Feature

The Party’s Not Over

Does Islamist party Hizb-ut-Tahrir pose a threat to Western society? The answer may well be yes -- but that doesn't mean it should be banned.

REBECCA REID/AFP/Getty Images
REBECCA REID/AFP/Getty Images

In recent weeks, Britain’s Labour government and the Conservative opposition have been embroiled in a feud about, of all things, Islam — or, more precisely, an Islamist organization called Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Arabic for "The Party of Liberation"). Tory leader David Cameron has been assailing Gordon Brown’s government for allegedly funneling taxpayer money to two Hizb-supported schools where students are being exposed to Islamist ideology. The education minister insists that the schools in question have nothing to do with the group. The issue is particularly tricky because many Britons, within government and out, have repeatedly called for Hizb-ut-Tahrir to be banned altogether. Their ranks included, at one point a few years ago, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. It hasn’t happened yet, though, for reasons that will be touched upon below.

One thing is for sure: We can all expect to hear more about Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) in the years to come. Founded 56 years ago in Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem, the party is estimated by some experts to have 1 million members around the world. A lot of them are now in jail. HT is banned outright in a number of countries, ranging from harsh dictatorships like Uzbekistan and Syria through countries like Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and Bangladesh, to Western European democracies including Germany and Denmark. Yet the group persists, and in some respects — judging by the vast amount of literature it continues to produce, on paper, and myriad websites — it seems to be thriving. The party recently made headlines in the United States when it was revealed that one of President Barack Obama’s religious advisors, Muslim polling expert Dalia Mogahed, had participated in a Hizb-ut-Tahrir-sponsored TV broadcast. (She subsequently said that she’d been unaware of the show’s affiliation.)

The party has undoubtedly been helped, over the years, by the clarity of its ultimate aim: the creation of a modern-day caliphate, an Islamic state that would bring together all the countries of the Islamic world. Unlike al Qaeda, though, which professes comparable goals, Hizb-ut-Tahrir emphasizes political action rather than force, arguing that Muslims have to be "enlightened" through education, propaganda, and political agitation until they fully understand the need to seize the reins of power in their own countries and unite the ummah, the global community of believers. According to one of the group’s myriad pamphlets: "[I]f the Islamic Ummah were to rise as an Islamic Ummah, she would be more than capable of rescuing the world from the evil forces that control it, suppress it, and make it experience all kinds of misery, humiliation, and slavery."

It’s this openly revolutionary aim that has gotten the party into trouble in many of the more authoritarian countries where it has run afoul of officialdom. Yet even though it claims to profess non violent means, the party has still managed to get into trouble in more liberal societies for the extreme intolerance of some of its views. The party became verboten in Germany, for example, after it shared a platform with neo-Nazis. HT officials insist that they are anti-Zionist rather than anti-Semitic — though several studies of the group’s literature have shown that the distinction doesn’t always hold up. The group was proscribed in Denmark after, among other things, distributing pamphlets urging Muslims to "kill [Jews] wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out." When I first came across the group’s pamphlets in Central Asia in 2001, for example, I was struck by their references to the dictator of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, whom they ritually denounced as "the Jew Karimov." (He has no Jewish background whatsoever, as it happens.) One of the party’s pamphlets stresses that Muslims who elect to leave the faith automatically face the death penalty — a stricture that would be hard to reconcile with democratic freedoms if they dared to put it into practice.

Another source of concern is the group’s role as a "conveyor belt," radicalizing members who then go on to participate in overtly violent actions. Its prominent members in Britain have included Omar Bakri Muhammad, founder of the group Al Muhajiroun, which gained notoriety for praising the 9/11 hijackers and harbored adherents who would later be implemented in terrorist attacks. When British intelligence officials searched the home of Omar Sharif, the Briton who attempted to blow himself up in a Tel Aviv bar in 2003, they found a cache of Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature. British journalist Shiv Malik claims that at least two major al Qaeda figures, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, originally had ties with the group.

Still, the party insists that it can’t be blamed for the actions of everyone who has been associated with it and that it remains committed to the non violent pursuit of its agenda. "Our political culture stresses nonviolence and the importance of finding intellectual and political solutions to our problems," Abdul Wahid, member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s executive committee, told an interviewer in 2005. "We say this because we consider that the problems of the Muslim world are the result of a decline in the quality of thought leading to political ineptitude." He dismissed the controversial actions of some of the party’s earlier members in Britain (presumably including Omar Bakri Muhammad) as "over-enthusiastic."

Rashad Ali, a young British Muslim who joined the group as a teen but ultimately renounced it, explains that its recruitment efforts focus on young intellectuals who are drawn to its intense emphasis on ideas. "They really knew how to present their ideas in a way that was emotionally and intellectually engaging," he told me in an interview. He describes an intense indoctrination process "designed quite overtly to replace the un-Islamic thoughts and sentiments of an individual with Islamic thoughts, emotions, and behaviors." Unlike other Islamist groups, he says, the party embraces modern technology and dress and evinces a fairly subtle understanding of the limits of official tolerance in modern democracies. (When its British critics target Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s anti-Semitic utterances — which could trigger its prohibition on grounds of racial incitement — the offensive passages tend to disappear quickly from the party’s online publications.) Rashad says that he grew estranged from the group when it gradually became apparent that his own understanding of Islam, as a faith that is home to a variety of organic traditions, was being squeezed into a narrow, totalitarian political program.

In Britain, though, two government reviews have failed to result in outright bans, since merely professing noxious views is not enough to justify prohibition. By the same token, Hizb-ut-Tahrir remains a legal organization in Canada, Australia, and the United States, where it has recently staged several conferences. Indeed, some of its critics argue that this is probably the right policy. One of them is Hannah Stuart of Britain’s Centre for Social Cohesion and co-author of a recent study that explores the party’s ideology in some detail. With an outright ban, she says, "you run the risk of glorifying them." She contends that the best approach to countering Hizb’s intellectual challenge is a policy of "civic intolerance" — of the kind already used against the neo fascist British National Party: "Even though they [the BNP] are legal, they’re treated with absolute disgust by all mainstream politicians." She approves of the stance, for example, taken by the British National Union of Students, which recommends that student groups should decline from taking part in debates with Hizb-ut-Tahrir. "All members of society should deny them a platform for their views," she says; government should not fund its activities or offer any form of support.

After all, prohibition also has its dark side. Felix Corley represents the group Forum 18, which monitors religious liberties in the countries of the former Soviet Union. He points out that Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s prohibition in those countries doesn’t seem to have done anything to solve the problem of religious extremism — an argument bolstered by the fact that the party remains strikingly active even in countries where it’s been banned for years. It may be worth noting that al Qaeda — still a relatively small group in terms of membership, and these days a much beleaguered one — has been promoting the idea of the caliphate only for the past 20 years or so. HT members have been at it for more than half a century, and they’re still going strong. Among other things, prohibition lends credence to the party’s insistence that Western countries and their authoritarian "lackeys" in the Islamic world really are engaged in a "war on Islam."

Corley, for his part, insists that the "greatest way to counter religious extremism is to have religious freedom." As even he acknowledges, though, it’s precisely groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir that put that principle to its hardest test.

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