For Allah and the caliphate

Hizb ut-Tahrir, with its millions of Muslim followers, is accused in the US of being a conveyor belt

It's a hot summer Sunday and I am stuck in a strip-lit hotel room five minutes from Heathrow Terminal One. All I want is for someone to pass me the freezer-cold bottle of water from the end of the table. I stare at the shaven-headed solicitor on my right, hoping, just hoping, that he will notice me, but he is speaking. "Where," asks Basharat Ali, "is the initiative for the individual to enter into his own economic undertakings in a communist system? In the Islamic and capitalist systems the initiative is upon the individual." Sajjad Khan, an accountant, pushes his glasses back up his nose: "Now that's not totally fair. There is no incentive on the individual, but there is incentive in doing something for the collective good."

These and two other middle-aged, middle-class people are members of the worldwide Islamic organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir (Hizb for short), and I am sitting in on one of their normally private study circles. Marxist economic thought is just the sort of thing they do on a Sunday, and any university professor would die for this kind of enthused, informed debate.

But not everybody thinks Hizb is so inoffensive. Far from it. "Hizb produces thousands of manipulated brains, which then graduate from Hizb and become members of groups like al-Qaeda," says Zeyno Baran, director of international security and energy programmes at the Nixon Centre, a think-tank based in Washington, DC. "Even if Hizb does not itself engage in terrorist acts, because of the ideology it provides, it acts like a conveyor belt for terrorists."

It was the then leader of Hizb's branch in Britain, Omar Bakri, who called for Muslims to assassinate John Major on the eve of the first Gulf war. "We will celebrate his death," Bakri told the Daily Star. He was arrested and detained for 48 hours. Since that PR coup, this once obscure organisation has become a major source of radical Islamic thought. And since 9/11, it has been caught in the cross-hairs of Washington's big-gun think-tanks; Hizb has given them back what the end of the cold war took away: a war of ideas. Not liberal, soft-whip, Monbiot-mush ideas, but the kind of high-calibre ideas for which people are fighting and dying.

"The west," says Baran, "can no longer ignore the deadly impact of Hizb ideology, which reaches millions of Muslims through cyberspace, the distribution of leaflets, and secret teaching centres. It is time to name the war correctly: this is a war of ideologies, and terrorist acts are the tip of the iceberg." Ariel Cohen, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, the richest of the right-wing US think-tanks, compares Hizb to the Trotskyite wing of the international communist movement. He sees Hizb as offering an alternative form of globalisation. "This ideology," he has written, "poses a direct challenge to the western model of a secular, market-driven, tolerant, multicultural globalisation."

Hizb ut-Tahrir translates as "party of liberation". It was set up by a Palestinian court clerk, Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, in 1953. In a Middle East awash with pan-Arabism and the politics of nationalism and race, it adopted Islamic teaching and scripture as its ideology, Leninist organisation as its method of action, and the re-establishment of the caliphate as its aim. The caliphate, or khilafah, dates back to the seventh century, when all Muslim lands were under the governance of a single elected caliph, and were subject to a single system of Islamic law. Hizb wants to recreate something similar now for the whole of North Africa and the Middle East and for much of central and south Asia.

Al-Nabhani's party proposed a constitution of 187 articles for an Islamic state, detailing everything from Islamic economic and education systems to relationships between men and women (women being an "honour to be safeguarded", but having rights to own property, to vote and to do business). The Jordanian authorities then responsible for the pre-occupation Palestinian territories arrested al-Nabhani as soon as he tried to register his fledgling organisation. He was eventually forced underground and the party has remained there ever since.

In the past 50 years, Hizb has spread its message to more than 40 countries, from Malaysia to Scandinavia. It refuses to give membership figures, but estimates hover around the million mark. Its support is thought to run much higher - roughly ten million in central Asia alone, according to the Arab news magazine al-Majalla. Although it has never been directly implicated in an act of violence, Hizb is banned in nearly every country in which it operates. Between 7,000 and 8,000 members are thought to be in prisons in Uzbekistan: it was over their treatment that the British ambassador to that country, Craig Murray, protested last year - they were being boiled alive, electrocuted and raped, he said - and got himself disciplined by the Foreign Office.

Egypt, Syria and Libya are among the many other countries where Hizb members are imprisoned, sometimes for membership alone. Three British members were sentenced to five years in jail in Egypt this year for being in possession of Hizb literature. The party's activities were outlawed in Germany in 2002, when it was found guilty of distributing anti-Semitic material. Last year Russia arrested 55 members of the group.

The idea of the Hizb "graduate" is not without foundation. According to intelligence sources, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's man in Iraq, is a former member of the Jordanian branch of Hizb. According to the same sources, the al-Qaeda commander Khalid Sheikh Mohammed also spent time with the party. When MI5 searched the home of Omar Sharif, the Derby father-of-three who committed suicide after failing to blow himself up in a bar in Tel Aviv in April 2003, it found plenty of Hizb literature.

Unlike al-Qaeda, which operates on a loose, "franchise" basis, Hizb is rigidly controlled by its central leadership, based in Palestine. Below that, national organisations or wilayas, usually headed by a group of 12, control networks of local committees and cells. New members must spend at least two years studying party literature, under the guidance of mentors, before they take the party oath. A parallel, separate structure exists for women, who are encouraged to become fully active members.

Last year, the British party, headed by a 28-year-old Indian IT engineer, Jalaluddin Patel, attracted 10,000 Muslims to a conference, entitled "British or Muslim?", at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. It was Britain's biggest Muslim event to date, and the organisers plan to make this year's conference, due to take place in London at the end of November, even bigger.

Fridays are when Hizb members work hardest. At the end of prayers each week, they distribute 100,000 leaflets to the faithful as they emerge from mosques. Up and down the country, from Edinburgh to Essex, the organisation's smoothly run, PowerPoint-presented meetings draw in those who are fed up with the bland, sterilised sermons of most imams post-9/11.

In Bradford, Hizb hires a room at a business centre a stone's throw from the central mosque. The 48 chairs are quickly taken mainly by middle-aged men, some suited, others in more casual attire. Some have children with them who run around making quiet mischief during the meeting. The laptop, projector and software, provided by one of Hizb's many IT-savvy members, have been set up for a talk entitled "The drugs epidemic in the west".

The video begins and a close-up of a small, frail-looking white boy - a 12-year-old heroin addict - appears. His harrowing tale is intersected with shots of Muslim children playing merrily in the streets. At the end of the video the speaker, tubby, bearded and well-spoken, admonishes not only capitalist society but also the Muslim community for failing to care for non-Muslims. After all they, too, are the victims of western values.

Hassan Mujtaba, a national committee member and an IT lecturer at a college in East Ham, London, explained to me afterwards Hizb's big solution for Britain: model Islamic communities. "What it is really about," he said, "is maintaining our identity as Muslims, living by the Islamic sharia rules in this country and showing the British public that we share their problems: the problems of the upbringing of children and caring for parents when they're old, or drugs or crime or education." He continues: "We feel that what we are providing is something better than what is already here and perhaps we'll become a model."

So what exactly will Hizb do to turn the drug-ridden Muslim slums of Bradford and Leeds into beacons of social improvement? "As a political party," says Mujtaba, "we wouldn't engage in action that would divert us from our main aim, which is the establishment of the caliphate. We wouldn't go around building a school or a mosque or setting up a drugs project. We would collate the information, really closely observe what is going on in British society, and then provide a template that would assist those people to go and establish an Islamic community."

In other words, Hizb doesn't do elbow grease. It is no Hezbollah, with a large network of schools and hospitals. Nor does it condone suicide bombing. Its route to power is the peaceful coup, in which a general or politician seizes control of a state in the name of the caliphate. No arms would be used, because the Prophet Muhammad never raised arms to establish his state.

This does not impress the Heritage Foundation's Ariel Cohen. "Hizb is what Lenin would term as 'the open-ended organisation'. It is indoctrinating tens of thousands of Muslims, enabling the creation of an environment for armed struggle. The caliphate is inimical to democracy and human rights and women's rights. Its goals are, in essence, totalitarian. Let me tell you something else," he says, before rushing off to take part in a debate on Fox TV. "A few years back, I talked to very senior government figures in the UK about al-Qaeda and Abu Hamza [the jailed extremist cleric] and they said, 'Oh, don't worry, they have rights and we can't just throw them in prison', but after three years they have come to the same conclusion: that these people are dangerous."

The spokesman of Hizb's British branch, Imran Waheed, agrees that the party is the biggest player in this newly declared ideological war. He has just passed his psychiatry exams and is in buoyant mood. We talk about Francis Fukuyama.

"There's a quote of his where he says we've reached the end of history because there's a lack of a viable alternative ideology to capitalism and western civilisation. We view our work as a direct challenge to that statement: we have to prove him wrong. We believe Islam has a history of world leadership, and [that] Islam is a comprehensive ideology which is an alternative to western civilisation . . . We don't believe that it is a threat to the people in the west . . . You know, there are many people who are disenchanted with their lives under the western system, but at the moment there is no practical alternative. Islam is an alternative . . . We are increasingly looking to interact with western thinkers, academics and the masses to illustrate to them what type of a state it is that we want to establish, so that when it is established, western regimes won't find it so easy to undertake military action towards it."

So when will this state arrive on the world stage? "Ah, this is the question which everyone asks me and it is not one I can really answer. We believe that victory is not in our hands; it is in the hands of the Creator. Our obligation is to create a suitable environment for that change to come about . . . While al-Nabhani probably imagined a small state . . . in Jordan or Syria, I can now imagine a giant being established throughout a large part of the Muslim world due to the strength of feeling that exists."

Here lies Hizb's greatest achievement: to have shifted the debate in the Muslim world from rule by nationalist authority to rule by Islam. But even with its draft constitutions to hand, it seems laughable that Hizb, armed only with the righteousness of its ideas, could overpower some of the most ruthless regimes in the world. Yet when Osama Bin Laden talks about the caliphate, it can justifiably credit itself with being his inspiration.

After two and a half hours on that summer Sunday near Heathrow Airport, we are finally finished. The group has managed to discuss to death four simple paragraphs of al-Nabhani's book The Economic System in Islam. At this rate, it will take them a year to get through the whole thing.

So why have the leaders of Hizb, a usually secretive organisation, allowed me to spend a month with them? Why have they bothered to ferry me around, meticulously organise my every visit, give up hours of their time to answer my every inquiry? Imran Waheed tells me it is because they want to get their message across. Since 9/11, they have been afraid they will be branded as a terrorist organisation. All they want to do is to carry on their debates with intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and George Carey. After all, if they're not violent, can their ideas be so dangerous?

To quote: "Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?" Good question, Stalin.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Can Islam change?