This is a detailed and fascinating account of the history of Islam and its modern cultural forms written by somebody who clearly knows his stuff. The book delves into the history, explaining the factionalism in the Muslim world, but also thematically discusses modern Muslim attitudes to life, birth and death. Along the way, it is properly critical of the Western attitudes and posturing which have driven the Islamic world into extremist cul-de-sacs on so many occasions since the Crusades!
The main target of the book is a form of Islamic fundamentalism called Salafism associated predominantly with Saudi Arabia but spread across the Middle East and, increasingly, across the globe. Ed Husain clearly blames this and similar extremist versions and interpretations of the Quran for much of what people commonly associate with the Islamic world today which, in a nut shell, is that substantial majorities of the population in most European countries associate Islam with terrorism. That is something which both Islam and the West have to deal with. However, he also points out that the Muslim world is multinational and the West’s tendency to focus on extremist views and practices can also legitimise the jihadi and the terrorist. At the same time, the destabilisation of nations, a tendency to conflate war with punishment, the accidental creation of failed states and refugees, together with a failure to resolve the intractable Israeli problem drives futureless young Muslims into the arms of the jihadists.
At times, the book is polemical and, as a reader, you have to make your own decisions. I found him too easy going on the state of Israel and the occupied territories but I respected his analysis of the way that women are still oppressed in the Muslim world and the way that an insecure male population – economically and politically oppressed for centuries – now fears female sexuality and takes it out on the women.
That is by the way. The broader message of the book is that Islam is a religion with its own prophets, a supreme being, a prospect of a better afterlife, a positive culture that accentuates neighbourliness, a respect for the family and the promotion of hygienic practices. So far so good, but religions soon develop into factionalism and internal wars and disputes. That leads onto extremist values and differences holding sway and then to murder, martyrdom, the repression of ‘difference’ and, finally, catastrophic violence as religion and state become confused.
It’s a familiar story. It’s what Christianity did to the world for around 2000 years and you can dispute whether people are drawn to the notion of God or whether God is a convenience for those in power to maintain their social control. However, what we do know about Christianity is that – broadly speaking – it has run out of steam. That ignores some fundamentalist Christians in the United States for whom a form of jihadism and hate is second nature but we are unlikely to see non-believers put to the sword or burned at the stake by the current collection of archbishops and cardinals!
It might seem reasonable to suppose that the same thing will eventually happen to Islam and Ed Husain makes the sensible suggestion that increasing political union in the Middle East is a good way forward. Will it happen? He also notes how the United States and the West spent $3 trillion on ‘liberating’ Iraq but precious little on rebuilding it for the long term.
In the end, there is no doubt that Islam has a problem but the solutions have to come from within, facilitated by a new approach in the West. It is hard to be optimistic about that at the moment but this book provides an informative way of understanding the key issues.
(This book was published in May 2018. I received a review copy via NetGalley from the publishers, Bloomsbury Publishing.)