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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Hizb-ut-Tahrir's Growing Appeal in the Arab World

By James Brandon
Hizb-ut-Tahrir (or Hizb al-Tahrir) is an ostensibly non-violent Islamic political movement dedicated to the recreation of a global caliphate. Although founded in Jordanian-ruled Jerusalem in 1953, it has traditionally been strongest in Europe and Central Asia. Today, however, it is becoming increasingly popular in the Arab world [1]. Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) works covertly to convince Muslims to overthrow their present governments peacefully and establish a worldwide caliphate, which will then impose conservative Islam over all Muslim majority countries. Once this is accomplished, HT hopes that the caliphate will make the whole world Islamic through conversion in the first instance and, as a last resort, offensive jihads against all non-Muslim states. HT is highly organized and has national leaderships as well as an overall leader, Abu Rashta, who lives in secret in Lebanon. The group says that it will take power peacefully by persuading influential members of the elite to overthrow the government. The organization is illegal in all Arab countries except for Lebanon, Yemen and the UAE where it is tolerated. The group does not believe in using either elections or violence to take power and there is no evidence that HT members have carried out any attacks in the Arab world. There is mounting evidence, however, that HT is growing in popularity in the Arab world.

Evidence of Growing Popularity

Throughout the fall of 2006, an apparently unprecedented spate of HT campaigns and related arrests took place throughout the Arab world, suggesting that the group could become an increasingly important factor in Islamic politics in the region. In the last two years, HT has slowly become more visible in Palestine. In August, several thousand members of HT marched through central Hebron on the anniversary of the dissolution of the caliphate [2]. On October 27, several hundred members demonstrated on the Temple Mount to call for the recreation of the caliphate (Arutz Sheva, November 14). In Morocco, the largest-ever arrests and trials of HT members occurred on October 3. In September, 14 members of HT were jailed after being arrested in Meknes, Casablanca and Tetouan [3]. The convicted men were mostly well-educated, engineering graduates who had studied in Europe. They were given short sentences for forming unauthorized associations and receiving money from abroad (Maroc Hebdo International, October 6).

In Zanzibar, HT members launched a massive new publicity campaign. Overnight, the group's estimated 3,000 members on the predominately Muslim archipelago plastered the region's towns with posters arguing that a caliphate would stop the islands' Islamic culture from being corrupted by Western tourists (al-Jazeera, October 31). No arrests were reported. In Jordan, HT appears to have found its greatest opportunities. Senior Jordanian members of the party claim to have gained numerous recruits in senior positions in the army and government, while they also enjoy growing support among the Amman intelligentsia. Numerous arrests have taken place and around 40 HT members are believed to be in prison [4].

In Lebanon, there is increasing evidence that HT stepped up its activities after the government legalized the group in May. Anecdotal evidence suggests that HT is becoming especially popular among Palestinian refugees (for example, in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp), in Sidon and in Sunni areas around Tripoli. Lebanese Interior Minister Ahmad Fatfat, however, warned that he would take action against any HT members who were planning violent actions or threatening the state's security (al-Balad, October 17). In Syria, HT's popularity is harder to measure. Since the late 1990s, however, there has been a steady stream of arrests of HT members [5]. The Syrian government treats HT members as it does members of the Muslim Brotherhood, trying them in State Security Courts and sentencing them to long prison terms. In other repressive Arab countries, HT's underground following is harder to estimate; members have been arrested in 2006 in Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia.

Trends Collide

HT's growing popularity is partly due to its increasingly organized and media-savvy leadership, and partly because in many Arab countries a series of local and global factors have combined to increase HT's appeal. In Palestine, the movement's growth reflects dissatisfaction with the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. While Hamas has thwarted certain Israeli policies, it has publicly failed to rejuvenate Palestinian society, repair the economy or reverse the constant deterioration of education, infrastructure and healthcare. In Jordan, dissatisfaction with the country's Westernizing monarchy is increasing. However, the main Islamist opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood Islamic Action Party, is dominated by Palestinian refugees and has been linked to alleged attempts by Hamas to carry out attacks in the kingdom. HT allows Palestinians and native Jordanians to work together to address their common problems, while its non-violent approach has obvious appeal following several al-Qaeda attacks that killed mainly Muslims.

In other countries like Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia, HT presents itself as a religious alternative to existing regimes as well as a way to overcome ethnic and sectarian tensions. In addition, HT offers an attractive alternative to the many Arabs who, although increasingly observant, are also uneasy with the willingness of Salafi or Muslim Brotherhood-influenced jihadis to kill innocent Muslims during anti-Western operations.

The idea of reviving the caliphate has also been given a boost by Osama bin Laden, who has publicized neo-caliphate concepts. Al-Qaeda's actions have demonstrated how Muslims can unite to defend the ummah. Caliphatist dreams have also been lent new credibility by the expanding and increasingly interlinked Islamist insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere that might, if successful, someday unite to form a caliphate-like alliance—just as elements in Algeria's GSPC have recognized Mullah Omar as caliph. While al-Qaeda at present offers little beyond the nihilistic policies of perpetual opposition, HT presents the caliphate as a viable solution to the Muslim world's problems. Al-Qaeda focuses almost entirely on its military struggle to defeat the enemies of Islam. In contrast, HT has published detailed plans for the organization of the economy, society and structure of the caliphate that they aim to establish [6]. In addition, HT plays down Sunni-Shiite divisions, claiming to accept Shiites as party members without reservation. This stance is likely to become more attractive if sectarian conflict in Iraq continues to worsen, giving new credence to HT's argument that Western powers deliberately exploit Sunni-Shiite rivalry to divide the Muslim world.

The internet has allowed HT's ideas to spread faster than ever, while also proving that recreating the caliphate in the modern, ever-shrinking global community is no mere fantasy. HT members in Jordan point to the internet and the success of the European Union as evidence that a global caliphate can realistically overcome historical differences and national rivalries. HT has deftly played a lead role in many recent pan-Islamic issues. For instance, it rapidly deployed its members to organize global boycotts and protests against Denmark following the publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons by the Jyllands-Posten.

Nevertheless, the group does have limitations. Its gradualist approach has a limited appeal for the Arab world's increasingly numerous, unemployed and ill-educated youths who generally demand immediate action against their rulers and against Israel. HT's calm, non-violent methodology—largely developed by well-educated South Asian immigrants in Western Europe—also falls slightly flat among Arab cultures that appreciate bold, confrontational rhetoric. The movement has apparently failed to gain significant traction in countries like Egypt or Oman whose people are reluctant to see their distinctive historical, ethnic and cultural identities submerged within a caliphate. HT has also floundered in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states where political discourse is often simplistic and clan-based. Gulf citizens recognize that a caliphate would force them to share their oil wealth with the rest of the Muslim world.

HT may have been set back by the recent Lebanon war in which Hezbollah won a strategic military victory over Israel. The conflict reignited belief that Israel can be defeated militarily. The fallacy of this position, however, is likely to be exposed (at least in the short-term) as Israel adapts to its defeat and the region's true military balance reasserts itself. Once this happens, HT may receive a further boost if its non-violent position is vindicated.

Increased Significance

HT is regarded with some confusion by Western analysts because while its goals of recreating a caliphate and then converting the world to Islam by force if necessary are almost indistinguishable from bin Laden's, its methods are entirely different. Although HT members sincerely believe that the caliphate will be recreated soon, HT's real significance is likely to be its increasingly important role in radicalizing and Islamizing the Middle East. For example, HT's ideologies also fuel the increasingly common view that the present conflict between Western democracies and Islamists is not a resolvable dispute over land, territory and temporal politics, but is rather an inevitable clash of civilizations, cultures and religions.

HT, by saying that non-Muslim attempts to prevent the creation of a global Islamic empire amount to the deliberate persecution of Muslims, feed the victim culture that fuels Islamic radicalism today, as well as provide the necessary theological justification for individual acts of defensive or pre-emptive jihad. HT argues that the Quran says that all non-Muslim countries, cultures and individuals must submit to Islam. HT members who accept this theory naturally begin to see the world exclusively in terms of Muslims and non-Muslims, and inevitably begin to see all non-Islamic entities as worthy of destruction. In addition, HT's absolute rejection of democracy as un-Islamic is considerably more hard line than that of the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, while the group also takes highly conservative positions regarding women, alcohol and freedom of speech.

HT's long-term strategy is to take over countries by progressively winning over the elite. More pressing, however, is the threat posed by the "conveyor belt" effect of HT [7]. The conveyor belt theory says that HT members often leave the group much more radicalized than when they joined and that they might then consequently commit terrorist acts [8]. In Europe and Central Asia, this theory is supported by growing evidence that a larger flow of people through HT leads to an increased number of attacks against Western targets and non-Islamic governments by former HT members. Although it is presently impossible to fully document this trend in the Arab world, it seems logical that the conveyor belt theory would apply there just as it does elsewhere.

In addition, HT splinter groups tend to be Salafi-Jihadi movements led by people dissatisfied with HT's gradualist approach and its refusal to alter its opposition to political violence. For example, in the UK, a senior leader, the Syrian-born Omar Bakri Muhammad, quit HT to establish al-Muhajiroun, which advocated violent attacks against British, U.S. and Israeli targets around the world. Several peripheral members of al-Muhajiroun later carried out jihadi attacks, while Bakri now lives in Lebanon where he is believed to be involved in radical Islamic politics among Palestinian refugees (particularly in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp) and among Lebanese Sunnis in the Tripoli region [9].

In conclusion, despite HT's increasing popularity in the Middle East and its stated aims of overthrowing existing Arab regimes, the group is not in itself a threat to regional stability. Instead, for the moment at least, the group's growing importance is in the effect that its rhetoric has on its members, former members and those who hear its message.


1. Most of the background information on HT in the Arab world came from interviews conducted with senior members of HT's Jordanian branch in Amman in April 2006. The three members interviewed were Abdullah Shakr, the group's Jordanian spokesman, and Abu Abdullah and Abu Muhammad, who were described as being senior leaders of the Jordanian branch. All three have been members of HT for more than 20 years and each has spent several years in prison for their membership in the group.
2. See Hizb-ut-Tahrir Britain, http://www.hizb.org.uk.
3. See http://www.khilafah.com.
4. Interview with Jordanian HT members.
5. Syrian Human Rights Committee, http://www.shrc.org.uk.
6. See http://www.hizb-ut-tahrir.info/english/constitution.htm.
7. The "conveyor belt" theory has been most notably put forward by Dr. Zeyno Baran of the Nixon Center.
8. For example, Omar Sharif, the British Muslim who carried out a suicide attack in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2003, was a member of al-Muhajiroun. British police recovered a substantial amount of HT literature from his house (although Sharif never formally joined HT).
9. For example, Richard Reid, the British "shoe-bomber," was closely associated with al-Muhajiroun.
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