Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the media: Gotcha Islamism

Dilemma, indeed

For an organization that lacks any institutional support in the Muslim world, the pro-Caliphate group Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) still manages to get its point across. Shunned from mosques and banned in several countries – usually for alleged anti-Semitism or annoying autocratic rulers – the group has relied in the past on relative secrecy (a counterintuitive strategy for a group seeking mass acceptance), the Internet and new media, or infiltrating existing media and civic groups to find a wider voice.

As an example, when pollster Dalia Mogahed recently appeared on the show Muslimah Dilemma, a women-led public affairs program on the UK-based Islam Channel, she may have felt that she was only lending her expertise to a discussion about sharia law. Being Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, Mogahed co-authored a number of poll-driven studies on the Muslim world, including 2008’s Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, among the most comprehensive studies available on contemporary Muslims.

Since she was a call-in guest, Mogahed didn’t realize that both the show’s host, Ibihal Bsis Ismail, and in-studio guest, Nazreen Nawaz, were both members of HT. As a result, the show’s meaning strayed far from women’s issues or sharia law itself. Mogahed is also a member of US President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which meant that this was as close as HT could get to debating Obama himself.

Although Mogahed offered observations from her studies relevant to the debate – particularly the views of women who felt that some aspects of sharia could deliver gender justice – her participation was spun as tacit agreement with HT’s philosophy, despite Mogahed’s comments that she was a researcher and not an advocate. Nevertheless, the show was soon touted on HT’s website as a de facto endorsement of their philosophy.

After many right wing commentators blasted Mogahed, interpreting her views the way HT did, Mogahed clarified that she was misled about the interview and would not have participated had she known about HT’s involvement. Noted Mogahed in a letter to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, “I suspect the host knew this and therefore deliberately misled us to score propaganda points for an ideological movement.”

More importantly, Mogahed also confirmed that her own work contradicted HT’s philosophy and that substantial majorities of Muslims worldwide increasingly:

• Found no contradiction between democratic values and religious principles and the equal importance of democracy and Islam to the quality of life and progress of the Muslim world,
• Admired the political freedoms found in the West,
• Felt that any new constitution in their countries should guarantee freedom of speech,
• Want neither theocracy (what HT offers) nor secular democracy but a third model in which religion and democratic values form an indigenous democratic framework,
• Felt that religious leaders should play no direct role in drafting a constitution, writing legislation, determining foreign policy, or deciding how women dress in public.

All of these principles stand in contrast to Hizb-ut Tahrir’s worldview. In an open debate with such facts, the HT message would have been a harder sell (further untenables such as the abolition of copyrights and Saudi-style gender segregation can be seen in a draft constitution). Even the contention made on the show that women should not be “permitted to hold a position of leadership in government” belies those huge parts of the Muslim world led by women – in Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey. Nearly all were democratically elected in multi-party elections, another HT no-no.

Without a challenge, Hizb-ut-Tahrir continues to interpret polls such as Mogahed’s as indicating support for their brand of sharia law. Often cited to indicate a growing appeal are the 100,000 who showed up at a 2007 Jakarta rally. And yet Islamist political parties closest to Hizb’s viewpoints suffered at the Indonesia’s polls this year at the expense of more secular parties. Similar setbacks have taken place recently in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and elsewhere.

Despite a spike in HT activity over the past few years, due in part to the use of new media, there are still signs of decreasing influence, as HT audiences dwindle. In Britain, other attempts to blend unidentified with mainstream community organisations and newspapers have largely failed. A case involving Britain’s Guardian newspaper after the July 2005 attacks in London, where the author of a provocative commentary was uncovered as an HT activist, is one of the better known examples.

The reticence with which HT asserts itself within community forums, media groups, and political organisations speaks of a group that knows that its public face and vague strategy of implementation has limited appeal. And without access to mass media, HT’s reach to the average Muslim will continue to remain difficult. The coverage of this issue, coupled with the warmth with which Mogahed’s advisory position in the Obama administration was accepted by Muslims, could mean that undercover HT hosting of shows like Muslimah Dilemma could be in jeopardy. If so, HT will only have its image, tactics, and its message to blame.

Zahed Amanullah is Associate Editor of altmuslim.com.

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