In recent weeks, Britain's Labour government and the Conservative opposition have been embroiled in a feud about, of all things, Islam -- or, more precisely, an Islamist organization called Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Arabic for "The Party of Liberation").
Tory leader David Cameron has been assailing Gordon Brown's government for allegedly funneling taxpayer money to two Hizb-supported schools where students are being exposed to Islamist ideology.
The education minister insists that the schools in question have nothing to do with the group. The issue is particularly tricky because many Britons, within government and out, have repeatedly called for Hizb-ut-Tahrir to be banned altogether. Their ranks included, at one point a few years ago, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. It hasn't happened yet, though, for reasons that will be touched upon below.
One thing is for sure: We can all expect to hear more about Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) in the years to come. Founded 56 years ago in Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem, the party is estimated by some experts to have 1 million members around the world. A lot of them are now in jail.
HT is banned outright in a number of countries, ranging from harsh dictatorships like Uzbekistan and Syria through countries like Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and Bangladesh, to Western European democracies including Germany and Denmark.
Yet the group persists, and in some respects -- judging by the vast amount of literature it continues to produce, on paper, and myriad websites -- it seems to be thriving. The party recently made headlines in the United States when it was revealed that one of President Barack Obama's religious advisors, Muslim polling expert Dalia Mogahed, had participated in a Hizb-ut-Tahrir-sponsored TV broadcast. (She subsequently said that she'd been unaware of the show's affiliation.)
The party has undoubtedly been helped, over the years, by the clarity of its ultimate aim: the creation of a modern-day caliphate, an Islamic state that would bring together all the countries of the Islamic world.
Unlike al Qaeda, though, which professes comparable goals, Hizb-ut-Tahrir emphasizes political action rather than force, arguing that Muslims have to be "enlightened" through education, propaganda, and political agitation until they fully understand the need to seize the reins of power in their own countries and unite the ummah, the global community of believers.
According to one of the group's myriad pamphlets: "[I]f the Islamic Ummah were to rise as an Islamic Ummah, she would be more than capable of rescuing the world from the evil forces that control it, suppress it, and make it experience all kinds of misery, humiliation, and slavery."
It's this openly revolutionary aim that has gotten the party into trouble in many of the more authoritarian countries where it has run afoul of officialdom. Yet even though it claims to profess non violent means, the party has still managed to get into trouble in more liberal societies for the extreme intolerance of some of its views.
The party became verboten in Germany, for example, after it shared a platform with neo-Nazis. HT officials insist that they are anti-Zionist rather than anti-Semitic -- though several studies of the group's literature have shown that the distinction doesn't always hold up.
The group was proscribed in Denmark after, among other things, distributing pamphlets urging Muslims to "kill [Jews] wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out." When I first came across the group's pamphlets in Central Asia in 2001, for example, I was struck by their references to the dictator of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, whom they ritually denounced as "the Jew Karimov." (He has no Jewish background whatsoever, as it happens.)
One of the party's pamphlets stresses that Muslims who elect to leave the faith automatically face the death penalty -- a stricture that would be hard to reconcile with democratic freedoms if they dared to put it into practice.
Another source of concern is the group's role as a "conveyor belt," radicalizing members who then go on to participate in overtly violent actions. Its prominent members in Britain have included Omar Bakri Muhammad, founder of the group Al Muhajiroun, which gained notoriety for praising the 9/11 hijackers and harbored adherents who would later be implemented in terrorist attacks.
When British intelligence officials searched the home of Omar Sharif, the Briton who attempted to blow himself up in a Tel Aviv bar in 2003, they found a cache of Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature.
British journalist Shiv Malik claims that at least two major al Qaeda figures, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, originally had ties with the group.
More at Foreign Policy