Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), or the “Party of Liberation,” is a revolutionary Islamist party that is actively working in over forty countries worldwide to establish an expansionist state and, ultimately, a new world order based on Islamist principles. Like all Islamist groups—whether violent or non-violent—HT interprets Islam as a holistic socio-political system. HT’s ideology, which sanctions military coups and the mass killings of innocent peoples to achieve its desired political objectives, has helped inspire jihadist terrorism and bears crucial similarities to the doctrines of al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Established in 1952 in Jordan, HT’s founder was Mohammed Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, an Islamist intellectual whose associations with Western-educated Palestinian nationalists and sympathy for Syrian Ba’thist anti-colonialism greatly inspired the party’s revolutionary agenda and its focus on state-based politics and institutions.1These sentiments, combined with the experience of witnessing the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in 1924 and the creation of Israel in 1948, led Nabhani to call for Arab unification based on Islam as opposed to the secular ideology of pan-Arabism. His revolutionary ideology built upon the revivalist principles of the Muslim Brotherhood within a socialist framework. Unlike the Brotherhood, however, he believed that the HT’s advocacy for change should be conducted outside of established political frameworks.2
In the Western countries where HT presently operates, one of the party’s principal aims is to create a monolithic political Muslim bloc that could operate to aid its global Islamist revolution and, ultimately, to subvert these societies. In Nabhani’s seminal three-volume treatise, al-Shakhsiyyah al-Islāmiyyah, or The Islamic Personality, he tells his followers: “If there resides disbelievers in the land within which he live [sic] and is ruled by kufr, it is obliged upon Muslims to fight its people until they become Muslims or pay the jizyah and be ruled by Islam.”3 However, in order to mainstream HT ideology among Western Muslims while simultaneously avoiding rejection by broader society, the party now seeks to play down its revolutionary and intolerant beliefs and presents itself instead as defending “true” Islam in the face of a perceived Western “War on Islam.”
In the United Kingdom, where the movement has been especially active, HT’s current strategy is one of grassroots activism and engagement with popular culture. It has created front groups and launched single-issue campaigns to propagate its ideology. Although the party remains a fringe organization, it is striving to present itself to a mainstream audience, and increasingly it is seen as a non-violent political alternative to violent jihadist ideology. This analysis examines HT’s radical ideology and presents a case study of the party’s activities in the UK in order to expose its strategy in the West.
Overturning the International Order
HT works to establish an expansionist state, or caliphate—ruled by one leader, the caliph—in Muslim-majority countries, unifying Muslims worldwide and creating a single political bloc, or umma.4 This vision of a caliphate is shaped by modern conceptions of statehood, incorporating a standing army, a constitution and a governing body.5 The caliphate would enforce an intolerant strand of Sharia as state law, which HT claims is based on Islamic sources such as the Quran and Hadith.6 The party’s draft constitution, for example, discriminates against minorities and women.77 HT’s understanding of Sharia law and its rigid ideological framework informs all aspects of its projected economic, social and political governance.
All current states are regarded as dar al-kufr (land of disbelief) and dar al-harb (land of war) because HT’s specific type of Islamic governance is presently not implemented.8 HT’s future state, on the other hand, would be considered as dar al-Islam (land of Islam).9 According to HT, dar al-Islam, or a properly Islamic state, does not presently exist in the world because all forms of governance are products of Western (i.e., “infidel” or “kufr”) ideologies, primarily capitalism and democracy.10
Inherent in HT’s worldview is a clash between Western and Islamic civilizations. Liberal values such as secularism, human rights and pluralism are rejected as un-Islamic because they differ from HT’s Islamist doctrine.11 Communism and socialism are also rejected as Western constructs, despite the fact that Nabhani heavily borrowed from socialist concepts to formulate party ideology.12 HT sees Muslims who believe in “kufr” ideologies as apostates from Islam for whom the punishment is death, even if the apostates “numbered millions.”13
Takfir, or excommunication, is a prelude to declaring jihad against democratic authorities or governments composed of Muslim believers, as they would all be considered apostates. HT therefore considers the influence of Western thought and physical presence in Muslim-majority countries as a threat to Islam that it wishes to “uproot” by first establishing a caliphate and then waging jihad, or warfare.14
HT’s conception of jihad is based on its classification of the “lands of war.” Both offensive and defensive jihad is seen as obligatory. According to the party, offensive war is “a war to raise the Word of Allah” which is “compulsory originally in order to spread Islam and to carry its message even if the disbeliever did not attack us.”15 The party believes that its future caliphate will wage war to annex all Muslim-majority countries in order to create a global Muslim umma.16 It will then engage in war to colonize all non-Muslim majority countries.17 HT believes that Muslims should engage in this war to convert all “lands of war” into the “land of Islam.” Killing civilians to achieve this is permitted.18
In the absence of HT’s caliphate, Muslims are sanctioned to engage in jihad in “occupied Islamic lands,” which they define as any country that is Muslim-majority or was once “ruled by Muslims under the authority of Islam.”19 This jihad is seen as defensive, and it “has to continue till the Day of Judgement,” irrespective of the fact “that the party does not use material power to defend itself or as a weapon against the rulers.” Jihad becomes “compulsory” for Muslims when “disbelieving enemies attack an Islamic country.” The party sees its members in such countries as “part of the Muslims and it is obligatory upon them as it is upon other Muslims, in their capacity as Muslims, to fight the enemy and repel them.”20 HT defines Israel as an enemy state occupying “Islamic lands,” so killing Israeli Jews is sanctioned through tactics such as suicide bombings as well as hijacking and bombing Israeli planes.21
The Party’s Revival in the Land of Kufr
HT unequivocally believes that in the future all relations between their yet-to-be-established Islamic caliphate and Western governments would be dictated by the “demands of jihad”.22Accordingly, HT’s caliphate would sign temporary trade treaties with some Western states providing that they are in accordance with what HT understands as divine law. The party defines certain western “imperialist” states—notably the U.S., the United Kingdom, France and Russia—as potentially warring nations, and this status precludes the conduct of diplomatic relations between them and the future caliphate.23 Despite singling out these states for special hostility, HT considers all western as well as non-Muslim states as potential enemies of Islam and land for HT’s expansionist Islamist state via jihad.24
Until the caliphate is established in a Muslim-majority country, however, HT actively seeks mass support for its Islamist revolution among Western Muslims. The party aims to create a monolithic bloc sympathetic to its brand of Islamism that will ultimately aid the annexation of non-Muslim majority countries to its caliphate. HT therefore seeks to transform Western mindsets into Islamic ones, insisting that Muslims — individually and collectively—must develop what the party calls a full “Islamic personality” that utilizes Islam as the “only criterion” for “concepts about life, practical and actual.”25 It advocates “the culturing of the umma with the Islamic culture in order to mould it with Islam and to purify it from the corrupted creeds, erroneous thoughts, and wrong concepts, and also to purify it from the effect of the kufr thoughts and opinions.”26 To this end, HT works to create a model Islamic community within—interacting with but not integrating into—wider Western societies.
One “wrong concept” within contemporary Islamic thought that HT explicitly rejects is al-Wasatiyyah, most commonly translated as “middle ground,” which sees Islam as a religion of tolerance—or as a middle way between extremes. Al-Wasatiyyah, or “compromise,” is seen by HT as a foreign term—an idea attached to Islam by Western states and a covert attempt to secularize the religion.27Integration and nationalism, therefore, are seen as deliberate kufr policies through which Western states oppress Muslims and restrict their identification with Muslims globally.
HT also rejects integration and commands that Western Muslims disengage from mainstream political systems. An HT central strategy communiqué to HT Britain’s (HTB) national executive in February 2005 stated, “The members of the party in the West must not take part in anything related to governance in those countries, i.e. they should not take part in elections or participate in civil disobedience, etc.”28
A central tenet for HT is that Muslims who are capable of initiating revolution in their society are obliged to do so.29 For Western Muslims, this obligation takes on the form of opposing the established political order until the entire population converts to HT’s Islam or accepts HT’s authority by annexing itself to the caliphate: “If there resides disbelievers in the land within which he live [sic] and is ruled by kufr, it is obliged upon Muslims to fight its people until they become Muslims or pay the jizyah and be ruled by Islam.”30
HT’s mandate for Western Muslims to fight their country’s “people” is a clear exposition of jihadist ideology, which reveals the internal contradiction in HT’s worldview between its “nonviolent” political ideology and its jihadist conception of how to disseminate that ideology.31 Furthermore, HT believes that Western Muslims must infiltrate their societies and institutions not in order to “Islamize” them,32 but rather with the aim of developing a bloc that would aid in a future revolution or “offensive” jihad in these states.33
The Party’s Strategy in the West
While the authority to formulate HT’s ideology and strategy is centralized, the party’s global leadership issues strategy communiqués to national branches, which are encouraged to interpret them in light of local circumstances and needs. HT instructs its national executives, “The tools to implement the strategy may change from place to place, and from time and time. Use what is best for that time and place.”34 So even as HT’s core ideology stresses the indivisibility of the Muslim umma and rejects national identity, the party’s nation-specific strategies reflect the ethnic origins and interests of the various Muslim communities within different Western states.35
While the party is widely banned in the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia, HT operates freely in Europe — with the exception of Russia, where it is proscribed, and Germany, where the party’s public activities are banned, although membership remains legal.36 Outside Europe, HT held an inaugural conference in Australia in January 2007, and there appears to be a resurgence of HT activism in the US and Canada, with national conferences held in both countries in July 2009.37
In 1998, HT’s central leadership issued a strategy document commanding the party’s national executives in the West to incorporate localized international incidents—specifically the Middle East peace process, the Balkans conflict and continued US presence in the Gulf— into a narrative of a “War on Islam” and the West’s “oppression” of Muslims.38 In 2005 the strategy was updated centrally in response to 9/11, the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Western efforts to support democracy in the Middle East.39 A second communiqué to HTB’s national executive in February 2005 articulated a two-tracked strategy—for Muslims and for non-Muslims—designed to bolster support for HT’s Islamism while undermining Western institutions.
Regarding Muslims in the West, the communiqué states:
“After September 2001, the West launched major attacks on the Muslim world … They worked on cutting the links from Muslim communities living in the West so that they do not take part in establishing the Khilafa [caliphate], using the ‘War on Terror’ to put pressure on them … This requires that the party in the West fights assimilation of Muslims and make Muslims realise that they are part of the great Umma .”40
Regarding wider society, HT’s communiqué goes on to say,
9/11 exposed the weakness of Western capitalist regimes, especially in relation to democracy and human rights which they have infringed upon with impunity. This requires the party to highlight that the principles of Western culture do not solve the problems of society and are drowning in crime and corruption.”41
Within Western Muslim communities, HT strives to present itself as the vanguard of Islam, promotes political identification with Muslims globally, and discourages any other sense of personal loyalty. Within wider society, specifically among intellectuals, journalists and politicians, HT works to mainstream its ideology. The party presents Islamism, the caliphate and the party’s interpretation of Sharia as non-threatening and viable alternatives to current, Western-derived political thinking. To do this, HT seeks to highlight both real and perceived failures of Western institutions—democracy, secularism and capitalism—consistently offering its caliphate and ruling systems as a superior and more equal basis for society.
A Two-Tracked Strategy for the West
HT’s plan to propagate its ideology both among Muslims and non-Muslims in the West is described in 2005 communiqué, which states in full:
Part I: Carry the message to Muslims in the West
Regarding the Muslim community:
- Interact with them, gaining their trust, educating them about their religion
- Highlight that they are part of the Ummah
- Mobilise them if the freedom of religious practice is threatened i.e. the veil
- Give importance to the ‘Ulama’, i.e. scholars, as aides to the Khilafa in their knowledge and professional experience
- Prepare the community for the establishment of the Khilafa in Muslim countries
Regarding Muslims in the West for temporary reasons:
- Students, tourists, businessmen: encourage them to carry the message of the mission to the West and then ensure that they return to their countries.
- Pro-Western collaborators: try to hold protests to highlight how these collaborators have betrayed their Ummah.
- Political parties (in power or opposition), independent politicians and thinkers: try to connect with those influential people to relay the opinion of the party, highlight hot topics related to Muslims and highlight the greatness of Islam
- People of power visiting: give them information
Part II: Carry the message to non-Muslims
Promote the doctrinal call
- Show that Islam is the religion of intuition and intellect where people can find comfort in this life and after—show that Islam is the true and right religion
- Educate those who convert to Islam
- Encourage those who convert so that they can carry the strong message
Interact with Western thinkers and politicians:
- Shake up the capitalist system and start debates about it
- Show the inability of the capitalist system to solve social problems
- Expose the collapse of the Western tenets of democracy and freedom, especially after 9/11
- Show the inequality of Western society
- Present Islam though its history and civilisation
- Provide examples from Western society and its discrimination against Muslims
- Provide examples from Muslim society and its equal treatment of everyone
- Monitor what is published by institutes, think-thanks, etc about Muslims and relay the information to those in power.42
Implementing the Plan
While HTB adheres to the party’s rigid ideology, the strategy and tactics it uses to further its agenda have evolved significantly since it was founded in 1986.43 During the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, HTB worked to develop a core base of loyal members, establishing halaqaat, or study circles, across the UK, which operate to instill in its followers the party’s ideology.44 Initially, the party’s focus was on Muslims who were living in the UK on a temporary basis,45 and its protests targeted Middle Eastern or Central Asian embassies in London.46 Although they organized regular seminars and published a fortnightly publication,47 HT had not yet developed a coherent strategy for the UK and was virtually unknown outside of Muslim communities.48
Following the signing of the Israel-Palestine Liberation Organization Accord in September 1993, however, HTB began aggressively targeting young second generation British Muslims on UK campuses and at mosques. Some campuses instigated “No Platform” policies in response to HTB’s public anti-Semitism and homophobia, while many mosque officials complained that they were besieged by increased HTB activism.49 The party’s rising profile led to the first efforts to ban HTB, though these were ultimately unsuccessful.50 The party did, however, begin to censor itself: HT’s former global leader, Abdul Qadeem Zallum, ordered then-leader Omar Bakri to end controversial public activity. Following his resignation in early 1996, Bakri formed a new group, al-Muhajiroun, and HTB regained and maintained its low public profile.51
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, HT began to reassert itself publicly. In accordance with the 1998 strategy document, HT actively worked with British Muslim communities to portray military operations and security measures taken in response to 9/11 as a pretence for Western governments to weaken the global umma by severing ties between Muslims in the West and those in the wider “Muslim world.”52 The party additionally started engaging with non-Muslim audiences in efforts to mainstream Islamism. In particular, HT sought to use the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath to expose the alleged weaknesses of Western capitalist societies; they also sought to present Islamism as a viable alternative to liberal capitalist democracy. HTB’s two-tracked strategy toward both Muslims and non-Muslims proved successful: independent sources confirm that HT conferences in London in 2002 and in Birmingham in 2003, for example, attracted 6,500 and 7,000 people, respectively.53
“The War on Islam”
Since its establishment, a core HTB tactic has been to inflame and co-opt grievances within Muslim communities. The repression of political dissent by autocratic regimes in Central Asia, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Israel’s military action in Gaza, are all presented as part of what HT calls “the war America is waging against the Muslims.”54 HTB’s War on Terror/”War on Islam” paradigm enables the party to package itself as the true guardian of Islam, presenting its call for an Islamist state as the only solution to problems in Muslim-majority countries. All of these problems, the party claims, stem from Western “kufr” policies.
An internal email briefing between female speakers at a 2005 HTB conference demonstrates this strategy. The first aim of the conference—“Establish the correct political understanding of the reality confronting the Muslim community in the west [sic] and globally”—creates and bolsters HT’s paradigm.55 The second—“Establish our political vision for Muslims in the west [sic] as the correct vision”—offers HT activism as the “correct” resistance.56 The briefing further instructs speakers to stress to their audiences, “We must in the face of such fear and coercion, stand firm upon Islam, this means to practice Islam and maintain strong Islamic identities.”57
The call to “maintain strong Islamic identities” is expressed in practice in HTB’s anti-integration agenda. HTB has deliberately and opportunistically sought to manipulate the grievances of some British Muslims in a range of recent incidents—including the reprinting of the Danish Mohammed cartoons; the publication of The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel about Mohammed’s wife Aisha;58 discussions about wearing the hijab (headscarf) or niqab (face veil) in public spaces;59 and government counter-terrorism/counter-radicalization measures.60 In all of these instances, HTB called on British Muslims to assert the party’s interpretation of their Islamic identities and lifestyles in response to perceived attacks on Islam: “All Muslims should join the call for the Khilafa, for it is the only way to ensure these matters are truly dealt with.”61
As part of this strategy the party launched its “Stand for Islam” campaign62 in April 2007 in response to what it called “relentless attacks on the Islamic laws, values and beliefs.”63 At the press conference launching the campaign, HTB’s media representative Taji Mustafa conflated Islam with HT’s political vision for an Islamist state: the West wants Muslims to “stop calling for the Khilafa of the Muslim world,” he said, and therefore “Islam and Islamic identity in the West is threatened.”64 Since then, the campaign has consistently stressed the need for Muslim unity, the view of Islam as a comprehensive socio-political project, and the need to maintain a strong Islamic identity in the face of a perceived “War on Islam.”
Thus far, the Stand for Islam campaign has met with some success in mainstreaming the party’s brand of Islamism. HTB has organized a number of public events in municipal spaces, gaining the tacit support of the local government authorities who fund the public buildings that serve as venues.65 HTB has also been given public platforms within Muslim communities—platforms that were previously denied during the 1990s due to the party’s negative profile.66 HT’s “War on Islam” paradigm has also helped create the impression that public criticism of the party is symptomatic of this alleged conflict between the West and Islam, and that it is therefore incumbent upon Muslims in the UK to come to HT’s defense. In part, as a consequence of this, the party has gained the support of less radical Islamist organizations, as well as Muslim groups in the UK that had not previously engaged with or supported HT.
In the wake of the 7/7 London bombings, for example, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced an array of anti-terrorism measures, which included the possible proscription of HT. Although HT was under investigation for support for terrorism and violence, a statement issued by Iqbal Sacranie, Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB),67 misrepresented the grounds for a possible ban, alluding instead to HT’s activities in autocratic countries. On behalf of the MCB, Sacranie said, “We are seeking clarification from the government to ensure that expressions of support for people who are living under brutal military occupation is [sic] not to be outlawed.”68 The MCB statement effectively equates HT’s activism with support for the rights of oppressed people, ignoring the inherent violence in HT ideology and the group’s support for terrorist movements. Such support lends legitimacy to HT’s “War on Islam” mindset, which is now also openly propagated by senior members of the MCB.69
In recent years HTB has established a string of front groups—including a single-issue campaign group, an educational charity, and youth organizations—to disseminate party ideology within local communities. In 2009, HTB members founded SREIslamic, the single-issue campaign group, to campaign against elements of sex and relationship education (SRE) in the UK’s primary schools.70 While the campaign responds to worries raised by parents of a variety of religious backgrounds, some British Muslims have expressed concern that HTB’s involvement could lead to increasing Islamist demands designed to segregate Muslim pupils.71 The campaign has already facilitated an influential public platform for HT. In December 2009, the campaign’s co-founder, an HTB member, spoke at the Muslim Education Conference in the UK, alongside a Conservative party member. Yusuf Patel’s affiliation to HTB was not made clear in the promotional material for the event; instead, he was described as an education “campaigner.”72
At the HTB 2009 conference in London, Taji Mustafa emphasized the importance of young British Muslims retaining their “Islamic identity.”73 For members of HTB, “the National Curriculum [is] an insidious attack against core values of Islamic belief and practice” and the “correct” education is seen as key to maintaining an “Islamic personality.”74 A 2003 HTB magazine instructs parents to “take measures to ensure that their child is protected from embracing the kufr way of life” and recommends home schooling or “establish[ing] Islamic schools that are not deficient in providing a full understanding of the Deen [faith] about the broader affairs of life.”75
In 2005, HTB members set up the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation (ISF), a registered charity which runs two primary schools in and near London. The schools’ curriculum, written by Farah Ahmed, an ISF trustee and head teacher at one of the schools, was approved by the UK’s educational inspectorate.76 The ISF’s 2006 curriculum focuses on instructing people in the need to establish the caliphate and its four prerequisites, which include the beliefs that 1) sovereignty belongs entirely to Allah; 2) authority belongs to the ummah; 3) there is one Khalif; and 4) only the Khalif can adopt Islamic edicts. The curriculum also includes lessons on the duty of jihad, or fighting in the path of Allah, as a form of worship; how democracy differs from HT’s ideology or what is referred to as “our laws”; and understanding the ruling systems of Islam, as defined by HT, including gender segregation.77
Two of the four founding ISF trustees were HTB members—Yusra Hamilton and Farah Ahmed.78 Following public revelations in October 2009 that the ISF had received £113,411 in government grants,79 Hamilton resigned as a trustee. Ahmed—who had until then been a member of HT—publicly stated that she no longer belonged to the party but refused to answer questions about her previous membership.80 Traditionally it has been HT policy not to deny membership. At the time, Ahmed’s resignation appeared to be part of a new HT tactic of plausible deniability.
The UK’s Charity Commission subsequently investigated the ISF due to concerns over trustee links to HT and the teaching of key elements of HT’s ideology. Ahmed confirmed to the commission that she had previously been a member of HT and written a number of articles for HT publications.81 While the investigation, published in July 2010, stated that “it would be of regulatory concern to the Commission if an educational charity was promoting a political or a predetermined point of view,” it accepted the trustees’ assurances that the charity was an independent organization. This, despite noting that former trustee Hamilton, an HTB member married to Taji Mustapha, “remains a volunteer at the Charity.”
HTB has also set up community-based front organizations. For example, former activists, who were members of a dedicated HTB “Youth Team,” attest that between 2004 and 2008, the party set up a range of youth organizations in different areas of Tower Hamlets—an East London borough that is home to a large South Asian population. One former activist, who set up an HTB front group, said, the “main purpose of all the organizations in Tower Hamlets … [was to be a] front for HT, to promote HT and its ideas and to have influence over youths in Tower Hamlets.”82 The tactic was a pre-emptive measure designed to circumnavigate the party’s possible proscription: “also if HT gets banned in Britain then they still remain in the community.”83
This former activist went on to say that HTB deliberately targeted young British Muslims, “between 15 and 18 mainly,” using a range of activities from, “football to work shops, residential after school homework club and trips.”84 A variety of tactics were used to legitimize party activists: “We would use every opportunity to promote HT and pass on HT ideas. We would invite a local role model from the community like the councilor and amongst them we would include a member of HT. Just to make it look like HT members are role models.”85 Another HTB front group, set up in 2007 “to directly promote HT ideas,”86 runs weekly “Friday Circles” for young Muslims in a local government-owned community center in Tower Hamlets.87
HTB’s early—and openly discriminatory—activism in the 1990s was well documented in mainstream media and academic circles.88 However, after the National Union of Students (NUS) and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education campaigned against the group,89 the party began operating through front organizations.90 In the late 1990s and early 2000s, party activists worked on selected campuses to control university Islamic societies (ISOCs). By getting members elected to ISOC committees, the party sought to impose its agenda and ideologies on other Muslim students.91
HTB was banned entirely by the NUS in 2004. Since then, the party’s tactics on UK campuses have become more sophisticated. HTB has still tried to influence ISOCs, and it continues to operate covertly through front groups.92 However, in contrast to its aggressively titled events in the 1990s, HTB now organizes more mainstream-sounding debates—for example, a panel called “Is Secularism Right?,” which pitted university professors against HTB members.93 Following HT’s strategy directive to “shake up the capitalist system and start debates about it,” HT presents its Islamism as an intellectual alternative to liberalism, secularism and capitalism. HTB’s university front groups also work together to circumvent the NUS ban. For instance, it was advertised that on December 8, 2009, the Dialogue and Debate society at Queen Mary University, London, would host a debate titled “Shariah Law: Compatible in the Modern World?” This debate was to feature HT’s legal and economics spokesperson Jamal Harwood.94 Following public pressure, the university authorities cancelled the debate at short notice.95 However, the event was held a week later on another London campus, hosted by the University of Westminster Global Ideas society, which described Harwood as an “Islamic writer and economist.”96
The Global Ideas society also invited Harwood to debate Swiss academic Dr. Jean Francois-Mayer in an event entitled “Islam and Europe – Identity and Anxiety” on February 12, 2010.97 While the Global Ideas society described Harwood as only an “Islamic economist,”98 HTB’s online poster called Harwood “a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s executive committee.”99 After the University of Westminster cancelled the “Islam and Europe” event the day before,100 HTB found an alternative venue in East London, and released a statement accusing the university of failing to uphold the right to freedom of speech.101
The following day, Mayer participated in the same debate, “Islam and Europe – Identity and Anxiety,” with Abdul Wahid, HT’s executive chairman, at an event organized by the Muslim Community Representatives Camden and Islington Association (MCRCIA), a London community group with strong links to HTB.102 HTB, the Westminster Global Ideas society and MCRCIA all advertised the events separately, using different posters, and did not acknowledge one another’s apparent involvement. All, however, used the same language in their promotional materials—for example, they all described the 2009 Swiss referendum prohibiting the building of minarets as “a further attack on [Muslims] living in Europe whilst maintaining an Islamic identity [ … which] illustrates just how fearful the ordinary European has become since the start of the War on Terror.”
HTB attempts to mainstream HT ideology and party representatives by adopting measures to disguise the party’s intolerant ideology, and by engaging with politicians, local government councils and the media. Since 7/7, HTB has adopted a strategy known as “keep your ideology in your heart,” whereby party members hide their political views and intolerant ideology.103 HTB emphasizes “political” struggle and uses euphemistic language to hide its support for jihad, anti-Semitic beliefs and a totalitarian system of governance.
Between late 2005 and early 2006, the party removed the overwhelming majority of HT leaflets and other publications from its website, bringing the total from 256 down to 30, the oldest of which was HTB’s statement in response to the proposed proscription of the party in August 2005.104 Many of the leaflets removed were openly anti-Semitic or anti-Western, with one alleging that the US government was complicit in the 9/11 attacks.105 Abdul Wahid referred to the decision as “a considered response to the legitimate proposition that people who read it out of its context might see it as offensive.”106 One former HTB national executive member later confirmed that the party had not reformed, but rather deliberately sought to downplay the most combative elements of its foreign policy because it feared proscription. Similarly, HT branches in Denmark and Germany also sought to soften their public image, not in response to an ideological change of heart, but as adefensive reaction to increased scrutiny from their respective governments.107
HTB has also been careful to avoid or deflect accusations of extremism,108 seeking instead to appear more representative of British Muslims by engaging with other Muslim groups, which it previously had not done. For example, HTB had a stall at an annual pro-Islamist conference in London in 2007.109 In 2009, HTB helped set up a “Muslim Forum” in one London borough that gave a platform to two Islamists: Daud Abdullah, Deputy Secretary of the MCB, and Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee. In this instance, however, HTB’s engagement strategy failed after a local councilor intervened and HTB was expelled.110
Within wider society, HT works to present its totalitarian ideology as a non-threatening and viable alternative to current political thinking. HTB presents itself as an “Islamic” voice and engages with the media, local authorities and policy-makers. For instance, between 1996 and the early 2000s, HTB members were reluctant to talk to journalists about party membership or funding.111 More recently, however, HTB has sought platforms within the mainstream British press. Since 7/7, HTB members have been given the right to reply regularly, and have been provided with public platforms on influential BBC current affairs programs as well as on international media outlets.112 Party members have been given a platform by mainstream newspapers and online journals as well.113
HTB has also sought to mainstream its ideology by participating in local council-sponsored events. In 2008, the party’s chairman, Abdul Wahid, spoke at a debate, “Has political participation failed British Muslims?” This was funded by the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism program.114 Wahid followed HT’s 2005 strategy directives, namely to “show the inability of the capitalist system to solve social problems,” and “expose the collapse of the Western tenets of democracy and freedom, especially after 9/11.” Wahid told his audience that Muslims should work outside the political system; Muslim MPs are “selling out” their morals by not defending Sharia law; the UK’s moral crisis, exemplified by phenomena such as binge-drinking, can only be solved through the embrace of “Islamic values;” and religious obedience is more important than the right to freedom of speech.115
The party’s engagement with MPs and political institutions reflects recent HTB media tactics. Following the potential ban on HT, party representatives petitioned then-Cabinet Minister Clare Short MP, and secured a platform in the House of Commons in 2006.116 HTB has also engaged in dialogue with the opposition: Jamal Harwood wrote to the conservative leader (now PM) David Cameron in August 2006, thanking him for his criticism of the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon. Cameron’s office subsequently replied to Harwood, thanking him for his comments.117
While in opposition, Cameron repeatedly criticized the Labour government for failing to ban HT. However, HT’s brand of Islamism is now becoming increasingly accepted by civil servants as a potential bulwark against terrorism. According to one senior official, a classified document presented to the Tory-led coalition in July 2010 put forward “a clear assessment that individuals do not progress through non-violent extremist groups to violent groups.” The paper further stated: “extreme groups may also provide a legal ‘safety valve’ for extreme views.”118 Mohammed Abdul Aziz, a government advisor and one of the paper’s authors, however, is an honorary trustee of the London Muslim Center (LMC), one of the largest Islamist institutions in the UK which hosts many British Muslim organizations inspired by the Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami. During the 1990s, the LMC and its affiliates actively campaigned against HTB’s influence in East London.119 It is therefore a testament to HTB’s mainstreaming strategy that the party has gained legitimacy among less radical Islamists as well as civil service circles in the UK.
HTB’s implementation of the party’s 2005 strategy document exemplifies the dual message inherent in HT’s activism in the West. The party has not rescinded its neo-fundamentalist aims. But the image it presents to British Muslim communities and wider British society is one of a legitimate Islamic political party.
The Party of Liberation and Global Jihad
The ideological affinities between HT and militant Islamist groups like al-Qaeda are demonstrated in the fact that both view Islam as an all-encompassing socio-political system that has been absent ever since the Ottoman Caliphate’s demise. Contemporary rulers are seen as apostates because they do not implement the Islamist project in its totality. Further, Muslim-majority countries, or those once ruled by Muslim leaders, are identified as “occupied Islamic lands.”120
Despite sharing ideological similarities and aims, the two Islamist movements are distinguished by chosen tactics and strategies. HT, unlike al-Qaeda, does not currently engage in acts of terrorism to establish its caliphate. Rather, the party’s main operational focus is on what it describes as “political struggle.” From HT’s perspective, armed struggle is not permissible until a caliphate has been established that can implement Islamic law and defend Muslims against perceived threats worldwide.121
Militant groups, such as al-Qaeda, believe in creating their own terror cells to engage in armed struggle. They justify this ideologically by merging Nabhani’s call to implement an expansionist state with Sayyid Qutb’s classification of all Muslim and non-Muslim societies as being in a state of jahilliya, or ignorance. Nabhani’s Islamism therefore served as a precursor to the more “mature radicalism” developed in the 1960s by Qutb, whose writings are said to have heavily influenced Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda.122
Instead of creating an armed force to establish its state, HT’s primary method for gaining power is to infiltrate militaries in Muslim-majority countries in order to facilitate a coup. Failed attempts have already been staged by the party in Jordan, Iraq and Syria in the late 1960s and early 1970s.123 HT infiltrates in order to seek nussrah (help), to “get protection for the party” and “to reach the government, so as to establish the Khilafah.”124 Seeking nussrah is advised as a tactic once HT activists believe they have successfully infiltrated sections of civil society (either with party members or those sympathetic to the party’s cause), thus rendering that society ripe for revolutionary change.125
In preparation for revolution, HT calls for intellectual debate and seeks to build mass support for the party’s vision at a grassroots level.As such, HT prescribes three strategic stages, including 1) “cultivating individuals who are convinced by the thought and method of the party” to form a group that is intellectually capable of propagating HT’s message to the rest of society; 2) “interaction” aimed at encouraging wider society to embrace HT’s version of Islam and to work towards the establishment of its Islamist state, while also seeking nussrah; and 3) establishing, via revolution, an Islamist government and expanding it.126
While HT doesn’t prescribe violence until it judges that party activists are well-positioned in a society for mass revolutionary action, subscription to HT ideology has acted as a conveyor belt to militancy.127 For example, one of HT’s founding members, Asad Baoud al-Tamimi, left the party in 1958 and in 1982 in Jordan set up the militant organization Islamic Jihad-Bayt al-Maqdis, a faction of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.128 Another example includes Salih Sirriyya, an HT member in Iraq and Jordan in the early 1970s who was implicated in an attempted coup in Southern Iraq in 1972.129 Sirriyah initiated a pre-coup attack in 1974 in Egypt as the first step toward overthrowing the country’s secular regime under former President Anwar el-Sadat. Sirriyah led a group of assassins to capture Egypt’s Military Technical Academy in order to help HT establish its state, believing that sudden political revolt was necessary. This strongly contrasted with HT’s strategy of engendering popular support and seeking nussrah.130 The assassins, who were taught and radicalized by HT member Salim al-Rahhal, also believed that they were helping HT to assume power.131 They were later responsible for President Sadat’s murder in 1981.132
HTB’s Links to Asia’s Unrest
HTB acts as a vital organizational and ideological center for the party’s wider international activities—and especially in South Asia. Evidence suggests, for example, that the current branch leader of HT in Bangladesh is British-Bangladeshi Zituzzaman Hoque, who HT admits is a party member.133 One former HTB member further attests that HT Bangladesh was set up in the 1990s by UK members, and that the current leader of the UK branch, Nasim Ghani, was sent to Bangladesh in August 2000 to help develop the party’s structure before being ordered back to the UK to look after HTB’s leadership.134 Other former HTB members claim that around 2003, a leading member of HTB’s national executive committee went on to establish party activities in India and became the country’s branch leader.135 A source also claims that HTB has a dedicated India committee, similar to its Bangladesh and Pakistan committees, which focuses on recruiting Indian nationals presently studying at UK universities. Once these student activists finish their studies, the party hopes they will head back to India to continue HT’s agenda there.136
Pakistan has been a special focus of HTB’s activities. HT was officially launched in Pakistan in 2000. Allegedly, however, the party was set up in the late 1990s under the direction of Imtiaz Malik, a British-born Pakistani, who is believed to be operating covertly in the country as branch leader.137 One former HTB national executive member claims that UK party members were called upon by the global leadership to help establish the party in Pakistan in 1999. UK members have been planted in Pakistan’s main cities, and HT Pakistan’s leadership still contains a number of British Pakistanis.138
Members of HT Pakistan have stated publicly that the party is targeting the country as a base for HT’s Islamist state. The former HTB national executive member claims that HT’s former leader, Shaykh Abdul Qadeem Zallum, singled out Pakistan for HT operations because the country possesses nuclear weapons.139 Part of HT’s strategy to gain power in Pakistan has been to recruit military officers to instigate and lead coups.140 Moreover, an HT Pakistan 2008 press statement, hosted on HTB’s current website, encourages Pakistan’s army to attack the U.S., since Pakistan possesses the “seventh largest Army in the World.” The statement goes on to say that since Pakistan possesses “nuclear weapons, missiles technology and half a million brave soldiers who are ready to attain martyrdom for Islam, [it] is in a good position to injure and bruise an already battered America to an extent which she cannot afford to stomach right now.”141
The party has sought to recruit Pakistani military officers as part of its strategy of seeking nussrah to obtain power. One former HTB member stated publicly that in 2003 the party recruited Pakistani officers while they were training at Sandhurst, the UK’s premier military academy. HT sent them back to Pakistan to facilitate a coup, although the officers were subsequently arrested.142 In January 2010, a military court in Pakistan indicted two army colonels, a former pilot for the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), and an engineer for being members of HT Pakistan. The two colonels were accused of providing sensitive information about military installations to HT, and the other two individuals were accused of planning to commit acts of sabotage at a PAF airbase in Baluchistan.143 Despite being banned by the Government of Pakistan, HT has continued its recruitment activities in the country and regularly stages public demonstrations.144
The party’s larger aim of establishing an Islamist caliphate in Pakistan has become a special focus of HTB. Within the UK, which has a large Muslim population of Pakistani descent, HTB has sought to propagate its agenda by reporting on and exploiting developments in Pakistan.145 In one instance, HTB produced a campaign website dedicated to what it saw as “America’s Undeclared War on Pakistan.”146 Former members claim that Muslims who join HT in the UK are mostly of Pakistani origin; some are of Bangladeshi origin while very few of its members are of Indian heritage.147 This explains in part why developments in India are under-reported by HTB, compared to reports on Pakistan and Bangladesh.
HTB’s focus on Pakistan is a function of the party’s larger, long-term strategy for fomenting Islamist revolution in South Asia. Pakistan is the primary target for HT, both because of its strong military capabilities and its status as a Muslim-majority country. However, India is militarily superior to Pakistan and will likely remain so with respect to a future Islamist caliphate. For these reasons, HT has begun to concentrate on advancing the party’s agenda in Bangladesh—whose army reserves, when coupled with Pakistan’s, could potentially shift the balance of power in favor of HT’s future caliphate. India, too, has become a new target for HT. Former HTB members claim that by having a presence in India, the party aims to subvert India’s large Muslim-minority into supporting HT’s revolution.148 If HT’s caliphate is established in Pakistan, the party believes it would be able to mobilize Indian Muslims to act on behalf of the caliphate by inviting India to join; if Delhi refuses, they would help the caliphate in waging war to annex India.149 Such an annexation is justified on the basis that the party is “reclaiming Islamic lands,” since India was previously ruled by Muslims. In this respect, HT’s approach towards Muslims in India is similar to its strategy in the West.
The Future of HTB
HT’s strategy in the West aims to create a monolithic political Muslim bloc that can operate to challenge societies from within and that will eventually serve the party’s larger goals of worldwide Islamist revolution leading to the downfall of Western democracy. Nowadays within the UK, the party already acts as an effective nerve center for coordinating activities in Muslim-majority countries—most notably in Pakistan, which is increasingly seen as a revolutionary base for the establishment of HT’s future expansionist state.
Following the July 7, 2005 London bombings, HTB has been forced to deal with increased public scrutiny, and the party has since developed a sophisticated set of strategies for mainstreaming its Islamist worldview. HTB’s grassroots activism, which entails establishing front groups and securing public platforms, allows the party to embed its ideology within Britain’s Muslim communities and to deliberately manufacture and inflame grievances within these populations. HTB has successfully capitalized on the “sense of attack” felt by some British Muslims due to post-7/7 efforts by British society to implement an effective counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization policy.150 As a result, the party’s War on Terror/”War on Islam” rhetoric, which was once rejected by most Muslims in the UK in the 1990s, is now common in public discourse.
While HTB’s successes may be attributed in part to its new strategy, they are also a reflection of wider political circumstances. The increased and often confused policy focus on Islam and Muslims in the UK following 7/7 has inadvertently helped to provide a public boost to a number of previously far less influential Islamist groups such as HT. This, in turn, has enabled highly politicized religious views to be ascribed to—and increasingly popularized within—Britain’s Muslim communities.151 The government’s further acceptance of Islamism as an expression of religious rather than political convictions and its view of radical ideological groups as “safety valves” that can operate to defuse individuals and movements prone to violence has only worked to help mainstream and legitimize groups like HTB.
The future of HT in the UK is unclear. Despite threats to proscribe the party while it was in opposition, the new coalition government has not acted against HTB. The UK’s counter-terrorism and counter-extremism policies are currently under review, and the outcome of this debate will determine the degree to which the state will tolerate HTB and kindred “non-violent” forms of extremism in the future. Meanwhile, HT has not rescinded its founding revolutionary worldview and agenda, and the party has demonstrated an astute ability to self-censor and adapt in relation to prevailing policies and public sentiment. Without accurately and squarely addressing the party and the challenges it poses to Britain’s democracy, HTB will continue to seek out and use every opportunity to present its revolutionary ideology and agenda as the “true” Islam.
Keywords: Hizb ut-Tahrir, UK, London, Muslim Brotherhood, Pakistan