Eleni no longer lives in the cottage next door. She has gone to live with one of her sons. I see her in the village, still clear-headed and mobile at the age of ninety-five or six (she fibs about her age). I miss her though, with her warm welcomes and beautifully kept garden that she dug until it became too much for her last year.
I mention her because I have been sitting under my vine reading Ed Husain’s ‘The Islamist’. I have read some reviews and extracts, mainly about its descriptions of Islamism and of Saudi Arabia, but was not prepared for the book itself. None of the reviews I have seen have mentioned that is a description of a spiritual journey that, once completed, led to where it started. In that sense, it is about returning home. And the home is a tolerant Britain and a devout spiritual Islam. The two are anything but incompatible.
Husain is a serious and deeply religious writer. His flirtation with Islamism was a teenage rebellion that embodied the arrogance and the lack of respect of youth, easily exploited by the older men who send others to kill. His rejection of the complex array of Islamist political movements is based on their intellectual weakness, poor Islamic scholarship, and their distance from the message of the Prophet about compassion and kindness. For Husain, Islam is deeply spiritual and personal. The common media cliché that there is no division between Islam and politics is an Islamist construct. Husain’s Islam is not totalitarian, but democratic and tolerant. It is rooted in centuries of learning and scholarship, not a casual identification with a set of repressive, recently fabricated doctrines. The Islamist is not a book about religion; it is a religious book critical of a political movement.
The book is also an open challenge to Western misunderstanding. Not only are the many Islamist movements often perceived as one but also the confusion between Islamism and Islam is ubiquitous. A typical example is a soft relativist piece in the ‘Islamophobia’ vein by Karen Armstrong, ‘An inability to tolerate Islam contradicts western values’ (also see Norm). In contrast, Husain argues that Britain has been too tolerant of Islamism, allowing it to flourish and take root, displacing his beloved Islam. Armstrong does not make the distinction between the two and reveals an unattractive aspect of her position - fear. Confronting Islamism ‘could also become a major security risk’. Though it has become another cliché, Husain’s book deserves to be called brave. It is an intellectual assault on the roots of Islamist thought and a defence of spiritual Islam. It is against the appeasement that Armstrong seeks.
As an atheist, I can’t share Husain’s position but I can understand it. It is effective in the same way that an erudite Marxist can be the best critic of Stalinism. What is more, Islamism is not the only contemporary flirtation with totalitarian ideas. In a disturbing piece in Die Zeit on the contemporary arts in Berlin, Georg Diez, outlines the growth of ‘totalitarian chic’ ; ‘… a new thirst for the irrational, anti-democratic and totalitarian in all sorts of corners’. He writes,
One could also join Isaiah Berlin in calling it the temptation of totalitarianism that takes hold of intellectuals and artists when the calmness around them begins to drone too loudly; or if they scent something on the horizon, something more exciting or uplifting than democratic monotony. Because they are particularly keen to cultivate this distaste for the individual, because they indulge themselves in fantasies of cleansing and revolution, which find their redemption in destruction.
More chilingly, he concludes,
The idiocy of politicians is usually reactionary. But the idiocy of artists is sometimes visionary.
Which brings me back to Eleni. It is easy in the somnolent heat of a Greek summer to forget the history of the modern Greek State. Eleni was a child during the catastrophic war with Turkey and an adult during the Nazi occupation and the terrible fratricide of the Greek Civil War. Her life has been lived under the shadow of the totalitarian dreams of her generation. The collapse of the Colonels’ junta brought democracy and EU accession to Greece and so her later years have been lived in peace, prosperity and the pleasure of village squabbles. It is not to be taken for granted.
Why should another generation of Elenis have to endure the horrors caused by the impatient ignorance of young ideologues? This is the precise question that Husain asks of his co-religionists. The first line of defence against totalitarianism is intellectual, and in some places the walls have been breached. Ed Husain’s book is an attempt to rebuild the barricades.