Hizb-ut-Tahrir: the snarl behind the smile

About the author
David T writes for the blog Harry’s Place.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir is a political party which seeks to establish a theocracy. It has, until recently, produced and openly distributed racist material. I do not think that the British government has made a convincing case for banning it, and I am not persuaded that a ban will combat effectively the ideology which Hizb-ut-Tahrir champions and propagates. Its political positions need to be challenged, both within the various communities in which it operates, and across society.

The reason why extreme Islamism has not been combated effectively in Britain is that the forces best able to do so – those of the secular left – have failed to understand Hizb-ut-Tahrir's politics, and indeed radical Islamist ideologies more generally. There are two factors underlying this confusion.

The first is that self-described “revolutionary socialist” organisations have entered into alliances with Islamist organisations which share, to some degree, a common perspective with Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In particular, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – which dominates the Stop the War coalition created to oppose the Iraq war in 2003, and the Respect party founded in January 2004 – has an instrumentally useful understanding of Islamist political theory which rationalises and helps explain the basis of such alliances.

As long ago as 1994, Chris Harman – then as now, one of the SWP’s chief ideologists – argued that the party should make common cause on the issue of "anti-imperialism" with Islamist movements, in part as a way of recruiting their members:

"Socialists can take advantage of these contradictions to begin to make some of the more radical Islamists question their allegiance to its ideas and organisations – but only if we can establish independent organisations of our own, which are not identified with either the Islamists or the state.”

For such reasons of political calculation, the leadership of the anti-war movement has refrained from a public and critical discussion of Islamism, except at the most superficial level. That silence has contributed to the general failure to appreciate the nature of Islamist politics.

Also in openDemocracy on Hizb-ut-Tahrir:

Abdul Wahid, “Tony Blair and Hizb-ut-Tahrir: ‘Muslims under the bed’”

Huda Jawad, “Being Muslim in Britain: home truths for Abdul Wahid”

Ehsan Masood, “The Hizb-ut-Tahrir equation”

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

The second factor is the tendency of political analysts to mistranslate what are essentially religious-political ideas into purely secular ones. As a result, they often portray Islamist politics as merely a reflexive response to oppression rather than an agency with its own intellectual self-direction. In their very effort to affirm solidarity or at least sympathy with Islamist politics, they reproduce the same colonising disdain for its own integrity of which they accuse others.

Ourselves alone

Some Islamist organisations – particularly those which have formed alliances with non-Islamists – have encouraged this misunderstanding and confusion. Hizb-ut-Tahrir is not one of them. It single-mindedly ploughs its own ideological furrow, and has resolutely refused to compromise with leftist or Islamist establishments.

However, in the last four years, it has taken great care to present as uncontroversial a public face to the media as possible. It has, for example, removed racist material from its website. Its spokesman, Imran Waheed, makes himself available for interview where he discusses Hizb-ut-Tahrir's political goals in a reasonable manner and at a level of high theory. The party also now avoids the sort of terrifying, publicity-courting statements that characterised its rhetoric until 1996, when Omar Bakri Muhammad left to form al-Muhajiroun.

Abdul Wahid's article in openDemocracy is a good example of how Hizb-ut-Tahrir employs the technique of moderate, reasonable discourse to convey its political message. In short, the party has now almost completely sanitised the public face of its politics. In this task, it has been aided by a press which has little knowledge or understanding of its ideology, and therefore no way of making sense of it.

A doctrinal politics

What, then, does Hizb-ut-Tahrir believe? First, the party usually argues that it will achieve power non-violently, by persuading all Muslims to join it, at which point it will be able to implement a “caliphate” or Islamic government. They do, however anticipate that "as long as there is Islam and Kufr in this world, Muslims and Kuffar" there will be "a bloody struggle alongside the intellectual struggle."

Second, Hizb-ut-Tahrir stresses that the caliphate that they seek to create will be elected, that they will also establish an elected assembly, and that non-Muslims will be allowed to participate in government. This is partly true, but misleading. Only Muslims will be allowed to elect the caliph, who can only be a Muslim man. The caliph is constrained to act in accordance with Islamic law, while Muslims who abandon their faith are to be executed as apostates.

Non-Muslims can be part of the assembly, but they will be "confined to their voicing of complaints in respect to unjust acts performed by the rulers or the misapplication of Islam upon them". Only political parties "established on the basis of Islam" are to be permitted.

These principles are set out in Hizb-ut-Tahrir's "draft constitution". Yet I have rarely heard these aspects of Hizb-ut-Tahrir's ideology discussed by its spokesmen when interviewed, or analysed in the press. Still less have their representatives been asked to expand upon these policies when they are interviewed.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir indignantly rejects the charge of anti-Semitism. However, as recently as 2002, Fadi Abdelatif, Hizb-ut-Tahrir's spokesman in Denmark, was found guilty of distributing a racist propaganda leaflet entitled And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; it begins with the words "The Jews are a people of slander".

It has also published a leaflet stating: "In origin, no one likes the Jews except the Jews. Even (they) themselves rarely like each other" and continues to quote a hadith (tradition from the life of the Prophet Mohammed) which anticipates a time when "the stones and trees will say: O Muslim, O Slave of Allah. Here is a Jew behind me so come and kill him."

Hizb-ut-Tahrir has removed these documents from their websites, but they are still available in various web archives. Again, Hizb-ut-Tahrir spokesmen are rarely confronted with these statements and asked to justify or disavow their contents.

It is true to say that Hizb-ut-Tahrir, as presently constituted, does not actively solicit the murder of civilians in Britain. Those who have been most closely linked to terrorism are its former, rather than its present, members. Therefore, the spokesman who declares "our work is totally non-violent" is telling the truth.

David T and other writers explore and discuss Hizb-ut-Tahrir, radical Islamism and other issues of politics and ideology on the weblog Harry’s Place

The party does, however, teach a politics which seeks to establish a theocracy, and which understands history as a Manichean struggle between Islam and unbelief which will ultimately result in a "bloody struggle". In that sense, it has close similarities with other totalitarian movements. By contrast, when Hizb-ut-Tahrir claims that "our views are very similar to those in the Muslim community", it is mistaken.

The party’s core demand is the creation of a caliphate. It has, at most, a few thousand members. The vast majority of Muslims do not heed its call. A recent BBC/Mori opinion poll of British Muslims suggests that extremist beliefs are the preserve of only a small minority; most are keener to "pledge their primary loyalty to Britain" than are the non-Muslim population.

Don’t get fooled again

This marginal influence and level of support does not mean that Hizb-ut-Tahrir should be ignored. I completely agree with Ehsan Masood's call for the government "to pay closer attention to all extreme political parties" which share this sort of politics. But the responsibility does not rest with the government alone. It is incumbent on all of us to familiarise ourselves with the growth of extreme political movements and the beliefs they propagate, and learn how to challenge them.

Merely because Hizb-ut-Tahrir presents itself as a religious-political movement does not mean that it should be held to a different, lower, standard than its secular counterparts. Other racist and totalitarian parties of the far right are not given a free pass by the media, nor do they see their true nature finessed by a secular left hungry for allies. Hizb-ut-Tahrir has spent a great deal of time and effort sanitising the public face of its politics. In that sense, it has followed the same path as the British National Party. But people are not fooled by extremists simply because they wear smart clothes and speak in measured tones. They should not be taken in by Hizb-ut-Tahrir.