Look to the mosque: 'Family values' conservatism needs all the help it can get

by Jenny Nicholls / 04 October, 2018
Indian Muslims celebrate the festival of Eid-al-Adha in August. Photo / Getty Images

Indian Muslims celebrate the festival of Eid-al-Adha in August. Photo / Getty Images

If American conservatives need some inspiration, they might find it in a place they haven't thought to look.

The death of Republican Senator John McCain in August, coupled with US president Donald Trump’s crass reaction, marks another gloomy milestone for old-style conservatives mourning a fading era of American bipartisanship, foreign engagement and diplomacy at home and abroad.

Obituaries such as the New Yorker’s “John McCain and the End of Romantic Conservatism” explored not only the death of McCain’s brand of political outreach and decency, but its trashing.

It’s time to say last rites over American conservatism,” declared the Washington Post in February. Even conservative Post columnist George F. Will dazed his elderly fans in June when he told them to stop voting Republican.

It isn’t only the US feeling the brunt of a new divisiveness, in which race-baiting and misogyny are worn as proudly as Make America Great Again caps. “We are paying the price for neglect of grassroots conservatism,” thundered UK newspaper The Telegraph. “Official statistics released this week showed that the Conservatives’ central party received more income from the deceased than the living rank-and-file last year.”

A new book by Ed Husain, a Muslim “conservative with a small c”, argues conservatives could be better at seeking the support of a multitudinous and overlooked natural ally: Muslims.

One in five humans alive today is Muslim. And while the global population is projected to grow by 35% by 2050, the Muslim population is expected to increase by 73%, to nearly three billion.

Husain, once a radical Islamist, is now a government adviser who has founded a London-based think tank to counter extremism. The House of Islam (Bloomsbury, $33) is a powerful declaration of, among other things, Islam’s conservative credentials.

“I am a Westerner, and an observant Muslim,” writes Husain. “Caught between two worlds, I have learned to dovetail the two facets of my identity. [My book] is a reflection of that inner bridge between Islam and the West.”

His tour of the rooms of his beloved “House” (Who is a Sufi? What is the Sharia?) is beautifully written and courageously open. It is also revelatory, not least for its quotes from one of his favourite wine-soaked Islamic free spirits, Omar Khayyam.

Husain believes we’ve allowed our view of Islamic intolerance and Sharia law to be framed by a recent sect of literalists, a noisy and well-funded minority who are as far from mainstream Islam as 17th-century Puritanism is from Christianity.

He calls, in true conservative style, for Muslims to take responsibility for at least part of the mess. “We can’t blame the rest of the global neighbourhood for the fire we’ve lit in our own home.”

Husain’s belief that these Islamic arsonists should be effectively excommunicated might seem hardline, even for the conservative with a small c. Crucially, he also passionately decries women’s repression in “literalist” countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Husain’s faith-based views on the values of tradition, belief and family are, as he says, classic conservative stuff, although his sensitivity to women’s rights might have raised a few eyebrows in the Koru clubs of yore.
More startling is his “pragmatic” approach to Israel, which he admires for its skill at fostering entrepreneurship – something in short supply, for complicated reasons, in the Middle East.

Husain, who says many young Muslims need to turn away from “Sheikh Google” and reconnect with their own history, turns out to be an ardent fan of Tory guru Edmund Burke (1730-1797), whose philosophy inspired the British Conservative Party.

“When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away,” Burke wrote, “the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment, we have no compass to govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer.”

John McCain, that gentlemanly consensus builder, would surely have approved of the Burkean values Husain finds in his belief: spiritual succour, compassion, charity, service, ritual, tradition and education, honouring “life, freedom, intellect, family and property”.

“We are yet to understand the power of conservatism,” Husain writes, “for building lasting alliances with the Muslim world.”

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