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AGM '09: Ed Husain on challenging Islamism (#6)

2:20pm  Given the enormity of my cooked breakfast this morning, I really didn't need the pasta, chips, salad, carrot cake and two cups of coffee that constituted my lunch. But hey, a campaigner has to eat and at least it helped fuel my post-lunch meeting and greeting at an Amnesty stand in the exhibition area.

Okay, break over and we're back to the main event. Having earlier been given the prolonged and determined stare of the Conference Chair admonishing delegates to "turn off all mobile communication devices", I have retreated from the main lecture hall in the Taliesin Theatre, and am now in the spill-over room to observe events via video-link. I am many things, but am not stupid enough to get any further on the wrong side of Sheila, the all-powerful Chair!

Ed Husain is the first keynote speaker of the weekend. He is the "author of The Islamist and co-director of the Quilliam Foundation. Formerly an activist of Hizb ut-Tahrir and Jamat-e-Islami front organisations in the UK, [and] has now become a strong critic of extremism and Islamism" (according to the blurb in my conference programme) and "is an advocate of Muslim engagement in mainstream politics as citizens, and not as separatist[s]".  Ed takes the stage.

He recalls that, in the 1990s – aged 17 and a young Islamist activist – he was sent along to a mosque in Newham to disrupt a meeting where local Amnesty volunteers were talking about their campaigns for human rights. His Islamist group viewed Amnesty as the enemy, as moderates, as non-believers.

Later, he reflects, fellow Hizb ut-Tahrir activist Maajid Nawaz ended up in a prison in Cairo. He found himself abandoned by his former colleagues but, ironically, adopted as a prisoner case by his supposed enemy, Amnesty International. After release, Nawaz adopted much of the human rights perspective advocated by Amnesty and went on to help found the Quilliam Foundation with Husain.

Husain moves on to talk about the roots of terrorism. Al Qaeda is a marrying of Islamism and Saudi Wahabism, he says, and the West mistakenly turned a blind eye to the threats until it was too late. He lambasts Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood for bringing repression to ordinary Muslim people and for being antipathetical to human rights.

'Does Amnesty have a role in opposing Islamist extremism?', he asks rhetorically. He points to the case of Abu Qatada, currently in high-security prison in the UK, whose most recent letter from jail ironically complains about the racism to be found within the prison and continues to advocate Jihad. It is clear that Husain thinks AI has a role in challenging the views of the likes of Qatada, as well as simultaneously standing up for their rights.

He says there is support in the Muslim world for the human rights stance of Amnesty International and that there is no contradiction between human rights principles and Islam. He thinks the example of the UK, where Muslims can live pretty happily within a human rights-friendly State, is one that merits wider demonstration and even export to the Arab world.

He is asked by a delegate about the distinction between Islam as a religion and as a State ideology. In short, Husain thinks that it should stick to being the former.

Asked about Islamophobia in the UK, he responds that he doesn't like the term and thinks that while definite problems do exist, Muslims are a fundamental if still somewhat marginal part of British society (unlike some other European countries) and that things could be a lot worse.

Responding to another question, Husain notes that British Muslims are mostly just like anybody else, reading The Sun and watching Channel 4 News and that Quilliam has set out to communicate to all British people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, through all those mainstream channels. A questionner points out that on a recent TV programme Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam was branded a 'traitor', a 'non-Muslim', by another Muslim commentator. He says that, as that particular comment came from Anjem Choudhary, an Islamist activist, it was a label they were happy to wear with pride and they did not seek popularity from their opponents.

3:18pm  Warm applause marks the end of Husain's thought-provoking contribution.

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