Consider the parable of Joey Abdullah:
Joey Abdullah was a young, sensitive lad from the East End of London. His parents named him Yusuf (Arabic for Joseph) but he found this a difficult name to bear outside of his home, so he changed it to Joey. In his first year at university Joey fell into the orbit of a small organised group of young people known as the Istanja Tahrir (Ritual Purification of the Purified Private Parts Party – RPoPPPP). They dressed up as clowns and held regular meetings which bristled with other angry young clowns. They exchanged stories of their personal alienation and political theories mired in postmodern-postcolonial angst. They called people who chose not to dress up as clowns ‘Kuffar’ and hatched intricate plans to overthrow the goverment and establish a Clown State. Joey felt comfortable being a Yusuf again. For the next ten years, Joey Abdullah’s clown demeanour grew in malice and he rose to the position of SMC “Seriously Mental Clown”, a respected position of seniority in the party. Joey could speak in complete sentences so he was chosen to be the party spokesman. On more than one occassion, he was invited by Newsnight to speak on behalf of radical clowns. He was asked to contextualise terrorist atrocities committed in other parts of the world by other angry clowns. Joey Abdullah would do his best to come across as an articulate clown in response to Jeremy Paxman’s jabbing questions. But one day Joey Abdullah stopped seeing the world in terms of clown and unclown and he left the Istanja Tahrir and wrote a book about his experience as a member of the radical group. His book became a success and Joey became a minor celebrity, lauded by the great and the good. Melanie Phillips and Rod Liddle formed a blog with Joey called ‘Putting it Ultra Right’ with a strapline of a George Orwell quote. Martin Amis even wrote a novel containing a character based on Joey, which was discussed breathlessly by critics on Newsnight Review. Joey Abdullah was now asked to speak on TV panel shows, Radio 4 programmes on current affairs, even Jonathan Ross asked Joey to his show to discuss his conversion from ‘murderous clown’ to ‘normal person’. Some say the Foreign Office is receiving a lot of calls from Stockholm which means Joey might possibly be on the list for the Nobel Peace Prize. Nowadays Joey Abdullah makes the effort not to come across as a radical terrorist clown because now of course he has a lot more to lose. His lucrative publishing contract and an endorsement from XBox (they have created a game with a computer animated character based on Joey, who confronts terrorists in war scenarious and kills them in their thouands; the game is called Istanja Death Hole). His radical days are finally behind him and now he is an international spokesman for non-clowns. He now writes long polemical speeches, with accompanying Powerpoint presentations, calling for the banning of the Istanja Tahrir and it’s splinter group (al Dubur) which he will deliver to various think tanks and health spas dotted around the United Arab Emirates. Yusuf is happy being a Joey again.
If you have followed the media coverage of Hizbut Tahrir members who have left the “party”, the parable of Joey Abdullah will not be unfamiliar to you. The last few years have seen a number of high-profile defectors of the radical and criminal Islamist groups rise to the surface. They were held in adoration by first the rightwing and now the leftwing media. People such as Hasan Butt, Ed Hussain, Shiraz Maher are now household names. Last month there was one “Umm Mustafa” who published her story of coming back from the dark side of the Hizbut Tahrir in the New Stateman. And only last week came along the personable Rashad Ali who has also happily moved on from Hizbut Tahrir and is now the head of research and policy at the Quilliam Foundation.
In the short video interview on the TimesOnline site, Rashad is asked the crucial question, ‘Why did you leave Hizbut Tahrir?’. This was his answer:
The main thing that led me to leave was when I…kind of…the tension of my understanding of Islam as a diverse faith and Hizbut Tahrir’s monolithic ideology…eventually…the tension…I couldn’t keep both…kind of had to…I attempted to try and engage with the party and try and…you know…spread these ideas but it…kind of…wasn’t going to happen so I…kind of…separated from the party.
Whoa, excuse me?! You’re not going to be asked on Jonathan Ross with a tepid response like that, Rashad. You’ve just left a murderous, racist “political party” peopled with neanderthal religious supremacists who are making death threats to you on the internet and the only reason you can come up with for leaving is because of a “tension” with their monolithic ideology?
Sister Umm Mustafa’s article in the the New Statesman is just as pitifully lacking. In a 1300 word article about her ten year experience in Hizbut Tahir she cannot articulate the reason why she left other than to say this:
In 2006, however, my feelings began to change. I noticed that whenever I had concerns, I was told to raise them through “the structure”, but the answers to my questions and challenges were not satisfactory. The senior members seemed to be on autopilot, speaking only in party jargon, unable to participate in debate or look at the other side of an argument.
She goes on in that vein. Sister Umm Mustafa never makes clear what finally made the HT ideology so insufferable to her nor what made her change her mind. She does not say whether it was a sudden last straw or a gradual erosion of loyalties. Did she flee because of the hideous supremacism underlying the ideas of “the party”. Did she do it to reclaim the life that she had lost to a bunch of close minded bigots? She doesn’t say. All she admits to is an “enourmous relief” because she no longer felt compelled to wear the frumpy, party-approved jilbab.
Don’t get me wrong, I am always happy to hear about defectors from HT who have decided to rejoin the human race. But what I find extremely insulting is when such people, who a few months earlier were traitors to their country and to their co-religionsists are co-opted to “Official Spokesperson” status by certain sections of the media. We are told they are extraordinary because they happened to have left a radical muslim group! Chances are they are not particularly extraordinary at all. They are most certainly emotionally weak people with deep-seated feelings of low self esteem who made the choice of joining a group so that GroupThink would produce all their thoughts for them. These people tend to think in binary. So when they are de-programmed from ideas that made them willing to kill innocent people they cannot think in any other way but in extremes. This is why you will see many defectors speak about the banning of Hizbut Tahrir. Banning a group is hardly a liberal response. But then, be aware, an ex-Hizbut Tahrir member may not necessarily be a liberal muslim holding humanist ideas of freedom of speech.
Ed Hussain’s last article published in the Observer is called ‘It’s Arabs who are showing us how to tackle extremism‘. And what does he base this extraordinary claim upon?
I met a professor of Islamic studies from Qatar University. Dr Abdul Hameed al-Ansary, without my prodding, reiterated his public position of support for churches in Qatar. Meeting an Arab Muslim scholar from a conservative Gulf state who proudly tells me that Qatar’s first church building is nearly complete gives me a sense of hope that soon Saudi Arabia may follow where its neighbours lead.
No Ed, this is not an indication that Arabs are tackling extremism. This is an example of one of the more (relatively) liberal Gulf sultanates making a centuries late gesture of religious pluralism, by building a single church. If you wish to report on extremism in Arab states, I would like nothing less than you to enter Wahhabi mosques in the Nejd region of Saudi Arabia and lecture imams about secularism and women’s rights, and see what they have to say. Polite chit-chat with Arab academics in the foyers of five star Gulf hotels does not cut it.
Ed Husain was once foolish enough to pledge allegiance (bay’ah) to the disgusting figure of Omar Bakri Mohammed. I find his new found role as spokesman for liberal, anti-extremism to be just as lacking in intelligent, cogent analysis that provided him with the impulse to join the Hizbut Tahrir.
I can think of many muslim figures who have consistenly spoken against the obscurantist, nihilistic forces of Islamist extremism and have been brave enough to work, lecture, write on these issues whom I would regard as spokespeople for muslims. More often than not, these people have been exiled from their own countries for daring to speak out. But instead, thanks to the Observer and the New Statesman amongst others, we must do with dilettantes like Ed Husain to be our voice.
Not least of these public muslim intellectuals is the estimable Ali Eteraz, who has actually written a characteristically superb article on this very phenonmenon:
I do take umbrage in the fact that back when these easily duped figures like Butt and Hussain and Hamid were agitating for Global Caliphates, my friends and I would confront them at various Islamic conventions and call them traitors to the Islamic tradition and yet now the WSJ and Observer are parading these figures around as talking heads, while not acknowledging the existent discourse among Muslim communities that challenged them previously.
Not only that, but Muslim scholars worldwide are not just entering “new theological territory” they have already entered it, set up minarets and domes there, have been risking their lives to draw people in, and started to have actual political success. Besides the aforementioned An-Naim who after 30 years of exile is on his way back to Sudan, there is the Indonesian activist Susilo Bambang who has been able to do what most traditional Muslims cannot: destroy radical Muslims without becoming appropriated by the American right-wing. There is also the case of Islamic Jurist Javed Ahmed Ghamidi in Pakistan (comprehensive analysis of his work here), whose activism finally manifested in the successful passage of the Women’s Protection Bill in Pakistan (a repeal of the barbaric rape laws), and a flyer published by one of his students regarding terrorism has long been part of discussion among Muslims on how to use Islamic Law itself to challenge radical and nihilist readings of Islamic Law. Even ultra-orthodox Muslims who otherwise resemble the isolationist Orthodox Jews of days yore, have long before Hamid and Butt and Hussain put forward intellectually coherent, and authentically Islamic methods of challenging terrorism and radicalism.
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Filed in: British Identity,Muslim,Religion