Among the stalls at this summer’s Camden Bangladesh Mela in London’s Regent’s Park, I came across one run – rather sheepishly – by Hizb ut-Tahrir. This is an Islamist political party that the Government is now proposing to ban. I found myself involved in an argument with them.
This is a battle of ideas that my family has been fighting for many years. In 1947 at the time of the partition of India my grandfather argued against the creation of religious states. Now it was my turn to argue against a cult that believes voting is haram, an act of disbelief, and that the return of the khalifah – an Islamic state headed by the caliph, the “successor” to the prophet Muhammad – is the only answer to every problem faced by Muslims in the modern world.
How can voting be an act of disbelief? Those such as members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, who insist that it is, claim it means participating in a democratic system that upholds the will of man over the will of Allah. For them, Islamic government is “God’s rule” and they reject democracy as “people’s rule”. They look to the political system established in seventh-century Mecca after the death of the prophet as the model that Muslims should aspire to and seek to recreate.
However, while Muslims regard the period of rule under the “rightly-guided caliphs” in idealised terms, as the best that human endeavours can achieve, it was also a period of dissent, rebellions and wars. Let us not forget that three of the four caliphs who succeeded the prophet were murdered.
Organisations like Hizb ut-Tahrir which forget this historical context are similar to those religious classes on the Qur’an where the sole emphasis is on the rote learning of Arabic letters. It is a method that leads to closed minds.
The formula that the only solution to the Muslim world’s problems is a return to the early days of Islam living under just rule through the khilafa state is of no help to Muslims confronted by the problems of today. The issues of contemporary politics are too complex to be simplified in this manner.
Even in the case of Muslim-majority countries, Hizb is vague about how existing nation states can be persuaded to cede power to their proposed supra-national khilafa state. Its programme is even more abstract in the UK, where Muslims are a small minority and prospects for the establishment of an Islamic state are non-existent.
Therefore, in practice, Hizb operates as a sect, making propaganda in order to recruit Muslims to their ideas so they can make more propaganda in order to win further recruits. Members are encouraged to turn their backs on mainstream politics in Britain and to reject the struggle for realistic reforms that will improve the lives of British Muslims.
When Britain’s Muslim communities joined the peace and Labour movements in mass protests against the Iraq war, Hizb opposed any co-operation with non-believers, raising the absurd slogan “Don’t Stop The War – Except Through Islamic Politics”.
There are close parallels between Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Nation of Islam. Whereas the latter are Black separatists, Hizb are Islamic separatists.
But this doesn’t mean we should support the government’s plan to proscribe Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Of course, I do not defend the right of organisations to advocate violence. When Al-Muhajiroun, an Islamist group that applauded the September 11 terrorists as the “magnificent nineteen”, vowed to press ahead with a rally in Trafalgar Square in July 2004, I said then that it was the last thing we needed for community relations in London, as the views of this fringe organisation were offensive to other communities in the capital – including the vast majority of Muslims. I supported London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s efforts to have the rally banned.
However, despite its sectarian methods, Hizb ut-Tahrir is not an organisation that supports terrorism. Neither does it advocate or practice political violence. In its statement in reponse to the London bombings Hizb declared: “We would like to make it absolutely clear that we believe there was no justification whatsoever for the attacks on civilians in London on July 7 2005. Islam does not allow the killing of innocent civilians as occurred in London.”
To proscribe an organisation which rejects violence, on the basis of its wrong ideas, would represent a major challenge to civil liberties in Britain, setting a dangerous precedent that could have serious consequences for British society as a whole, not just for Muslim communities.
London is a city with more than 200 nationalities and 300 spoken languages. This diversity has resulted in the tolerance that has been one of our greatest strengths in the face of the July bombings. Instead of fragmenting into warring communities, the overwhelming majority of Londoners have remained united in the face of the terrorist attacks.
In 623, the Prophet Muhammad promulgated the constitution of Medina, which guaranteed to every inhabitant, whatever their religion or lack of it, equality of status and treatment, civil liberty and religious freedom. This fostered unity amongst the different religious communities and eliminated feuding and “blood vengeance”, thus enabling Medina to fend off external attacks. The Moorish courts of Spain in the later part of the first millennium and the Ottoman and Moghul Empires continued such traditions of tolerance of other religions. So, Islam has got a secular tradition, which has served it well.
With their separatist prescriptions, Hizb ut-Tahrir join sections of the Right in seeking to undermine our commitment to a multiculturalism in which people retain their own different traditions and identities while living together in a spirit of mutual respect and co-operation.
However, ideas such as those of Hizb ut-Tahrir can be challenged, argued against and defeated. State bans merely drive them underground. The danger is that, by stoking up anger and resentment, conditions are created in which more extremist organisations can win recruits.