Islamic extremists in the East End

Growing up around Brick Lane, Ed Husain was a devout Muslim and diligent student. He was also an Islamic extremist, calling for the implementation of Sharia law across the world. As he publishes a book about his experiences, he takes Time Out on a tour through London‘s twilight world of radical Islam, and explains why he left it behind.

  • Islamic extremists in the East End

    Ed Husain

  • ‘Sharia Law for the UK,’ reads the sticker slapped on a post outside the Brick Lane mosque. ‘We used to come here with megaphones, hand out leaflets, and shout that sort of thing every day,’ says Ed Husain. It’s hard to believe that this soft-spoken 32 year old, kitted out in a blazer, with a tan briefcase, was once a key member of one of the most fundamentalist Islamic groups operating in Britain, and calling for Sharia Law, the strict legal system based on the teachings of the Koran. The story of his experience with the radical Muslim organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, and his subsequent rejection of its philosophy, was played out around the streets, mosques and colleges of the East End during the ’90s, and is a microcosm of the dramatic power struggle that is going on today at the heart of Britain’s Muslim communities.

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    Brick Lane Mosque, which has an older and more moderate outlook

    Brick Lane

    Husain was born in Mile End, and grew up in Stepney in the 1980s. His earliest religious experiences were with his father (who arrived here from India in 1961), at Brick Lane Mosque. ‘I remember melodious chanting, a warm, spiritual feeling,’ says Husain, standing at the entrance of the building that was once a Hugenot church and then a synagogue before becoming a mosque. But things were far from cosy for Brick Lane’s Muslims. By the 1990s, a rift had developed between the conservative older generation who had immigrated to Britain in the 60s, and regarded Islam as a spiritual calling, and the younger ones who viewed Islam as not just a religion but a political and ethical system that informed all areas of their life. While the older community continued to pray at Brick Lane Mosque, the younger worshippers were attracted to the East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road. Husain refers to them and their affiliates as ‘Islamists’, that is, those who believe Islam is an ideology (although this is a controversial term, as many Muslims maintain that expressing Islam as a way of life is simply part of being Muslim). A loner at school, Husain was encouraged by a classmate to attend meetings at the East London Mosque, which had become a base for groups sympathetic to the establishment of a united international Islamic state – the Caliphate. Attracted by the sense of belonging and purpose that he found, Husain began to lead a double life. ‘I was drawn to Islamic groups because there was no alternative: either I became involved in Islam or I joined a gang. There were simply no other outlets for young Muslims. That hasn’t changed. I don’t think there’s a single family in this area that’s not had a family member influenced by Islamism.’

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    Husain says he first encountered radical Islamism at this mosque

    East London Mosque

    The minarets of the East London Mosque dominate the Whitechapel landscape and it was here, towards the end of 1991 when, at the age of 16, that Husain first became involved in Islamic groups, such as the YMO (Young Muslim Organisation). The mosque was run by a committee of members, including Dr Abdul Bari, a man known for his moderate views and now the leader of the Muslim Council of Great Britain.What started as a benign interest soon took over his life. The YMO’s beliefs are based on the writings of the Pakistani Abul Ala Maududi, who developed a highly politicised and anti-Western brand of Islam in the first half of the twentieth century, and Sayed Qutb, who advocated all-out war against non-believers (his texts are central to Al-Qaeda teachings). ‘We believed in Islam’s political superiority over the West; the creation of a true Islamic society and the importance of removing disbelievers – or the “kuffar”,’ says Husain.The women who were active in the group, mostly wore niqab (the complete covering of the face, apart for a slit for the eyes) and gloves; they were referred to as the ‘ninjas’ by Husain and his friends. According to Husain, the mosque also had strong ties to Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic political movement based on the Indian subcontinent and founded by Maudadi.Husain’s contention is that while the mosque and its affiliates did not advocate extremism, its reverence for the teaching of Maudadi and Qutb and the solution these writers envisaged – an Islamic state under Sharia Law – engendered anti-Semitism, homophobia, intolerance of Muslim women who did not adopt the hijab, and hatred of ‘hedonistic Western lifestyles’ – everything from clubbing to feminism. According to Husain, while such beliefs weren’t intended to lead to violence, let alone suicide bombers, it’s not hard to see that violence against those who stood in the way of Islamic domination could be regarded as the logical conclusion by some. ‘In the early 1990s, I used to go up and down Brick Lane in a car, calling for jihad for Bosnia,’ he says. ‘There was a sense of disgust from the people at Brick Lane Mosque. They had seen what Islamists had done in their own countries and didn’t like it. But these days, ideas such as jihad are accepted. If you ask many young Muslims today, they say they are waiting for this utopian state with a global jihad agenda.’ An ICM poll last year found 40 per cent of UK Muslims between the ages of 16 and 24 would prefer to live under Sharia Law. The East London Mosque [ELM] denies its links to any political organisation. ‘The ELM actively encourages the community to participate in democratic processes, such as the last local and national elections, without giving support to any one party,’ a spokesperson told Time Out. ‘The ELM is also active in fulfiling its obligations towards community cohesion. His [Husain’s] unsubstantiated claims about the East London Mosque are inaccurate, offensive, and potentially damaging at a time when greater understanding is needed among communities. Blaming others for one’s juvenile leanings towards violent radicalism is self-depreciating.’ Husain withdrew further and further from his parents and attended secret meetings and study groups, finally running away from home. ‘I felt that I’d escaped and found a place in which I belonged. The group became my family,’ he says. Today, the mosque is buzzing with energy. Men mill around prior to prayer – but it is far more than a place of worship, boasting a gym, restaurants, shops, and a wealth of educational programmes. ‘You can worship here, eat here, shop here, exercise here – even bank here,’ he says pointing to the local Sharia bank. ‘When I was growing up, there wasn’t a single religious school in the area. Now there are 12. It’s a little Islamic state. You can live and die here without ever coming into contact with non-Muslims,’ he says. Eventually, however, even the mosque’s alleged brand of Islam was not enough for Husain. In 1993, while studying for his A levels at Tower Hamlets College he met leaders of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international organisation dedicated to the re-establishment of a united Islamic state, which has been banned in many countries.

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    Islamist stickers

    Chicksand Street

    According to Husain, it is ‘the Hizb’, which is responsible more than any other group for introducing the notion of jihad to the streets of the UK. He was quickly drawn to its charismatic world.‘Lots of young people hung around here every evening,’ says Husain standing on the scruffy square of land used as a makeshift football pitch by local kids, at the corner of Chicksand Street and Brick Lane. ‘When I joined the Hizb we became friendly with the kids here with the aim of recruiting them. Some of the kids who once played around here and took drugs are now in prominent positions in the community [Tony Blair has consistently engaged with Islamist leaders, post-7/7] and help run the show round here. To be an Islamist here has a certain kudos,’ he says. Husain points to the top floor of Chicksand House, the 1940s red-brick block on the street corner. ‘We had our meetings in one of those flats. We weren’t allowed to tell anyone where the meeting was, or who was there. There was a great air of secrecy. We’d come in, knock on the door, do the meeting and then disperse quickly afterwards. We were given instructions about the coming Islamic state. It felt good, as if we were part of something big. You never felt full of hatred or that you were doing something extreme.’It seems not much has changed in the intervening years: scrawled in white, across a wall at the entrance to the estate are the words: ‘One Nation, One Islam, One Ummah [global Islamic community]’. On an adjacent wall runs another row of letters: BLM, the Brick Lane Mafia, one of the area’s gangs. ‘That’s the alternative; there’s no Boy Scouts here!’ jokes Husain.According to Husain, anti-semitism and homophobia were rife in the Hizb. But there were some strange discrepancies in the group’s beliefs: pornography was deemed acceptable on the grounds that an early Islamic source had said that it was permissible for a man to ‘look’ at a woman before he married her. Hizb members also had a penchant for sharp clothes and fast cars – though, because they believed all natural events were acts of God, insurance policies were forbidden. ‘Being part of the Hizb was exciting, you felt you were part of something bigger. I’d put up posters around here saying “Bosnia today, Brick Lane tomorrow”. If white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Bosnian Muslims were getting slaughtered, what chance was there for us? Although I never felt moved to commit violence, we were creating the ideology that allows it to happen and some of our members did go off to fight in Afghanistan or Bosnia. I had friends who fought Sikhs in Slough, others who wanted to blow up barracks. These days things have gone much further. Then, we believed something was going to happen outside Britain; now they believe this is going to happen inside Britain,’ he says. Husain now believes the Hizb should be proscribed. The government pulled back from an outright ban after 7/7; security services argued that a ban would be counter productive and encourage recruitment. In fact, there is no evidence linking the group to terrorism and Hizb ut-Tahrir has always maintained that it is non-violent. Although it is anti-Zionist, it says it is not anti-semitic and while it condemns Western democracy, it insists it will only use lawful means to make its voice heard. ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir is an open organization,’ Hizb ut-Tahrir’s spokesman Imran Wahid once said. ‘And Hizb ut-Tahrir is willing to sit down and discuss with anyone.’15 islam 6.jpg

    Royal London Hospital

    A few minutes’ walk along Whitechapel Road is the Royal London Hospital. Here, every Tuesday night, the Hizb hired a room for lectures, firing up members and recruiting new blood. ‘Today, the real activity is not actually in the mosques but on the campuses,’ says Husain, pointing out the nearby lamposts covered with stickers proclaiming: ‘Don’t Vote. It’s Not Muslim.’By 1995, Husain was studying at Newham College and it was there that his involvement with the Hizb came to an abrupt end. While sitting in the library one day, he witnessed the murder of a young black boy. The victim, a Christian, had got into an altercation with a Hizb member and was stabbed to death. ‘I was terribly upset about the murder. We always talked about jihad, but it was always somebody else doing it. When it’s on your own doorstep, it’s different. I didn’t pull the knife, but I helped implant the idea that somebody else would do that.’ The Hizb denied any connection to the murder and there is no evidence linking them to it, but ‘It refused to say it was responsible for an ideology that had created a certain mindset,’ says Husain. However, his own detachment from the group was not straightforward. Following a period of complete disengagement with Islam, he gradually became involved with Sufism, which is based on mystic Islamic traditions and tolerance of all religions. He believed that his links with fundamentalism had finally been cut. The events of September 11 2001 showed him otherwise. ‘At a Sufi gathering on the evening of 9/11, I asked what we were doing to celebrate the day’s events. The group gently reminded me that the Prophet would not be happy to see so many people massacred in cold blood. I felt ashamed of myself.’ He decided to travel to the Middle East to learn Arabic and further his understanding of Islam, living first in Syria, and then Saudi Arabia and was teaching in Jeddah, when the events of 7/7 unfolded on his TV screen. ‘I felt shock and horror as well as guilt. The bombings happened from a whole discourse that I had contributed to creating,’ he says. ‘As an Islamist, I too believed that the taking of Jewish and non-Muslim lives was perfectly acceptable if it would facilitate Islamist domination. But killing innocent people is wrong, regardless of where it is.’ Husain is dismissive of the notion that extremism is a reaction to British foreign policy, particularly in Iraq. ‘There are always problems with foreign policy, but it doesn’t mean you resort to violence. Bosnia, Iraq: they are just excuses. The Islamist ideology is against the West – I’ve heard people talk about “slags dancing around in nightclubs”, and their hatred of gays. If it wasn’t Iraq, it would be something else.’
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    Starbucks, Whitechapel Road

    Our tour ends with a cinnamon latte in Starbucks – surely one of the first targets for a fledgling Islamic state? ‘Hijab in Tower Hamlets was unheard of when I was growing up,’ says Husain, watching black-clad women pass by. ‘Now you see women covering up everywhere in the name of multiculturalism.’ But all this alarmist talk of unstoppable extremists aligns Husain with some strange bedfellows, the Daily Mail – and even the BNP – included. Isn’t it a mistake to confuse the murderous beliefs of a minority with the political ideas of a much wider movement? ‘As I left extremism I realised that if you are born here and grow up here, then you belong here,’ says Husain, who today lives in Redbridge and is studying for a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies. ‘The Islam that was preached 2,000 years ago isn’t going to work here in modern London. Muslims need to alter their lifestyles to a Western lifestyle. To criticise is not Islamaphobic. It’s about opposing certain ideas.’ While he admits that telling his story might put him in danger, he says that if nobody speaks out, the radical discourse will become the accepted form of Islam. ‘I don’t want that for my people, my family, or my country,’ he says. ‘We are at a real crossroads now. I’m hoping Muslims will come out and support me. The long-term future of Islam in Britain is being fought over and it’s up for grabs. Unless we can reverse what’s happening, we will see much worse than 7/7.’ ‘The Islamist’ by Ed Husain is published by Penguin at £8.99.