London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Ed Husain is the co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation, a UK-based think tank focusing on counter-extremism, and author of ‘The Islamist’. He was born and raised in London, and has also spent considerable time living and traveling in the Middle East. He was formerly a member of the UK branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic organization seeking to unify all Muslim states under a single caliphate. Husain now strongly criticizes such organizations, and is an advocate of integration between Muslims and the Western world, and counter extremism. Following the publication of his book in 2007, Husain has made numerous contributions to media and political debates regarding such subjects.
Asharq al-Awsat met with Ed Husain in London, to discuss his past experiences as a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and his retrospective opinions of his time in the organization. The interview also touched upon the work of the Quilliam Foundation, and Ed Husain’s forthcoming plans to work as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States. The following is the transcript from the interview.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How long were you a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir?
[Hussein] Almost three years.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When you joined them, did you read and memorize all the official statements and writings, issued by the organization?
[Hussein] I cannot say for sure that I memorized everything they wrote by heart. Hizb ut-Tahrir has lots of publications that members can only see after reaching certain stages. Perhaps the “System of Islam” is the most famous one.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who was your mentor at Hizb ut-Tahrir?
[Hussein] Farid Qasim was my first mentor at the party. He is an Iraqi architect. He subsequently left the party and became more radical, and joined another organization. There are two branches of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. The main branch has a Khomeini-like ideology, which we all know. As for the second, it broke away from the main party, and this was the branch that Qasim joined. Prior to joining Hizb ut-Tahrir, I was educated on the works of Abul Ala Mawdudi , Muslim Brotherhood thinker Sayyid Qutb, and Taqiy-al-Din al-Nabahani.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was your position within the organization? Were you a member of its ideological arm, or its recruitment drive?
[Hussein] My work primarily dealt with recruitment and development strategies. During that period, specifically between 1995 and 1998, Hizb ut-Tahrir`s efforts were restricted to only some universities, particularly the faculties of medicine. The first task carried out by my generation was to bring Hizb ut-Tahrir to Tower Hamlets, a British area known for its large Muslim population. I was the head of the Islamic Society, at a college in Tower Hamlets, and I was in charge of introducing Hizb ut-Tahrir to the East London Mosque, the largest mosque in Britain. I was also involved in developing the strategy for recruiting ordinary party members.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How many members of Hizb ut-Tahrir are based in the United Kingdom?
[Hussein] It is difficult to estimate the number, but I do not think that there are more than 300 or 400 members. But this is just the main circle of members, whereas the party has a large number of supporters, whose number may reach 3,000 or perhaps 4,000.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When you were a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, did you believe in the return of the caliphate, and that it could actually be achieved?
[Hussein] We used to believe that it would happen very soon. I was 17 or 18 then, and my parents were immigrants from India, and we did not know any Arabs. Umar Bakri was the first Arab person we met. And because the Koran is in Arabic, and the Prophet Muhammad was himself an Arab, it was as if we came under a strong spell. Bakri told us that there are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir in every household in Lebanon, and that the party enjoys strong support in Saudi Arabia. He showed us evidence of this, using examples such as Muhammad al-Masadi, who is a high ranking university professor in Saudi Arabia. Bakri assured us that the caliphate would return, because the party was close to assuming power in Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, who I was to judge Bakri, and tell him that he was wrong? In 1994 we held a large conference on the subject of the caliphate at Wembley Conference Center, in which al-Masadi and others from all over the world took part. A genuine belief was generated inside us, that the caliphate was going to return soon. We believed that the caliphate would return by next Eid or next Ramadan. However, this has never happened.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you still believe in this?
[Hussein] Now I believe that this will never happen. But at that time, this was what we believed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When did you leave Hizb ut-Tahrir?
[Hussein] Approximately in August, 1997.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why did you leave Hizb ut-Tahrir? Was it because of the murder incident [referring to the death of a student outside Newham College, East London, in 1996, allegedly as the result of a dispute between Muslim and non-Muslim students] or your wife’s influence?
[Hussein] Both. I was involved in a love story, and my wife is a British Muslim with Indian roots. She gave me a different purpose in my life. However, one of the deeper reasons was that my parents were always against me joining Hizb ut-Tahrir, because they belong to the mainstream of Hanafi Islam, like the Muslims in Egypt and Syria. My father used to wake up for dawn prayers, eager to recite Koran until sunrise. This is something that I became accustomed to from a young age. However, when I was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, I remember that we often missed the dawn and evening prayers, because we were busy distributing leaflets. This highlights the contradiction between my situation, when I was a member of the party, and the real Islam. This is the difference between Hizb ut-Tahrir and honest, heartfelt Islam. Hizb ut-Tahrir was a mere political organization, concerned with political activism, anger, and confrontation, but it was hollow inside.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were there Arab members within Hizb ut-Tahrir?
[Hussein] Yes, many Arabs. This was one of the main points that attracted people like myself to join Hizb ut-Tahrir, to be in the presence of many Arabs whom we considered “the real Muslims”. We used to consider ourselves as second class Muslims on the sidelines, particularly since we did not speak Arabic.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were they Arab students?
[Hussein] Yes. The idea behind recruiting them was for the purpose of carrying out military coups. Efforts were made to recruit them, and then send them back to their home countries to carry out coups d’etat. At the same time, Hizb ut-Tahrir inspired, or reinforced, my desire to learn the Arabic language, which was something that my father had instilled in me. I was encouraged to spend some time in the Middle East, which was a positive experience, because you realize that the Arabs are like any other nation, and there is nothing prohibitive that distinguishes them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So, Hizb ut-Tahrir’s agenda was to send its members back home to recruit more Arabs. Is that true?
[Hussein] Yes, we used to look up to the Arabs, considering them the “people of victory”. We thought that they would be the ones that would give us support in military and political fields. However, this situation has changed since 1998, when Pakistan joined the nuclear club, and thus became the primary concern. But until that moment, the Arabs were of utmost importance.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] During your time with Hizb ut-Tahrir, did the organization hold lectures and seminars to review their strategies, as is the case now?
[Hussein] Yes. Generally speaking, there are two levels in Hizb ut-Tahrir. The first consists of the scholars, the individuals who are devoted to learning, and the second level is the active members. I was a scholar, therefore, I had to attend a secret meeting once a week at Tower Hamlets, and Farid Qasim assumed the post of supervisor.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where is Farid Qasim now?
[Hussein] Here in London. He is from an Iraqi father and a British mother. If you want to mention a name that will draw the attention of Hizb ut-Tahrir members, it is the name of Dr Nasim Ghani. He is the person who recruited me to join Hizb ut-Tahrir. Ghani is originally from Bangladesh, but at present he is the leader of the party in the United Kingdom, but he tends to keep away from the spotlight, and shrouds himself in an aura of secrecy.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How much time did it take you to write your book [The Islamist, 2007]?
[Hussein] Almost a year.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you give us a brief summary of the book?
[Hussein] The book came after the 7 July attacks, in light of the confusion that struck the moderate political stratum here in Britain, in differentiating between Islam and terrorism. Most of the arguments raised focused on this question: Does Islam bear the blame for what happened? For their part, the Islamic organizations here emphasized that they have nothing to do with terrorism, extremism, and these ideologies. Therefore, I tried to discuss and explain that my generation had been attracted to radical ideology here in Britain before the 7 July bombings, and even before the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. I wanted to point out that foreign policy has a role [in radicalizing Islamic youth], and it can even be considered the trigger that set off the attacks. But let us not deny the responsibility of Hizb ut-Tahrir and other organizations. This was the background of the book. The book has been a success; it was the best seller here and received wide media coverage. Yet, the most important achievement of the book was that it opened many doors for me to meet with politicians, the media, and society leaders, in addition to helping me to establish the Quilliam Foundation, based on the contacts I had gained.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Tell us about the establishment of the Quilliam Foundation?
[Hussein] The Quilliam Foundation was founded in 2007, by myself and Majid Nawaz, who was a colleague of mine in the party, before he broke away. We named the foundation after a British lawyer, who was also a Muslim. We tried to prove that Islam is not something strange, new, or alien in Britain. The message we tried to convey was that Islam, and its place within British identity, was not always contradictory. Rather, Islam is a religion like Judaism and Christianity, and like any other religion, it should be given the chance to freely prosper here. Quilliam was a white Christian who converted to Islam, and by choosing his name, we tried to return Islam to the pre 1960’s of the last century, and before the British Empire, to the British Islamic history. The Quilliam Foundation is considered the first research establishment designed to combat extremism. It fights Islamists, and not Islam, because it believes that the Islamist considers Islam to be a political ideology. There are varying levels of Islamists, and they differ in how to implement their ideologies. Many of them live a modern social life, but have extremist political ideas. They are usually despised by Muslim clergymen and ordinary Muslims, and tend to advocate a hatred of the West.
The Quilliam Foundation has several units and cells to confront extremism, to enlighten people about it and its dangers, and to provide assistance to those who want to eradicate it. What distinguishes us from other organizations is that all our training courses are carried out in participation with former members of fundamentalist organizations, because it is difficult, without a direct experience of extremism, to have an awareness of the internal workings of such organizations, and the mechanisms used to recruit extremists, and ways of convincing them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does The Quilliam Foundation receive any government assistance?
[Hussein] Yes, it receives direct financial assistance from the government, and in return we offer advice to the government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you talk to us a little bit about fundamentalist websites, and whether these people [the website administrators] can be prosecuted for their adverse influence on Muslims in the country?
[Hussein] The current British law, known as the ‘law against glorifying terrorism’, permits the prosecution of individuals who run or contribute to these websites, because they incite violence and glorify terrorism. However, we do not know why the government has not prosecuted anyone yet. For us, our concern is not about these individuals, but about the thousands of young Muslim men who log on to these websites, and follow the discussions that take place there, because what is put in front of them is a one-sided argument. Therefore, one of the things that we are trying to achieve is to expose the secret world of around 100 jihadist websites, which have thousands of members. For example, Al-Fallujah website has about 60,000 members. I do not mean here that all such sites are jihadist in nature, but I mean that there are many interactions that go by unnoticed. Intelligence officials in various countries are working to shut down these websites, and we ask for the opportunity to discuss this matter with them, and to engage with them in the challenge.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It has been noted recently that many white individuals have converted to Islam through Hizb ut-Tahrir. Have you noticed that?
[Hussein] Regrettably yes. Islam has been propagated as a political ideology, similar to that of Communism. In other words, they share the idea that Capitalism is wrong because it is morally bankrupt, with the capitalist regime currently suffering from high crime rates and numerous incidences of rape and indecency. So what is the alternative? It is the Islamic system. Unfortunately, it has become is easy to recruit young men aged 18 or 19, inside the universities, and attract them to the style of Islam embraced by Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is Islam of a political nature, based on confrontation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is, in your opinion, the best or the most common way for recruiting people?
[Hussein] Firstly: To draw a link between the recruitment drive and current international affairs, which incite emotions. In my case, Hizb ut-Tahrir based their recruitment around what was happening in Bosnia. If white Muslims, with blonde hair and blue eyes, were being killed, then what chance did I have, a young man with dark skin and black eyes, especially as those who were killed in Bosnia had been there for 400 years? The Hizb ut-Tahrir officials held banners in front of us saying “Britain Today, Bosnia Tomorrow.” Hence, they sowed fear into our hearts, when we were only 18 or 19. Since then, they have recruited individuals by manipulating the issues of Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and all the great unresolved international conflicts which incite emotions. Hizb ut-Tahrir presented a solution of its own, regarding these issues, and thus attracted us to the idea of the caliphate and jihad.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has Hizb ut-Tahrir offered anything specific, in order to encourage the youth to join it?
[Hussein] I think that they actually offer a network of support and ideas. Any member of Hizb ut-Tahrir can go to any city in the country and find friends, support, and a place to stay there.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the US Council on Foreign Relations, where you are going to move to, considered a government entity?
[Hussein] It is not a government entity, it works independently, but it plays a very important role in offering advice to the government and criticizing its policies, and is considered one of the oldest research institutes in the United States, since its establishment in 1921.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us more about your work at the US Council on Foreign Relations?
[Hussein] I will start my work in this field in December. The Council on Foreign Relations is based in Washington, the U.S. capital, and in New York. I am a senior fellow there, and I will focus on confronting terrorism, the dissemination of extremist ideology, media coverage of Islam, and issues related to Muslims in the United States. This is a good chance to enlighten the US public, regarding the viewpoints of ordinary Muslims, and to inform them that Islam, as a faith, does not threaten the United States or U.S. values. Currently, with proposals to burn copies of the Koran, and the [controversy surrounding the] so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’, it is clear that there is fear amongst the American public. The Council on Foreign Relations does not belong to the right or left in American society, but it stands as an impartial advisor to the government, and guides civil society. It can publish comments in the US media, without being viewed as an entity affiliated with the neo-conservative or liberal trends, but as a fully independent entity.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were there any fellow Muslims at the Council on Foreign Relations, before you?
[Hussein] Time Magazine’s Fareed Zakaria was on the Council’s board.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you been to any Arab countries?
[Hussein] I lived in Syria for two years and learned Arabic there. I was teaching English and worked at the British Council. I spent the period between 2003 and 2005 in Damascus. I then did the same in Jeddah from late 2005 until the end of 2006. I also spent some time near Mecca and Medina.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was your university degree?
[Hussein] I obtained a Masters degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies – the Middle East Division, in 2007. I have a keen interest in the Middle East, and prior to this I obtained an undergraduate degree in history, from the University of London.