Ed Husain on Turning the Tide Against Islamic Extremism

Ed Husain discussed Islamic radicalization and the true heart of Islam at a LAWAC Global Cafe Breakfast.

Ed Husain was born in London of an Indian father and a Saudi mother, and grew up as a Muslim. In his late teens he became angry at the killing of Muslims in Bosnia, which elicited little response from the rest of Europe, and this pushed him to join an extremist jihadist group in London. However, after five years, he became disillusioned with their message of violence against non-believers and felt alienated from his (non-radical) family, and left the extremist group. Ever since then he has been writing and talking about what he sees as the true, peaceful heart of Islam. He has also focused his work on the perversion of Islam that he personally experienced and primarily blames on extremist Wahhabi doctrines exported around the Muslim world from Saudi Arabia.

“Over most of history, western civilization was not at odds with Islam,” Husain told a Global Café breakfast meeting of LAWAC on Thursday, June 28th. He said that recent Islamic radicalism has come from the Arabization of Islam and pointed out that for much of its history the Islamic world was ruled by non-Arabs – notably the Turks who controlled the Ottoman Empire from Constantinople (Istanbul). Today only 20% of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims are Arabs, and yet the entire Islamic world is taking on Arab ways of dressing, of veils for women, of facial hair for men, of names for children and, increasingly, of intolerant forms of belief. This intolerant form of Islam that originates in the central Najd area of Saudi Arabia “was turbocharged from the 1960’s on with petrodollars”, said Husain, allowing them to build mosques and madrassas (religious schools) around the world which preached their extremist message.

Now Husain sees a change, as the young Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman has begun to take some steps to push back against the extremist preachers in his country. “The Saudis at long last are admitting they are responsible for these decades of intolerance, misogyny, bigotry and hatred.” Husain is hopeful that the reforms will continue in Saudi Arabia, but conceded the jury is still out on that. “There is nothing wrong with Islam that cannot be fixed with what is right in Islam,” he said.

Probably the biggest challenge facing any reform attempts in the Arab world is the very low level of education, which leaves young men and women unable to start good careers and makes them easy prey for intolerant preachers. Compared to Americans, who read on average 11 books a year, people in the Arab world read an average of a quarter page a year. Western kids spend about 200 hours a year reading while in the Arab world kids read for an average of 6 minutes a year. “It is a significant hurdle,” said Husain, pointing out that the once intellectually vibrant Islamic world became inward looking and prone to seeing any knowledge from the outside world as wrong or unwelcome. This closing of the Muslim mind has been going on for centuries. In the 1450’s as the invention of the printing press in Europe made its way south to the Islamic world, conservative preachers successfully lobbied the Sultan to have the printing press banned as a “tool of the devil.”

When asked about how the Muslim world has reacted to the ban on Muslim travelers to the US, Husain said that many of the governments in the Arab world had remained quiet, deliberately, because their main priority was to get President Trump to cancel the Iran nuclear deal. “But on the streets,” said Husain, “it strengthens the al Qaeda argument that the West is anti-Islam.”

Asked about the reelection of Erdogan and the situation in Turkey, Husain said that the West cannot afford to lose Turkey, because of its strategic location. Initially, Turkey was on the right side in the Syrian war, opposing Assad, but “increasingly they are tilting towards Syria and Russia, and that would tilt the geopolitical balance.” The US needs to keep Turkey close, said Husain, in the interests of stability for the whole Middle Eastern region.