I think it is fair to say that amongst the greatest challenges that western Muslims face in the current age is making sense of their faith in the context of modern day life. For those of us on this journey, a fundamental question should permeate our constant thoughts: what does God really want from us? The question, on face value, may seem fairly simple but it calls us to a continuous state of self-evaluation, from our worship in solitude to our interactions with those whom we live amongst.
For the believer, the ramifications of getting it wrong are serious. After all, what is more devastating than acknowledging the Creator, yet missing our role on earth, or living in contradiction to the ways that bring peace? Revisiting the earlier days of my own journey, it was a time when it was nigh impossible not to have had at least a brush with the various sects and groups doggedly vying for influence. From Sufis to Salafis, Ikhwanis to HT (Hizb-Ut-Tahrir), everyone had the promise of some form of Shangri-La. Familiarity with these groups didn’t mean that one was a member or even an advocate. However, the context of the day and the proximity in which they would compete (such as ISocs) meant that from the outside these groups were often seen as one and the same, and by implication Muslim identity was constructed on a composite view. In those days, it was the rise of first-generation Muslims, mostly immigrants or their children, and so Islam had a distinctively foreign feel about it. However, HT stood out with a distinctively Western feel and found eager audiences among the youth who were propelled by the revolutionary zeal often associated with youthfulness and finding out about the politics of world.
HT’s promise was grounded in providing some direction for Western Muslims, something that had great appeal, and most young Muslims of my generation were exposed to their rhetoric in one way or another, from their infamous conferences to their snazzy leaflets. This article isn’t about HT’s ideology per se, but to draw some brief social lessons. I have no intent to engage in a ‘refutation’ nor trawl through their literature (as members will predictably demand) since it’s not my job nor do most HT advocates even come near a baseline shar’i competency, and the various shar’i specialists I consult suffice me in explaining and elucidating on revelation in practical and meaningful ways. My observations come from thinking about where we are now (at least in the context of London), and how we got here; what our preoccupations were and how irrelevant and uncultivating growing up has exposed them to be. As I look back at the impact the group had during my formative years and also seeing how they’ve evolved today, I can only conclude that the group has had a negative impact on Muslims of the West.
I was first exposed to Hizb-Ut-Tahrir when I was about 9 years old; my eldest sister had started her undergrad and had been recommended video tapes. I vividly remember Farid Qasim’s hyper-zealous tone in warning against the ‘filth’ of western culture, and how Islam was the solution to all the problems it bore. A few years later in secondary school, some friends had committed to the group and started to discuss khilafah. I remained apprehensive despite being impressed by their style of argument and debate, after all they were banned from my local mosque and resorted to sloganeering on the street after Friday prayers. But where my mosque taught Islam with a strong South Asian focus, HT were unique in talking about the role of religion in the context of current affairs, and in the English language. It was refreshing and felt much more relevant than the religion I was being taught in my madrassa.
The pomp of their notorious Khilafah conference in Wembley renewed my intrigue with the group, but the cultish nature of the organization and their answers to my questions in ‘party-speak’ put me off. Although their idea of a Khilafah remained with me (as it did with many other non-HT members), it was only after growing up and learning the substances of Islam that I could pinpoint the rudimentary nature of their narrative, and the offensive ways in which God’s words would be distorted to justify the party’s aims and objectives. In some engagements since, I found that there appears to be a tendency to disregard revelation altogether when they appear to be losing a debate. In the end, I could see that the group actually has quite secular objectives coupled with grandiose aims to seek political power, and they hide this quite cleverly under the veneer of a religious vernacular.
My reason for going into my personal experiences with HT is that I believe there are many others like me, passers-by who unavoidably gazed into the shop window and sympathised with their cause, but in the process, were diverted away from spending quality time understanding God and His message. During the 90s, the group itself struggled to answer what God wants from us; some senior members believed that British Muslims should support the establishment of a Khilafah in Muslim-majority countries through non-violent means, whilst others believed in the creation of a globally dominant political force, and where all who refused to submit were the enemy.
Despite their superficial claims to unity, HT itself splintered into factions, and the latter view was held by one Omar Bakri Muhammad, at one time a leader of the party (and simultaneously an MI5 informant) who eventually went on to form his own group, Al-Muhajiroun. This group and its offshoots caused considerable strife for the overwhelming majority of Muslims living in Britain over the last two decades, in misguiding, misrepresenting and spreading religious corruption. Frustratingly, they were continually given media attention which they lapped up, using it as a means to spread abhorrent views to millions of people. Anjem Choudhary (who took over as leader from Bakri) even managed to get a slot on the Today programme, a show typically reserved for the country’s most important statesmen. The damage that such media appearances have had on community relations cannot be underestimated, and crucially, we must remember that this group had its roots in Hizb-Ut-Tahrir, who essentially were Al Muhajiroun on the other side of a steroid high. On the flipside, others left the party to become seeming tzars on counter-extremism. Ed Hussain and Maajid Nawaz, the latter an executive member of HT, formed the controversial Quilliam Foundation which equally fed into Muslim political problems and misconceptualisations, most notably through the politically charged ‘conveyor belt’ theory (which they have now abandoned) and classifications of extremists. Although Hussain and Nawaz have since parted ways, Quilliam now boasts Adam Deen, an ex-Al Muhajiorun member. As the old adage goes, birds of a feather flock together. Both ways, the political fruits of HT leave a lot to be desired.
But besides their hapless political contributions, the greatest problem I (and others) have witnessed is the crisis of faith that many of its followers, albeit severely depleted in number, now experience. From discussions with former members to the many sympathetic onlookers, all seem to eventually come to realise that the rhetoric is hot air, and many are left in a state of confusion. They sadly find themselves back at the start, trying to contextualize their faith and wondering where to turn in order to find meaningful answers. It has resulted in a generation of young Muslims quite bitter and dejected, as the sense of purpose they were sold materializes into nothingness. Many members join the party sincerely believing it will bring them closer to God but are left instead with a religious void and often demoralised.
Today, the group doesn’t quite have the same public profile and dominance that it did in the 90s and its engagement, usually manifested as trolling, is mostly on social media. In the public arena, their tactic has been to advocate the message without flaunting the HT brand, and clandestine members use their platform to spread erroneous religious ideas and influence on sincere young Muslims to be suspicious of being British and resentful of wider society. In some respects, the group has gained a degree of legitimacy by piggybacking off the back of anti-Islamophobia campaigns and austerity policies, which has given its speakers access to cross-panel Muslim events that it never previously enjoyed.
We are currently living in a critical period where despite the challenges we face as a faith community, our fundamental responsibility is to ensure that future generations have a deep understanding of their faith and are confident in articulating it within the society they live in. We must learn the lessons from recent history, that tolerating superficial religious rhetoric and sectarian interests, no matter where it emanates from, will simply result in the coming generations inheriting a crisis of faith many of us recognise and have experienced.