By Emmanuel Karagiannis*
Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (the Islamic Liberation Party – hereafter Hizb ut-Tahrir) was founded in 1953 by the Palestinian Islamic scholar Taqiuddin an-Nabhani. In the following decades, the party pioneered Islamist activism around the world, including in Europe.
The restoration of the Caliphate is the centerpiece of the party’s ideology. However, it has refused to advocate terrorist violence as a tool of political change. Instead, it has favored the widespread dissemination of leaflets and party literature in universities, mosques, and other public areas for the purpose of re-Islamizing society. The group also makes extensive use of the internet and social media to propagate messages that are plainly radical by Western standards.
The first British branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir was established in the early 1980s. Under the charismatic leadership of Syrian-born Omar Bakri Muhammad, the group rapidly increased its activities and expanded its membership, focusing in particular on professionals and university students. It became known to the wider public above all due to its protests against Salman Rushdie and his book ‘The Satanic Verses’.
The British branch also adopted an active global approach – the UK was but one of its concerns.
There are numerous examples. In the early 2000s, the party launched a campaign against the Karimov regime of Uzbekistan, accusing Uzbek security services of torturing and killing party members. In February 2006, it organized a protest outside the embassy of Denmark over the satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper. In February 2010, female members demonstrated outside the French embassy against the banning of the face veil (niqab). In September 2012, it staged a protest against a film mocking Islam outside the US embassy in London.
A Hizb ut-Tahrir demonstration in London
Hizb ut-Tahrir’s activities in other European countries have included protests, sit-ins and petitions.
The Danish branch has organized high-profile events and succeeded in forming relationships with the broader Muslim community. In 2006, for example, the branch joined up with local representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and imams from Danish mosques to present a panel debate about the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy.
In Belgium, the group staged a demonstration outside the Uzbek embassy in Brussels during Islam Karimov’s visit to the European Union and NATO in January 2011. This was apparently the first open manifestation of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Belgium.
In March 2013, Hizb ut-Tahrir held a conference about the restoration of Caliphate in the Netherlands.
Hizb ut-Tahrir and Human Rights
In the mid-1990s, Hizb ut-Tahrir perceived human rights as a Western creation. Indeed, human rights were to be denounced because “the origin of these rights is the Capitalist ideology’s view of the nature of man, the relationship between the individual and the group, the reality of society, and the function of the state.”
However, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in 2001 dramatically increased the visibility of Muslims. Such a change was bound to have serious implications for the everyday life of millions of Muslims in Europe. In the immediate post-9/11 period, Muslim citizens were monitored by authorities, physical and verbal attacks against Muslims were on the rise, and the media constantly identified Islam as a national security threat.
In this new context, Hizb ut-Tahrir has used the language of human rights to spread its ideas and gain influence. In Britain, it has seized every opportunity to criticize state-sanctioned narratives and discourses.
The terrorist attack against the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January 2015 was another flash point. It provoked new tensions between European governments and Muslim communities. For its part, Hizb ut-Tahrir criticized the position of many European leaders regarding freedom of expression. In the words of senior member of Hizb ut-Tahrir Abdul Wahid:
“What is expected of a Muslim in Europe today is that you bow down before the god of free speech until you accept that every Prophet can be insulted…That is an unacceptable expectation by those who attack Islam. Muslims living in the West have only one option when faced with insults against their beloved Prophet – and that is to speak out…we continue to speak out loudly– despite the mockery and hatred.”
Wahid based his criticism on an arguably valid point: some Europeans do indeed expect Muslim communities to apologize and reaffirm their loyalty to the state. There is a widespread suspicion of Muslim citizens, who are viewed by some politicians and media as untrustworthy and fanatical. Consequently, Muslim citizens must constantly condemn those co-religionists who use violence against civilians.
Tensions have been especially high in Denmark. Hizb ut-Tahrir has implicitly criticized the far-right Danish People’s Party and other political forces for their Islamophobic rhetoric:
“the Danish politicians bear a huge share of responsibility for the rise in Islamophobia and hateful rhetoric that has become quite common in Denmark. Today Muslims are experiencing increasingly, not only on social media but also at congested places and in broad daylight, verbal and physical assault.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir has also focused on the treatment of Muslims in conflict zones. For example, it has launched a global campaign titled ‘Who Will Support the Muslims of Central Africa?’ in order to increase awareness. According to the Women’s Section of the Central Media Office of Hizb ut-Tahrir:
“a diabolical and systematic campaign of genocide has been unleashed upon the helpless Muslims of the region…only with the re-establishment of the Khilafah…Muslims can be saved from bloodshed and systematic abuse”.
From Hizb ut-Tahrir’s point of view, such tragic stories confirm the claim that the human rights of Muslims are systematically abused by non-Muslims and this can stop only if the Caliphate is restored. Hizb ut-Tahrir’s narrative is simple and self-explanatory -it instrumentalizes Western concepts of human rights to propagate its messages and mobilize supporters in different countries, even though human rights under a Caliphate would not be the rights enjoyed in a Western democracy.
*Dr Emmanuel Karagiannis is a Senior Lecturer at King’s College London’s Department of Defence Studies. His book The New Political Islam: Human Rights, Democracy and Justice has just been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.