Ed Husain has an interesting past; he is a self-described former Islamic radical, having spent five years between the ages of 16 to 21 immersed in radical Islam. He has become one of those rare individuals to have retracted from his extremist past, to share his narrative and speak out about one of the more secretive and misunderstood religions.
Today he spoke with journalist Donna Miles-Mojab at the WORD Christchurch Festival. I happily braved the blustery-ness and the coldness and toddled along to witness the discussion at The Piano. The large auditorium was close to packed, with most of the audience being a half century older (and no doubt a good deal wiser and more knowledgeable) than I.
As I set off, it was with an eye to dispel some of the uncertainties surrounding Islam, in my mind anyway, and try to gain some level of insight into a religion that has always piqued my curiosity.
The focus was around Ed Husain's latest book The House of Islam which is an intriguing historical account and firsthand glimpse in to the world of Islam, addressing some of the major issues it faces today and throughout history. Not being religious myself, I am nonetheless intrigued by the complexities of Islam. Surrounded as we are by media reports of terrorism and violence perpetrated by extremist Muslims in the 21st century, how could one not be confused and wary of the very religion such extremists follow and cite as their inspiration?
The scene of today's discussion was set with a quick overview of the political environment. The persecution and Islamophobia that exists in many countries (including Europe); forced migration; the internment, high level surveillance and loss of rights of many Muslims in China; refugees flooding into Europe and the issues that is causing; and the general atmosphere of fear and suspicion surrounding Muslims in many parts of the world.
My attention was then further aroused by the announcement that this would be more 'debate' than 'discussion.' Debate indeed it was, with journalist and author disagreeing on several fronts.
Here are some of the more interesting points that were raised:
That there is currently a "civil war of ideas" occurring in the world of Islam. Ed Husain seeks, through much of his book, to remind Muslims today that traditional Islam upholds values of peace, freedom and free thought. Islam extremists have forgotten (or ignored) this tradition, and have deviated from the path of true Islam. Ed Husain identified three key groups who are responsible for inciting this civil war; the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi salafism and the current Iranian government. (Note: this suggestion provoked some rather entertaining antagonism from his Iranian host, who then tried to steer the discussion away from politics...and prompted Husain to retort: "You don't want to talk politics when you don't like the answer!" Indeed.)
That Islam is not so different from other religions such as Judaism and Christianity. In fact Husain likened Islam to an "outgrowth of the mothership" that is Judaism.
Ed Husain does not buy in to the clash between the West and East. Points out that we all pursue our interests, and have done so throughout history.
There was mention of the decline faced by Europe during the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages were marked by the end of free thought, with one brand of Christianity dominating for a long period of time. Husain posited that Islam is now entering its own 'Dark Age', and that there has not been, until very recently, a shut down of free spirit and reason such as we are seeing today.
An interesting point was raised that Muslims too have a long history of slavery and conquest; such transgressions are not limited only to the West with its colonialist past. The world would not be what it is today without conquest.
There was then some lively discussion around what motivates Jihadists: Husain suggested that it arose from the desire to bring Islam back the former glory of the Ottoman Empire; for Islam to become once more a dominating power - a stark return to an imperialist mindset. He went on to talk about how the Islamic belief in an afterlife where you are rewarded in death is a damaging and dangerous idea: it makes the real world, and the humans in it seem dispensable. Husain posits that the suicidal tendencies of Islamist extremists is one of the deadliest problems we face. In this issue, Husain and Miles-Mojab depart somewhat. Miles-Mojab points out that most jihadists/Islamic radicals are young men who are unemployed and have a critical lack of understanding of their faith; so that rather than being faith driven they are motivated by other external factors. She points out the growing violence exhibited by alt-right groups and individuals in the US, which are not faith driven; and that more Americans were killed last year by American alt-right violence than Americans were killed by Islamic terrorism. Husain disagrees, believing that faith is the primary driver in radical Islam (but with other factors being additional), and that Islamic extremists are utterly convinced that they will die and enter a new world as martyrs of their faith. He also states that if Jihadists could kill more Americans they would. It is only because of the preventative measures in place, that they are not able to do more damage.
A parting Ed Husain quote:
Those of you who are uncomfortable with a US led world, I invite you to consider a China led world, because that is where we are heading at the moment.
After listening to all of this (and, admittedly, a few historical lessons which somewhat went over my head), I am positively determined to get my hands on a copy of Ed Husain's book. Christchurch City Libraries has a copy of The House of Islam. He has also written another book about his experiences, The Islamist
If you missed out on today's talk, Ed Husain will also be at WORD tomorrow (Saturday 1st September; 1-2pm; The Piano) as part of the Disunited Kingdom? talk where he will join forces with author and BBC presenter Denise Mina and columnist David Slack to discuss Brexit and its various consequences.
And there are still two more days of WORD to enjoy!! Many of the events are free, check out the programme.