Worth reading although it didn’t convince me. Husain is the other recovering fundamentalist in the news lately along with Hassan Butt, about whom I’ve written a bunch. He was hooked up with Hizb ut-Tahrir, the “nonviolent” international Islamist group that Tony Blair wanted banned in Britain. Armchair psychoanalysis of jihadis tends towards arguments about sexual frustration but Husain thinks it’s a different kind of frustration that pushes Arab professionals into the cult:
Without exception, Islamist movements attract urbanites with a secular, technical educational background. Medical and engineering colleges across the world only accept the most intelligent students, the highest of academic achievers. In the Arab world, the parental and social pressures on young people to pursue medical and engineering careers only compounds the misery of creative young minds, forced to study subjects under duress. Thousands of undergraduates seek greater meaning in life, an experience beyond the mundane necessities of medicine, and a purpose that occupies their free time. Islamist networks neatly slot into this void.
As a teacher at the University of Damascus in Syria, I listened to the frustrations of my students who yearned to study subjects that interested them: literature, philosophy, theology, history, or art. But becoming a doctor was the only way to please their parents, attain high social status and in many cases escape the Arab world and live in the West. Sadly, often that “escape” radicalizes young Arabs.
Arab culture isn’t unique in that, though. Even growing up in New York, I had Asian and Indian friends who complained about the same pressures migrating from their own countries of origin to the ethnic communities here, and needless to say no Asians or Indians are blowing anything up. Husain recognizes that ultimately by shifting his emphasis to the Koran, and that’s where he and Hassan Butt diverge:
Islamists and jihadist networks lack the support of the ulama [i.e., Islamic theologians]. Just as their bombing techniques are amateur and desperate, often destined to failure, so is their reading of scripture and warped justification for suicide bombings and killing humans. They approach the Qu’ran as though it were an engineering manual, with instructions for right and wrong conduct. Literalism and ignorance dominates their readings. This flaw is deepened by the haughty mindset of the engineer or medical doctor that academic achievement, a place at a university, now qualifies him to approach ancient scripture without the guidance of the ulama. To the Islamist engineer, centuries of context, nuance, history, grammar, lexicon, scholarship, and tradition are all lost and redundant. The do-it-yourself (DIY) attitude to religious texts, fostered by doctors and engineers of secular colleges, produces desperate, angry suicide bombers devoid of spiritual guidance.
That’s not what Butt said. His point was that there isn’t some great reservoir of moderating anti-jihadist context, nuance, history, grammar, lexicon, scholarship, and tradition to offer yong men and that it’s high time Muslim moderates developed one to reconcile the faith to modern life. Husain seems to be flirting with a “tiny minority of extremists” point here. Butt scoffs at that idea explicitly.
Interesting piece, though.