Reading

Believing in Britain

“The colour-blind humanity of most of my teachers, strength in the face of tyranny, taught us lessons for the rest of our lives.”

Ed Husain, author of The Islamist, grew up in a middle class immigrant family in London. In his memoir, he traces his path from primary school in the multicultural East End to his years in college as a religious extremist. After renouncing extremism, Husain moved to the Middle East, where, to his surprise, he felt stronger ties to British society than ever before. Horrified by the July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks in London, Husain returned home to warn others about the dangers of religious extremism. In this passage from his memoir, Husain remem­bers two key experiences from his childhood and speculates on how those experiences shaped his decisions.

Growing up in Britain in the 1980s was not easy. Looking back, I think [my teacher] Ms Powlesland was trying to create her own little world of goodwill and kindness for the children in her care. We grew up oblivious of the fact that large numbers of us were somehow different—we were ‘Asian.’ The warmth of the English fishermen in Upnor did not exist in the streets of east London.

‘Pakis! Pakis! F— off back home!’ the hoodlums would shout. The National Front [a nationalist party] was at its peak in the 1980s. I can still see a gang of shaven-headed tattooed thugs standing tall above us, hurling abuse as we walked to the local library to return our books. Ms Powlesland and the other teachers raced to us, held our hands firmly, and roared at the hate-filled bigots.

‘Go away! Leave us alone,’ they would bellow to taunts of ‘Paki lovers’ from the thugs. Little did I know then that one day, I, too, would be filled with abhorrence of others.

A group of diverse students gather outside next to a wall with a Millfields mural.

The colour-blind humanity of most of my teachers, strength in the face of tyranny, taught us lessons for the rest of our lives. Britain was our home, we were children of this soil, and no amount of intimidation would change that—we belonged here. And yet, lurking in the background were forces that were preparing to seize the hearts and minds of Britain’s Muslim children.

I was the eldest of four, with a younger brother and twin sis­ters. My father was born in British India, my mother in East Pakistan [now Bangladesh], and we children in Mile End. My father arrived in England as a young man in 1961 and spent his early days as a restaurateur in Chertsey, Surrey. In ethnic terms I consider myself Indian. . . . Somewhere in my family line there is also Arab ancestry; some say from Yemen and others the Hijaz, a mountainous tract of land along the Red Sea coast in Arabia. This mixed heritage of being British by birth, Asian by descent, and Muslim by conviction was set to tear me apart later in life.

I remember my father used to buy us fresh cakes from a Jewish baker in Brick Lane. Our Koran school building had inherited mezuzahs on the door panels, which our Muslim teachers forbade us from removing out of respect for Juda­ism. My birthday, a family event at our home, is on Christmas Day. My mother would take us to see Santa Claus every year after [the] school Christmas party. We made a snowman in our garden, lending it my mother’s scarf. Opposite our child­hood home in Limehouse, a three-storey Victorian terrace, stood Our Lady Immaculate Catholic Church with a convent attached. We were friends of the sisters; our car was parked beside the nunnery every night. We helped out in the church’s annual jumble sale. There was never any question of religious tension, no animosity between people of differing faiths. My mother still speaks fondly of her own childhood friends, many of whom were Hindu. But as I grew older, all that changed. The live-and-let-live world of my childhood was snatched away. . . .

It was a school rule that each term we were divided into din­ing groups of six; we lunched together and laid the table on a rota system. One day I forgot that it was my turn to help set the cutlery. Mr Coppin, mustachioed and blue-eyed, came into the dining hall and grabbed me by the arm. Taking me aside, he lowered his face to mine and yelled, ‘Why didn’t you set the table?’

‘I forgot, Mr Coppin,’ I whimpered.

‘Forgot? How dare you forget?’ he shouted, his hands rest­ing on his knees. ‘You’re in trouble, young man! Do you understand?

‘Yes, Mr Coppin,’ I said.

Then he said something that I have never forgotten. Of me, a nine-year-old, he asked, ‘Where is your Allah now then, eh? Where is he? Can’t he help you?’

What was he talking about? I wondered. What did Allah have to do with it? Besides, I did not even know precisely who Allah was. I knew Allah was something to do with Islam, but then I also wondered if Islam and Aslan fromThe Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobewere in any way linked. After Mr Coppin’s outburst, I thought it wiser not to ask.

Months before I left Sir William Burrough I had an accident on the school playground. I fell off a bike and cut my chin. Immediately Cherie, a teacher in whose classroom proudly hung a photo of her standing beside a waxwork of Margaret Thatcher at Madame Tussauds, rushed to help me. She drove me to hospital and held my hand throughout the entire ordeal of stitches and aftercare. As we stepped out of the hospital building she asked me if I wanted a piggy back. Thinking it was some sort of boiled sweet, I happily agreed.

Then, to my bewilderment, she went down on all fours and told me to climb on. I still remember her straightening her dun­garee straps, and pushing back her glasses before taking off with me, an eleven-year-old Asian boy with a huge plaster on his chin, clinging on for dear life. Cherie drove me home and showered me with love and care in the days that followed.

That experience with Cherie, a white, non-Muslim teacher, and the commitment of Ms Powlesland and her staff to me and other pupils at Sir William Burrough stayed in my mind. It helped me form a belief in Britain, an unspoken appreciation of its values of fairness and equality. It would take me more than a decade to understand what drove Ms Powlesland and Cherie. I was fortunate to have such marvelous teachers at a young age. For later in life, when I doubted my affinity with Britain, those memories came rushing back.1

Listen to the audio version

Ed Husain, author of The Islamist, grew up in a middle class immigrant family in London. In his memoir, he traces his path from primary school in the multicultural East End to his years in college as a religious extremist. After renouncing extremism, Husain moved to the Middle East, where, to his surprise, he felt stronger ties to the British society than ever before. Horrified by the July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks in London, Husain returned home to warn others about the dangers of religious extremism. In this passage from his memoir, he remembers two key experiences from his childhood and speculates on how those experiences shaped his decisions.

  1. Ed Husain, The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left (London: Penguin Books, 2007), 1–5.

Connection Questions

  1. Using this model, create two identity charts for this reading, one before Husain is taunted by his teacher and one after he is saved by the other teacher. What did he learn from those experiences? How did those experiences shape his identity?
  2. Have you had an experience at school that shapes how you see yourself and your relationship to the larger community? What was it?
  3. What can we learn about integration from stories like those Husain shares in The Islamist?
  4. Human Rights activist Arn Chorn Pond emigrated to the United States as a refugee and survivor of the Cambodian Genocide. He was brought to a rural school, where he struggled to fit in. His experiences transformed his community. A copy of a short film about Pond’s experiences called Everyone Has a Story is available from Facing History and Ourselves. A reading about his story is also available at the Choosing to Participate page.

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