Controversy erupted last week when Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), the decades-old Islamic political organization dedicated to the re-establishment of the Khilafa, or Caliphate, held its first ever convention on American soil in suburban Chicago, right in my backyard. Many on the right were sounding alarm bells about an “Islamic supremacist group” holding a conference on American soil, and a number of protesters gathered to voice their opposition to the group. One wonders why, after so many years of simply distributing leaflets and their newsletter (“Khalifornia”), they decided to have a conference in America, where they have heretofore had a minimal impact at best.
This contrasts sharply with their relative success in other countries across the world, such as the U.K., Denmark, Australia, and even Indonesia, where they attracted 100,000 supporters to a rally in Jakarta. In their American debut, they could not even attract 1,000 people. This may have to do with their identity politics: they are all about “us vs them,” and this may resonate more with Muslim minority communities in Europe and elsewhere, where the Muslim minority – especially after 9/11 and with the rise of the right – has lately been under siege.
Yet in America, again, they have long remained marginal, and it may have to do with their past actions. I have long known those who claim to represent HT in America as disrespectful, disruptive rabble rousers who interrupt speeches, Friday sermons, and lectures – including my own. I remember how terribly disruptive they were at several ISNA conferences several years back, even locking arms and yelling out: “In il hukmu illa lillah,” or “Verily all sovereignty belongs to God,” during a lecture. When I was in college, members of HT were notorious at causing fights and disruptions at the local mosque, and it made going there a very unpleasant experience for me.
I remember an event at a prominent mosque in Chicago that had former U.S. Attorney Ramsey Clark as the keynote speaker. Members of HT swarmed the event and, in a seemingly choreographed manner, got up during Mr. Clark’s speech and started yelling and interrupting him. They openly insulted Mr. Clark and had to be forcibly removed from the mosque, all the while yelling out, “Fear God O Believers!” My brother was president of the MSA at a Chicago university, and members of HT gave him the most difficult time, clearly trying to wrest leadership of the chapter from him. They fought him on almost everything the MSA was doing, even down to how many volleyball nets should be put up at the MSA picnic. It really took a toll on him.
Yet, my distaste for Hizb-ut-Tahrir is not out of some personal vendetta because they interrupted my Friday sermons. Its actions are frequently counterproductive to the work of American Muslims in the greater society. Take the title of its Chicago conference as a prime example: “Fall of Capitalism and the Rise of Islam.” It seems to have been purposefully designed to evoke a visceral response of disgust from most non-Muslim Americans. It did just that, in fact, in me. In one fell swoop, the title both insults Western ideals and evokes fear of an Islamic “bogeyman” about to strike. Now, there is nothing wrong with criticising capitalism as an economic system – that is its right. Yet, Hizb-ut-Tahrir can show tact in how to deliver such a criticism, which clearly it did not.
Moreover, HT’s political philosophy is as counterproductive as its public actions. It claims that voting and civic participation is “haram,” or forbidden. How are Muslims supposed to fulfill their God-given obligation to improve the earth and society around them? HT’s answer is to separate from the kufr, or “infidel,” society. Separation and segregation will help no one, neither Muslims nor their non-Muslim neighbors, friends, and co-workers, who need more, not less, interaction with their Muslim compatriots. Moreover, I find it horribly ungrateful that HT would issue unending criticisms of Western society as “evil and decadent,” yet continue to enjoy the freedom said “evil and decadent” society accords them. If the West is so bad, why not leave?
Then there is the crux of their very existence: the re-establishment of the Caliphate. How is such a lofty goal to be achieved? Their answer to this question is elusive. And what is the Caliphate, anyway? Are we really supposed to work for the establishment of a “global Islamic government”? Who would be the Caliph? Where would the capital be? What are Muslims, born and raised in the West, to do if and when this Caliphate is established? Leave their homes, families, and lives? HT remains silent on these issues. I think Muslim activist and writer Junaid Afeef summed it up best when he said that the Caliphate is “an idea that we need to work toward justice and just society, one that’s ruled in a [manner] that promotes justice and equality to all people. That idea of a worldwide global empire run by a Muslim leader…it’s a farce.”
On its website, Hizb-ut-Tahrir claims it works to “cultivate a Muslim community that lives by Islam in thought and deed, whereby adhering to the rules of Islam and preserving a strong Islamic identity. The party does not work in the West to change the system of government, but works to project a positive image of Islam to Western society and engages in dialogue with Western thinkers, policymakers and academics.” Yet, their actions, tactics, and past antics strongly belie this contention. When I learned of their conference and read its title, it came as no surprise that HT would do such a thing. And it brought to mind that age-old adage: with friends like these, who needs enemies?