Interview: 'Why I Rejected Radical Islam'

Ed Husain used to be an Islamic fundamentalist. When his father—a devout Muslim opposed to fanaticism—told him to leave the radical groups he had joined in London, Husain left home instead. But by the mid-1990s, Husain had become disillusioned with British Islamic organizations. A stint working in Saudi Arabia disenchanted him still further, when he discovered that women on the street face routine harassment and that black Muslims are discriminated against by local Arabs. "Racism was an integral part of Saudi society," says Husain. "Even dark-skinned Arabs were considered inferior to their lighter-skinned cousins. I was living in the world's most avowedly Muslim country, yet I found it anything but."

Husain makes his comments in his memoir, "The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left" (Penguin)—a work that has drawn widespread interest and controversy in a country still agonizing over how "homegrown terrorists" could have been behind the 2005 mass-transit bombings and the so-called fertilizer bomb plot that last month saw five British Muslims jailed for life. Husain, 32, spoke to Karla Adam at a coffee shop near the University of London, where he is currently studying for a Ph.D. in politics, about "sleeper" Islamists, why he turned his back on radical groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and how American Muslims differ from those in Britain. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: In your new book you offer a very personal account of your time as a fundamental Islamist. What has the reaction been like?
Ed Husain:
I received a threat last night. I can't go into details, but I'm not supposed to be going to certain parts of London because if I am identified then I will be attacked. The issue is so important, though, that it requires courage to confront it head on. 

Why write the book?
To put clear blue water between Muslims and Islamists—that has been blurred. I also wanted to open up the debate. One reason I left and lost my extremism was by having more and more non-Muslim friends, so if this book helps inform ordinary non-Muslims about what's going on with Islamists inside the Muslim community, it will only help bring about a better dialogue.

You say that your father, a moderate Muslim, would have been more accepting if he caught you snorting cocaine than he was of you mixing with extreme Islamic groups. What were some of the first signs you were headed on that path?
I had a serious sense of a lack of belonging in Britain. I was born here, raised here, but in school people were very monocultural, particularly from the Indian Subcontinent [from where Husain's parents had emigrated to Britain], predominantly male, predominantly Muslim. When I was 16 in the East End [of London], it was a different world, and in that world there were two choices: I either became the member of a street gang, or I looked to what were then increasingly powerful local Muslim organizations.

Ed is not your real name.
No, it's Mohamed. When I was in Damascus, they wouldn't call me Mohamed, that's the level of love they have for the Prophet. So I decided on "Ed," the last syllable of Mohamed.

You became an influential Islamic leader, especially on college campuses in the 1990s. How did you recruit people into your groups?
We first generated interest through talking. [Attacks on Muslims in] Bosnia really helped us. Muslims here in Britain, my generation, came of age and didn't really know where they belonged, whether it was here, or what we used to call "back home." It was quite easy to recruit people, to expose them to the [idea that the] solution to the problem in Bosnia was to have an Islamic army that would take on the Serbs. We targeted mostly teenagers. We would lavish them with lunch, dinner, friendly treatment, and then expose them to the literature, especially with Hizb [ut-Tahrir]. They are very keen on recruiting intelligent people. When my contact proved him or herself—mostly him at the time—to be solid and [to] understand what we called "the concepts," we would invite them on to the secret cell structure. I recruited between 15 and 20 people—key people who are still working in Whitechapel [east London]. I feel guilty.

You later turn your back on extremism.  Was there a particular turning point?
There was a serious lack of spirituality [in the Hizb], and because I was raised in an observant Muslim house, I knew what it meant to be a God-conscious Muslim, a person of faith. I knew you could be a Muslim without having to be an extremist.

And you also cite an altercation involving members of the Hizb that results in the murder of a Christian Nigerian student.
Yes, I remember seeing his dead body there, blood flowing, and thinking at that point, my God, what have I created. And that's when I thought to myself, our talk of jihad is not in the abstract, it had an impact. They had created an atmosphere where it was legitimate to talk and do these things. That's when I slowly started to withdraw.

You withdrew from the Hizb, but you say it took you years before you were mentally free from it. On the evening of September 11, 2001, for instance, you asked friends what all of  you were doing to celebrate.
It was that Islamist influence in my mind that the loss of non-Muslim life, that a blow to America, was always a good thing. It doesn't matter who did it, as long as America was struck. I still look back and think, how did I respond that way?

You believe there are tens of thousands of "sleeper Islamists" in the world.  Can you explain?
I seriously believe in that. That's a real problem in that. Yes, they have left the operational side. Yes, they no longer attend weekly meetings. Yes, they may no longer read these books, but those ideas that were implanted in their minds when they were undergraduates—that hatred of Jewish people, that hatred of America, that desire to see confrontation. Those ideas are still in lots of people's minds. Yes, there are young Muslims out there who fail to see the difference between "Islam" the religion and "Islamism," the ideology set up in its name. And, yes, there are lots of people out there that haven't made that clear break. I was one of them for six years.

Do you think the radical Muslim experience in Britain is similar to that in America?
No. Americans are lucky in that they have a very strong national identity. I have met hundreds of Muslims who are very proud Americans. Here in Britain, native Brits squirm about Britishness, no one can define what it means. When natives can't define it, for the children of immigrants it becomes extremely difficult to enter into mainstream Britain. Also, Americans were also very blunt post 9/11. There are very few centers now in the States that will openly call for an Islamist state or a jihad or openly distribute [extremist] Wahhabi literature.  They have clamped down heavily, maybe too much, but they have kept the lid on the problem. Here we are too sensitive, we are too liberal, we are too politically correct, and that's our weakness.

Should Muslims report on their own community?
If a fellow Muslim knows there are extremist activities or terrorist atrocities, then it's their human responsibility, before their religious responsibility, to prevent carnage. I also want to highlight it is time for Western Muslims to give back. The West has changed and given much over the last 200 years; it is now the turn of Muslims to reciprocate.

If you knew of something would you tell the authorities?
Me? I have recently been telling the authorities about Hizb rhetoric on campus, and I have been ignored: be quiet, let it happen, they say. Of course I would [tell them], no question about it.

Have you been approached by the government to work for the authorities?
Yes, but I am not signing on the dotted line because I think it's important that this voice, this work, carries on from the outside, is more effective. I don't rule out working for the government. Yes, governments make mistakes, but I am not keen on [the idea that] you must rule out working for the government ever. If I was approached I would definitely consider it on its individual merits. I left being antigovernment when I left Hizb.

Are you hoping to reach out to people who are currently members of radical Muslim groups?
To some extent, yes. I also think that there are hundreds of people out there who are beyond call, they have gone to an extent where you can't change their minds. You just have to let those individuals be handled by the security forces. But there are lots of people in the middle ground—that group I think we can call back.

What can you do differently so that your children don't make your same mistakes?
The first thing is to make sure they have a very clear sense of belonging as to who they are and what they are. They are children of this soil, they belong here in Britain, with all its problems, with all its racism, with all its binge drinking, this is our country. The second thing is to have a clear understanding of religion ,which is flexible, which is pluralistic. And to have children who grow up knowing that being different isn't a problem.

Is there something about Britain that makes it a good breeding ground for extremist Muslims?
Britain's meekness in the face of extremists. Blair once said, "the rules of the game are changing." Well, I don't believe the game should be played at all. There is a problem with multiculturalism and letting everyone do what they want to do. Our teachers aren't keen to confront, challenge or debate expressions of radicalism. So in the name of multiculturalism we have these monocultural ghettos, this underworld where none of this is ever questioned. You can walk into certain parts of London and quite easily advocate a jihad and destroying Israel and ultimately confronting Britain, and nobody would raise an eyelid. As long as that's there, Britain faces problems.