European Eye on Radicalization
In an interview with EER, Dr. Elisa Orofino, the Academic Lead for Extremism and Counter-Terrorism at The Policing Institute for the Eastern Region (PIER) at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), gives us a complete overview of Hizb ut-Tahrir, its origins, legacy, and the reasons why it has survived and thrived for more than six decades.
Orofino has been researching these topics since 2009. After completing her PhD in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Elisa joined PIER at Anglia Ruskin University in October 2018 as a Post-Doc Research Fellow. Her most recent publication is “Researching ‘Intellectual Radicals’ in the West” (2019). Below are excerpts from the interview.
EER: What inspired you to write a book about Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT)?
Dr. Elisa Orofino: I find HT a super fascinating group from a sociological perspective. It is one of the most long- living and well established international non-state actors still active today. Like many other Islamist groups, HT was created as a protest-for-justice group against British (and more generally Western) influence in Palestine in 1953. However, unlike many other Islamist groups, HT has never changed its stances on core points, e.g. rejecting the use of violence to achieve specific goals and refusing political participation. This consistency provided the group with a high degree of reliability over time and it has enhanced its appeal to specific segments of Muslims (mostly young intellectuals) all over the world.
EER: In your book you speak of the dual structure of HT, first as individuals internalize the ideology and adapt its implementation to their unique societal surroundings but also as a collective force against Western values and imperialism. Can you go into more detail about the structure of HT and perhaps cite some overarching examples to support this categorization?
EO: I believe HT, as an international organization, has been very successful over the decades in establishing members’ loyalty based on the ‘Aqeedah (doctrine) rather than on a specific leader and a “LoGlo strategy”. Before formally joining the group, all HT recruits are required to study and familiarize themselves with Sheikh Taquiddin An-Nabhani’s (the founder) books constituting the adopted literature of the group.
Recruits usually spend over two years learning the core elements of the ‘Aqeedah (doctrine), studying and agreeing to all core stances of the group. This method generates strong bonds between the individual and the group itself — without intermediaries. When a person becomes a full member of HT, (s)he fully acknowledges the group as an essential part of his/her life based on the doctrine, independent of current leaders or other members. Members usually continue their work within the group for many years (mostly their whole life), since HT’s ‘Aqeedah is important for members on a personal level and a part of their religious commitment as Muslims.
With regard to the second part of the question, the endorsement of the ‘Aqeedah equips Hizbies with all resources to interpret local events according to their global stance and goal, which is what I call the “LoGLo Strategy”, where LoGlo is a portmanteau of the two terms “local” and “global”. HT branches use local issues as prompts for criticising national authorities, while exalting the caliphate as the best model of government. Over the decades, HT has started to exploit local grievances to turn individuals against local governments by highlighting the lack of accountability, legitimacy, and rule of law.
EER: In your book you state: In over six decades, HT has not changed, continuing its ideological fight against a structure (the Western system) which the organization identifies as anti-Islamic and dangerous for Muslims. This is interesting as many radical groups have evolved over time and changed their tactics accordingly to the times and the geopolitical climate. In your opinion, why has HT maintained a consistent focus and mission and to what do you attribute its longevity to?
EO: In my book, I identify three specific motivations for action that have characterized HT global since early 1953 and across more than 45 countries: 1) the vision of the caliphate as a religious obligation, the idea of the caliphate as the only way to stop the decline of the ummah, and the global Muslim call for the re-establishment of an Islamic state.
HT’s uniqueness is mostly determined by the group’s consistency, demonstrated by the immutable character of its goals, method and motivations for the caliphate that HT advocates for. These elements have enabled the group to foster the recruitment of new members.
I believe that the lack of flexibility on core ideological points (e.g. rejecting political participation and use of violence) and methods for action is what makes HT different when comparing it to similar Islamist non-state actors. Therefore, changing this would be to strip the group from the core elements that characterize its identity and global presence.
EER: When explaining why people living in Western societies sometimes gravitate towards radicalization you mention that “second and third generation Muslims in the West are more inclined to seek a different religious identity than their parents. Individuals then enter into a process of religious seeking and cognitive opening, where they are willing to explore models that differ from those of their parents and of the dominant Western culture and are open to listening to different voices and opinions.” Can you talk about this process in greater detail and perhaps give some overarching examples of why some of these people who are exploring different models end up gravitating towards HT?
EO: People belonging to diaspora communities — from whatever generation and ethnicity — are always in between two cultural, religious and social models. This diversity is often an added value in the life of the individual, but it can also serve as a trigger towards radicalization. Relevant scholarship points to “bipolar life” as the significant cultural dichotomy between Islamic and Western values sometimes experienced by young Muslims in the West.
These individuals can also experience an “identity crisis” which, in this case, refers to the conflict between incompatible identities of an individual, such as being a Muslim and a Westerner at the same time. This alleged incompatibility is a forte in the rhetoric of many extreme Islamist groups (including HT), who present themselves as the answer to all problems when the cognitive dissonance between the individual’s religious and national identities becomes too much to handle. People going through identity crisis are the perfect target for extremist groups of all ideologies as these groups provide an encompassing approach to life with specific schemata of interpretation of reality which provide the individuals with a purpose in life, a sense of security and belonging to something important
EER: In the book you speak of the “Muslim paranoia narrative” and the “neocolonialization argument”. Can you elaborate on these narratives and explain just how integral they are to the HT ideology and how effective they are in recruiting followers?
EO: One of the core narratives of HT at the global level is that the West (as a monolithic corrupted system of states) is actively engaged in a war against the ummah (the global community of Muslims) aimed at the complete subjugation and Westernization of said ummah. HT relentlessly disseminates the idea of a Western system engaged in promoting a state-sponsored version of Islam (far from what was revealed to Prophet Muhammad), to culturally absorb Muslims and to relegate them into a “community of suspects” far from mainstream society in the West.
HT also suggests that Western states are still exerting colonial influence in the Middle East (neo-colonial argument) through unfair military accords, alliances, mutual security agreements, economic and financial aid and cultural programs. When exposed to such arguments, members of Muslim diaspora communities in the West might feel a sense fraternal deprivation. Some of them want to respond to such threats against the community of origin and, therefore, join the group to counter such alleged threats.
EER: You mention that a key characteristic to disseminating HT propaganda and recruiting followers is the fact that such materials are written in the language of the Western country in which they operate, which sets them apart from the older generation of imams and Muslim community members who typically communicate in their language of origin. Can you dive into greater detail about this and explain why this tactic has been able to win over hearts and minds of Muslim youth living in Western countries?
EO: Relevant scholarship on Muslim diaspora communities in Western states have pointed out how they are not particularly inclusive of young people, who are often not chosen for leadership roles or in the management of important matters.
Moreover, the language barrier is an enormous obstacle to young people’s inclusion in their religious community of origin. Young people’s Arabic — or other language of origin — is not always fluent, and this often prevents a deeper understanding of Islam and serves as a barrier to participation in religious services.
Conversely, radical Islamist groups operating in the West, such as HT, disseminate religious information and pamphlets and organize Quranic studies using the language of the Western country in which they operate, which, in fact, is the mother tongue of the great majority of young Muslims. Therefore, the accessibility to religious sources and discourses constitutes a characteristic for Islamist groups like HT over traditional Islamic groups made up of older immigrants, who mostly conduct their activities in the language of their countries of origin.
Furthermore, radical Islamists like HT exploits their attractiveness and issues related to social justice, they position themselves as advocates for the ummah and promotes the reestablishment of the caliphate to protect Muslims around the world. Members of HT also present themselves as “educators of the masses” on Islamic religious obligations and revelations, which conveys them as a pious authority.
EER: To add to the discussion on recruitment, you also mention that “intellectuals became the most sought-after recruitment pool for continuing HT’s expansion because even a small group of educated people were able to convey HT’s ideology to a greater audience through public speeches, lectures, publications, and journal articles.” Can you highlight examples of this and explain the benefits of such a strategy? Has this strategy worked well and has there been any deviation from this strategy in the decades that have passed?
EO: HT has always targeted bright minds since its inception as the founder himself (Sheikh Taquiddin An-Nabhani) was an intellectual and an extremely knowledgeable man. HT’s culturing process is based on halaqaat (study-circles), lectures and informative events where the individual starts questioning his previous beliefs and becomes more familiar with HT’s ideological tenets. By “culturing” I mean that the process initiated by an organization to instruct its affiliates on specific values and meanings, making the members familiar with the organization’s culture. This practice is unchanged, as well as the pivotal role played by culturing in HT’s strategy to re-establish the Caliphate in Muslim majority countries.
More precisely, HT will first address its call to a small group of Muslim intellectuals, educating them on the main ideological tenets of the organization. This first group of intellectuals constitutes the first nucleus that will then go into mainstream society and use its credibility to convince people on the validity of HT ideology and methods (the interaction stage). Lastly, once the majority of the population has espoused HT’s tenets, the group will be ready for a coup (Muslims holding positions of authorities will support HT’s coup), overthrow corrupt governments and establish the Islamic state. This plan is still unchanged.
EER: In what you have termed in detail as the LoGlo Strategy, you explain how HT branches use local issues to criticize national authorities and find common threads between local and global greviances. Is this a strategy that has been widely adopted across geographies where HT has a significant presence? Why do you think this has proven to be an effective strategy? Do you think it fosters a sense of a broader community that transcends borders?
EO: To complement what I have explained above, the “LoGlo strategy” has proven to be extremely effective as HT — a transnational organization present across 45 countries — still manages to speak with one voice at the global level. Indeed, this fosters a sense of community and belonging to the organization beyond frontiers.
EER: In the book you give several examples of commonalities between the ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat–e–Islami (JeI) and HT. For example, all three groups believe that shariah is the best national and international regulation system. Can you share some other key overlaps and differences between the three groups?
EO: The MB and JeI are two long-standing international Islamic revivalist groups that have a lot in common with HT such as the historical background of their founders, their claim to liberate the ummah from kuffar (unbelievers) contamination, and their conception of the West as the enemy. However, HT strongly differs from the MB and JeI in terms of its methodology, detailed vision of the caliphate.
One of the main differences among these groups mostly derive from HT’s unchanged stance as a “rejectionist” Islamist group. As the term suggests, HT has always rejected all forms of participation within democratic “man-made” political systems, prohibiting its members from voting and running in elections. Conversely, both the MB and JeI have adopted a “participationist” approach to Western politics — actively engaging with the democratic system through lobbying, organizing, and creating political parties to run candidates in elections. While for many the MB and JeI still represent the ideal platform to actively advocate for the global ummah, HT’s rejectionist attitude appeals to Muslims in the West who want to strongly oppose the kuffar system without engaging in terror activities.
EER: In an interview you conducted with an HT member in Australia, they say: “Many groups advocate for the caliphate, but they have no plan and no idea on what the caliphate should look like once established…not only does HT have a plan but it also has a constitution ready.” Do you think having such a detailed roadmap to governance is one of the key reasons why many Muslim countries have banned the group? Despite their rejection of violence, do governments in the Muslim and Western world view HT as a serious national threat?
EO: I believe the detailed image of the caliphate held by HT is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it provides credibility to the group, and it enhances their appeal across Muslim diaspora communities in several countries because they seem to have a plan.
On the other hand, the hatred towards all other systems of government, which the group has clearly vocalized since day one of its inception, has created a conflictual relationship with public authorities both in Muslim majority countries and in the West. I think the clear plan to establish the caliphate is not the main element that has led to the ban of HT in many Muslim majority countries. It is rather their anti-government narratives that have pushed many non-liberal countries to simply ban HT, deeming it as a terror group and a national threat. This process is far more complex in the Western liberal world where freedom of expression work as a shield towards HT’s activities both online and offline.
 Orofino, E. (2020). Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Caliphate. Why the Group is Still Appealing to Muslims in the West. Routledge. p.104.
 (Costanza, 2012; Fareed, 2005)
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.