Why I left Hizb ut-Tahrir

For almost ten years Umm Mustafa affiliated herself with the controversial Islamic organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. This is why she left. 

In autumn 1998, I was 18 years old and a new student of management at Brunel University in Uxbridge, west London. I was becoming increasingly interested in my Islamic faith - and, like many people of that age, in challenging some of the injustices of the world. The Hizb ut-Tahrir stall at the freshers' fair offered me a way of doing just that.

Hizb ut-Tahrir ("The Liberation Party") aims to replace all existing governments with a global khilafah, or caliphate, subject to Islamic law and ruled by an elected male caliph. Founded in 1953 by Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, an Islamic scholar from Jerusalem, it now has about one million members spread through 40 countries, in some of which it has been banned. The party is secretive and hierarchical, with a network of national branches, each headed by an emir, or leader, who in turn is subject to an overall leader based in Palestine. Female members have their own parallel structure subject to the same leadership.

The party's arguments were persuasive. It offered a single, simple solution to all the political, social and economic problems of the world, from a religious perspective. Why should religion be left in the mosque? it asked. It should guide every aspect of our lives, particularly politics.

Hizb ut-Tahrir emphasised that it was not encouraging jihad - that it was a political and intellectual movement. Its rhe toric, however, was antagonistic, and often controversial. Its pamphlets argued that the west was out to destroy Islam, or that Jews must be removed from Israel for peace to come to the Middle East. It aimed to tap into a pre-existing anger felt by many young Muslims. It attracted a lot of hostility among the community - many of my friends disagreed with its aims and aggressive tactics. But to me, its ideas sounded new, fresh and exciting.

Cult-like structure

I became affiliated with the group, distributed its literature and, over the next few years, worked my way towards becoming a full member. In the strict hierarchy of the organisation, this was not a simple task. The new recruits aspired to become daris, or "students", who in turn aimed to take an oath of loyalty to Hizb ut-Tahrir and become full members. All the women were expected to use any social contact they had to recruit new members - mother-and-baby groups, student unions, even a chat with the neighbours. After proving their commitment to the party, they were assessed by a committee and allowed to attend the weekly "culturing circle". At 20, I joined them.

This circle was also known as a halaqa - a word other Muslims use for small groups that meet to study Islam or recite the Quran. But in the Hizb ut-Tahrir halaqa, we spent two hours listening to readings from books by the party founder, al-Nabhani. His book Nidham al-Islam ("the system of Islam") very briefly sketched the practicalities of setting up a new world order. But we did not even discuss the party's goal on that level. Everyone simply accepted that, through the hard work of party members, each country would embrace Hizb ut-Tahrir concepts and demand that its government make a peaceful transition to the khilafah, and then "we would know what to do when we got there". Originally, the holes in al-Nabhani's thinking did not trouble me. Later, however, I realised that the halaqa and the party philosophy made his writings synonymous with the Quran. In Hizb ut-Tahrir, religion and politics were truly confused.

But the cult-like structure of the organisation made this difficult to see. When I was 21, I became a full member - a prestigious position - and shortly afterwards was put in charge of the women's group's activities in west London. Suddenly, I was privy to information kept from non-members, such as the location of meetings and the details of organisational policy.

For young people - the vast majority of the members and the leadership were aged between 17 and 25 - the sense of power and community was intoxicating. We even had a very specific dress code that was chosen by the emir of HT. He had made it mandatory for all members to wear the jilbab (a loose dress), khimar (headscarf) and socks. Many Muslim women wear the jilbab and scarf, but for some reason I could always identify a fellow HT member; perhaps it was from their uniform-like style.

For a few years, I worked for the party in the Muslim community. I organised events, lectures and bazaars, renting venues and arranging marketing with the budget I was assigned from party donations. I was sometimes frustrated with these events - they were an inefficient way of recruiting members and rarely seemed to get the party message across. But, for a while, I put the doubts out of my mind.

In 2006, however, my feelings began to change. I noticed that whenever I had concerns, I was told to raise them through "the structure", but the answers to my questions and challenges were not satisfactory. The senior members seemed to be on autopilot, speaking only in party jargon, unable to participate in debate or look at the other side of an argument. It was certainly frowned upon for anyone to air their views freely or to make challenging statements. I began to question the leaders' claim that it was a God-given obligation for every Muslim to work with the group. How could this possibly be the case when these people were so far removed from society and normal life? I was fast losing confidence. But, surrounded by other members, I felt guilty about such sentiments. I stuck with it for a year, selling tickets for the same old talks and events, attending pointless meetings, and boring myself and others with "Hizbi" banter.

Finally, I was reported to the leadership as a "breakaway" member - party code for anyone who questions the party's principles. The women's emir travelled from east London to my home, bringing her small children with her. She could not answer my questions about the party any better than the local leadership.

"If we're supposed to be promoting peace, then let's do so," I told her. She replied that I had strayed from the party's principles and that I could not think in those terms. Eventually, I had to tell her that I was resigning my membership. Since then I have had almost no contact with Hizb ut-Tahrir.

After leaving, I realised that my aspirations had changed. I wanted to live as a normal member of society, and practise Islam as best I could in that context. Suddenly, I became aware of a chorus of moderate voices who supported me. I took off the party-approved jilbab, though I still wear modest dress. It was an enormous relief.

I realised that Hizb ut-Tahrir has devised a set of political ideas and goals which are in fact separate from Islam. Its tactic of convincing young people that its political goals are synonymous with Islam is its most dangerous and deceptive trick. In reality, its aims come from one man's socialist ideals, mixed with his own interpretation of Islamic scripture. So it is not "sacrifice in the way of Allah" to aid the overthrow of a government or to work with such a group.

It is my desire to witness security, safety and peace in the Muslim world. But will this come about through the forceful removal of all current Muslim governments? This is a point that Hizb ut-Tahrir leaders refuse to discuss with the naive recruits or to think about for themselves. The leaders claim to believe that the blood of a Muslim is sacred, but would be happy to spill it themselves if anyone were to oppose their khi lafah regime.

A party text by Abdul Qadeem Zallum, the second leader of HT, states that if necessary millions of Muslims and non-Muslims will be killed. How would this fact make the party different from the tyrannical rulers it continuously curses and defames?

I no longer agree with the politics and principles of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and I urge other members to reconsider their affiliation with this potentially dangerous group. They should seek a wider knowledge of Islam and open themselves to more tolerant opinions.

Umm Mustafa is a pseudonym

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.



This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters