Editor’s note: The radical Islamist organization Hizb Ut-Tahrir is perhaps the most officially reviled ideological group in Central Asia and beyond, and yet despite ubiquitous repression, it remains very active. Bruno De Cordier, a scholar at the University of Ghent, believes that the organization’s persistence lies in its ideology. “[They] may be tapping into very real discontent and aspirations in the general population,” he writes, “[that] essentially represents a form or interpretation of alter-globalism.”
Hizb Ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Liberation Party, is a movement often talked about. Much of the coverage vaguely mentions “the restoration of a medieval Caliphate” as the group’s aim. Yet, although it is difficult to determine with precision the full international membership of the organization or the extent to which the general population in Islamic countries, particularly in countries like Uzbekistan and until very recently Libya, may be receptive to its notions, the fact remains that Hizb Ut-Tahrir has survived repeated attempts at repression. The question is how, and I believe that the answer may lie in the extent to which the organization’s platform, if understood in a certain light, may be tapping into very real discontent and aspirations in the general population, and is responding to on-the-ground realities better than secular human rights organizations, for instance.
An online manifesto called The emerging world order and the Islamic Khilafah State on the party-affiliated portal Khilafah.com, argues, with citations from the Quran, Hadith and Western philosophers, as well as to a range of statistics, that the geographic area of distribution of Islam has the necessary geostrategic position, the natural resources, the economic and industrial potential, the military strength, the demographic share and the common ideological framework to become a superpower in the “new world order” that shall emerge from what the organization perceives as the ongoing decline of the long-dominant West.
According to the manifesto, the major obstacle to tapping into that potential the international Muslim community’s division into “56 statelets” that mostly came into being through colonialism, occupation, division and imported secular ideologies like nationalism, socialism and neo-liberalism. The “criminal rulers” of these “statelets” enforce a convenient status quo for the sake of the West and, to a lesser extent, other non-Islamic powers. Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s ideology thus suggests not so much geographic expansion of the Islamic world as the liberation and re-unification of the Islamic world in its present shape, under the rule of a unifying institution anchored in that area’s common and comprehensive ideological-religious identity: the Khilafah (Caliphate).
In Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s perspective and interpretation, the modern-day Caliph is to be universally elected, a worldly leader who is to rule according to the movement’s understanding of Islam and Shariah and, as such, not an infallible absolute monarch. Contrary to what many think, the Caliph is not the Mehdi (Messiah), at least in Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s conception of it.
Whether the creation of a mega-entity stretching roughly from Rabat to Mindanao is ever feasible at all is an issue. More importantly is the question of whether Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s ideology is as disconnected from reality as some claim. This is my view:
First, the Caliphate system may be idealised, but it nevertheless did exist during phases of history that coincided to one or another extent with the expansion or solidification of the Islamic world. Complex succession and legitimacy struggles aside, the major Caliphates of the Patriarchs of Medina (632-661), the Umayyad Caliphate of Damascus (661-750), the Abassid Caliphate of Baghdad (750-1258) and finally the Ottoman Caliphate (1517-1923), all experienced remarkable advances in Muslim political, cultural, and scientific power. That the Islamic Khilafah State as envisioned by Hizb Ut-Tahrir means the restoration of a “Medieval” situation, as many have accused the organization, is therefore true. However, one should not understand “Medieval” as “backward” or “primitive”, at least not in the context of the Islamic world – for many Muslims, “Medieval” means quite the opposite.
Second, the deep frustration with the regimes that hold sway in the Islamic world today exists well beyond the party’s base and influence. Although the ongoing wave of Arab revolutions have been driven by social frustration much more than by ideology, and least of all by a pan-Islamic agenda, Hizb Ut-Tahrir nevertheless considers them a hopeful development in the sense that they are directed against Western-backed (Mubarak) or otherwise “anti-Islamic” (Khadafi) regimes that have for too long oppressed the Muslim societies. Moreover, the fall of these regimes is felt by Hizb Ut-Tahrir as an opening of new spaces to discuss their idea of the Khilafah more openly. This is not necessarily naive, since much of the discontent that has fueled these upheavals has been caused by neoliberal policies, and thus “Westernization” and “Modernization” in some sense are perceived as part of the problem, rather than the solution.
However, the concept of the Islamic Khilafah State as articulated by Hizb Ut-Tahrir does not seem to reject modern technological achievements; rather, it wants to put them in the service of what the organization sees as the liberation and advancement of the Islamic world. Indeed, the organization has been trying to forge a global ideological framework and consciousness through the use of modern media and communication techniques, as well as migration networks and contemporary political philosophy. When elaborating their understanding of Islam and articulating their vision of an alternative social system, they do so by applying analysis to a wide range of current events. Thus, although they may be against Modernity, they are nonetheless very modern – much to the comfort of today’s online social networked Muslims.
Third, Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s Khilafah concept reflects what I believe is a perceptive understanding of the need for real economic integration of the Islamic world. Existing platforms like the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council or the Economic Cooperation Organisation are perceived as unable to bring about real change in this field, because they largely together the very same corrupt “puppet governments” and “anti-Islamic” regimes that basically pursue national and great power agendas and are, as such, considered the crux of the Islamic world’s chief problem. Moreover, the removal of borders has an appeal in regions and societies where their enforcement has had far-reaching, if not dislocating consequences for the life and economy of much of the population. The best example of this might be the Ferghana basin in Eurasia.
Again, on the one hand, Hizb Ut-Tahrir is not as naive as it may appear: the need for a sense of belonging or having a common goal in the Islamic world is very real. Indeed, as a largely de-territorialised movement, Hizb Ut-Tahrir actively promotes itself as that group identity, goal-centerredness, and cross-regional integration in action. Yet, on the other hand, in my view Hizb Ut-Tahrir does not appear to intend to be a mass movement, nor does it seem to be seeking the creation of the Caliphate from scratch or in a complete void. Their promotion of themselves as an example in action should be understood a vision of themselves as a vanguard party in the traditional revolutionary sense, one that wants to rally and spread its ideas among existing social groups and institutions. Indeed, they target those societal elements that have what is commonly perceived as real influence and the necessary effective power to bring about change, such as the armed forces, intelligence services and professionals.
Moreover, in contrast to some Salafi and Takfiri groups which have fanned bloody sectarian strife between Sunnites and Shiites, Hizb Ut-Tahrir is one of the few Sunni Islamist movements to consider the Shiites as fully-fledged Muslims. This is because Shiites are seen as part of the reality of the Islamic world and because the party considers sectarianism as a base for a divide-and-rule policy by the enemies of Islam. Again, one must not underestimate the practicality of this position in terms of expanding the arena for recruitment, either.
Finally, Hizb Ut-Tahrir highlights the absence of a credible protector or reference state that will, as it were, “really stand up” for the defence of the Islamic world – that is, an analogue to how some American Jewish groups, such as the ADL or AIPAC, view themselves for the larger Jewish community, including Israel. In the eyes of much of the Islamic world the Organisation of Islamic Conference can but does not really play that role, precisely for the same reasons as the half-heartedness of current regional integration platforms. Additionally, individual leaders like Khadafi and Saddam, who once tried to rally pan-Islamic solidarity, had little credibility due to the secular nature of their regimes. Indeed, they were widely perceived as opportunists.
So, what are we really looking at with Hizb Ut-Tahrir and its concept of the Islamic Khilafah State? I propose that it essentially represents a form or interpretation of alter-globalism.