Hizb Ut-Tahrir is one of the world’s leading radical Islamist organizations. They propose “restoring” the Caliphate as the necessary precondition for “rejuvenating” the global Islamic community. This essay, originally published in three parts on neweurasia, constitutes my attempt to deconstruct their ideology. It’s point of departure is an essay by the University of Ghent’s Bruno De Cordier, also published on neweurasia, in which he defends the cogency of their ideology. (The photograph to the right is of the last Calph, Abdülmecid II.)
Last week, neweurasia ran a post by the University of Ghent’s Bruno de Cordier concerning his views on why the radical Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir has been able to survive as long as it has despite sharp repression of its membership throughout Central Asia and the deep suspicion, even strong dislike for it evinced by the United States and many of its allies.
“I believe that the answer may lie in the extent to which the organization’s platform, if understood in a certain light, may be tapping into very real discontent and aspirations in the general population, and is responding to on-the-ground realities better than secular human rights organizations,” he argues. Fair enough, but let’s evaluate some of his evidence and lines of thought, and while we’re at it, Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s platform itself.
I shall move through Prof. De Cordier’s post and respond to it according to the order he uses therein. This first part shall deal with substance of the arguments for Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s vision of an Islamic super-state, particularly the Caliphate (paragraphs 2-6); the second part with Westernization, Modernization, and transnational integration (7-11), and the question of whether the global Islamic community needs a “defender” (12); and the final part with the bigger yet more fundamental questions of the efficacy and desirability of an Islamic super-state, faith, and “alter-globalism” (13). I’ve got a lot on my plate, but that’s because there’s a lot to dismantle, and much of it very crucial, because as I’ll ultimately argue in the third part, what’s rally at stake are differing visions of what it means to be human.
(1) The geographic area of the global Islamic community has the kind of resources, both human and geographical, that could make it superpower. What stops it from manifesting this potential is an inappropriate, indeed immoral and even criminal division of the community into its present array of independent nation-states (what Hizb ut-Tahrir disdainfully describes as “56 statelets”).
Idealism aside, this is an empty argument, since it can be easily re-applied in any number of other contexts, for example, the entirety of Africa, or the global Christian community, or Francophonic nations, and so on. Why would an Islamic super-state be any more philosophically cogent and historically necessary than any other kind of super-state?
The likeliest answer that Hizb Ut-Tahrir would proffer is: because God wills it. That initiates a very different, but no less important discussion about faith. I’ll defer on that until the third part of this analysis.
(2) The establishment of the Islamic super-state is the best way of rectifying and eliminating the criminality of prevailing Islamic political leaderships (“Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s ideology suggests not so much geographic expansion of the Islamic world as the liberation and re-unification of the Islamic world in its present shape…”)
Of course, the opposite could also be true: a super-state might just amplify and even complicate at an even larger scale the patterns of corruption, if not empower the current criminalistic dynasties. However, Hizb ut-Tahrir believes it has a solution to that…
(3) Not just any super-state will do, but rather a Caliphate, defined as “universally elected, a worldly leader who is to rule according to the movement’s understanding of Islam and Shariah and, as such, not an infallible absolute monarch.” Notably, the modern Caliph would not be messianic.
There are several very deep flaws to this view, but I’ll focus on what Hizb Ut-Tahrir isn’t saying: which madhhab do they intend to espouse? Doubtlessly, they intend to establish their own, perhaps derived from the existing ones, perhaps a new one built from the ground up. Either way, though, they are faced with two fundamental questions: what would be the theoretical basis and framework of their madhhab, and who would be designated with the task of developing it?
Indeed, what would be the selection procedure for determining who among the global Islamic community’s vast intelligentsia gets the job? Would religious minorities and dissenters, much less secularists, have any say? What about the various economic and military interests? As far as I can hear, Hizb ut-Tahrir does not propose an answer.
Arguably, that’s because they think it’s a discussion that can only be had once the polity exists. Fair enough. Many societies had to figure themselves out ex post facto to their own existence. However, it would be disingenuous, to say the least, to not admit that this process almost always entails civil strife, and indeed, civil war. In any new arrangement, especially one as thorough-going as that which Hizb Ut-Tahrir has in mind, there are going to be constellations of winners and losers, and rest assured that the latter won’t go down without a fight. In other words, if Hizb ut-Tahrir got its way, a very real and bloody fitna would result sooner or later.
Ironically, the fact that they are not messianic actually increases that likelihood. That’s because they would be posed by a critically serious and very fundamental problem, namely, on what ultimate authority are they to make any of these decisions? One can already hear the answer from the legions of those who would lose in the new order: on no credible authority whatsoever.
(4) The aim of re-establishing the Caliphate is neither patently absurd nor without good historical reasoning: essentially, Hizb Ut-Tahrir wants to restore the state of affairs that prevailed during the Middle Ages, when the Islamic community was the leading civilization. Since central to the community back then was the Caliphate, that institution is therefore a necessary precondition to rejuvenating the global Islamic community.
This reasoning is way too abstract. For one, it seems to ignore the impressive plurality of Caliphal types that prevailed throughout Islamic history, much less the fact that most of the great fitnas revolved around the very question of central authority that the institution one way or another symbolized. For another, beginning from the late Medieval period, the chief by-product of those conflicts was to gradually render the Caliphate per se irrelevant, replacing it with more secular monarchical or militaristic forms of leadership and the managerial class of the ulema.
In other words, not only is “Caliphate” a vastly imprecise idea content-wise, but whatever it means, its history proved as dynamic, yes, but also as destructive for Muslims as the Trinity did for Christians. So, “restoring” it is not only a rather big non sequitor, but even if restoration could actually happen, it would probably fuel more fitna.
With this in mind, we might be looking at quite an irony here, for the state of affairs I’m anticipating would indeed be “restoration” of the Islamic past in the fullest sense of the word: whatever good might conceivably come back with the Caliphate, it would necessarily bring back the bad, as well. That Hizb Ut-Tahrir has evidently either not confronted this possibility or chosen to avoid it is a sign of either intellectual weakness or dishonesty; either way, they’re playing with fire. Thus, all told, it might be better to let the Caliphate rest in peace.
(5) Hizb Ut-Tahrir believes it has the dual ability to simultaneously tap into widespread discontent in the global Islamic community toward Westernization and Modernization while also fully making use of those forces’ technological and conceptual products to do respond to, and even channel, that discontent, i.e., according to its own agenda.
There are two things going on in this assertion. The first is that Hizb Ut-Tahrir fundamentally believes that an innovation, whether it be a tool, methodology or institution, can be separated from the cultural context that birthed it, as well as the political (mis)uses made of it by that context. Again, as with (1), this is an empty argument, all the more so since there is no Islamist organization, to my knowledge at least, advocating for a de-technologization of Islamic society (the notable exception to this was the Taliban of the Nineties, but they have since abandoned this view).
There is, however, a widespread suspicion of Western political innovations. Many in the global Islamic community fear that, as one BBC blogger put it recently, democracy is a Western plot to dominate the global Islamic community. This is where Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s vision of the Caliphate is put to test, and that’s in two ways:
On the one hand, taking voting as an example, although elections per se are not a Western invention, universal suffrage is, and it remains to be seen whether a political methodology or institution can be purged of its original cultural, political and ideological imprints (in the next paragraph I explain why I’m presuming they have universal suffrage in mind). Moreover, Hizb Ut-Tahrir, alongside more liberal reformers as well, are up against discourses that are more than happy to exploit this ambiguity. When we hear certain governments claim that their citizens are “not ready” for democracy, and when we hear certain arch-radical Islamists claim that democracy is a “pollutant”, they are essentially relativizing it. Hizb Ut-Tahrir and others have to make the case that democracy is either Islamic or universal — or both (if possible). Until the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa, that seemed like a very hard sell in Islamic societies. Even harder, though, is figuring out to do once those societies have bought it.
On the other hand, they are confronted yet again with the question of what does it really mean to “restore” the Islamic past, but now from a different angle. When Hizb Ut-Tahrir says that the modern Caliph is to be elected, presumably they have in mind some kind of universal suffrage — otherwise they’re being extremely disingenuous. Here’s my thought process: since modern technology has been part and parcel of the development of modern political institutions, e.g., industriaization gave rise to the forms of social organization that, in turn, gave rise to liberal democracy, how else are we to interpret or reconcile their desire to “restore” a “Medieval” state of affairs and yet not de-technologize? In other words, either “restoration” is a metaphor or it’s literal: if the former, they necessarily must mean universal suffrage, in which case they’ve got to deal with the problems I described above; if the latter, though, then Hizb Ut-Tahrir has some serious owning up to do about their ideology.
The second suspect element of this assertion is whether the global Islamic community actually would want Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s agenda. That’s of course deeply related to the super-state question, to which I return in my third post.
(6) The Caliphate idea accomplishes several very necessary things for the global Islamic community: (a) it addresses a need for real economic integration of the Islamic world that is not being effectively performed by present transnational Isamic organizations; (b) it redresses the perceived wrongs of current border delineations; and (c) it addresses the deep-seated psychological need for membership.
With (a) and (b) I’m in general agreement, if not with Hizb Ut-Tahrir per se, then with Prof. De Cordier’s elaboration of their position. The simple truth is that most transnational Islamic organizations are toothless and laughable. Moreover, there have been countless tragedies in the ways political borders have been drawn throughout much of the global Islamic community. I attribute Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s persistence more to these realities than to the specifics of their ideology.
As for (c), this is actually the super-state question again, to which I shall return in my third post. For now, suffice it to say that this isn’t erroneous, but it may not really do justice to other considerations going on within, as it were, the Muslim psyche.
(7) “Hizb Ut-Tahrir highlights the absence of a credible protector or reference state that will, as it were, ‘really stand up’ for the defence of the Islamic world,” Prof. De Cordier writes, adding, “that is, an analogue to how some American Jewish groups, such as the ADL or AIPAC, view themselves for the larger Jewish community, including Israel.”
During the preparation of his editorial, Prof. De Cordier and I talked about this briefly. I believe this is a deeply problematic position for Hizb Ut-Tahrir to take, and the analogy to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is telling.*
Speaking as a person of Jewish heritage, the truth is that both the Israeli political establishment and the broader Jewish Diaspora have very mixed feelings about these supposed “defenders” of world Jewry precisely because they have appointed themselves to the role. Of course, the Israeli political establishment has been more than happy to make use of these organizations for its own aims, but that’s not to say it actually supports their claim — rather, it’s content to let them remain deluded. As for everyday Jews (and Israelis), there is a wide variety of responses, from acceptance and even support to angry condemnation (I fall in the latter category).
This leads me to wonder: could Hizb Ut-Tahrir be risking the same responses? Could there eventually emerge some political establishment that sees them as useful for its own ends? And could the global Islamic community eventually come to be divided about them, unto the point of scorn? The first possibility is not entirely hypothetical. Consider: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have used Hizb Ut-Tahrir and other Islamist organizations’ claims to “stand up for” the global Islamic community as part of their pretext to suppress religious freedom — an ironic twist, for sure. And the second has actually happened to other Islamist organizations, most notably al-Qaeda, but many significantly less radical groups, as well. If I may be so bold, considering that a key aspect of Islamic ethics and theology is humility, perhaps Hizb Ut-Tahrir would do well, in very practical terms, to abide by it.
Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s view of themselves as a revolutionary vanguard, as Prof. De Cordier points out, certainly doesn’t help their situation. Not only does it give certain governments extra impetus to smother them and the general population cause to keep a distance, but since they are supposed to be not only the vessels of the Caliphate’s eventual revival but also its representatives in the here and now, then it casts the entire notion of “restoration” into decidedly revolutionary terms: to restore the Islamic past is to radically break with the (un-)Islamic present. And that leads me to the final question: the efficacy and desirability of an Islamic super-state.
* (I suspect there may be a lot of misunderstanding about whether the State of Israel purports to be a defender of world Jewry. The fact is that Israel does not see itself that way. Rather, it sees itself as the only place where “Jews can be Jews” or “Jews can be normal”, and that’s a subtle but important difference. The controversial Right of Return, which is the cornerstone of that vision and is often misconstrued, is fundamentally about post-Holocaust demographic security, not about defending the rights of Jews scattered far and wide. In other words, Israel wants the “in gathering of the tribes” — the maintenance of the Diaspora, at least for its own sake, is not a strategic aim.)
Would an Islamic super-state actually work?
The honest answer to this question is that no one actually knows. However, historical precedence is not very reassuring, as we’ve seen the majority of super-states struggle and ultimately fail to become coherent and sustainable. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are the most obvious examples of failure; Canada and Belgium are examples where the struggle is ongoing, and in far more humane and liberal conditions. However, in the latter case, it has led to a very strange state of affairs, as it were, a permanent crisis. Consider: these four are examples of super-states, large and small, that were trying to weld together geographic and linguistic zones far smaller than the Caliphate envisioned by Hizb Ut-Tahrir.
Arguably the only super-state that has succeeded so far has been the United States, in no small part due to the fact that much of its constituent states were the product of colonization from an original nucleus of member-states. But even then the United States underwent an intense civil war, as two very different political and economic traditions vied with each other, and to some extent that conflict is still being waged, except now through political discourse and taxation and military policies.
Key to the feasibility of any super-state is the question of ends: why or for what purpose does the polity exist? Is there some grander call, e.g., gaining the maximum number of people to submit to the Law of God, or is the goal more worldly, e.g., to exert dominance over other societies? And not only this, but what is the place of the quotidian aspects of a polity, e.g., trash collection or managing healthcare, in the scope of that purpose? As far as I can hear, Hizb Ut-Tahrir doesn’t have consistent or well-thought-out answers.
I should confess that in this regard, I’m actually somewhat sympathetic. As a member of the Baha’i Faith, it’s an article of my faith that there shall one day be established a worldwide super-state — we call it the “Global Commonwealth” — and although the general framework has been laid out for us by the founders of our religion, i.e., that the Commonwealth shall seek to re-harmonize the spiritual and material qualities of humanity and thus further advance civilization in a dual sense, that diversity shall nevertheless be retained within or alongside this new unity, that there shall be a just distribution of wealth and resources, and so on, the details have been left to the Baha’is and like-minded groups to figure out.
Nevertheless, I think there’s a crucial attitudinal difference between the Baha’is and Hizb Ut-Tahrir, namely, how we understand what it means to be faithful — that important subtlety that appeared as early as the first point in my first point. Do we really know what God wants? If not, that is, if we are in an uncertain universe, how can we still act, and do so with confidence and energy? The Baha’is respond by inculcating a state of mind of humble experimentation: the answer will be revealed over time, and even then, we may never fully comprehend it. Hizb Ut-Tahrir, however, appears to be much more convinced that they somehow do possess the answer with certainty and clarity. I think I’ve sufficiently demonstrated the dangers of their approach in my previous posts, so let’s move onto the next question.
Is a Caliphate really what Muslims want?
I confess that the idea of the Caliphate taps into a very real nostalgia for a time when there was, ostensibly at least, unity within the global Islamic community, and moreover, that nostalgia doesn’t have to be historically accurate or all that realistic. However, one immediately wonders whether the majority of Muslims would agree with the idea that the global Islamic community is, at root, a demos, much less an ethnos, i.e., a polity and an ethnicity.
To be sure, they certainly see themselves as (usually) brothers and sisters in a common spiritual fraternity. In the experience of both myself and countless other people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who spend their time trying to access, as it were, the Muslim psyche, the overwhelming majority of Muslims would express various levels of discomfort at the notion of elevating their fraternity to anything as firm and fixed as a pan-Islamic national super-state. Rather, they seem to prefer present national and political identities, or at least ethnic and communal identities. Moreover, if Morocco and Turkey’s (albeit frustrated) attempts to join the European Union and the various revolutions that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa are any evidence, they’re just as interested, if not more so, in interacting and integrating with the larger non-Muslim world than just with each other.
Hizb Ut-Tahrir themselves tacitly admits that this is the case. Otherwise they wouldn’t be making such a huge effort to propagandize Islamic populations in the attempt to get the global Islamic community to see things their way (they, of course, prefer the euphemism dawa). What I wonder about is whether Hizb Ut-Tahrir is actually misdiagnosing the condition, i.e., seeing it as a problem of consciousness. In my view, the rank-and-file Muslim viewpoint, if I may speak in terms of such a vast generality, may actually have very real and meaningful content.
Here’s my reasoning: to be sure, the first impetus for wanting to vividly interact with and even integrate into the non-Muslim world is economic. However, underneath every economic, much less political strategy, there is a metaphysics, i.e., a sense of what it means to be human, and with it, a set of choices: if you see humanity one way, certain options occur to you that would not if you saw humanity another way. Clearly, the majority of several Muslim nations have considered it to be perfectly consistent to be Muslim and not necessarily part of a larger pan-Islamic national super-state, indicating that their vision of what it means to be human is something that transcends the particular identity category of “Muslim”.
Differing visions of humanity
So, let me conclude with this: what’s really at stake in examining Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s ideology is the question of how we understand tawhid or unity, that most fundamental of Islamic concepts: is tawhid only within the global Islamic community itself, or is it a human-spanning concept, and if so, in what way? Hizb ut-Tahrir opts for the latter, although doubtlessly they believe that eventually the global Islamic community shall be co-extensive with the human species (most likely through armed jihad emerging from the restored Caliphate). Everyday Muslims, however, seem to me more inclined to see the human species as simultaneously too broad and more fundamental than any one specific identity, including the Muslim one.
History can thank the influence of Sufi doctrines and not a little bit of secularization in this regard, but it is certainly a very different, and far less aggressive, conception of tawhid. Frankly, speaking as a Jew, whose history has been scarred by insufficient and inhumane tawhid; as a Baha’i, for whom tawhid is even more at the center of what it means to be religious, a journalist, and a human being; and most of all, as a human being, who, like all of us, longs for a real and deep reconciliation within our species, I’d take the “everyday” version of tawhid over Hizb ut-Tahrir’s any day. In the end, it is the truest, and it is right.