Am I allowed to wear a necktie? I was a 17-year-old Muslim growing up in England in the early 1990s, and questions like this dominated my daily life. Born and raised in London, I was British. But my parents were from India, and I looked different: brown skin, black hair. At the same time, thousands of blond, blue-eyed Europeans were being killed for being Muslim in Bosnia.
During that teenage identity crisis, an older friend I met at a mosque gave me a magazine with a picture of an Egyptian imam from the 1940s, wearing a tie and jacket, albeit with a traditional fez! All the imams I knew in London mosques wore flowing Arabian robes. On television, representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran refused to wear ties; Saudi kings never wore Western clothes.
Looking at that picture of a kindly, smiling schoolteacher, I could not know how deeply he would influence so many of us. Even today, few outside the Arab world know of him, yet Hassan al-Banna may be the most influential Arab of the past century. I began to read his writings: He spoke out against British and European influences on Muslim life in Egypt; he sought to return Muslims to a form of puritanical Islam, free from the influences of secularism; his own life was an example of resistance, rebellion and activism. His legacy was the Muslim Brotherhood, the precursor of virtually every Islamist movement in the Middle East today. It is the most enduring and effective political force in the Arab world.
For five years, I became a fervent Islamist, moving up the ladder of increasingly radical organizations. All strands of this movement descend from the teachings of Banna. He fought against the British in Palestine, trained a paramilitary organization, and members of the movement killed Egypt’s prime minister in 1948. In response, the Egyptian state had Banna assassinated a few months later.
Yet I learned, through bitter experience, that Islamism is far from unitary or coherent. In the end, I quit what’s called “the Islamic movement” because I found it too controlling of my life — but also because I no longer wanted to be in a perpetual state of confrontation with the West. It took me several years of travel and study in the Middle East before my mind was free of Islamist influences. I remain a follower of Islam, the religion, but not of Islamism, the political ideology.
Because I was once a part of this movement — whose primary goal has been the creation of Islamic governments — and then established the world’s first counter-radical think tank, Quilliam, in London to oppose their ideology, I have been following the Arab uprisings with more than a passing interest.
There is a widespread fear in the West that Islamists will seek to hijack the revolutions. On Feb. 12, the morning after the Mubarak regime fell and the largely secular, youthful revolutionaries celebrated on the streets of Egypt with fireworks, music and dance, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was quick to note that this was the date on which Banna was assassinated in 1949. (Secular liberals retorted by noting that Feb. 11 was the date on which Nelson Mandela was released from prison.) Where some saw hope for a free and secular Egypt, the Brotherhood saw the hand of God, and an opening for an Islamic state.
In coming months, not only in Egypt but in other countries across the region, the war of ideas between liberal secularists and Islamists will rage about their visions for how to succeed the fallen, secular dictatorships. But what does an Islamic state look like? What does it mean in real terms for countries such as Egypt, Libya or Tunisia?
I went to Egypt after the revolution to put these questions to leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many had served prison sentences for their cause. I spoke with old-school hard-liners within the Brotherhood, such as the 83-year-old former leader, Mehdi Akef. I also spoke with the renowned liberal Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh (now an independent presidential candidate in Egypt). I met with younger members of the Brotherhood, and its parliamentarians, such as Mohammad El-Beltagy.
I asked each of them, “What is an Islamic state?” The answers differed widely. For Akef, it was about Shariah becoming state law; for Abou el-Fotouh it was vaguely about social justice; for Beltagy it was responding to the needs of the people. For younger members, it was a liberal state reflective of Islamic values. When pressed, however, none of them could articulate what this new society might look like.
In some ways, this is good news, because it means some Islamists are open to persuasion and influence. In other ways, I thought, it was this very intellectual inconsistency that had led me to leave the Islamic movement; this incoherent and muddled worldview for which they expected me and other members to give their lives. Like Marxists, they had all sorts of criticism of state and society, but when pressed to provide policies for alleviating poverty in Egypt, they had no answers. To my mind, they were clutching at straws, because Islam has no specific prescription for government.
Hassan al-Banna’s emotional response to the British empire, and his desire to differentiate between capitalism and communism, helped give birth to a modern ideology — Islamism — which tried to politicize Islam. But he found very little in that ancient religion that spoke to the economic and political needs of a modern world.
Abou el-Fotouh and other leaders of the Brotherhood insisted that the Brotherhood believed in human rights, and therefore the West had no cause for concern about Brotherhood-led governments. In some ways, this was their response to being imprisoned under Mubarak in harsh, inhuman conditions, as thousands of them were. But I knew that Abou el-Fotouh was not transparent on this. In the same breath as his advocacy of human rights, he said to me that if the Egyptian Parliament passed Islam-based laws that called for amputating thieves’ hands, stoning adulterers or beheading murderers, then what was wrong with that?
And he was the liberal. To his credit, unlike the others, he engaged me in conversation to challenge his views. I raised with Abou el-Fotouh the 800-year-old debate within Islam about what are called the maqasid, or aims, of the Shariah, which are to preserve life, property, religious freedom, family and knowledge. The Shariah is not about stoning and killing, I argued, but about the preservation of these five things. As early as the 1350s, the prominent imam Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi had made this argument, essentially saying that any society that preserved these things was, in effect, an Islamic society.
What stops today’s Arab Islamists from taking this approach to an Islamic state instead of advocating outdated, cruel punishments and the denial of rights to women?
I know from my time inside the Muslim Brotherhood that it spent five decades trying to survive, to escape the crackdowns of military dictatorships in the Arab world. Its members have not had the time and leisure to develop in the real world. Where they have — for example in Turkey — they have tended to become centrists and realists.
Islamism and the meaning of an Islamic state, therefore, is a work in progress. Islam is rich enough to offer alternative readings of scripture that undermine the claim of hard-liners that Shariah must mean barbaric punishments. Indeed, most Muslim-majority nations have moved beyond such practices.
While the Muslim Brotherhood might be deeply divided about almost every question of the day, however, there is one question on which it has an almost unified, hostile response: Israel. Across the Islamist spectrum in Egypt, I heard no conciliatory language toward their Jewish neighbor.
This dark cloud is a real cause for concern. Egypt, like other Arab nations, continues to feel humiliated by perceived Israeli injustices. Unless there is a palpable movement to grant justice toward Palestinians and an end to Israeli occupation, the urgent need to push for Israel’s integration among Arab nations cannot begin. With the strong likelihood now that Islamists will assume positions of power in Arab countries, there is a real chance of greater conflict, and thus further radicalization, in the region. The conflict with Israel does not only rile Islamists, but liberals too.
In the lively mix of Egyptian and Arab public figures is Hassan al-Banna’s younger brother, Gamal. I met the 90-year-old Gamal two years ago. Those of us who left Islamist movements see in him something of ourselves: the ability to think freely and to defy the diktats of the Islamist movement. But even Gamal, a thorough liberal on everything from gender equality to religious pluralism, spoke out in support of suicide bombers who attack Israelis. He is not alone in abandoning reason and logic, and embracing emotion and anger when it comes to the conflict of Arabs and Jews.
Ending that conflict, or at least violent solutions to it, is the real challenge. The world was struck by Arab uprisings in which the burning of American or Israeli flags was not a central display; the protesters focused on internal, national problems. That’s how they must continue. With time, the Islamists, too, can be steered toward a Turkey-style combination of Islam and secular democracy. But the journey risks being derailed by a flaring up of the Arab-Israeli conflict, turning young minds away from development and democracy and toward war and vengeance.
By Ed Husain. He was born and raised in London. A radical Islamist for five years in his teens and early 20s, he has since become a strong critic of extremism and Islamism, and co-founded Quilliam Foundation, a counter-radicalization think tank. He is the author of The Islamist and The Sufis, set for publication next year. He is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, for which he also writes the blog The Arab Street.