Extremists with caliphate on their minds, not bombs in their belts
July 03, 2010
A member of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia shouts "Allahu Akbar!" (God is great) at the International Caliphate Conference at Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta August 12, 2007.
Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir eschews violence, but it has no problem with incendiary rhetoric about the demise of Western democracy
WITH his neat beard, wire-rimmed glasses and woollen suit coat over a checked sweater, Uthman Badar has the look of a youthful professor. But the words of the mild-mannered economics PhD student sipping hot chocolate at a Turkish cafe in western Sydney carry the zeal of a revolutionary.
“Democracy is a bankrupt and irrational idea” and “all indicators are pointing to the decline and inevitable collapse of Western ideology”, Badar opines. In the meantime, those dedicated to justice and progress must struggle against “those who seek to live decadent lives off the sweat and blood of the vast majority of humanity”.
Badar is spokesman for the Australian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamist organisation dedicated to the creation of a transnational Islamic state governed purely by sharia law. In pursuit of that vision, he and an expected 1000 fellow HT members will gather in Sydney this weekend for an international conference to promote their cause.
As Badar knows, Australia`s spy agency ASIO and counter-terrorism authorities will be keeping a close eye on the event. HT is banned in many countries and, while it has avoided being outlawed in Australia, the views it espouses are regarded by the authorities as dangerously extreme.
Badar insists Australians have nothing to fear, as HT is “avowedly nonviolent” and has no wish to make Australia part of its caliphate. “All we do is talk,” he says.
A contrary view is this assessment from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute: “T`s platform forbids its members from acts of terror. There`s no clear evidence of HT engaging in the preparation of terrorism. HT`s incitement and encouragement of religious hatred may be enough, however, to convince Islamists to perpetrate terrorist acts.”
ASIO will no doubt find plenty to listen to as HT members from Australia and abroad discuss subjects such as the Western push to ban the burka, the Australian government`s role in “the war on Islam”, and the campaign for a caliphate, described as “the obligation of the age”.
The speakers will include senior Australian HT member Ismail Al-Wahwah who, along with other delegates, was banned from entering Indonesia for an HT conference in 2007, and British veteran Burhan Hanif, who is responsible for university and campus recruitment in Britain.
The theme of the conference, to be held in Sydney`s Lidcombe, is “The struggle for Islam in the West”. As Badar explains it, all things Islamic are under attack -- the burka, minarets, mosques, values and loyalties -- and Muslims must fight to defend them.
He says the struggle is not between Islam and Christianity, but between Islam and secular Western democracy, which he believes is crumbling. He says counter-terrorism is a facade to justify attacking Muslims: “The risk of dying in a vehicle accident is 470 times higher than from terrorism, yet billions of dollars are spent on countering terrorism.”
It is the vitriolic language in its literature, press releases and pronouncements that draws much of the heat on HT. Western treatment of Muslims is condemned as “brutal, vicious and inhumane``, Barack Obama`s foreign policy is ``as brutal and barbaric as that of his predecessor`` and Australia`s is ``shameless slavery to the US”. On the subject of the war on terror: “With things like the rule of law and due legal process done away with, the result is the laying bare of a worthless and animalist ideology not worthy of human subscription.” As for Israel, says Badar: “It is an illegitimate state, an occupation. It has to be removed.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir – “the party of liberation” -- was formed in Palestine in 1953 with the aim of restoring the caliphate founded by the prophet Mohammed. It operates in more than 40 countries, with an estimated one million adherents, including 5000 to 10,000 hardcore members, says Clive Williams, head of terrorism studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Its central leadership, headed by a Palestinian engineer, Abu Yasin Ata ibn Khalil Abu Rashta, is believed to be based somewhere in the Middle East. A statement on the HT website says, “Due to the extreme persecution faced by our members in the Muslim world, we do not aid the tyrannical rulers by revealing the precise whereabouts of the party`s leadership.”
Williams says the central leadership controls dozens of national branches while the party follows a cell structure. Each cell typically has five members. Badar will not reveal the size of HT`s membership in Australia but says it is run by a five-member committee, headed by a longstanding Sydney member, Ashraf Dourehi.
HT is banned in China, Egypt, Jordan and much of the Middle East and Central Asia, where it opposes secular regimes it regards as despotic ``agents of Western powers``. It has also been banned from public activity in Germany for distributing anti-Semitic literature.
HT claims to be “avowedly nonviolent” and does not condone terrorist acts aimed at civilians such as the 9/11 attacks or the Bali bombings. “Islam does not allow the targeting of innocent people, anyone not involved in war is beyond the bounds,” Badar says. This position has prompted one militant group affiliated with al-Qaeda to criticise HT as “too soft”. But its vow of nonviolence does not apply to Israel, Afghanistan or Iraq.
“When we talk about the question of violence, we mean in regard to the establishment of an Islamic state; it`s not a case of we`re against violence, full stop,” Badar says. “When it comes to Israel, it`s a completely different issue.”
He says Israel has to be removed militarily and HT supports any and all attempts to do so. As to whether this includes suicide bombing, Badar says Islamic jurists have differing opinions. One view is: “If you`re fighting an invader and you have no other means and you make the ultimate sacrifice, that is recognised . . . an act of sacrifice to the end of repelling the invasion, within the principles of Islam, that`s a good thing.”
The same applies to the war in Afghanistan, which HT sees as illegitimate. Asked whether the obligation to fight the invaders includes killing Australian troops, Badar answers, “No comment”, then adds: “I don`t want them killed, I want them home.”
Some Western commentators have labelled HT a “conveyor belt for terrorists”.
“There`s plenty of evidence they`ve contributed to a mood where people can move easily from absorbing these extreme views to taking action,” ASPI`s Anthony Bergin says. “I think the language they`re using is dangerous in that they`re promoting an us-and-them type mentality, they`re promoting the idea of exclusion and a sense of distrust in the community. And while they`re very careful to keep under the radar in terms of promoting violence, their material is very much along the lines of what would lead a person to adopt extremist views. And you don`t become a terrorist until you`ve got extremist views.”
The British and Australian governments have grappled with whether to ban HT. In 2005, in the wake of the London bombings and reports that HT was linked to the bombers, the Blair government announced it would proscribe the organisation. When the reported links were not substantiated, the proposed ban was dropped. HT has posted on its website excerpts from documents it says it obtained from the Home Office under freedom of information laws, which state: “HT is an independent political party that is active in many countries across the world. [Its] activities centre on intellectual reasoning, logic arguments and political lobbying . . . it considers violence or armed struggle against the regime, as a method to re-establish the Islamic state, a violation of the Islamic sharia.” The British undersecretary of state told the House of Lords in January “no further evidence has emerged” since 2005 that would justify a ban but HT is “kept under continuous review”.
Terrorism specialist Clive Walker of the Leeds University law school says the British intelligence community does not support a ban because it would deny them intelligence on HT and enable the group to portray itself as a victim of Western hypocrisy and Islamophobia. “Unless they actually advocate violence, which they do not, then they should not be banned . . . this is not Nazi Germany. The extremists are not about to seize power, they attract marginal support.”
The Australian government considered proscribing HT in 2007, when its first big conference in Sydney prompted calls for a ban. However, then attorney-general Philip Ruddock told parliament ASIO had advised there was no basis ``at present`` for a ban. “As I understand it, Hizb ut-Tahrir members overseas have called for attacks in the Middle East and Central Asia, but here in Australia -- and I use these words deliberately -- it is not known to have planned, assisted in or fostered any violent acts, which are the current legislative tests under the criminal code for proscription.” That situation has not changed.
Australian experts such as Williams and Bergin do not support a ban, but say HT should be closely monitored. Bergin suggests spending some of the $9.7 million allocated for counter-radicalisation in the budget on a website to promote moderate Islam to counter the HT view.
HT`s Australian devotees are scornful of such suggestions. Badar rejects the notion of “moderate Islam” as a watered-down version “conjured up by Western governments, that`s characterised by being secular, apolitical and localized”. Interfaith dialogue, too, is spurned. “Our view is Islam is the correct religion, to the exclusion of all others. The idea that they`re equal is baloney.”
Badar says the campaign against “extremists” is just another way of attacking Muslims. “Western governments have shifted from speaking about terrorism itself to focusing on the `ideology of terrorism`. Even those who undertake no material or violent actions have also been labelled as extremist or radical, simply because they propagate Islamic ideas.”
Despite all the obstacles, Badar says he`s confident the caliphate will come to pass within his lifetime. He says support is growing throughout the Muslim world and Western secular civilisation is doomed, unlikely as it may seem. “If we had predicted the end of the Soviet Union, people would have laughed,” he notes.
Badar believes the caliphate will begin with an Islamic state in a country such as Pakistan or Egypt, and spread steadily through grassroots support and military might to eventually cover all Muslim majority countries and lands previously under Islamic rule, such as Spain and The Philippines. He says Christians and Jews will be welcome as long as they submit to Islamic law.
“There`s nothing about our ideas that is dangerous, except to those that seek to maintain the status quo of exploitation of the masses. Certainly we are a threat to them, and they should be worried. But to those who seek mutual progress for all people, we only have good to offer.”
© Copyright 2010 News Ltd. All Rights Reserved
Is monarchy the answer in the Middle East?
July 03, 2010
Sholto Byrnes talks to Bernard Lewis, our greatest living expert on Islam, who says that what both Afghanistan and Iraq really need is a king
The name Bernard Lewis provokes very different reactions in different people. For some he is the world`s foremost historian of Islam and the Middle East, the English academic who originally coined the term `clash of civilisations` (as Samuel Huntingdon, who popularised it, freely acknowledged). For some he is a Princeton man, a neocon who celebrated his 90th birthday (four years ago) with Cheney and Kissinger; whose `Lewis Doctrine` was said to have inspired the invasion of Iraq and botched the war on terror. For still others he is an international sage, who saw the threat of both Khomeini and bin Laden before most people had even heard of them. Or, if you believe the late Edward Said, Lewis is `an old-fashioned colonialist` with `an extraordinary capacity for getting everything wrong`.
`As long as I am accused by both sides, I feel justly confident, ` says Lewis laughing.
`Edward Said`s ideas on orientalism were totally a historical, and some of his mistakes were so absurd I had to put them down to honest impartial ignorance. But I have lived for a very long time, and many changes have taken place within the Muslim world.`
They most certainly have. For the first few decades of his life, Islam was a very positive influence in Lewis`s life. In 1937 he took the top first in his year at London University and, having already mastered Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, moved to Paris to learn Turkish and Persian. `The teacher was Turkish, we communicated in French, and the only textbook was in Italian, ` he chuckles. `That`s how I learned Persian.` Then in 1950 he was one of the first non-Turks to be allowed into the Ottoman archives - `I was utterly delighted, it was like an Aladdin`s cave.` But about recent changes, Lewis is very worried indeed.
In his new book, Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East, the odd sentence suddenly jolts the reader out of the glories of Islam`s past and into a more sinister present: `Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us, ` he writes. Isn`t that a little apocalyptic? `They are advancing, there is no doubt, ` responds Lewis, who says that Europe faces two forms of attack - terror and migration. `The extent to which they are taking over Europe. . . If present demographic trends continue, they will become the majority.`
Lewis has consistently written with admiration about Islam, and has frequently made clear that bin Laden and his followers are wrong to claim religious justification for their activities - `at no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder. At no point do they even consider the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders.` Why, then, does he fear such an advance? `It`s a threat because of the present form of Islam.
If it wasn`t for oil and money, Wahhabism would have been a local cult in the Nejd desert. But the Saudis` immense wealth and influence has spread Wahhabism all over the world. And it`s doing much better in Europe than in the Islamic world. Most of the Turks who have been arrested for being militant are from Germany, not from Turkey, where religious teaching is more controlled.`
Not that he thinks that Turkey is the beacon of hope it used to be. Lewis believed the West-looking secular state imposed by Kemal Ataturk could be a model for other Muslim countries, but the AKP government of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in power since 2003, is Islamist-leaning and close to both Hezbollah and Hamas. In the aftermath of the killing of nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara, Turkey is reported to be considering cutting diplomatic ties with Israel altogether. `I find it very alarming. Erdogan wants to change the whole direction. He`s gradually taking over the country step by step, universities, the police - he`s got everything except the judiciary.` Mind you, he adds of the country so dear to his heart: `It`s not a lost cause. I`m not giving up on Turkey.`
About Iran, Lewis is now `cautiously hopeful`. `There is opposition to the regime and there is opposition within the regime. It can be replaced by internal change.` Trying to `make nice` with Tehran, he says, `seems to me absurd`. (It is the only Americanism to pass his lips during our 90-minute conversation. Despite having moved to Princeton from a chair at SOAS in 1974, his accent is still that of his childhood in Kensington. ) But he is against military intervention. `We must not give them a gift they do not enjoy, patriotism. Iran, as opposed to the post-world war creations in the Middle East, is a real nation with a history going back millennia. There is a strong sense of common identity.` If Ahmadinejad went, would Iran still be a theocracy - or could it become a Western-style liberal democracy? `I think that`s possible.`
What about Afghanistan and Iraq: should we stay? `Having gone in, I think we have a duty to finish the job, cut and run is not a good policy. In both we should not stay longer than absolutely necessary, we should try to work out methods of handing over. You know, ` he continues, launching into one of the many anecdotes that pepper his conversation, `the Afghanistan I went to 40 years ago was known as the Switzerland of Asia. I heard it so many times that when I was on a plane from Kabul and an Afghan said it to me again, I pointed to my wristwatch and said, “When you can make one like that I`ll believe you.” He roared with laughter.`
It is the type of government that Afghanistan enjoyed under its monarchy that he believes could point to a form of democracy compatible with Islam. `There was some level of consultation and mutual respect.
Democratic ideas, in the sense of limited authority, go back to classical Islam. When a new sultan was enthroned the crowds greeted him by saying, “Sultan, do not be proud, God is greater than you.” His subjects, in effect, had rights. Sharia states quite clearly that if the ruler does something against the law he must not be obeyed and disobedience is justified. There wasn`t an electoral system, but there were very elaborate systems of consultation with tribal chiefs, field heads, merchant and craft guilds.`
Lewis contrasts this with the power of European monarchies at the time. He tells the story of the French ambassador to Istanbul in 1786, who had to explain his lack of progress in persuading the Ottomans to enact some military reforms. `Things here are not as they are in France, where the king is sole master, ` he wrote home. `The sultan has to consult.`
Returning to Iraq, I say it is hard to reconcile the cautious historian who warns against the dangers of premature democratisation with the bellicose neocon we are told urged the White House into battle. `I`m perplexed, ` I tell him. `I`m perplexed, too!` he replies.
`It`s a misrepresentation.` People talked to him, he says - Cheney in particular - and sometimes they listened, sometimes not. In fact, he claims that invading Iraq was `not the idea` at all. What he and his friend Ahmad Chalabi wanted was a declaration of support for the northern zone, which had operated out of Saddam`s reach since the first Gulf war. `It was practically independent and was really a very effective, functioning democracy. On two occasions at least they said they would like to proclaim an Independent Government of Free Iraq. They didn`t need military or financial support.` Just a declaration from the US. `They asked the Clinton administration and the Bush administration, but they never got it. That`s what I and Chalabi were asking for.`
Did he think this could have led to Saddam`s regime unravelling? `I`m sure it would. They were doing an excellent job and they had extensive support in the remainder of Iraq.
It would have served as an example to other countries.` One idea, favoured by Lewis, was for Prince Hassan of Jordan (the late King Hussein`s brother) to become Iraq`s king. He was a member of the same Hashemite family as the country`s former monarchs, and `a number of people thought the best prospect for democracy would have been a monarchy on British lines. Of the democracies that have been democracies for a long time and continue to be so, most are monarchies.`
He is, I think, a conservative (his work contains too many nuances and warnings for the `neocon` label to stick), with a great affection for the peoples and religion of the Middle East and a romantic attachment to their past. Far from being a `propagandist` against his subject material, he assigns much of the region`s trouble to the malign influence of Western ideas. He even calls anti-Semitism `a comparatively recent import from Europe to the world of Islam` - and he is Jewish.
`To hate and persecute people who are different is normal. Anti-Semitism is something different, a tribute to the Jews, a diabolical quality of evil.` Jews in Islamic lands did have problems, he says, but it was the Christians who were the real threat. Jews were merely considered cowardly by Arabs. He tells an old Ottoman joke: `Before they imported European anti-Semitism, at the time of the Balkan war, the Jews in Istanbul wanted to make a contribution. Could they form a Jewish brigade? The Ottomans said yes, armed and equipped them. Then, when they were ready to set out, the Jews said could they have a police escort - because there were bandits on the way.` He pauses. `You wouldn`t call that anti-Semitic, would you? It`s amused contempt, not the idea of a cosmic evil.`
Although he is `not optimistic`, fearing for the future of the `good Islam` he respects, he sounds stoical about his own prospects. `I`m 94, and all the people I knew are dead.` To what does he attribute his longevity and vigour? `Genes, ` he says. `And I have a Scotch before dinner every evening.`
Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.
© The Spectator (1828) Limited 2010