being identifying with other human beings, but as a Muslim. Furthermore, by identifying with "the Palestinians" (many of whom are secular, or Christian) he sees himself also as identifying with "a billion Muslims". He further assumes that "a billion Muslims across the world" share his religion-based response. Has he asked a billion Muslims? Why does he neglect to mention the many who are not Muslims but who are nevertheless moved by the suffering of the people in Gaza? The many non-Muslims who came out to demonstrate against Israel this weekend? Do they not count? Does only Muslim opinion matter to Ed Husain? If so, why?
Has he had some sort of breakdown? For someone who has spent the past few years banging the drum for rationality he would seem to have turned into a quivering jelly of emotion. And, as we have seen so often before, the cocktail of religion and emotion can be dangerously unstable.
In a thoughtful piece for CIF last monday, Sunny Hundal wrote of his disquiet at the way in which a previous demonstration had been hijacked by political Islam:
I came to the march to express solidarity with Palestinians and express my anger at Israel's bombings. I didn't come to express solidarity with Hamas, nor want to come to a religious march. If I wanted to hear "God is Great" I could have gone to a mosque or a gurudwara. But I didn't. People can say what they want – freedom of speech etc – but I think this encapsulates a broader problem.
British Muslim organisations have broadly failed to capitalise on the widespread support for Palestinians in the UK, compared to the United States, by constantly bringing religion into a dispute essentially about land.
The issue of Palestine was not always a religious one. It has become so largely because it has been exploited by various factions of political Islam to create pan-Muslim sentiment. While the results can be seen throughout the world, it is in Britain that this campaign has been most successful. A Muslim population largely drawn from Pakistan finds itself persuaded that the most important foreign policy issue affecting them is a territorial dispute between Arabs and Jews in a part of the world with which they have little or no connection. Moreover, a complex, nuanced problem, but one which has little bearing on anything or anyone outside itself, has been recast as an existential battle in which "the West", though its Israeli proxy, is engaged in a death-struggle with Islam. That the wish of most people in the West (including in Israel itself) is for both sides to find a way of living peacefully together is skated over in this simplistic, grandiose narrative of Muslim victimhood and exceptionalism.
By identifying with the Palestinians, Muslim radicals (a group among which Ed Husain now seems to have re-inserted himself) are able to define themselves as victims par excellence of Western oppressors, and thus to indulge in a masochistic orgy of self-pity, neatly avoiding any responsibility for their own troubles. The prevalence of conspiracy theories - indeed, their mainstream acceptability in much of the Arab world and beyond - is one symptom of this collective Muslim psychosis: it's notable that many of these conspiracy theories involve Jews. Ugly anti-semitism is common currency of Arab newspapers and popular entertainment: in Egypt, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was turned into a hit soap-opera. Because Israel is, essentially, a western enclave, its very presence is a provocation. All its doings attract a disproportionate attention, because they are seen as the working-out of the grand anti-Muslim conspiracy.
The sufferings of the Palestinians are terrible. But are they truly worse than the massacres and mass-rapes that for decades have defaced parts of Africa? The collapse of the Congo into lawlessness and random brutality, with attendant barbarities that are scarcely credible, has belatedly attracted some attention from the western media, but nothing like the visceral anger that attends every Israeli accident. For years, the rape of the largely Christian southern Sudan went ignored by the outside world. Even when it is Muslims being killed, as in Darfur, beyond ritual denunciations it is humanitarian, rather than politico-religious, sentiment that is aroused. Even when, as in Chechnya, Muslims are killed in large numbers by others who are not Muslim, there is not the same concentrated fury (even among Muslims) that there is against Israel.
Ed Husain goes on:
I desperately tried to understand Israel's position, but couldn't. A ragtag Hamas army and its rockets did not warrant the wrath of F16 jets and Apache helicopters followed by an invasion, with mass killings in their wake. Like most Brits, I looked on aghast. I recalled Britain's involvement in creating Israel in 1948. We had a duty to help Arabs, to make right our historical wrongs. But how?
I wonder what response Husain thinks the Hamas rockets did warrant? A similar number of rockets lobbed randomly into Gaza? That might have been "proportionate". In truth, Israel are on a hiding to nothing. Any response to Hamas rockets will almost by definition be "disproportionate". But Husain's gut reaction is forgivable. What comes next isn't. It's hard to read those last two sentences as anything other than a call for the destruction of Israel: at the very least, he seems to believe that the creation of the Jewish state was a "historical wrong" which Britain, the former colonial power, has a "duty" to put right. In this, of course, Husain is four square with the Hamas charter, which continues to call for the destruction of Israel, and with Hamas's sponsor, Iran, whose president Ahmadinejad hosts conventions of Holocaust deniers.
Husain goes on to complain about the "constant lies" of the Israelis - as though he is in a position to know precisely what is going on in Gaza (or perhaps he has just watched the news footage and jumped to his own conclusions) and claims that Israel "meticulously planned this murderous onslaught". Note the words: Israel's aim, Husain believes, is indescriminate murder. If the Israelis had wanted to perpetrate the mass murder of civilians, there would be tens of thousands dead, not hundreds. They have more than sufficient bombs.
He then writes of the "myth" that Israel is "just another ordinary country"; instead it is "built by children of Holocaust survivors, forcing themselves on Arab land over Palestinian dead bodies." In truth, there were very few Holocaust survivors in Israel in 1948, for the simple reason that there were very few Holocaust survivors; and their children were just that, children. Israel was built by Zionist settlers who began arriving in Palestine in the late 19th century. The Balfour Declaration, under which the Jewish homeland was proposed, was issued in 1917. I assume Husain is not a stranger to these facts. It suits his purpose, however, to recast history (at least implicitly) as one of Jews re-visiting their own suffering on the Palestinians. He asserts that this is "not antisemitic", apparently oblivious to the use of such arguments by anti-semites, and then whines about the criticism his recent statements have attracted from "fanatics such as Melanie Phillips". (Actually, Ed, "Mad Mel" is a journalist with strong opinions. "Fanatics" blow things up.) Then comes this:
Many urged me to calm Muslim anger, but why should I? If this does not make me and other Muslims angry, then what could?
Well, "Muslim anger" has a well-recorded tendency to express itself in bombings and riots. I would have thought that anyone purporting to speak on behalf of British Muslims would want to head off such trouble. Indeed, the Muslim Council of Britain - not an organisation close to the Heresiarch's heart, it must be said - has been notably responsible in recent comments. For example, on 4th Jan the MCB said this:
We urge our affiliates to advise British Muslims to come together with fellow citizens in a broad based, peaceful civil society campaign to call for justice. We all must send a strong message that politics does work and that political, rather than violent solutions, can make a difference.
By contrast Ed Husain now seems intent on inflaming Muslim anger. He talks of being "fobbed off by goverment officials" - presumably he believed that his unique closeness to the political establishment would lead them to hang on his every word - and writes that his "palpable feeling of powerlessness" drove him to "new levels of questioning the efficacy of our slow, sleepy political class." This apparent willingness to abandon the democratic process at the first hint of difficulty is immature and petulant: it is the politics of Violet Elizabeth Bott. But then what should one expect of someone schooled in the fantasy world of the extremist fringe who then moved to an equally fantastic world in which he was deferred to by politicians and spooks?
I don't know whether or not Husain has a messiah complex, as fellow heretic Edwin suggested over on CIF, or whether he's just an opportunistic drama queen. But he certainly has an inflated notion of his own significance - despite regularly being dismissed by other media Muslims. And he's acting at the moment as though his own emotional crisis is of pivotal importance to both the Muslim community and the British government.
The whole point of Ed Husain - the basis of his whole career - is that here was a former radical Islamist who saw that polical Islam, with or without terrorism, was a road that led nowhere; and that British Muslims should think of themselves as ordinary citizens whose religion did not stand in opposition to their Britishness. Not any more, it seems. He appears to have undergone a Damascene reversion.
It remains to be seen if the government that has invested so much in Husain and his over-publicised Quilliam Foundation will continue to patronise so unreliable a character; or, for that matter, whether the Muslim activists who poured scorn on him and his moderate ideas will welcome him back as a lost sheep. I found an interesting thread from MPAC (the Muslim Public Affairs Committee), an Islamist pressure group, which revealed both confusion and suspicion about Ed Husain's turnaround among its radicalised membership. Some commenters were willing to treat his comments at face value. "Ed Husain finally remembered he is a Muslim," said one. "Safeena" wrote:
I have been a real critic of Ed, no one likes it when he sides with the neo cons, but if has has the moral fibre in this time of need to stand up against his own supporters amongst them, it shows he has made a choice baned on Truth and sincerity.
But there was also widespread cynicism. Here are a few such opinions:
"This is just a pathetic attempt by Eddy and his crew to get some credibility. These are the same people who are allied with neo-cons such as Douglas Murray and are working against the Ummah."
"Don’t bother giving this fool any brownie points, he isn't worth it. Ed remains a serious protagonist for the neo-cons. Give this little scumbag a slap in the face if you meet him, we don’t need his sympathy."
"A cynical attempt to make use of 400 plus dead Palestinians in order to gain legitimacy amongst a community that has rejected them en masse. Do not be fooled by this. The man is an opportunist par excellence and has been responsible for some of the most vicious anti-Muslim propaganda that has been spread in these isles. What the Zionists have finally learnt is that this charlatan is loyal to no-one apart from his own ego."
"Do not be fooled brothers and sisters who adhere to the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of the Prophet, this individual is a money-grabbing, publicity seeking imbecile who beat the neo-con drum, labelled and propogated the hated and ill-defined term Islamist whilst selling his community for a paltry price."
"It's very big of "Ed" to stick up for the Palestinians from the comfort of his word processor."
Clearly, then, Husain has his work cut-out if he wants to remake himself as a born-again radical Muslim. But he would seem to be trying his best.