A Brown Sahib’s Lament: Ed Husain Among the Minarets
Yahya Birt summarizes Ed Husain’s latest diatribe on British Muslims, so that you don’t go through the rigmarole of reading it yourself.
I had low expectations, but with his Among the Mosques: A Journey Across Muslim Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), Mr. Husain has managed to lower the bar even further, which I suppose is some kind of achievement.
Ed Husain’s latest screed on British Islam is a mashup between a Thomas Friedman in-depth ethnography via Uber, V. S. Naipaul’s gothic horror of all things Islamic, and a “brown sahib” reworking of post-Brexit English nationalism. In lieu of a review that it doesn’t warrant, I offer this brief visceral reaction instead.
When his first book on British Islam, The Islamist, came out in 2007, Ed Husain was an unknown. A bromide targeted at British Muslim activists, it was later revealed that large parts of The Islamist had been ghostwritten in Whitehall to help launch Mr. Husain and his now defunct Quilliam Foundation to play “bad cop” to the officially more ameliorative “good cop” of government. This new book is so shoddy and insubstantial that it could have done with basic fact-checking by some friendly mandarins or SPADs at the Home Office, or the hacks for hire at RICU, something that neither the author nor the publishers have bothered to do.
His travelogue is a testament to the art of non-dialogue, of journeying to confirm stereotypes and prejudices already held in the mind. Mr. Husain has over the years perfected his role of the brown man carrying the white man’s burden to save Islam from itself for his curious blend of populist nationalism, which is only capacious enough for the deracinated Muslim. At no point does the reader believe that Mr. Husain is open to changing his mind on anything when it comes to British Muslim communities, who have already been found guilty as charged. He never goes beyond taking at face value the wisdom of taxi drivers or the platitudes of imams so long as it confirms his prejudices — anything even resembling research is completely absent. He swallows whole one canard after another, for example, that certain pirs and imams run Bradford, which is a dangerous inflation of their actual influence in these febrile times. For someone who aspires to anti-sectarianism, he can only see most British Muslims as cardboard cut-out sectarians. Only very occasionally does he allow himself the sort of sensitivity that might see the individual, for example a homesick cabbie missing the better and happier life he had in Pakistan.
In sharp contrast, Mr. Husain is all ears for the sorts of lazy Islamophobia that drove Brexit from the rather undifferentiated white non-Muslims he encounters. He never offers any challenge there either, as — like some of the neo-traditionalists— he believes he can ride the tiger of ethno-nationalism by placating it, lionizing the most right-wing Tory administration in living memory in his latest reincarnation as a Cicero-quoting, Burkean conservative. In his conclusion, he lauds Ibn Khaldun’s prescription for the centrality of group feeling (‘asabiyya) in securing political order for his project of a revived British patriotism while disparaging the same for Muslim solidarity, which he decries as communalism with a project of what he coins as “caliphism”, a distant dream for greater future political solidarity.
Yes, there are problems in our communities — everyone knows that. But Mr. Husain through his silly methods of talking to taxi drivers, browsing Islamic bookshops (he criticizes the tendency to read Muslims as robots programmed by scripture but does the same through his reading of sectarian literature) and attending a few central mosques on a Friday thinks he will somehow feel the pulse and heartbeat of modern British Islam. It is sadly an old-fashioned idea of where to find it. The zeitgeist lies elsewhere: in the community’s creative, advocacy and philanthropic sectors, and most of all in all that debate and liveliness online. But Mr. Husain’s stout refusal to see himself as very much part of the problem while pretending to see himself as the solution screams out from nearly every sentence of this dismal book. His lack of self-awareness is the outcome of the sort of monumental hubris required to sustain the fictions that he pedals.
Mainstream British publishers like Bloomsbury can do far better than continue to publish the likes of Mr. Husain on British Islam. Such interventions only retard the development of the inclusive national conversation that he claims to seek.