Within the last year, Hizb al-Tahrir (HT, also transliterated as Hizb ut-Tahrir), the global political Islamist group that has sought to establish an Islamic state through non-violent activism, has issued several blunt calls for Muslims to engage in armed combat with Israel and with coalition military troops in Afghanistan. Such clearly stated appeals are a significant departure from HT’s standard rhetoric, which has not previously included overt calls for violence. This article will detail the changes in HT’s rhetoric and outline a few of the resulting implications.

HT’s Standard Rhetoric on Violence
HT was founded in 1953 by Palestinian-Jordanian Taqiuddin al-Nabahani as “a political party whose ideology is Islam.”[1] Al-Nabahani had been involved with the Muslim Brotherhood but was opposed to its cooperation with Western-friendly regimes in the Middle East. Although HT and the Muslim Brotherhood are working toward the same objective, HT does not endorse participation in, or cooperation with, democratic political systems. Rather, HT seeks to establish the Islamic state (which they say will serve as a base from which Islam will be spread to the rest of the world) by liberating Muslims from the “thoughts, systems and laws of the kufr (non-believers in Islam),” and through the relentless exposure of the proclaimed collusion between existing regimes in the Muslim world and the United States, which HT calls the chief enemy of Islam.[2]

HT is not a designated terrorist organization in the United States because it has not been shown to engage in terrorism or any other acts of violence. HT states in its literature that it has “restricted itself to political actions alone” and does not resort to “material actions against rulers” or against those who attempt to hinder its mission.[3] Nevertheless, HT’s role in the incitement of violence, or its participation in violence at a future date, has been ambiguous.

While HT regularly declares that it is opposed to terrorism, it will simultaneously present reasons why the victims of terrorism brought the attacks upon themselves. HT’s literature also alludes to the notion that a violent confrontation between Muslims and non-Muslims is a likely eventuality, but has not previously stated that belief in definitive terms. HT is entirely clear in its position that armed warfare is a requirement for all Muslims to defend against enemy attack, but has, until recently, shied away from specifics related to timing, place, or methods.

A 2001 leaflet issued by Hizb al-Tahrir America (HTA) states that it is a “direct pre-requisite to the work to establish the State of Khilafah…[to] enhance the physical might of Muslims, weaken that of non-Muslims, strengthen morale for sacrifice among Muslims, and develop the zeal to change reality not to yield to it.”[4] HT’s literature also implies that while the party itself does not employ the use of violence, it is a requirement for its Muslim members to fight enemies that attack Islamic countries:

“The fact that the Party does not use material power to defend itself or as a weapon against the rulers is of no relevance to the subject of jihad, because jihad has to continue till the Day of Judgment. So whenever the disbelieving enemies attack an Islamic country it becomes compulsory on its Muslim citizens to repel the enemy.”[5]

Indeed, HT has never attempted to conceal its belief that resistance is justified when carried out against Israelis and Western military and government personnel operating in an official capacity in Muslim countries. For example, Dr. Imran Waheed, the former spokesman for HT Britain, said in an interview in March 2007 on BBC’s “HARDtalk” that “Israel is a country that occupies Muslim land. We [HT] support the right of Muslims everywhere to resist that occupation.”[6] Such public statements, however, have not defined the term “resistance” and have usually been folded into more general statements about politics to dilute the impact. Additionally, HT has, to this point, maintained an ability to plausibly deny any direct role in inciting violence by using reported speech, inference, or the passive voice in its published statements.

For example, in December 2010 HT Scandinavia responded to media speculations about Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly’s (the “Swedish Bomber”) involvement with HT while he was a student in the United Kingdom.[7] HT did not deny the link but instead went on the offensive by chastising the media for “introducing malicious rumors.” The press release proceeded to denounce violence against civilians as Islamically unacceptable under any circumstances, including during military conflicts, but then continued to list reasons why the West has inspired such hatred in the Muslim world, insinuating that violent attacks in the West are brought about as a result of Western governments’ policies and treatment of Muslims, even within their own populaces. The release cited repeated “aggression and killing of innocents in Palestine committed by the Jewish occupying force, which constantly is supported by Western governments and media,” “the support of Western governments to numerous dictatorships in the Islamic world where the populations suffer from tyranny and oppression,” and “the integration policy of the Western governments, which aim at assimilating Muslims in the Western way of life as well as prohibiting the Muslims from their right to preserve their Islamic values and identity.”

Call to Violence
It is important to note that HT is a monolithic organization. Press releases issued by any branch are first vetted by HT’s leadership and represent the views of the entire organization. The HT main “Media Office” website confirms that “the official opinions of Hizb ut-Tahrir are those carried in statements issued in the name of the various provincial offices, the various media offices of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the statements of the official spokesmen and media representatives of Hizb ut-Tahrir.”[8]

While insinuations of the justifiability of violence abounded, HT had not stated that Muslims “should” commit acts of violence in a specific context. This, however, changed in 2010. In June 2010, HT Bangladesh published a press release titled “O Muslim Armies! Teach the Jews a Lesson After Which They Will Need No Further Lessons” in which they called for “Muslim Armies” to “march forth to fight the Jews, eradicate Israel, and purify the earth of Jewish filth.”[9] According to this statement, there is no uncertainty that HT would like to see Israel eliminated through an armed confrontation.

The HT Bangladesh press release was followed by a September 15, 2010 press release from HT Afghanistan in which they made a plainspoken call for Muslims “to turn [their] guns and anger towards the enemy and to eject them from Afghanistan.”[10] This is the first time HT wrote explicitly about the use of weapons.

There is also indication that the rhetoric coming out of HT’s Western branches is becoming more militant. Many HT branches in the West, and others around the world, host public conferences as a way to circulate the group’s ideas more broadly. Soft topics, such as the comparison of political systems, are the typical vehicle to introduce the tenets of HT’s doctrine at their conferences. For example, HTA hosted a conference in 2009 titled “The Fall of Capitalism & the Rise of Islam” at which the problems created by capitalism were discussed and the concept of an Islamic state was presented as the best alternative. The subject of violence had not been raised by HT at any of its previous public conferences until HT Scandinavia (which changed its name from HT Denmark in March 2010 to indicate that the branch now represents Sweden, Norway, and Finland) changed that trend in a January 21, 2011 conference in Copenhagen titled “Afghanistan: The Scandinavian Governments’ Service to the USA.” The invitation to the conference stated that it is “Islamically unacceptable to be passive and it’s not enough to just be against the war [in Afghanistan] on a moral level.”[11]

The invitation further stated that the “meeting will also focus on the duty of armed resistance of the Muslims in Afghanistan and its environs. We consider this resistance as fully legitimate.” Although the language used by HT Scandinavia in the press material to promote the conference and the language used by the speakers at the conference was not as blunt as that used by HT Afghanistan, their message was clear when they likened a potential civilian armed “resistance” in Afghanistan against coalition troops to the Danish Resistance,[12] in which approximately 900 Danish citizens lost their lives fighting the Nazis’ control of Denmark during World War II.

Even if it hypothetically became their intention, it is highly unlikely that HT has the capability to launch a sustained campaign of deadly attacks on U.S. and NATO troops without partnering with an armed militant group. Nevertheless, HT has members and supporters situated in professional positions of authority, or who have access to sensitive security information.[13] HT’s strategic recruitment and placement of members in such positions is done in anticipation of opportunities to weaken adversarial governments.

HT may not even have the will to spearhead violent attacks, as such actions would jeopardize the organization’s ever-growing foothold around the world. In most countries, HT goes largely unchallenged, in part because counterterrorism resources are dedicated to immediate physical threats. This lack of attention has enabled HT to carry on in its mission to persuade Muslims to adopt its beliefs as their own. On the other hand, if HT perceives that the time is ripe for it to gain control of a Muslim country, especially one which has a potentially supportive population and an established military, then its foothold in other countries may be worth sacrificing.

HT has caused contention in nearly every one of the nearly 50 countries in which it has a presence; whether it is between governments and their citizenry or between competitive factions within one government. HT is banned in most of the Muslim world because, even though it is not an armed militant organization, it has the ability to diminish support for already-fragile governments through its grassroots propaganda campaigns and its large-scale anti-government demonstrations.

In the West, HT has sparked intra-government tensions between those who believe it should be banned, citing HT’s outspoken anti-democracy positions and its track record in playing a role in the radicalization of individuals who have gone on to participate in acts of terrorism, and those who believe that HT has a right to voice its viewpoints, no matter how offensive, because allowing such expression is essential in free democratic societies.

HT has survived attempts to ban its branches in the United Kingdom and in Denmark because it cannot be proven that the group is engaged in any criminal or violent activity. Nor could it be proven that HT incites violence.  To date, HT has been able to deny a responsible role in any act of terrorism because it had not issued any direct or specific orders for Muslims to engage in terrorism or any other kind of violence.

Nevertheless, now that branches of the group have told its members and supporters that it is “Islamically unacceptable to be passive and it’s not enough to just be against the war on a moral level”[14] and that the time has come for Muslims to turn their guns against the enemy, it will become more difficult for HT to deny having played a role if its members or supporters turn up on the battlefield.

HT appeared to be relatively benign in the spectrum of radical Islamist groups because it does not directly engage in terrorism and other forms of violence (although it is regarded by many to be a radicalizing catalyst for those who may ultimately take a violent path). The group has so far stuck to its non-violent methods; however, its recent shift from passive approval of violence against coalition troops and Israelis to active encouragement of attacks may signal HT’s transition from its standing as a mere “cheerleader for jihad”[15] to full-fledged instigator of violence.

In the past, when HT has been accused of anti-Semitism or of instigating violence, it has responded with counter-accusations that the media takes quotations out of context so that it may distort HT’s intended meaning. Now that HT has expressed violent intentions so clearly, it has crossed a threshold that will be difficult from which to step back. Tactically, it will be harder for HT to continue referring to itself as purely a political party when it has taken on a new role goading Muslims to pull the trigger on those HT has declared as its enemies.

Madeleine Gruen is a senior analyst for the NEFA Foundation.

[1] “Hizb ut-Tahrir,” www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org/index.php/EN/def, accessed on February 12, 2011.

[2] “America Bans Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bangladesh,” press release, Hizb al-Tahrir Media Office in Bangladesh, October 29, 2009.

[3] “Hizb ut-Tahrir,” www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org/index.php/EN/def, accessed on February 12, 2011.

[4] “Establishing Khalifah is Mandatory for Muslims in America,” Workshop for Awareness on Islam and Enlightenment (front for Hizb al-Tahrir America), 2001.

[5] “Hizb ut-Tahrir,” www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org/index.php/EN/def, accessed on February 12, 2011.

[6] Dr. Imran Waheed, BBC’s “HARDtalk,” November 18, 2003, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3B-E94oB_w.

[7] “A Sincere Advice to the Swedish Media From Hizb ut-Tahrir Scandinavia,” press release, Hizb al-Tahrir, December 12, 2010.

[8] For details, see www.hizb-ut-tahrir.info.

[9] “O Muslim Armies! Teach the Jews a Lesson After Which They Will Need No Further Lessons,” press release, Hizb al-Tahrir Bangladesh, June 3, 2010, available at www.hizb-ut-tahrir.info/info/english.php/contents_en/entry_8271.

[10] “O’ Muslims, Your Internal Conflict is Adding to the Strength of the Invaders,” press release, Hizb al-Tahrir Afghanistan, September 15, 2010, available at www.hizb-ut-tahrir.info/info/english.php/contents_en/entry_9248.

[11] Invitation to conference “Afghanistan: The Scandinavian Governments’ Service to the U.S.A.,” www.hizb-ut-tahrir.dk/new/, accessed on January 28, 2011.

[12] “Hizb ut-Tahrir Scandinavia Afghanistan seminar promotional video,” available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqaGvVSOYZo, accessed on January 31, 2011.

[13] Muhammad Amir Rana, “Hizbut Tahrir in Pakistan: Discourse and Impact,” Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, October 2010, p. 16.

[14] Invitation to conference “Afghanistan: The Scandinavian Governments’ Service to the U.S.A.,” www.hizb-ut-tahrir.dk/new/, accessed on January 28, 2011.

[15] Shiraz Maher, “Glasgow Bombs: The Doctor I Knew,” New Statesman, July 5, 2007.

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