Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Happy Happy Hizbo's?

As I’ve said before, reporting on Islam in Australia isn’t easy. The latest coverage on Hizb ut-Tahrir is further proof of this.

Translated as “Party of Liberation”, they’re also known in Muslim circles as HT, Hizbo’s, even Islamic Zionists.

Because there’s no better way to insult a follower of political Islam than to describe them as Zionist. But the word also raises other issues which help us to understand why this movement has proved so ineffectual in recruiting young Muslims in Australia and other Western countries.

HT describes itself as a Muslim political party. Yet it refuses to register itself under Australian law. It also refuses to run for elections, and its theology forbids Muslims from voting, standing for office or even joining a political party. Why?

Because HT insists that Islam has its own political ideology and system which is far superior to the ideology and system of Australia. HT is implacably opposed to democracy, secularism and all the other buzzwords that rule our political roost.

On Planet Hizbo, it isn’t just people who have religions. So do states and systems. Hence, Islam has its own economic system which forbids Muslims from being involved in the non-Muslim (or “kaafir”) capitalist system.

So when I joined the Liberal Party and ran as a Liberal candidate in the seat of Reid in 2001, a handful of the 20 or so people that made up HT’s core membership in Australia were busy telling anyone who would listen that I had become an apostate.

Irfan has joined a kaafir political party and is running in a kaafir election. Irfan has become a kaafir.

Gee thanks, fellas. Not even apartheid-era South African National Party officials called me that!

It was The Age’s religious reporter who first broke the story of HT’s proposed February Caliphate conference. Barney Zwartz must be one of the most able, balanced and knowledgeable reporters on matters pertaining to Islam in Australia.

Yet even Barney wasn’t aware (until I told him) that HT are implacable opponents of that other sectarian source of militancy – the Saudi-based Salafi/Wahhabi sect. Usama bin Ladin and his Salafist buddies might like what HT are foing in the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia. But I doubt they’d be joining a Hizbo jihad in a hurry.

Anyway, here's an edited version of a piece that appeared in the Melbourne Age ...


They regard participation in democracy and secular government as against God’s law. They discourage their members from participating in public life. They are regarded by more mainstream co-religionists as fringe and extreme.

We could be describing the Exclusive Brethren, a fringe Christian congregation. Or we could be describing Hizb ut-Tahrir, a fringe Muslim political movement. But there’s no point comparing apples with oranges. HT leaders aren’t accused of subverting Australian court processes or of covering up sexual offences against minors. And the Brethren aren’t suspected of using violence to impose an alien political order in Australia or elsewhere.

Yet a small number of Muslim elders are concerned about the apparent growth in HT’s activities. Yesterday’s Age cited Chair of the now-defunct Prime Minister’s Muslim Reference Group, Dr Ameer Ali, as calling for government help in combating HT.

“We need resources to counter it, and we have none … The Government should encourage moderates to promote themselves as an alternative, and allocate resources for this.”

In recent years, Dr Ali has been President of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC), Australia’s peak Muslim body. That body is now under court-appointed administration.

During Dr Ali’s term in office, AFIC showed its commitment to understanding the needs of young people by appointing an imam in his sixties with poor English language skills to advise it on youth affairs.

It’s true. AFIC’s adviser on Muslim youth was none other than Sheik Tajeddine Hilaly.

But criticising AFIC doesn’t address the apparent problem of HT campaigning among young Australian Muslims to re-establish the Islamic Caliphate abolished by Kemal Ataturk in 1924.

HT are banned in a number of nominally Muslim countries. The Christian Science Monitor reported in September 2005 of government attempts in Kyrgystan to suppress HT after it was accused of inciting rebellion in Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley. The rebellion’s apparent goal was to replace the governments of Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with one rump Caliphate.

In the UK, HT has not yet been banned. However, its presence on many campuses has been curtailed after it distributed material that was grossly anti-Semitic (and not merely critical of the Israeli government). UK’s umbrella Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) has supported calls to remove HT from campus student activities.

Late last year, British PM Tony Blair tried to ban HT. His major opposition came from law enforcement officials and legal advisers. The Observer reported Mr Blair “had been warned that banning the group, which campaigns for Britain to become a caliphate … would serve only as a recruiting agent if the group appealed against the move.”

Dr Ali claims that there is a possibility young Muslims here “will fall into Hizb ut-Tahrir's trap, so we have to be careful”. Yes, there is a possibility. But let’s keep thinks in perspective.

HT’s agenda is limited to political events overseas. It’s true that many young Muslims are upset by events in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and other parts of the world where Muslims are suffering. But what really upsets Muslims here is that their community leadership seems powerless to effect change in Australia’s foreign policy. Further, Muslims are also fed up with being marginalised by potshots from allegedly conservative politicians and media commentators.

In what manner can HT empower young Australian Muslims to change the situation? HT teaches that active involvement in democratic politics represents a fundamental breach of the sacred law. Democracy and secularism are declared un-Islamic, voting is forbidden and membership of secular political parties regarded as virtual apostasy. HT insists Muslims work outside the system and re-invent a more “Islamic” wheel, an approach seen by the well-integrated majority of Muslims as an exercise in futility.

Although HT’s goal is the re-establishment of the Caliphate, they have no clear plan of action. At this stage, HT does little more than distribute pamphlets, hold conferences and answer the barrage of criticism and cynicism for their utopian agenda on the internet forums of and similar websites.

Locally and internationally, one would expect HT efforts to receive support from other militant groups. Yet it seems even bin Ladin isn’t prepared to offer HT more than limited lip service. The vast majority of militant groups find their inspiration in the Salafi/Wahhabii sect. Wahhabi authorities are agreed in rejecting HT beliefs and methodology as grossly heterodox.

HT’s core membership in Australia is limited to a few extended families, and they have little presence outside Western Sydney. Their events are lucky to attract significant numbers. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in November 2002 one HT event attracting hardly 350 people to the Auburn Town Hall, despite being advertised for at least 4 weeks.

In the same suburb each Friday, some 5,000 people attend the Friday prayer service at the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque without the event being advertised. The smallest Friday congregation in any of Auburn’s 5 or so mosques would be at least double that of the HT conference.

We can be relieved that security and law enforcement agencies continue to monitor the activities of groups like HT. Banning the group might lead to HT gaining more attention and sympathy than it deserves. The government needs to be alert. At this stage, there’s no need for ordinary Australians to be alarmed.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006