Am I allowed to wear a necktie? I was a 17-year-old Muslim growing up in England in the early 1990s, and questions like this dominated my daily life. Born and raised in London, I was British. But my parents were from India, and I looked different: brown skin, black hair. At the same time, thousands of blond, blue-eyed Europeans were being killed for being Muslim in Bosnia.
During that teenage identity crisis, an older friend I met at a mosque gave me a magazine with a picture of an Egyptian imam from the 1940s, wearing a tie and jacket, albeit with a traditional fez! All the imams I knew in London mosques wore flowing Arabian robes. On television, representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran refused to wear ties; Saudi kings never wore Western clothes.
Looking at that picture of a kindly, smiling schoolteacher, I could not know how deeply he would influence so many of us. Even today, few outside the Arab world know of him, yet Hassan al-Banna may be the most influential Arab of the past century. I began to read his writings: He spoke out against British and European influences on Muslim life in Egypt; he sought to return Muslims to a form of puritanical Islam, free from the influences of secularism; his own life was an example of resistance, rebellion and activism. His legacy was the Muslim Brotherhood, the precursor of virtually every Islamist movement in the Middle East today. It is the most enduring and effective political force in the Arab world.