Hizb ut-Tahrir and the fantasy of the caliphate
The Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir has revived by tapping energy among Europe's immigrant communities and appealing to Muslims on the edge of Asia, and to Palestinians. But it is a marginal international grouping; could it retain its appeal if it engaged directly in politics or if its demands were actually met?
By Jean-Pierre Filiu - Le Monde diplomatique June 2008 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Ten thousand Palestinians demonstrated in the streets of Ramallah last August, calling for "a return to the caliphate". They had been mobilised by Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Islamic Party of Liberation or HT), which has gained strength since the quarrels between Hamas and Fatah diminished popular support for them.
Its influence is extending across the West Bank: it has militants on university campuses who encourage students to abandon the nationalist cause in favour of a return to the caliphate (1). Even very sceptical observers, who believe HT has no more than 200 or 300 members across the occupied territories, recognise the strength of its militant base.
Hizb ut-Tahrir's new visibility in the streets is important given its refusal to take part in the Palestinian elections. In Hebron last November it organised the first protest march against the Annapolis conference, which the United States had hoped would relaunch the peace process. Hamas took part in the demonstration, but Fatah opposed it and caused the death of a demonstrator.
The movement was founded in 1952 by a Palestinian sheikh, Taqiuddin Nabahani. He was a cadi (Islamic jurist) in Haifa during the British Mandate (1922-1948), studied at Cairo's al-Azhar University and was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Though he was active with the Brotherhood in Nablus and then Jerusalem, he broke with it in 1950 when he published Inqadh Filastin (Saving Palestine). The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and Jordan's annexation of the West Bank in the war that followed, made him conclude that nationalism was the most serious obstacle to the recovery of Palestine.
He thought that the colonial powers had exploited Arab dissension over the Ottoman caliphate, abolished by Ataturk in 1924. Nabahani advocated the return to an Islamic federation under an Arab caliph, as had existed from the death of Muhammad in 632 until 1258, when the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad fell to the Mongols. Nabahani thought a transnational elite (such as Hizb ut-Tahrir) could drive a global revival far better than the Muslim Brothers' similar political aspirations.
He was unsuccessful in his attempts to legalise the party in Jordan in 1952 despite the prominence of the Muslim Brothers there, and had to register it as an association. Hizb ut-Tahrir candidates did subsequently run in Jordan's national elections even though Nabahani was exiled to Syria from 1953-1959. After another expulsion, from Damascus to Beirut, he then decided to reject elections and concentrate on creating an underground structure, in which members of the base cell unit, the halaqa or circle, have no contact with the organisation's upper reaches. As an illegal organisation calling for the return of the caliphate Hizb ut-Tahrir began to attract the attention of intelligence services across the Middle East, and by the 1970s there was little trace of its existence.
After 20 years of political hibernation Hizb ut-Tahrir resurfaced with surprising vigour at the margins of the Muslim world, in central Asia and in Europe. This renewed enthusiasm came from the rise of Islamic identity among Europe's immigrant (and conflicted) Muslim communities, and the celebration of Islamic culture on the geographical and historical fringes of Asia.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Hizb ut-Tahrir entered Tajikistan. It remained neutral throughout the 1992-1995 civil war between the ex-Communists and Islamists, as it seems to be doing today with Hamas and Fatah in Palestine. After peace was restored to Tajikistan, the party denounced the Islamists' concessions to the "infidels" and contested the borders inherited from the Soviet era (2).
In Uzbekistan Hiz ut-Tahrir attracted the hostility of the political police who, to appease western interests, suggested it might be subverting the region. While there is little doubt that HT has an extensive central Asian network, its strongest base lies further to the east, in Indonesia. In August 2007 tens of thousands of people demonstrated in support of the caliphate in a stadium in Jakarta.
If in the rest of the Muslim world Hizb ut-Tahrir is no more than a constellation of minor groups, held together by their affiliation to a global cause, the movement is active in Europe, with Britain the centre of its activities. Here Hizb ut-Tahrir (it calls itself HT in Britain) runs a huge and legal propaganda campaign (3) and used to publish two quarterly reviews, the cultural New Civilisation and the more family-oriented Salam. With a tradition of support for the caliphate on the Indian sub-continent, the party found support among the UK's immigrant Indo-Pakistani communities (4). Remarkably, HT members of Bangladeshi origin are re-exporting this militant tradition from Britain to Bangladesh.
HT organised a demonstration by women in full hijab in front of the French embassy in London in protest against France's March 2004 law banning the wearing of religious symbols in state schools. It runs a campaign against the "dissolution" of Islamic culture swamped by western values, and pushes its own sectarian vision of British multiculturalism to the legal limits. HT's British activists don't mince their words when explaining their refusal to integrate: "In France they want to change what we wear; here, they want to change what we think" (5).
HT in Britain has been associated with Omar Bakri, the Syrian extremist, even though he left the organisation in 1996. Although HT publicly condemned al-Qaida terrorism, British media reproved it after the London transport bombings in July 2005. But the British police have never found sufficient evidence to have the organisation banned; and Abdul Wahid, chairman of HT's UK executive committee, has become an expert in the right of reply, denouncing the simplifications of the press.
But in Germany and Denmark, HT's hostility to democratic institutions and its refusal to recognise Israel's right to exist has caused legal problems. In France and Spain, its cells are illegal and the authorities keep it under close surveillance.
Candidate for the 'empire of evil'
As a transnational phenomenon Hizb at-Tahrir is at home in a globalised world and this ease may explain its return to popularity. It also shows how such marginal or extremist networks compensate for their weakness through projecting their desires on to an abstract fantasy of Islamic unity. In October 2006 al-Qaida, denying the reality of its marginal status, proclaimed the foundation of a virtual caliphate and entrusted the task of setting up this internet presence to a jihadist in Baghdad. The result was pathetic: Iraq's nationalist combatants remain hostile to al-Qaida and the announcement attracted little attention.
The caliphate and its manipulation have struck a chord with those whose plans for a "war on terror" depend on identifying an overriding global menace. According to President George Bush: "This caliphate would be a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia" (6).
The caliphate is an easy candidate for a new "empire of evil", given the expansionist ambitions it is credited with and its immutable hostility to the West. It does not matter to the White House that no real caliphate ever stretched from Europe to Southeast Asia. The oldest and most far-reaching of the caliphates, the Umayyad, collapsed in 750 after a loose dominion over a territory from the Pyrenees to the Indus. But it didn't last long and the later Ottoman caliphate (which eventually succeeded it) was far less ambitious.
The ideologues of the clash of civilisations are playing into the hands of activist minorities by disdaining any attempt at perspective and inflating the premise of a global peril. In 2003 the US Heritage Foundation described Hizb ut-Tahrir as "an emerging threat to US interests in Central Asia" (7). The Nixon Centre followed in 2004, organising a seminar in Ankara and a report on "Islam's political insurgency" (8). Hizb ut-Tahrir has tens of thousands of members across the world but US sources have inflated these, citing a million activists in 40 countries (which would make it an Islamic Komintern).
HT's call for a caliphate in Palestine should be seen as the propaganda it is — HT rejects any form of armed militia comparable to those of Hamas and Fatah. Its posters on West Bank walls are a change from the usual litany of martyrs. For the members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the party is an opportunity to show resistance with impunity: they run no risk of reprisal from the Palestinian authorities or Israel and, as HT refuses to participate in elections, there is not even the possibility of being rejected at the polls.
Sheikh Nabahani's belated rise to fame comes from a refusal to engage in concrete politics and an extraordinary accumulation of despair. Very likely, the first real signs of progress towards an independent Palestine would eclipse its function "to compensate" and it would once again become history.
Jean-Pierre Filiu is associate professor at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris. He is the author of Les Frontières du jihad and L'Apocalypse dans l'Islam, Fayard, 2006 and 2008. He can be reached via e-mail at: email@example.com
(1) The caliph was the Prophet Muhammad's successor. After the first four caliphs the Umayyad dynasty held the caliphate until 750, followed by the Abbasids until 1258. The descendants of the last Abbasid caliph took refuge in Cairo under the protection of the Mameluk sultans. When the Ottomans under Selim the Grim conquered Egypt in 1517 they claimed the caliphate, which remained with Turkey until its abolition in 1924.
(2) For a comparison of Hizb ut-Tahrir with the Islamic Renaissance Party in Tajikistan, see Cahiers d'Asie centrale, n° 15-16, Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris, 2007.
(4) Within the All-India Khilafat Committee, which was active between 1920 and 1924.
(5) A common observation. See Jean-François Mayer in Samir Amghar, Islamismes d'Occident, Lignes de repère, Paris, 2006.
(6) George W Bush on 5 September 2006.
(7) Study by Ariel Cohen published the Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC, May 2003.
(8) Zeyno Baran, "Hizb ut-Tahrir, Islam's political insurgency", Nixon Centre, Washington, December 2004.
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