"Are you, or have you ever been a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir?" Since Londons 7/7, the equivalent of a McCarthy-era House Committee on Un-Islamic Activities will have met in thousands of Muslim households across Britain as parents of young people confront those of their offspring who spend long hours evangelising for the militant Islamist party Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
Many of these parents, asked what they think of Tony Blair's proposed legal ban, are likely to wonder what took the British prime minister so long. The same goes for the National Union of Students, trustees of Britain's mosques, and governing bodies of schools all of which banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir from operating under their jurisdiction some years ago.
Ehsan Masoods article follows two others on the nature and influence of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir party:
Abdul Wahid, Tony Blair and Hizb-ut-Tahrir: Muslims under the bed
Huda Jawad, Being Muslim in Britain: home truths for Abdul Wahid
Also in openDemocracy, What happened? What changed? What now? a transcript of the 21 July meeting in London co-hosted by openDemocracy and Q-News
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The more people know about Hizb-ut-Tahrir, it often seems, the more they are likely to be suspicious of it. In light of the groups insistent proclamation that it is completely non-violent, why should this be?
There are at least three reasons: ideology, attitudes and behaviour. Its commitment to the idea of an Islamic state (caliphate) as the focus of Muslims prime allegiance makes it unpopular with Muslims seeking accommodation between their faith and the nation-states they live inside; its members have been racist (against Jews) and homophobic; and its spectacularly awful style of communication with mosque trustees in Britain has created widespread distrust.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir members are everything many trustees are not: youthful, educated, smart, fluent in English, and blind to anything other than their founders vision of Islamic theology. The trustees represent their parents generation: an argument between them is no contest.
A party of know-it-alls
Despite the announced forthcoming ban, Britain is a favoured field of operation for Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The party, founded by the Palestinian jurist Taqi al-Din Nabhani in 1952, has been long banned across the Muslim world, particularly by the more authoritarian Arab and central Asian governments.
Indeed, were it not for Britain, Hizb-ut-Tahrir members may well have become a spent force by now. Many Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaders (such as Omar Bakri Muhammad) sought asylum in Britain in the early 1980s. Cushioned financially by the then department of health and social security, Bakri and his colleagues were free to build a new worldwide network with second and third-generation British Muslims at the heart of the new hierarchy. Bakri later broke off to form al-Muhajiroun, which, by glorifying suicide bombings, makes Hizb-ut-Tahrir members appear moderate by comparison.
In common with many Muslim reform movements, Hizb-ut-Tahrir members are unashamedly elitist. Its British members are mostly young and often middle-class professionals one Hizb-ut-Tahrir member, a hospital doctor, was involved in treating victims from the London bombs. In common with America's Christian right, many (if not all) are attracted to its message that the solutions to the world's different crises can be found within the pages of Hizb-ut-Tahrir members literature.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir abhors any kind of moral or intellectual relativism; its members are particularly scornful of the idea that there might be some facets to life for which all the answers are not yet known.
All of which, says the party's leadership, is not illegal under British or international law, which means that Blair's decision to ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir members holds little water and contravenes the United Nations universal declaration of human rights, particularly Article 19 on freedom of expression, and Article 20 on freedom of association.
Leaving aside the fact that Hizb-ut-Tahrir members dispute the validity of some elements of the UN declaration, is it right to argue that a ban on Hizb-ut-Tahrir members would be like banning Sinn Fein, or the extreme-right British National Party (BNP)?
At one level, to blame Hizb-ut-Tahrir members as a reservoir for suicide terrorists, is the same as regarding the United Kingdom Independence Party as a nursery for the neo-Nazis. By that logic, the government needs to pay closer attention to all extreme political parties that regard one race or religion as superior to all others (which Hizb-ut-Tahrir members do, in common with the BNP).
The loyalty question
But there is a crucial difference in the proposed ban on groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun. The Muslim Council of Britain has repeatedly called on Britain's Muslim communities to go to the police if they know of anyone involved in terrorism. Hizb-ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun regard such a call as an act of treason against Islam, because to them Muslims are being asked to snitch on fellow Muslims, something that the Hizb-ut-Tahrir manifesto regards as sinful.
Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He draws an extensive portrait of Muslim communities in Britain in the aftermath of the London bombings in the monthly magazine Prospect: A Muslim journey (August 2005)
Many Muslim organisations and individuals, not just groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir, are troubled by this. But to Tony Blair, and to the police and security services, the logic of Hizb-ut-Tahrirs position seems to imply that it would protect any terrorist who is a Muslim. The alarm caused in law-enforcement circles by this doctrine is likely to have been a key factor in Blairs decision that Hizb-ut-Tahrir needs to be proscribed.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, in common with all effective political movements, has had to change its rules to adapt to the modern world. For example, English has replaced Arabic as Hizb-ut-Tahrir members' main global language; and those not born in Britain have had to swear allegiance to the Queen in order to obtain British nationality.
If it wants to stay legal in Britain, Hizb-ut-Tahrir members will need to make another concession to the ideology of its founder. But this is likely to be the hardest yet and will be much debated internally. It is possible, for example, that the proposed ban will not be implemented if Hizb-ut-Tahrir members promise to cooperate with the police if they know of a Muslim involved in terrorism.
In doing so the party will in effect be acknowledging that the British state has rights over the citizens of its hypothetical Islamic state. A compromise on this issue would weaken Hizb-ut-Tahrir members' argument for an Islamic state, which is their main recruiting vehicle. On the other hand, a refusal might put the party out of business, as after Britain there will be nowhere else for it to go. The choice will not be easy.