Ed Husain on what the Middle East could learn from the European Union

“What I wanted to show was that Islam is a 1,500-year-old tradition in which there is compassion, kindness, divinity, art and a veneration of beauty of all forms," says the author

Author Ed Husain. Photo by Jonathan Ring 
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"The House of Islam is on fire. Anger and hate are fanning the flames. We must act before it suffocates us." British author Ed Husain's new book on the gulf between Islam and the West ends with a call for unity taken from a 2014 Muslim thought leaders' conference in Abu Dhabi.

Hosted by Mauritanian Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, who resides in the UAE, the conference was called "Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies" and it brought together Islamic scholars from around the world. The meeting in the UAE and bin Bayyah's message resonated with Husain, a self-professed former radical who wrote a bestselling book about his experiences (The Islamist) and co-founded the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank.

In his latest offering The House of Islam: A Global History, Husain goes right the way back to Islam's beginnings in the Middle East, to show how the compassionate and liberal teachings of the Quran have been distorted by what he calls "Salafi-Jihadists".

The threads that overlap Muslim and western history

"What I wanted to show was that Islam is a 1,500-year-old tradition in which there is compassion, kindness, divinity, art and a veneration of beauty of all forms," Husain, 43, tells The National. "And what this rich civilisation has been reduced to in the West and in the press is only about immigration, extremism and terrorism. That's not who we are."

Husain hopes that the book will be read by a general audience. “There are lots of threads that overlap between Muslim history and western history, Muslim present and western present. Sharia isn’t something that’s threatening and punishing people, but that calls to natural law. In China we would have real difficulties as Muslims because you can’t believe in God, you can’t worship freely. Here in the West we can.”

So why is there so much friction in the West between the Muslim and non-Muslim population? “Some of it is to do with extremists. But some of it is to do with activists who portray Muslims as dark Turks that have come to occupy Europe.”

An EU in the Middle East?

Husain, who says he sees a future in which the current state of tensions gets worse before it gets better, believes the Islamic world must do three things to heal its internal tensions, as well as its friction with the West. Firstly, “the arsonist” who has set the House of Islam on fire must be expelled, meaning more regional governments should actively seek, identify and quarantine extremists.

Additionally, he argues, a Middle East body akin to the European Union must be formed, with the third step being setting up a "Marshall Plan" programme, which would redistribute some of the wealth across the region.

Some might argue that Husain is bordering on ridiculous to suggest creating an EU in the Middle East at a time when the trading bloc looks more fragile than ever. But for Husain, the EU project has offered “peace and stability” in a continent that was at the epicentre of two world wars.

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“Maybe for the United Kingdom the EU is not the right forum and I respect the democratic outcome of the referendum,” he reasons. “But the UK is already a union – Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, England.”

It must be acknowledged that organisations including the Arab League and GCC exist here, but is the creation of a wider union of Middle East countries a realistic proposal? Husain thinks it is and takes inspiration for such a union from the founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed. “He saw the Middle East as having a common history, a common trading area, a common security zone.”

The West should support a regional union, which, Husain believes, would offer a solution to the migration crisis caused by ongoing conflict and poverty. “We should respect the nation state but we shouldn’t ignore that there is an impulse for regional unity. By supporting that I think it puts us on the side of the wind in the sail of the region rather than be seen as the colonial ‘divide and rule’ people from the last century.”

Ed Husain’s House of Islam: A Global History is on sale now