Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A former Islamist speaks...

Wahhabi Threat?
(Image from Wikipedia)

The British newspaper The Sunday Times online has a fascinating article, "How a British jihadi saw the light" (April 21, 2007), written by a certain "Ed Husain" whom I've never heard of but who is, apparently, a British citizen of African descent -- though whether directly or by way of the Caribbean (or elsewhere), I do not know.

Husain is a former Islamist and has written a book, The Islamist, about his experience in Saudi Arabia as a black man encountering stark racism where he least expected to find it, namely, in the puritanical Islam of Saudi Wahabism. The above-mentioned article is an extract from his book.

I'm not sure that Husain was ever really a "jihadi," for the extract says nothing about him fighting in an actual jihad, but the subtitle aptly summarizes his article: "Ed Hussain (sic), once a proponent of radical Islam in London, tells how his time as a teacher in Saudi Arabia led him to turn against extremism."

Allow me to extract from his extract:

During our first two months in Jeddah, Faye and I relished our new and luxurious lifestyle: a shiny jeep, two swimming pools, domestic help, and a tax-free salary. The luxury of living in a modern city with a developed infrastructure cocooned me from the frightful reality of life in Saudi Arabia.

My goatee beard and good Arabic ensured that I could pass for an Arab.

But looking like a young Saudi was not enough: I had to act Saudi, be Saudi. And here I failed.

My first clash with Saudi culture came when, being driven around in a bulletproof jeep, I saw African women in black abayas tending to the rubbish bins outside restaurants, residences and other busy places.

"Why are there so many black cleaners on the streets?" I asked the driver. The driver laughed. "They're not cleaners. They are scavengers; women who collect cardboard from all across Jeddah and then sell it. They also collect bottles, drink cans, bags."

"You don't find it objectionable that poor immigrant women work in such undignified and unhygienic conditions on the streets?"

"Believe me, there are worse jobs women can do."

Though it grieves me to admit it, the driver was right. In Saudi Arabia women indeed did do worse jobs. Many of the African women lived in an area of Jeddah known as Karantina, a slum full of poverty, prostitution and disease.

A visit to Karantina, a perversion of the term "quarantine" [i.e., (Arabic: الكرنتينا al-qarantīna)], was one of the worst of my life. Thousands of people who had been living in Saudi Arabia for decades, but without passports, had been deemed "illegal" by the government and, quite literally, abandoned under a flyover [i.e., an overpass].

A non-Saudi black student I had met at the British Council accompanied me. "Last week a woman gave birth here," he said, pointing to a ramshackle cardboard shanty. Disturbed, I now realised that the materials I had seen those women carrying were not always for sale but for shelter.

I had never expected to see such naked poverty in Saudi Arabia.

At that moment it dawned on me that Britain, my home, had given refuge to thousands of black Africans from Somalia and Sudan: I had seen them in their droves in Whitechapel. They prayed, had their own mosques, were free and were given government housing.

Many Muslims enjoyed a better lifestyle in non-Muslim Britain than they did in Muslim Saudi Arabia. At that moment I longed to be home again.

All my talk of ummah [i.e., the worldwide Muslim community] seemed so juvenile now. It was only in the comfort of Britain that Islamists could come out with such radical utopian slogans as one government, one ever expanding country, for one Muslim nation. The racist reality of the Arab psyche would never accept black and white people as equal.
I cannot vouch for Ed Husain's generalization about the "racist reality of the Arab psyche," but he certainly seems to know Saudi reality well.

Husain places the blame solely upon Wahhabism -- though I suspect that something broader than puritanical Islam is at work -- but things could be even worse, he implies:
In contemporary Wahhabism there are two broad factions. One is publicly supportive of the House of Saud, and will endorse any policy decision reached by the Saudi government and provide scriptural justification for it. The second believes that the House of Saud should be forcibly removed and the Wahhabi clerics take charge. Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda are from the second school.
And after relating many other of his experiences in Saudi Arabia, he informs us that he has come to a far-reaching conclusion:
My time in Saudi Arabia bolstered my conviction that an austere form of Islam (Wahhabism) married to a politicised Islam (Islamism) is wreaking havoc in the world. This anger-ridden ideology, an ideology I once advocated, is not only a threat to Islam and Muslims, but to the entire civilised world.
As I said, a far-reaching conclusion. I think that I will need to read this book, for an extract is too little upon which to base an informed opinion...

UPDATE: I misunderstood Ed Husain's ethnic origins, as this report by John-Paul Flintoff, "Rediscovering a kinder, gentler Islam," from the Sunday Times Online (April 21, 2007) makes clear:
The oldest child of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, he grew up in East London. His parents were religious and had close ties to an internationally revered Muslim scholar Sheikh Abd al-Latif, whom young Ed (short for Mohammed) called "Grandpa". Grandpa helped to perfect his Arabic accent.
In other words, Ed Husain is what the British refer to as "Asian," or what we Americans might awkwardly call "Indian from India" (although the expression "Indian subcontinent" is not entirely clear, for that also includes both Bangladesh and Pakistan). His nickname "Ed" confused me. Apologies for the error.



At 6:31 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

The Islamist I assume was published sometime this year. I find it interesting he didn't notice what the Arabs (That's what the ruling class calls themselves) in the Northern Sudan were doing. First they got rid of the blacks in the south, then the black Christians and then the black Muslims in Darfur.

At 7:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, thanks for the link. I had tried to find the book, but it's not at Amazon.

Yes, the Sudanese government is horrific. I've been keeping up with this for years. When I was at Berkeley back in the 80s, I met a man from the south of Sudan, and he asked an Arab friend of mine if she hated African Blacks.

She quickly made clear that she was Arab but Christian and didn't support Sudanese Islamists at all.

Well, she was Lebanese anyway...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Do you remember who was that talked about all the African slaves brought into the Gulf until slavery was outlawed in the last century and asked, "Where are the Condoleeza Rices, the Colin Powells of the Gulf?" The only well-known Saudi who appears to have obvious African ancestry is the former ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar, rumored to be the son of a concubine/slave.

Kudos to the former Islamist for being open to changing his worldview.

At 4:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, I don't recall that particular rhetorical question, but the speaker might have been Thomas Sowell, who has spoken out about African-Americans being insufficiently aware of slavery in the Muslim world and who has also criticized scholars for claiming -- without real, documented evidence -- that slavery under Islam was less onerous than slavery in the American South.

If I recall, Sowell also claimed that most African male slaves in the Arabic world were castrated to prevent Africans from reproducing as a distinct race and that this explains why there are no large African populations in Arabic countries. I don't know if this view is correct (and I may be imperfectly recalling it anyway).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the same context as the quote, it was mentioned that equal numbers of slaves went east and west. I did not know until googling this afternoon that Muslim slave traders typically killed the men, sold the women as concubines and servants, and that only 10% of boys survived castration to become worker eunuchs.

It seems that Koreans, like Muslims, subscribe to the belief that slavery in Korea was "less onerous." The late scholar James Palais was a bee in the bonnet of Korean historians owing to his dogged pursuit of the history of slavery in Korea. Korean K-12 educational materials devote pages to the Western slave trade yet mention only in passing the existence of slavery in Korea.

At 8:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Sonagi. I've heard about slavery in Korea, of course, though I know very little. Was it as bad as slavery in the West? Or was it more like serfdom in the Medieval period?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There were both slaves and serfs. One was called "noye," the other "nobi." One of the points of contention between Dr. Palais and Korean scholars was the numbers of each. Korean scholars have argued that there were lots of serfs but not many slaves. Slaves had no human rights. They were bought and sold, the women raped by their masters, and any children born of slave mothers inherited the status of their mothers. Just as African-American males were called "boy," Korean serfs and slaves were spoken to in banmal by the yangban children of the household. I witnessed a modern version of this linguistic relationship in China, where some ethnic Korean Chinese employees were spoken to in banmal by the children of their South Korean employers.

At 7:41 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Sonagi, for the details. I've heard -- from blogs -- that Koreans are not very happy to discuss the slavery that was practiced in Korea during past times.

I guess that nobody these days likes to talk about the slavery practiced by their ancestors.

Of course, there's still slavery in the Arabic world (and elsewhere).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed Hussain's family are originally from Bangladesh. He grew up in east london.

At 5:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Anonymous. That's good to have cleared up.

Jeffery Hodges

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