Image: A newsreader on Syrian satellite TV; the image of a Salafi leader in Beirut calling for a jihad against Syria has been added.
When he was 16, Ed Husain became an Islamic fundamentalist. Five years later he rejected fundamentalist teaching. In 2004, Ed taught English at Damascus University and in 2005 he and his wife were both teachers at the British Council in Damascus.
“Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw and why I left: The Islamist”
by Ed Husain, Penguin Books 2007, pages 229 – 232
(page 231) During my early months in Damascus, while teaching at the university, young Syrian women would often tell me about the changes that were taking place in their society. Syrians generally, and women in particular, are genteel and gracious. At the end of one course I was confounded by the large, elaborate bouquet of flowers the students presented to me. I was also given CDs of Fairouz, a Lebanese musical legend, and Arabic books to help with my own learning. …
(In view of the economic difficulties in Syria), large numbers of Syrians, in common with other Arabs, had flocked to the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, returning during the summer months. These included many of my students. During my stay in Syria, I discovered that there were significant cultural, social, and physical differences between the Arabs from the Levant and those of the Gulf states. Even in matters of religion there was an unbridgeable gap. The notion that Arabs are a homogenous, monolithic people is a potent myth of our times.
The Arabs of the Levant are radically different in culture, customs, taste, and outlook to their counterparts in the Gulf. Damascene Syrians would often tell me that Saudi influences were corrupting Islam in Syria. Students in my classrooms reported incidents of their own family members who had undergone personality change while working in Saudi Arabia, becoming stricter in their behavior and claiming purity of religion. They refused to listen to music, meet female relatives, or pray at most mosques in Damascus, claiming that the imams there were ‘deviant’ and constantly proselytizing about the ‘one God’, or tawheed. ..
(page 229) With trusted friends I discussed the most private topics that Syrians do not comment on in public. As an Islamist I had repeated called for the forceful removal of all Arab leaders, puppets of the West, and their replacement by an all-embracing caliph. My Syrian friends, speaking to me in their mother tongue and at complete ease, pointed out to me that Syrians had united with Egypt in 1958 to form the United Arab Republic. The experiment was a total disaster.
Without any prompting, they spoke in disparaging terms about the 400-year “Turkish Occupation” of Syria. Nabhani preferred to call this a ‘unified Islamic state’. The reality on the Arab streets, as I experienced it in countless discussions, was far removed from the aspirations of Islamists operating in Britain. To my surprise, in private meetings in Syrian homes, young people of all religions expressed support and admiration for their president, Dr Bashar al-Asad. Where was the passion for a new president? Regime change, an idea advocated by neo-cons in Washington and Islamists in London, was not the priority of ordinary Syrians. Most Syrians criticized government ministers and hated government bureaucracy, but supported their president.
(page 232) Two years in Syria, away from the Islamism in Britain and in the company of amiable believers of many religions in Damascus, had, I knew, decontaminated my mind. Now, more than ever, I felt free, I saw British Muslims arrive in Damascus and struggle with an Islam that was comparatively liberal, discomfited at the sight of unveiled women, clean-shaven men and celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday, and bemoaning the absence of Islamist organizations. Many asked, ‘Where is Islam?’ I wanted that question to be asked back in Britain, for what they expected to see in Syria was a projection of their own literalist brand of British Islam.
Two weeks before we left Syria, Faye and I decided to shed our spectacles. We underwent laser surgery on our eyes and saw the world anew. Syria had both corrected my vision and removed the Islamist blinkers for ever.