The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and Respected stranger, butthe oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to aparticipation of all our rights and privileges.
–George Washington, 1783
If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mahometans,Jews or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists.
–George Washington, in a letter to Tench Telghman, 1784
It was my first visit to the United States. I was expecting to be stopped at the airport,harassed, interrogated and perhaps detained. Since 9/11, Muslim communities across the globe are filled with horror stories of encounters at American airports. My friend from college days, Majid Nawaz, who had spent four years as a political prisoner in Egypt, was with me. Together we had attended countless anti-American rallies in Britain, and witnessed many US flag-burning rituals. Now, in our thirties, and after a decade in the wilderness, we had changed. But would America understand us? Would we understand America?
Like good Brits, we patiently stood waiting in the long queue at Washington Dulles
Airport. Suddenly, Majid’s name was called from the loudspeaker, telling him to go to the front of the line. Then mine. Were we in trouble? Majid had visited the US recently, appearing as an expert witness for the Congressional Homeland Security Committee chaired by Senator Joe Lieberman. Majid had been one of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s most intelligent, vociferous and articulate leaders, travelling to Pakistan, Denmark and Egypt advocating the group’s ideas and setting up secret cells. The Hizb, in essence, was identical to al-Qaeda, differing only in terms of the tactics it chose to achieve the desired result: political power. Majid has been banned in several countries, and is wanted by Pakistan’s ISI, their intelligence agency. But he had recently rejected extremism and, after years of study and reflection in prison, become a public advocate for liberal democracy, using scriptural evidence to support peaceful Muslims — who represent the vast majority — in their struggle against religious extremism. His rejection of Hizb ut-Tahrir made headlines in the British press, and the British prime minister quoted Majid in parliament. But now we were in America, and during Majid’s recent trip, federal escorts had accompanied him everywhere, fearful that he might violate US security regulations and not quite sure what to make of him. Would he, would we, face the same fate again?
An immigration officer at Washington Dulles Airport, accompanied by several colleagues, took us to one side, registered our passport details and asked the desk officer to clear us for entrance. Senior officials at the US Department of Homeland Security were expecting our arrival and wanted minimum kerfuffle. The polite, courteous conduct of the officers touched us both. But my mind was on the thousands of American Muslims who had been subjected to raids and arrests. Can we forget their plight?
Outside the airport, I stood with Majid and was stupefied by the number of US flags I saw everywhere. Flying at full mast at several junctures in the car park, and then above the airport, and on cars and coaches, the stars and stripes were ubiquitous. Unlike Britain, America was proudly patriotic and unreservedly expressive of national pride.
‘Their flag is almost sacred to them, isn’t it?’ I said to Majid.
‘And extremists burn it all the time. Why did we do that, Ed? Why?’ he asked, trying to come to terms with how we had been sucked into extremism.
‘Why didn’t anybody stop us?’ I asked in response. ‘We watched this happen in London, not Baghdad — what possessed us?’
Majid and I recalled how several of our fellow activists became suicide bombers, were
imprisoned, or created entire organisations that linked themselves to al-Qaeda. What
started off as mere talk, as rhetoric, found expression in mass murder in several
European capitals, including London and Madrid. The murder we had witnessed on our
college campus a decade before the attacks on London’s subway on July 7, 2005 was an unspeakable testament to the power of words. The talk of jihad, hatred and anger never remains abstract, limited to ‘freedom of speech.’ It yields results.
More than anything else, what worried Majid and me was the lack of awareness in the wider society of the root causes of extremism, and of the lifestyle that fosters recruitment into extremist movements. Society’s demonstrated failure to grasp the urgency of the situation was also troubling, because that comprehension might precipitate policies and actions that could prevent young Muslims from becoming fanatical ideologues committed to creating a world dominated by Islamism, not Islam. To help fill this void, Majid and I started the Quilliam Foundation, the world’s first think-tank committed to explaining and countering Islamist thought.
We were in America to speak at Harvard and Princeton, at an array of Washington think tanks, and to meet Muslims on both the East and West coasts. We spoke with leading personnel at several government departments, US ambassadors, academic leaders and students. And everywhere we went, we were asked a similar series of critical questions. Can America create home-grown terrorists? Will American Muslims, like British Muslims, attack their own homeland in the name of a false Islam? Britain is home to over 3,000 extremists: Can America be harbouring enemies without knowing? The 9/11 hijackers hatched their plot in Europe: Are American-born Islamists capable of a similar monstrosity?
My answers to these questions, after meeting quite a few American Muslims and consulting with American experts on these issues, are both yes and no.
The above is an excerpt from the book The Islamist: Why I Became an Islamic
Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left by Ed Husain. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been
proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Islamist by Ed Husain. Copyright © 2009 by Penguin.
Ed Husain, author of The Islamist: Why I Became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left, was an Islamist radical for five years in his late teens and early twenties. Having rejected extremism he travelled widely in the Middle East and worked for the British Council in Syria and Saudi Arabia. Husain received wide and various acclaim for The Islamist, which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for
political writing and the PEN/Ackerley Prize for literary autobiography, among others. He is a co-founder of the Quillium Foundation, Britain’s first Muslim counter-extremism
think tank. He lives in London with his wife and daughter.