The Importance of England's Ex-Islamists

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET

Even before the recent foiled terror attacks, Britain, long a hotbed of purblind multiculturalism, was showing signs of coming to its senses in dealing with Islamism and its apologists. Shortly before leaving office, outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair knighted Salman Rushdie to the outrage of the many hard-line Muslim clerics in England. In the wake of the foiled attacks Blair, with one eye on the soft-on-jihadis BBC and its press cousins he described as "viewpapers," argued "the reason we are finding it hard to win this battle is that we're not actually fighting it properly. We're not actually standing up to these people and saying, it's not just your methods that are wrong, your ideas are absurd. Nobody is oppressing you. Your sense of grievance isn't justified."

The sense of grievance may not justified but it is widespread. A 2004 study by Home Office survey found 26 percent of British Muslims felt no loyalty to Britain, 13 percent defended terrorism, and about 16,000 were prepared to engage in or actively support terrorism. In addition, four out of 10 British Muslims want Sharia law (which includes punitive stoning and amputation) introduced into parts of the country, and a fifth have sympathy with the "feelings and motives" of the suicide bombers who killed 52 people in the London terrorist bus and tube attacks. These sentiments pose a grim challenge.

It's in response to numbers such as these that led left-wing journalist Will Hutton writing in the Observer, the formerly jihadi-friendly Guardian's Sunday paper, to argued even before the recent incidents that "the space in which to argue that Islam is an essentially a benign religion seems to narrow with every passing day." "The West," he went on, "provokes Islam not by doing anything, although what it does is hardly helpful; it provokes at least some strands of Islamic thought simply by being." That means "the only way we can live together peaceably with Islam is if we don't compromise our own values."

The rethinking of people like Hutton is significant but not as important as those who have been in the belly of the beast and returned to tell the tale. In the cold war, it was the ex-communists who understood Communism best; today in England, it is the ex-Islamist, men who were once Jihadis, who are playing a crucial role in meeting the challenge. In the wake of the recent failed attacks Hassan Butt, formerly of the Islamist Al-Muhajiroun, explained the game being played by the Islamists and their apologists. " I remember how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy. By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the 'Blair's bombs' line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology."

The underlying problem, Butt argues, is not just radical Islam but the pre-modern nature of Islamic theology itself. The Islamic scholar Abu Qatada, now under arrest, he explains "has a following is because he is extremely learned and his religious rulings are well argued. His opinions, though I now thoroughly disagree with them, have validity within the broad canon of Islam."

Butt and Ed Hussain author of the recent very well received memoir, The Islamist, an account of his days as an extremist, agree that the key for England is to encourage open and honest debates so that dissenters within the Muslim population are free to make their case against the extremists. "Among moderate Muslims, explains Hussain, "there is real concern at being portrayed as a "traitor" or a "grass"

In the Cold War some of the most fruitful debates were between liberal and social democratic anti-communists. Similarly, the differences between Butt and Hussain illuminate the alternative options for anti-Islamist Brits. Butt wants to open up a discussion of the Islamic roots of terrorism. Hussain draws a clearer line between Islam and Islamism. "Most British Muslims, in common with the rest of the country" Hussain argues, "fail to understand the difference between Islam the religion, and Islamism, a postcolonial political movement." Hussain wants England to encourage the spiritual forms if Islam he was raised on before becoming seduced by Jihadism.

Both Butt and Hussain are men of considerable courage. Both are faced with death threats. Butt has been stabbed and beaten. In the short run, they have helped strip away the veil of obscuratanism that has allowed portion of the British left to explain away Jihadism as merely a form of blowback. The ex-Islamists have opened the space for England to break with the convention of multicultural double talk in which tolerance for hatred is taken as a sign of virtue. The irony, as in the era of American liberal philo-Communism, is that it has taken the ex-Islamists to uphold the liberal values forsaken by so much of the British chattering classes.