by Jerry Waxler
I have always loved escaping into a good book. In my younger years, I escaped into the invented world of fiction. Nowadays, I escape into the lives of real people, through whose eyes I see a different view of my own world. Two memoirs I read within the same month provide a perfect example of this educational benefit. Ed Husain’s “The Islamist” took me inside the Islamist movement in Britain, and Nazara Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” showed life in Iran under Islamist rule. The knowledge I learned in one book deepened my understanding of the other, amplifying the value of each.
Ed Husain, “The Islamist”
Ed Husain was a teenager in Great Britain in the early 1990s. His parents and most of his neighbors were immigrants from Bangladesh. In fact, he didn’t have any white friends. His family’s spiritual approach to the Muslim religion cultivated a prayerful, almost mystical atmosphere in his home life. Then, as a teenager, Husain fell in with a crowd of boys from the Indian sub-continent who felt prayer was obsolete. Their goal was to overthrow Westernized governments and create the kind of world God intended, one all-encompassing Islamic state. At first, Husain’s loyalty was torn between his parents and his new friends. Gradually he aligned with his activist peers, fighting against Western values such as freedom and democracy.
The Islamists didn’t want their anti-Western message to be the dominant one. They wanted it to be the only one. When other activities were scheduled on campus, Husain and his friends stayed up late into the night creating plans to disrupt the competing event. They agreed in advance on the lies they would tell to make themselves look innocent and divert attention from their predatory practices. Whenever pressed on their unethical or manipulative behavior, they quickly shifted the conversation to global politics, claiming all their actions were caused by colonialism. I was especially intrigued by their coaching to “speak sharply,” to create an aura of fury and righteousness around their words. Between their angry tone, their rehearsed lies, and their instant shift to global politics, they controlled, and won, debates among the young Muslims on campus who were struggling to find their own path.
Azar Nafisi, “Reading Lolita in Tehran”
After reading about Ed Husain’s firebrand belief that Islamic law should take over the world, I read a memoir by Azar Nafisi, an Iranian girl who grew up under the secular government of Shah Pahlavi. The Shah promoted Western culture and violently suppressed opposing Muslim groups, earning a reputation as a ruthless tyrant in some circles and a forward-looking leader in others.
Taking advantage of the respect afforded to women in Iranian society, Nafisi attended college in the United States to study English Literature. Like many other intellectuals in the 1970s, she took part in the anti-U.S. demonstrations that pervaded campuses in the wake of the Vietnam war. She rallied against Western culture and especially agitated for the removal of Shah Pahlavi who was denounced as a “pawn of the West.” In a classic case of “be careful what you wish for,” within a few years, her revolutionary dream came true. Shortly after she returned to Iran in 1979, the Shah was deposed and Ayatollah Khomeini took over, bringing into power an Islamist government similar to the one Ed Husain would be advocating 15 years later.
Iran’s fundamentalist rulers quickly squeezed out so-called “decadent elements.” Reminiscent of the excesses of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, bands of armed young men patrolled the streets looking for women who dared walk with an unrelated man, who had a wisp of hair showing from beneath her veil, or who possessed cosmetics in her handbag. Women were flogged, imprisoned, and executed for such crimes. Nafisi lost her teaching position for refusing to wear the veil.
Two sides of the same page
The two books cover the Islamist movement from two entirely different perspectives and in two vastly different styles. Husain’s journey from boy to man leads him to street corners where edgy, pressured boys hand out fliers and engage in aggressive rhetoric. Later, after Husain distances himself from the movement, he begins a historical investigation trying to tease apart these two threads of his religion. In ancient writings, he discovers the religion of his father, the one that encourages an introspective, worshipful relationship to God. Husain also tracks the political aspect of the religion, and shows how it emerged in the twentieth century through the inflammatory writings of a few men who have had an increasing influence, especially on young Muslims in recent decades. While these men claim ancient authority, Husain finds their thinking to be more closely aligned to Karl Marx than to the Koran.
Nafisi is driven by ideas, too, but of a very different variety. She seeks her wisdom in English Literature. On her tongue, passages from Vladimir Nabokov and F. Scott Fitzgerald come alive, providing a rich poetic subtext to her own narrative. Her compatriots are the young women who have been forced by the Islamist Revolution to hide their femininity and enter the university through a separate door so they can be searched for cosmetics. When her girls come to a private literature class held in her home, they remove their scarves and Nafisi sensually describes their locks of hair. She bites into pastry, pours coffee over ice cream, and, above all, revels in the delicious pleasures of her beloved literature. Whereas Husain’s investigation is done with the protection of the democratic freedoms of Great Britain, Nafisi’s drama plays out in a police state, where students are seized and held in secret and summarily executed in the night because they showed signs of “Western decadence.”
The Muslim religion doesn’t need to be this way
In college, when Husain saw a boy murdered, he realized his terrible mistake. He started to suspect Islamism wasn’t promoting religion after all, but was merely using religious ideas to promote a political agenda. Trying to clarify these conflicting ideas, he moved to the Middle East to learn Arabic so he could read the Koran in its original language. In the Prophet’s teachings, he found an introspective, mystical religion which teaches a personal relationship with God and respect for people, including women and non-Muslims. Based on his findings, Husain returned to the prayerful beliefs of his parents. Through his writings, public appearances, and participation in the British government, he promotes democratic ideals, and raises awareness of the dangers of this divisive movement.
Two books weave a fascinating story
Before I read these books, I only knew about Islamism and life inside Iran from news bites and articles. After accompanying each author through years of personal, in-depth experience, I understand so much more. On one end of this matched set, I saw the Islamist ideas Ed Husain found so invigorating and urgent. I felt his pulse quicken as he rose to the challenge of dominating the world. On the other end, I saw how these very ideas were forged by the men of Iran into bars that imprisoned Azar Nafisi and her students, and stole their freedom and dignity.
If you have been part of a political or a religious movement, your memories might seem insignificant, as if you were swept up in something of which you were a tiny part. But these events may have affected millions of people. Your feelings and observations as a believer and participant could offer a valuable contribution to social discussion. List or journal a few notes about the forces that influenced your life and look for scenes that would portray these experiences in your memoir.
For another book that sheds light on the difference between the Muslim faith and the Islamist movement, read Greg Mortenson’s memoir, Three Cups of Tea. Click here for my essay on that powerful story.
“Find meaning through service” or “Making peace with the peasants of Pakistan”
As Husain was growing up to become a young man, he was swept up in a political movement that preached not only the domination of the world, but also the domination of women. This reminds me of another memoir I read, a year ago. Frank Schaeffer, on his way through adolescence, also experienced an exploding interest in ideas that place women in a subservient position. Schaeffer, author of “Crazy for God” grew up in a spiritually oriented Christian commune in Switzerland in the 1960s. As he entered adulthood, his focus shifted from God to women’s reproductive systems. Using his father’s extensive political connections, Schaeffer brought his intense interest in abortion into the heart of U.S. politics, where they took root in the religious right. Maybe Freud was right. Maybe it is all about sex.
See my article about Frank Schaeffer’s memoir by clicking here: One man’s battle with sexuality changed the world
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.