Photo credit - the Australian
Originally published in The Australian
Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir eschews violence, but it has no problem with incendiary rhetoric about the demise of Western democracy
WITH his neat beard, wire-rimmed glasses and woollen suit coat over a checked sweater, Uthman Badar has the look of a youthful professor. But the words of the mild-mannered economics PhD student sipping hot chocolate at a Turkish cafe in western Sydney carry the zeal of a revolutionary.
“Democracy is a bankrupt and irrational idea” and “all indicators are pointing to the decline and inevitable collapse of Western ideology”, Badar opines. In the meantime, those dedicated to justice and progress must struggle against “those who seek to live decadent lives off the sweat and blood of the vast majority of humanity”.
Badar is spokesman for the Australian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamist organisation dedicated to the creation of a transnational Islamic state governed purely by sharia law. In pursuit of that vision, he and an expected 1000 fellow HT members will gather in Sydney this weekend for an international conference to promote their cause.
As Badar knows, Australia’s spy agency ASIO and counter-terrorism authorities will be keeping a close eye on the event. HT is banned in many countries and, while it has avoided being outlawed in Australia, the views it espouses are regarded by the authorities as dangerously extreme.
Badar insists Australians have nothing to fear, as HT is “avowedly nonviolent” and has no wish to make Australia part of its caliphate. “All we do is talk,” he says.
A contrary view is this assessment from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute: “HT’s platform forbids its members from acts of terror. There’s no clear evidence of HT engaging in the preparation of terrorism. HT’s incitement and encouragement of religious hatred may be enough, however, to convince Islamists to perpetrate terrorist acts.”
ASIO will no doubt find plenty to listen to as HT members from Australia and abroad discuss subjects such as the Western push to ban the burka, the Australian government’s role in “the war on Islam”, and the campaign for a caliphate, described as “the obligation of the age”.
The speakers will include senior Australian HT member Ismail Al-Wahwah who, along with other delegates, was banned from entering Indonesia for an HT conference in 2007, and British veteran Burhan Hanif, who is responsible for university and campus recruitment in Britain.
The theme of the conference, to be held in Sydney’s Lidcombe, is “The struggle for Islam in the West”. As Badar explains it, all things Islamic are under attack — the burka, minarets, mosques, values and loyalties — and Muslims must fight to defend them.
He says the struggle is not between Islam and Christianity, but between Islam and secular Western democracy, which he believes is crumbling. He says counter-terrorism is a facade to justify attacking Muslims: “The risk of dying in a vehicle accident is 470 times higher than from terrorism, yet billions of dollars are spent on countering terrorism.”
It is the vitriolic language in its literature, press releases and pronouncements that draws much of the heat on HT. Western treatment of Muslims is condemned as “brutal, vicious and inhumane”, Barack Obama’s foreign policy is “as brutal and barbaric as that of his predecessor” and Australia’s is “shameless slavery to the US”. On the subject of the war on terror: “With things like the rule of law and due legal process done away with, the result is the laying bare of a worthless and animalist ideology not worthy of human subscription.” As for Israel, says Badar: “It is an illegitimate state, an occupation. It has to be removed.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir — “the party of liberation” — was formed in Palestine in 1953 with the aim of restoring the caliphate founded by the prophet Mohammed. It operates in more than 40 countries, with an estimated one million adherents, including 5000 to 10,000 hardcore members, says Clive Williams, head of terrorism studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Its central leadership, headed by a Palestinian engineer, Abu Yasin Ata ibn Khalil Abu Rashta, is believed to be based somewhere in the Middle East. A statement on the HT website says, “Due to the extreme persecution faced by our members in the Muslim world, we do not aid the tyrannical rulers by revealing the precise whereabouts of the party’s leadership.”
Williams says the central leadership controls dozens of national branches while the party follows a cell structure. Each cell typically has five members. Badar will not reveal the size of HT’s membership in Australia but says it is run by a five-member committee, headed by a longstanding Sydney member, Ashraf Dourehi.
HT is banned in China, Egypt, Jordan and much of the Middle East and Central Asia, where it opposes secular regimes it regards as despotic “agents of Western powers”. It has also been banned from public activity in Germany for distributing anti-Semitic literature.
HT claims to be “avowedly nonviolent” and does not condone terrorist acts aimed at civilians such as the 9/11 attacks or the Bali bombings. “Islam does not allow the targeting of innocent people, anyone not involved in war is beyond the bounds,” Badar says. This position has prompted one militant group affiliated with al-Qa’ida to criticise HT as “too soft”. But its vow of nonviolence does not apply to Israel, Afghanistan or Iraq.
“When we talk about the question of violence, we mean in regard to the establishment of an Islamic state; it’s not a case of we’re against violence, full stop,” Badar says. “When it comes to Israel, it’s a completely different issue.”
He says Israel has to be removed militarily and HT supports any and all attempts to do so. As to whether this includes suicide bombing, Badar says Islamic jurists have differing opinions. One view is: “If you’re fighting an invader and you have no other means and you make the ultimate sacrifice, that is recognised . . . an act of sacrifice to the end of repelling the invasion, within the principles of Islam, that’s a good thing.”
The same applies to the war in Afghanistan, which HT sees as illegitimate. Asked whether the obligation to fight the invaders includes killing Australian troops, Badar answers, “No comment”, then adds: “I don’t want them killed, I want them home.”
Some Western commentators have labelled HT a “conveyor belt for terrorists”.
“There’s plenty of evidence they’ve contributed to a mood where people can move easily from absorbing these extreme views to taking action,” ASPI’s Anthony Bergin says. “I think the language they’re using is dangerous in that they’re promoting an us-and-them type mentality, they’re promoting the idea of exclusion and a sense of distrust in the community. And while they’re very careful to keep under the radar in terms of promoting violence, their material is very much along the lines of what would lead a person to adopt extremist views. And you don’t become a terrorist until you’ve got extremist views.”
The British and Australian governments have grappled with whether to ban HT. In 2005, in the wake of the London bombings and reports that HT was linked to the bombers, the Blair government announced it would proscribe the organisation. When the reported links were not substantiated, the proposed ban was dropped. HT has posted on its website excerpts from documents it says it obtained from the Home Office under freedom of information laws, which state: “HT is an independent political party that is active in many countries across the world. [Its] activities centre on intellectual reasoning, logic arguments and political lobbying . . . it considers violence or armed struggle against the regime, as a method to re-establish the Islamic state, a violation of the Islamic sharia.” The British undersecretary of state told the House of Lords in January “no further evidence has emerged” since 2005 that would justify a ban but HT is “kept under continuous review”.
Terrorism specialist Clive Walker of the Leeds University law school says the British intelligence community does not support a ban because it would deny them intelligence on HT and enable the group to portray itself as a victim of Western hypocrisy and Islamophobia. “Unless they actually advocate violence, which they do not, then they should not be banned . . . this is not Nazi Germany. The extremists are not about to seize power, they attract marginal support.”
The Australian government considered proscribing HT in 2007, when its first big conference in Sydney prompted calls for a ban. However, then attorney-general Philip Ruddock told parliament ASIO had advised there was no basis “at present” for a ban. “As I understand it, Hizb ut-Tahrir members overseas have called for attacks in the Middle East and Central Asia, but here in Australia — and I use these words deliberately — it is not known to have planned, assisted in or fostered any violent acts, which are the current legislative tests under the criminal code for proscription.” That situation has not changed.
Australian experts such as Williams and Bergin do not support a ban, but say HT should be closely monitored. Bergin suggests spending some of the $9.7 million allocated for counter-radicalisation in the budget on a website to promote moderate Islamto counter the HT view.
HT’s Australian devotees are scornful of such suggestions. Badar rejects the notion of “moderate Islam” as a watered-down version “conjured up by Western governments, that’s characterised by being secular, apolitical and localised”. Interfaith dialogue, too, is spurned. “Our view is Islam is the correct religion, to the exclusion of all others. The idea that they’re equal is baloney.”
Badar says the campaign against “extremists” is just another way of attacking Muslims. “Western governments have shifted from speaking about terrorism itself to focusing on the ‘ideology of terrorism’. Even those who undertake no material or violent actions have also been labelled as extremist or radical, simply because they propagate Islamic ideas.”
Despite all the obstacles, Badar says he’s confident the caliphate will come to pass within his lifetime. He says support is growing throughout the Muslim world and Western secular civilisation is doomed, unlikely as it may seem. “If we had predicted the end of the Soviet Union, people would have laughed,” he notes.
Badar believes the caliphate will begin with an Islamic state in a country such as Pakistan or Egypt, and spread steadily through grassroots support and military might to eventually cover all Muslim majority countries and lands previously under Islamic rule, such as Spain and The Philippines. He says Christians and Jews will be welcome as long as they submit to Islamic law.
“There’s nothing about our ideas that is dangerous, except to those that seek to maintain the status quo of exploitation of the masses. Certainly we are a threat to them, and they should be worried. But to those who seek mutual progress for all people, we only have good to offer.”