LONDON: A radical Islamic party that has become a focus of attention in Britain, with calls in Parliament for its prohibition, began a frontal attack on its critics this weekend at a carefully stage-managed conference in London that attracted several thousands of well-dressed, mostly professional Muslims.
Calls of “Allahu Akbar,” or God is great, punctuated the leaders’ speeches at the conference held by Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, a group that calls for a caliphate in Muslim countries, the end of Israel and the withdrawal of all Western interests in the Middle East.
“There is no Islam as a way of life without a Khilafah,” said Kamal Abuzahra, an Islamic academic of Bangladeshi origin, using the Arabic work for caliphate and earning a roar of approval from the crowd segregated into his and hers sections.
The conference was titled, “Khilafah, The Need and the Method.”
The chairman of the party, Abdul Wahid, a medical doctor in Harrow, England, took on Britain’s political leadership: “They say: ‘You preach hate.’ I preach a hatred of the lies of people in this country that send soldiers to Iraq. I preach a hatred of torture.”
Other speakers assailed the British government for linking the group to terrorism and for too often treating British Muslims as terror suspects.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, founded in the early 1950s by a Palestinian judge dissatisfied with the Muslim Brotherhood, has existed in Britain for a number of years, and remains legal in other Western countries, including the United States, where it has less appeal than here.
In the aftermath of the botched terror attacks in London and Glasgow, there were renewed calls for the prohibition of Hizb ut-Tahrir, on the grounds that although the group proclaims advocating peaceful means for winning the Caliphate, its rhetoric can encourage Muslims onto a path toward terrorism.
Some analysts describe Hizb ut-Tahrir as “soft jihadists”; others contend that it veers beyond that.
“The only difference between Islamists from Hizb ut-Tahrir and jihadists is that the former are waiting for their state and caliph before they commend jihad, while the latter believes the time for jihad is now,” said Ed Husain, a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir who has criticized the group in a recent book, “The Islamist.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned in a number of Muslim countries, particularly those that feel vulnerable to its calls for the overthrow of their governments – including Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The group was proscribed by the German Interior Ministry in 2003 for “spreading hate and violence,” under a chapter in the Constitution that is often used to clamp down on anti-Semitism. Hizb ut-Tahrir is appealing that ban.
In Britain, Hizb ut-Tahrir has waxed and waned, enjoying considerable strength in the mid-1990s, when members recalled that it attracted a crowd of many thousands to a meeting at Wembley Stadium.
The party, which does not announce membership numbers, remains potent on British university campuses, frequently fields speakers on television talk shows, and runs a slick Web site that falls short of running into problems with British law.
During Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s first question time in the House of Commons last month, the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, asked the new Labour leader why Hizb ut-Tahrir had not been banned.
Cameron said the group was “poisoning the minds of young people and has said that Jews should be killed wherever they are found.”
Brown replied that he had only been in office a short while and would look into it.
But John Reid, the former home secretary, jumped in, saying there was not sufficient evidence under British laws to ban the organization.
That, say British officials, is the nub of the problem. Even under the new 2006 anti-terrorism law that prohibits the glorification of terrorism, Hizb ut-Tahrir cannot be prosecuted, a British government official said.
“They are very savvy, very sophisticated, they know how far they can push,” the official said.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was urged last year by the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, to ban the group on the grounds that it “brainwashes people and that leads to violent acts,” a senior Pakistani official said. The British Foreign Office received a similar message from Pakistani officials last month.
During a lunch break in the sunny courtyard of the Alexandra Palace, a 19th-century brick pile in northern London, conference-goers – information technology managers, bankers and teachers – told of the appeal of the ideology of a Caliphate in the Muslim world.
“If you look at the political structure in the Muslim world, it’s a police state,” said Mohammed Baig, 28, a second-generation British Indian who is an asset manager specializing in corporate governance. “You have the public opinion underground, and then staged public opinion in the media.”
Most people in the Muslim world want the introduction of Sharia, or Islamic law, said Baig, who said he had been a member of the group for seven years.
“Our feeling is: What gives Western governments the right to impose a set of values on a people who don’t believe in them?” he said, referring to the United States and Britain pushing for democratic values in the Middle East.
Asked about Hizb ut-Tahrir as a conveyor belt to terrorism, Baig said: “I’m not going to say Hizb ut-Tahrir has been a perfect organization for 20 years. There are people who have come and gone in the organization. An atmosphere was created in the youth in the mid ’90s, mistakes were made.”
Some of the most ardent adherence to the party’s ideas about a Caliphate was expressed by women members at the conference.
Rubina Ahmed, 33, a mother of four who came on a charter bus from Manchester, said, “It’s the in-depthness of the caliphate that I like.” Hizb ut-Tahrir “doesn’t compromise on the values of Islam and it’s not afraid to speak out for what it wants.”
Why did Hizb ut-Tahrir not work for the goal of the Caliphate in Britain, asked someone in the audience during a question-and-answer session.
“We focus our work where we can get the quickest results,” Abuzahra said.