LONDON — Merely a radical Islamic political party or a “conveyor belt for terrorists”?
That is the question British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government hopes to answer when it decides whether to join Germany, Russia and many Muslim-majority states in formally banning the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) for allegedly inciting violence.
Hizb ut-Tahrir says it is a nonviolent political party, but critics assert it is deeply divisive and potentially dangerous -- especially in Europe -- because it is openly anti-democratic, calls for a new world order based on uniting the world's 1.2 billion Muslims in a new state and shares a worldview, if not methodology, with some violent groups.
“Hizb ut-Tahrir is very dangerous for the long-term in Western countries because it pushes forward an ideology that doesn’t believe in these countries’ constitution, in the system, in the laws, but says there is only one answer: a new Islamic state,” said Zeyno Baran of the Washington-based Nixon Center and the author of "Hizb ut-Tahrir: Islam's Political Insurgency."
Hizb ut-Tahrir wants all Muslims united in a single state led by a caliph, or a successor to the prophet of God.
Despite a changing power base and structure, the caliphate as an institution represented a united political leadership that governed the affairs of Muslims for around 1,400 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dismantled the last caliphate, in Ottoman Turkey, in 1924.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush has often cast the fight against radical Islam as a wider struggle between the West and those who want to establish "a totalitarian Islamic empire reaching from Spain to Indonesia."
Blair singles out Hizb ut-Tahrir
Less than a month after July 7, 2005, when four British Muslims detonated suicide bombs on three London subway trains and one bus, killing 52 people and wounding hundreds of others, Blair singled out plans to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir as part of his anti-terrorism plan.
To that end, parliament in March approved a terrorism bill that made it a criminal offense to "encourage" or "glorify" terrorism.
A Home Office spokesman declined to elaborate on Blair's statements. Hizb ut-Tahrir's legal status remains in limbo.
Regardless, Hizb ut-Tahrir insists it is a political party, albeit one without offices nor a base of operations.
"We do not have a military wing, we have never had a military wing, we do not plan to ever have a military wing," Jamal Harwood, a spokesman for the group in Britain, said during an interview in London's gleaming Canary Wharf area, one of the financial and media hubs of the city.
Although founded in Jerusalem half a century ago as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, experts say London has become the group's ideological and logistical center.
The Nixon Center's Baran believes Hizb ut-Tahrir is dangerous because it contends Islam and the West are inherently at odds. She has called the group "radical Sunni Islamism's ideological vanguard" and a "conveyor belt for terrorists."
“Hizb ut-Tahrir is a threat because once someone is so ideologically certain that the caliphate is the answer and that Muslims must be united, that Western laws are not legitimate, that the United States is holding down Muslims everywhere and must be destroyed, you become a person who is very confused internally," Baran said. "That kind of person may easily jump onto the next step and say, ‘I don’t want to wait 50 years, I want it now,’ and then resort to violence.”
But Harwood, a Canadian convert, rejected Baran's characterization as "baseless."
“We’ve had many Muslims from more radical jihadist groups who have left those parties and joined Hizb ut-Tahrir because they can see futility in terms of what they were doing previously,” he said.
The caliphate as an idea resonates deeply with many Muslims, analysts say.
No doubt as an attempt to tap into that sentiment, the online "newscast" that al-Qaida launched in September is called "The Voice of the Caliphate."
But actual support for the re-establishment of a pan-Islamic state is difficult to ascertain.
As for Hizb ut-Tahrir, Sher Khan, of the moderate Muslim Council of Britain, said the notion that most Muslims in the West support its goals and methods is "ludicrous."
"They just shout louder than anyone else," he said. “It’s very detrimental to the Muslim community, the manner in which they call for these things.”
Yet a recent BBC poll found that 40 percent of British Muslims want Islamic law implemented in parts of the country.
The Nixon Center's Baran said Hizb ut-Tahrir's secrecy makes its size difficult to gauge, but that its membership likely ranges in the hundreds in Western countries such as Denmark and up to tens of thousands in Muslim states such as Uzbekistan.
She said the group's presence in the United States is small but growing, particularly on college campuses.
Alienation in the West?
Analysts say groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir prey upon alienation among second-generation Muslims and converts in the West.
“It gives a positive dimension to their exclusion. What they wanted to become, well-to-do Westerners, they cannot achieve, so they feel they have negative value,” said Olivier Roy, a renowned French scholar of political Islam.
Not so, said Mohammed Akmal, 28, who has been a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir since 1994.
Akmal, who described himself as a businessman, joined the group along with other students while he was in college in London after being impressed by the group's "intellectually appealing" message of a greater role for Islam in governance.
“There was nothing within that (college) environment that made us alien to the world in which we lived,” he said.
Instead, his generation was deeply affected by a number of recent events, including the first Gulf War and the fate of Bosnian Muslims in the Balkan Wars.
“There was an element of feeling that the Muslim world was in crisis,” he said. “Hizb ut-Tahrir had quite a coherent answer to how the Muslim world should tackle these problems.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir has been criticized because it does not participate in the political processes in the countries in which it operates and, analysts like Baran argue, it advocates noninvolvement for Muslims in the West.
Hizb ut-Tahrir defends its focus on geopolitics, saying Islamic tradition dictates that all Muslims remain involved in their communities.
“It would be hypocritical for us to call for a caliphate in the Muslim world, where our main problem is … and then engage in politics in this country,” Harwood said.
‘They are totally cut off from reality’
For Roy, that is precisely the problem.
“They have no real political program to establish this caliphate. They have no timetable. They have no policy … (no) solutions,” said Roy, whose books include "Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Umma."
“They are totally cut off from reality. They are more interested in this sort of psychodrama than in real political action,” he said. "In a sense it is closer to a cult than a political party.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir argues that Western-style democracy is incompatible with Islam because it allows people to be governed by laws other than those revealed by God. The group says any caliphate would be a "representative" government in an Islamic context.
"Hizb ut-Tahrir calls upon [Muslims] to mobilize your forces and rally your ranks to help and support it in its work to establish the Khilafah state (caliphate), by which you will restore your glory, attain the good pleasure of your lord and destroy your enemies," a 2005 publication exhorted.
Hizb ut-Tahrir conceives that any Islamic state would harken back to Medina in the time of Muhammad and would be operated on shariah, a legal code derived from the Quran and Muhammad's teachings.
“We are calling for the caliphate based upon that which Prophet Muhammad gave us … with new ideas in areas of technology ... which Islam allows,” Harwood said.
Hizb ut-Tahrir also believes the establishment of the caliphate will ameliorate the divisions between Islamic sects, most notably between Sunnis and Shiites.
“The Islamic rules on leadership are very clear: they only accept one leadership for Muslims,” Harwood said.
Despite its protestations, controversy has dogged Hizb ut-Tahrir, including:
- In 1996, Omar Bakri Muhammad, a Syrian-born Muslim cleric living in Britain, broke off from Hizb ut-Tahrir and formed a virulently anti-Semitic group, Al Muhajiroun. That group, which Bakri formally dissolved in 2004 but which allegedly still exists under a different name, became known in the United States after holding a conference called "The Magnificent 19" which praised the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It also claimed to have sent British Muslims to fight Western forces in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion. Bakri, who is now believed to reside in Lebanon, has since been banned from Britain on grounds that his presence here was “not conductive to the public good.”
- After the London bombings, a reporter for the Guardian newspaper was discovered to be a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The journalist, Dilpazier Aslam, who had covered stories relating to the attacks and authored an op-ed piece called "We rock the boat: today’s Muslims aren’t prepared to ignore injustice," was fired when he refused to quit Hizb ut-Tahrir.
- In the 1990s, the National Union of Students banned Hizb ut-Tahrir from British college campuses over alleged anti-Semitism.
- In October 2002, Hizb ut-Tahrir's spokesman in Denmark was convicted of distributing anti-Semitic propaganda and given a 60-day suspended sentence. Harwood defended the member and said the offending material, some of which praised suicide bombings, was taken out of context (the Danish court had rejected that argument.)
- Members of Hizb ut-Tahrir have been charged with plotting coups in Egypt and Jordan.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is active in dozens of countries and maintains several official Web sites.
“Western countries need to offer Muslims better teaching in proper Islam and more opportunities so that they are not so easily influenced by this overly politicized version of Islam espoused by Hizb ut-Tahrir,” Baran said.
But Harwood said any ban in Britain was unlikely to impact the group's activities significantly.
“Those ideas continue to circulate throughout the Muslim world and also throughout the Muslim community in non-Muslim countries," he said. "So in that sense we don’t see that there will be any change.”