I, like many, have followed with interest the debate about Hizb ut-Tahrir which was sparked by the much-too-warmly-received publication of Ed Husain’s book, The Islamist.
Interesting as it was, the discussion centred on a confusion, common to both defenders and critics of the “Hizb” with Islamic political thought, and the entire phenomenon widely referred to as “political Islam”, or “Islamism”. The truth, however, is that this movement born at the turn of the last century represents an extreme form of ideologisation of Islam, which gets transformed under the pens of its founders into a closed and rigid system, the sum of a set of simple, pre-determined formulae.
Islam thus emerges as a set of frozen, straightforward, almost mathematical equations. The circle of questions is narrow, just like that of the predefined answers. If anything preoccupies your mind, all you need do is rush back to the writings of the “Sheikh” (Taqiy al-Din al-Nabhani). There, supposedly, you will find all the answers to your questions.
In this, the spirit of ijtihad, or free inquiry, described by the Indian philosopher Muhammad Iqbal as the source of Islam’s dynamism, vanishes – giving way to a dry-as-dust legalism.
Ironically, the Hizb, or party’s founders and followers, commit the same grave error as a great many of the “westerners” they criticise continuously: that of reducing Islam into a narrow collection of dogmas and doctrines, ignoring its rich dynamic character. The absence of an ecclesiastical institution in Islam has freed the religious text of the monopoly of any one group and made it the property of the entire community of believers. All are equidistant to the text. In the absence of a clergy that claims ownership of truth and imposes its own interpretations on laity, a great multitude of schools of thought emerged, in jurisprudence, as in theology, in philosophy as in linguistics. The intellectual stagnation of the last few centuries is no reflection of the general character of Muslim history.
Hizb ut-Tahrir (“The Party of Liberation”) is a living example of the extreme politicisation of Islam. To the party’s ideologues, the political is not just one aspect of the whole, so much as the whole itself. Their thinking revolves around an “Islamic state” presided over by a caliph (khalifa). This mythical being holds the keys of salvation from the terrible ills of the present. Like the messiah, or saviour king of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic literature, he will crush the enemy, deliver the faithful from the yoke of servility and bring them resounding victory.
The party is, in reality, the illegitimate child of modern day totalitarian ideologies, which see the state as the chief instrument for transforming the human condition. Unlike fascism, nazism, or socialism, it does not speak a secular discourse, but one overwhelmed in religious terms and symbols. The structural foundations are one and the same but top-down modernisation is substituted by top-down Islamisation.
What makes matters worse, however, is the attempt to transplant this failed ideology from its native lands, such as Jordan where it was first conceived and has remained on the margins of political life ever since, to the radically different environments of London, Paris, or Rome. The effect has been the greater complication of the Muslim minority’s situation and its further isolation behind fences of suspicions and stereotypes.
Instead of working with other forces to safeguard his/her minority’s civil and political rights, defend the tradition of ethnic, cultural and religious pluralism and strengthen the value of common citizenship, the Muslim’s sacred duty with the Hizb becomes centred around establishing the caliphate in London, Madrid and New York, and awaiting the glorious coming of the Saviour Caliph.
What absurd nonsense!
Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ideology is founded on a reductionist and simplistic interpretation of Islamic history, superficially viewed through the narrow prism of caliphate and caliph. Certainly there was a political institution named the caliphate in Muslim history, but the caliph and the state represented one element within a complex socio-political structure. There wasn’t one, but several realms of authority.
Broadly speaking, the Islamic socio-political order revolved around two milieus: the court milieu of the state military and administrative elite, and the ahli (civil) milieu made up of religious, commercial, local, and communal elites. Of all these multiple spheres of authority, the market, the mosque, and the school exerted the greatest influence over the lives of ordinary men and women and acted as factors of stability and continuity amidst political upheaval and conflicts between caliphs and sultans. The affluent major cities of Cairo, Baghdad or Damascus would have been inconceivable in the absence of these vibrant institutions. If Islam’s destiny had depended on caliphs and sultans, Umayyad, Abbasid, Seljuk, or Mamluk, it would have vanished with no trace with the eruption of political feuding and schism a mere decades after its birth.
I am often amused to hear Hizb’s members analyse international politics. All the ills of the Muslim world are referred to Britain, its plots and conspiracies. They seem to have remained stuck at the turn of the last century, in the days when their spiritual father, Taqiy al-Din al-Nabhani, wrote his tracts. It is as though the wheel of history has stood still ever since and we still live in the age of Pax Britannica where the sun never sets.
To identify weaknesses and pitfalls in Hizb ut-Tahrir’s discourse is not to implicate it in the phenomenon of terrorism, or to side with those who would wish to see it banned. We should not confuse the issues. Terrorism has its socio-political causes, which have been explored in length in numerous studies by leading think-tanks, such as Chatham House and the Economic and Social Research Council.
If the group has not been outlawed it is not for lack of trying, but because no evidence has been found for its involvement in terrorist activities. The truth is that Hizb ut-Tahrir is more noise than substance. It exists in a self-imposed state of historical redundancy, a prisoner of the utopia of the caliphate and the dream of a caliph who never comes.
First Published in the The Guardian, Monday 21 May 2007