Faisal al Yafai talks to Britain’s most radical Islamic group, banned across the Middle East, about faith, defiance and the future Thursday November 11, 2004 The Guardian
The east London hall echoes to the sound of the speaker’s voice: “They want us to redefine Islam to fit the agenda of the west,” he intones, and the audience murmurs. “Islam is going to be political, no matter how hard they try. Islam itself is political. Allah has not remained silent when it comes to political matters.”
The speaker is a member of Hizb ut Tahrir, the most controversial Islamic group in Britain today. Critics have called for the group to be banned, as it is in Germany, while supporters hail it as the saviour of the Muslim community. Hizb – the name means Party of Liberation in Arabic – is banned throughout the Middle East, and three British men are in jail in Egypt accused of propagating its views. In Uzbekistan, thousands of Hizb members are in jail, and a Russian thinktank has compared the group to al-Qaida.
Eighteen months ago, the group briefly appeared in the public eye when the wife of Omar Sharif, the Briton who launched a failed suicide-bomb attack in Tel Aviv, was found to have leaflets from the group in her home. Hizb ut Tahrir also has a presence on university campuses, where it has been accused of anti-semitism.
Until recently, the leadership of Hizb was secretive and cautious, reluctant to release details of the scale of its membership, its leadership structure or its funding. One ex-member who spent years with the group says there are probably only 500 members across the country, but the group may have 10 times that number as committed supporters. Hizb’s annual conference in Birmingham last year attracted about 8,000, by the far the most for a Muslim organisation.
In a sign that the group is changing direction, it has given the Guardian unprecedented access to its leadership. The newspaper has spoken to current and former Hizb members and supporters in London, Derby, Leicester, Birmingham, Nottingham and Manchester in an attempt to piece together the group’s motivation and ideology.
The leader of the group, a 28-year-old IT consultant called Jalaluddin Patel, is the first leader in its 18-year history in the UK to speak to the national press. He says Hizb has nothing to hide but will not release membership figures: “It’s a genuine security issue. We’re unsure about the manner in which western society would treat a group like ours.”
Patel insists that Hizb is no threat to the west, but part of it. But he adds that the west “needs to understand what is really an inevitable matter, and that is that Islam is coming back, the Islamic caliphate is going to be implemented in the world very soon … The Muslim people need to realise that the way in which they will restore a form of dignity and bring civilisation back to the Islamic world is to establish a modern caliphate.”
The call to re-establish the caliphate, the single Islamic state that existed for a millennium and a half, until the end of the Ottoman empire in 1924, forms the thrust of the group’s message. But its call for Muslims to be strong is not just political; it is also religious: “Secularism has failed the world” declares a Hizb poster.
Bringing the caliphate back will not be easy: at one debate on the future of Iraq, held just off Brick Lane, an American journalist warned the audience that America, China and India would never tolerate an Islamic state “strung like a belt across the world. There would have to be a response.”
Hizb’s message is too radical to seem immediately threatening. But it is the scale of its ambition that is striking. Hizb appears to be focusing its efforts in Britain on removing Pakistan’s President Musharraf, a key ally in the US war on terror. Last month the group led a march of thousands to the Pakistani high commission in London, calling for regime change and declaring “Pakistan Army: why are you silent?”
In Pakistan the security services say they are keeping close watch on Hizb, mindful of the group’s links with an educated middle class and fearful of possible links with other, more radical groups.
Brainwash Despite recent moves by the group to open itself up – in March this year, for the first time, Hizb announced the nine people on its executive committee – it remains difficult to join it. Before membership, supporters must be invited to join a study group. Patel dismisses the idea that these study groups brainwash supporters: “If you call brainwashing the imparting of ideas and discourse based on those ideas, then I’m afraid that’s what it must be. But fortunately we’re not in the business of brainwashing.”
At 28, Patel is relatively young to be leading a national group, though he has been involved with Hizb since he was 16. He came to Hizb searching for answers, studied with the group, and became chair of the executive committee at 26. Although reluctant to talk about his own background, it is clear his upbringing was comfortable and not particularly political – he says his father knows he is involved with Hizb but doesn’t know he leads it. “He will now.”
Hizb often holds public debates with figures from politics or the media. The meetings are usually packed. Across the country the group publishes books and magazines and holds discussion groups trying to galvanise the Muslim community on a variety of issues. But the solution is always the re-establishment of the caliphate.
Hizb is reluctant to say where its gets the money for these activities. Patel says it all comes entirely from donations from members and supporters, gathered as and when needed. No one in the party receives a salary.
Hizb ut Tahrir was formed in Jerusalem in 1953 by a Palestinian judge. Since then, it has expanded across the Middle East and throughout the world, from Indonesia to America. But it is in Britain that the group probably has its strongest presence. Its conferences have attracted thousands of British Muslims.
In Tower Hamlets, east London, Hizb distributed a leaflet opposing the Brick Lane festival last month, arguing that the promotion of “the culture of drinking alcohol, dancing and free-mixing” was not the image the area’s Muslim community ought to be projecting.
Meetings – or “circles” – follow the same format, with a speaker from the group expanding on a subject for around 40 minutes. The audience, almost always students and professionals in their 20s and 30s, listen and then pepper the speaker with questions. Some meetings are men- or women-only. At those that are mixed, the women, seated separately from the men, ask the most forceful and detailed questions, usually from beneath a sea of headscarves.
Although one of the main aims of the group is to forge a strong religious identity for Muslims in Britain, it also believes the wider Muslim world has been ill-served by its rulers. It has openly called for coups against Arab governments to establish more representative leadership. Governments such as Egypt which feel that Hizb is a threat have banned it and arrested its members.
The group came to Britain in 1986, founded by a Syrian called Omar Bakri Muhammed. Bakri remained leader for 10 years until he left to form another, more radical, Islamic group, al-Muhajiroun.
In the mid-1990s, Hizb was a fixture on university campuses, organising societies and debates. Its rhetoric was fierce and angry. Then Hizb went quiet, and now its influence on campus is limited to some Islamic societies or smaller groups. Some maintain it is still a threat: in March this year a motion proposed by the Union of Jewish Students to the National Union of Students conference banned Hizb from campuses because of alleged anti-semitism.
Last year the German government banned the group for the same reasons and the country’s interior minister, Otto Schilly, proposed Britain should follow suit, saying: “It won’t do if the same thing is then not banned in a neighbouring country. We have to act in harmony.”
Patel calls such accusations misguided. But he does not deny being anti-Israel: “Being anti-Israel is probably a sentiment held by one billion Muslims around the world. It’s not unique to the party. A lot of western commentators could be classified as anti-Israel.”
On some campuses, the group has renamed itself, using such names as the Ideological Society. Its uncompromising tone, in contrast to the mute moderation of some imams, is a powerful attraction. In cities where it has a strong presence, such as Birmingham and Leicester, some mosques have made it clear that Hizb is unwelcome. “We don’t like their ideas at all,” said the imam of one of Birmingham’s biggest mosques. “They’re not Islamic ideas, they’re very nationalistic, racist ideas that they’ve got from somewhere else.”
Angry Hizb says such criticism is an attempt to depoliticise Islam and warns against seeing political awareness always in the context of angry youth. Hizb offers a worldview that can be easily grasped, a straightforward solution to many of the problems of society. The scope of Hizb – Patel says “every mosque in this country” has members or supporters – has led to worries about its influence. But it is not on the Home Office’s list of proscribed organisations, and the Metropolitan police’s anti-terrorism branch says it has no evidence of illegal activity.
Critics are most concerned about Hizb in Central Asia, where its brand of political Islam is motivating impoverished Uzbeks against the government of Uzbekistan. In testimony before the US Congress earlier this year, a director of the Nixon Centre, a rightwing thinktank, warned: “Like other Islamist movements, HT’s goal is to overthrow secular regimes around the world. Unlike many others, however, HT hopes to achieve this goal peacefully … I think HT, which is not considered a terrorist organisation, is an even more dangerous long-term threat, as it is the elementary school for the ideological training of many other groups.”
This is the “conveyor belt for terrorism” argument: the implication is that such an organisation might inspire others. Patel is dismissive: “I think it’s a very disingenuous view. The Founding Fathers of America would probably have been called a conveyor belt for terrorists because they produced the intellectual ideas which led to the American people rising up against colonial rule.”
If there is a threat it comes in ideas, because the message of Hizb – of a strong, international Islamic state; of a Middle East free of the western powers; of Islam as a solution to the problems of society – may be far more dangerous to the west.
Patel accepts that the very notion of a caliphate implies the destruction of institutions and government systems, but believes there is no alternative – although he stresses the transition will not be violent. And although Hizb has been making its argument for over half a century without visible results, Patel does not see that as a criticism of the concept. “We believe the caliphate could be established tomorrow. We believe all the ingredients are there,” he says. And he has a warning for the Muslim rulers of the world: “One of the greatest obstacles that exists is the brutality of the state and the fear that is instilled in the masses. What we say is that it is a matter of time before the masses observe that brutality and say enough is enough.”