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Stratford Literary Festival: Ed Husain on ‘Islam, why we misunderstand it’

Ed Husain, bestselling author of The Islamist and co-founder of the counter-extremism organisation The Quilliam Foundation, opened the talk with a light-hearted comment on the somewhat ironic location of a church for his talk on Islam. The relaxed tone was maintained throughout the talk, even in approaching more weighted topics.

Husain then went on to explain a quotation from his latest book The House of Islam: A Global History. The author discussed what is meant by “the house of Islam is on fire and the arsonist still lives there” and spoke of the extremists in the Islamic community who have ‘set fire’ to the original pillars of the Islamic faith. Husain criticised these extremists and the way in which they seem to have, in recent times, become the spokespeople of the Islamic community. Husain spoke of Muslims today who are often too focused on anti-Western issues but remain silent about the “arsonists” still present in the community.

He went on to discuss the topic of literalism and literal interpretation of scripture, speaking candidly about his own experience with literalism in his late teenage years. The author spoke of the experience of growing up in London, in an age of liberalism and moral relativism, and the attraction of literalism which for him unambiguously outlined the boundaries of right and wrong.

The author calls for an emancipation of religion from the misinformed restrictions of culture

Following this, Husain spoke of his reconnection with Sufi Islam and the spirituality of the faith and spoke of Sufism as “the hidden gem of Islam”. Sufism, Husain explained, is an interpretation of Islam which casts aside politics for a more spiritual experience with the divine and drew him away from extremist groups he found himself attracted to in his college years.

The topic of Shamima Begum was briefly discussed alongside the concept of citizenship. Although Husain seemed to avoid sharing his own opinions on the subject, he did bring to question whether the outcome of the situation would have been different if the individual in question was a 10th generation Irish convert asking to return to the UK.

Husain moved on to speak about “Arabisation” and the coupling of religion with Arab culture in recent years. He spoke of how he finds this puzzling as 80% of the world’s Muslims are not Arabs. In fact, more Muslims live in India and Pakistan combined than in the entire Middle-East North-African region. The author calls for an emancipation of religion from the misinformed restrictions of culture.

Husain avoided making the common claim that the media’s inaccurate portrayal of Islam can be said to fuel Islamophobic agendas

Finally, the floor was opened up to a Q&A session. Husain responded to several light-hearted and intriguing questions. The topic of the media and its influence on perception of Islam was raised. Husain avoided making the common claim that the media’s inaccurate portrayal of Islam can be said to fuel Islamophobic agendas. Instead, he took a more pragmatic approach to the question, speaking of the unfortunate truth that an article about one death by a Muslim sells more papers than an article about 90,000 Muslims peacefully praying in the Middle East. He suggested that what is most effective in dispelling Islamophobic ideas is interaction with Muslims and an awareness that everyone is able to coexist.

The author ended the discussion with a small meet and greet, selling copies of his new book which generated a lot of interest following a stimulating and thought-provoking talk.

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