The caliphate’s troll vanguard

Late last month, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas found itself with an unforeseen crisis: an invitee who took its promise seriously. His name was Uthman Badar. He belonged to the Islamic extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir and planned to deliver a talk titled ‘Honour killings are morally justified.’ Within twenty-four hours of announcing the topic, the Festival had cancelled the event.

‘It is clear from the public reaction that the title has given the wrong impression of what Mr Badar intended to discuss,’ the press release insisted.

At first the scandal seemed fairly familiar: another Salafist demagogue getting into shit over comments about women, even if defending honour killings was a new low. Except there was something different this time. Badar wasn’t a brassy gym-jock imam like Sheik Feiz Muhammad but a crisply dressed, swottish macroeconomics tutor. He was someone you’d imagine agitating for the IPA or the Cato Institute, not for radical Islam – more in Chris Berg’s league than Samir Abu-Hamza’s.

And despite the uproar provoked, we still haven’t heard Badar’s views about honour killings. The topic is oddly unimportant, even to Badar himself. Given a rare chance by the national media to promulgate his opinions, he’s chosen to deflect the discussion toward issues of free speech. Asked by the ABC’s Tracy Holmes if he supported honour killings, he replied: ‘It doesn’t really matter what I think. It’s been the grounds for hysteria and outrage before I’ve even opened my mouth.’

Shortly before the talk’s cancellation, Badar chided ‘secular liberal Islamophobes’ for ‘going berserk,’ but avoided explaining his position: ‘Sorry guys. I’m actually more interested in talking about Iraq and Syria right now.’ All he promised, cryptically, was that he didn’t advocate ‘honour killings, as understand [sic] in the west.’ When organisers dropped him, he called the fracas ‘an Islamophobe backlash’ and again blamed Western culture: ‘Welcome to the free world, where freedom of expression is a cherished value.’

Not that Badar’s freedom of expression was really on trial. A festival had decided to kick him off its roster – and festivals, last we heard, are allowed to do that. Regardless of some commentators’ language, FODI hasn’t ‘silenced’ him or driven his opinions ‘underground’. Nor is Dee Madigan right to claim that ‘we will never actually know the content of the speech.’ Granted, Badar will never get to say it at the Sydney Opera House, but he can still speak his mind on YouTube or Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Australian website.

Yet all of this ignores the obvious: what if an ‘Islamophobic backlash’ was exactly what Badar and Hizb ut-Tahrir hoped would happen?

First formed as a breakaway group from the Muslim Brotherhood sixty years ago, Hizb ut-Tahrir is an interesting fluke in the realm of radical Islam. Like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, it believes in the creation of a one-world Caliphate to supplant all nation-states, secular ideologies and local cultures. But Hizb ut-Tahrir isn’t interested in winning through violence or military force. Its name is Arabic for ‘Party of Liberation’ and, though it won’t concede  any non-Islamic influences, outsiders regularly describe it as a quasi-Leninist vanguard party.

One of its founding texts, The Concepts of Hizb ut-Tahrir, imagines society as a kettle, and ‘correct ideology’ as ‘a flame whose heat would transform the society to boiling point and then to a dynamic force.’ Rather than participate in secular politics, Hizb ut-Tahrir is focused on ‘culturing’ Muslim populations, establishing cadres and ‘building general awareness about the ideology throughout the Ummah.’

(Swap ‘general awareness’ with ‘class consciousness,’ ‘Ummah’ with ‘Proletariat,’ and this might sound familiar…)

Its nonviolent strategy has left Hizb ut-Tahrir in a bewildering position: the Party of Liberation is banned in almost every Middle Eastern country, yet remains legal throughout the West. The result is a group that’s vastly more self-conscious, adaptive and sensitive to Western culture than the common run of Arab world-focused Salafi organisations.

How indeed do you sell a global Caliphate to non-Muslims (or moderate Muslims with hesitations)? Well, turns out it’s pretty similar to pushing libertarianism as a ‘neither Right nor Left’ cure-all ideology.

Let’s start with the economy, an area where the Hizb ut-Tahrir is determined to out-disruptovate the goldbugs. Here’s Jamal Harwood, a member of the its UK executive committee, explaining how the Caliphate will do Ron Paul better than Ron Paul:

The only system of governance that unequivocally insists upon Gold and Silver as its currency is the Islamic economy as applied by the Islamic State (Caliphate). No fiat money will be issued by the state, and any paper currency must be 100% backed by bullion which is subject to public audit.

Harwood is a former JP Morgan employee with a background in the finance industry. Like Badar, he could also pass easily for a libertarian institute staffer. Indeed, Hizb ut-Tahrir runs a whole website called The Gold Report to promote its monetary policy papers. The main ‘Gold Standard’ report looks as professional as anything released by a secular corporate think-tank in the West.

Hizb ut-Tahrir keeps another set of rhetoric for feminist issues. Like its distant parent the Muslim Brotherhood, it has an auxiliary of ‘Sisters’ who deliver group statements on women’s rights. Their message never changes. Feminism, including ‘Muslim feminism,’ is a false dogma; true respect for women – like everything else – will only appear under the Caliphate.

This aside, the Sisters of Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia haven’t ignored the current rise of intersectionality and online identity politics. One of their declarations begins in language that could easily be confused with Twitter or Tumblr social justice activism. It ridicules ‘the humble leaders of the Western world’ for ‘trying to save the poor Muslim woman’ and rebukes mansplaining ‘saviours’ who ‘are ready to remind us that we’re oppressed and objectified.’

The piece continues:

For a long time, feminist thought, along with other concepts, has been used as a tool to instil doubt and place a yearning in Muslim women to cry out to the Daniel Do-goods of the West and decry Islam while falling into the safety of the white man’s cape.

But the Sisters aren’t just attacking the knotty thing that Twitter calls ‘white feminism’. Their objection is to feminism, full stop. Even ‘Islamic feminism’ is an unacceptable compromise with a secular belief system: ‘Islam provides a solution to all our problems and there is neither a need to look to other ideologies for help nor is there a need to borrow their stained ideology.’

Feminists, the Sisters conclude, should ‘be left to stomp around on the muddy fields and bicker among themselves.’

This hasn’t stopped them from borrowing expressions straight from the New Left. ‘Sexism, like racism, is the product of the power structure,’ they write. It’s soon clear which ‘power structure’ they mean: the authority of so-called ‘local’ sheikhs who resist ‘a total implementation of Islam’ through Caliphate rule. Britain’s offshoot of Hizb ut-Tahrir is similarly eager to blame ‘non-Islamic tribal or traditional cultural practices’ for misogyny in the Middle East – honour killings included. Or, to use that favourite line of libertarians: ‘The real problem is there’s not enough capitalism!’

Echoing the arguments of deregulation zealots, Hizb ut-Tahrir put Islamism’s faults down to inadequate rule of law. Today’s supposed Islamist states are really ‘monarchies, tribal systems, secular dictatorships or republics – structures that all place sovereignty in the hands of human beings’, unlike the Caliphate system, which ‘places sovereignty in legislation in the hands of the Creator with laws extracted purely from Islamic texts.’ (The American Right virtually believes this too. In their hallucinations, it’s the US Constitution upholding an eternal ‘rule of law’ over the fickle, temporal ‘rule of man’ – as if the two were somehow different things.)

Though Hizb ut-Tahrir dismisses honour killings as a ‘tribal’ aberration, its views noticeably change when the question of killing apostates comes up. In May, a Sudanese Sharia court condemned a heavily pregnant woman named Meriam Ibrahim to one hundred lashes plus death by hanging, for fornication and allegedly renouncing Islam. A string of Western governments condemned the verdict and pressured Sudan to overturn it.

Hizb ut-Tahrir’s reaction was a statement affirming that ‘the ruling of the Legislator, Allah the Almighty, for apostasy is death’ and that a Muslim should not ‘seek the satisfaction of the hostile Kaffir West upon the descent of the Shar’i provision.’ The edict also accused Sudan’s government of trying ‘to cause doubt within people against the provisions of Islam’ by ‘describ[ing] them as primitive provisions, excelled by other provisions.’

Closer to home, Uthman Badar may have been scrapped by the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, but it’s surprising this was only his first taste of nationwide infamy. From his perch at the Media Office of Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia, he’s green-lighted – and likely also written – some tremendously yucky apologetics.

Perhaps the ugliest apologia came five months ago. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a 26-year-old man had married a 12-year-old girl in an ‘illegal Islamic ceremony.’ It happened with her father’s blessing.

Badar’s Media Office responded by urging Muslims not to ‘jump to conclusions,’ then launched into a skin-crawling defence of arranged child marriage:

While the broad facts may be true, answers to key questions about consent, possible coercion, the maturity of the girl, the intent of the brother, and the like, which would determine the moral acceptability of the incident or otherwise, are unclear. […]

A clear distinction needs to be drawn between the secular ‘law of the land’ and Islamic law (Sharia). The former is not a basis for moral judgments. Something being illegal according to western law does not make it immoral. Further, the secular law does not stand, in any way, in judgment of Islamic Law. It does not, in any way, qualify or change it. It cannot permit what Allah prohibits or prohibit what Allah permits. Sovereignty is for Allah, not for the law of any land. […]

The welfare of our daughters is of utmost importance and a serious responsibility on fathers and brothers, particularly with respect to their marriage. It may well be deemed by fathers or imams that given modern realities girls should not be married before they reach a certain age, notwithstanding Sharia permissibility for them to marry upon reaching puberty. This is perfectly fine. However, this cannot be imposed universally and neither can the Sharia permissibility be generally prohibited. We must distinguish here between the application of the law and changing it. […]

We should be clear that western secular liberal values do not represent a higher morality and the West is in no position to lecture Muslims on morals or values. On the contrary, the laws in modern secular democracies like Australia are riddled with subjective provisions that are patently wrong. Sexual relationships among ‘minors’ (as young as 10 in some states) are legally sanctioned whilst marriage is not. Extra-marital relations among adults are legally accepted, but polygamy is a crime. The minimum age of marriage is subjectively determined and differs from country to country and even state to state.

Why would Badar go into damage control over such a widely loathed piece of Sharia law? Or agree to a title like ‘Honour killings are morally justified’? Because Hizb ut-Tahrir isn’t fighting the same culture war as the rest of Australia – and their culture war has a handbook to explain it.

In November 2013, Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia released an anxious 124-page report titled Government Intervention in the Muslim Community. Its purpose, Badar explained in the foreword, was ‘to alert the [Muslim] community… to what has become the Government’s key pillar in its agenda against Islam and Muslims, and to impress on them the need to respond to this in the manner demanded by Islam.’

For the Hizb, the true government threat to Islam doesn’t come from ‘hard-power’ counter-terrorism strategies used by ASIO, the police or military, but ‘soft-power’ measures in the form of ‘counter violent extremism’ and community liaison work. The Commonwealth’s goal, claims the Hizb, is promote ‘a state-sanctioned version of Islam – “moderate Islam”: a secular, politically impotent, localised version of Islam.’ This ‘secularised’ Islam ‘informs the theology and morals of Muslims but not their politics and theology more broadly.’

That’s an affront to Hizb ut-Tahrir: without the Caliphate, Muslims are ‘a severed body part of a stateless nation, with no one to represent them or adopt their interests on the world stage.’ Their report portrays Australia’s government almost as a reverse Al-Qaeda, spreading its ideology through ‘purposeful targeting of Muslim youth … in an attempt to mould a new generation of ‘Australian Muslims’ who adopt ‘Australian values’ and practice ‘moderate Islam.’’ Hizb ut-Tahrir takes this seduction of the innocent seriously enough that it has even run a ‘Countering Counter-Extremism Workshop’ in Bankstown for ‘challenging the Australian government’s de-radicalisation policies.’

‘Australian Muslim,’ is of course a phrase that Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Q Society Islamophobes find equally heretical. (The first takes umbrage at the ‘Aussie’ part; for the other, ‘Muslim’ is the offending article.) Nor does either group believe in any degree of ‘moderate Islam’; both consider it a ruse by the Enemy. Crucially, they agree there’s only one Islamic faith: a Salafist world Caliphate. Neither group imagines an Islam limited to private beliefs or reconciled with local or Western cultures. Islam is Islamism, Islamism is Islam; so goes their mutual creed. If Australia had more Salafi extremists, the Q Society’s position would grow stronger. If our cities had more Q Society members, Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ranks would swell too. If either side found itself with a martyr, their gains would be bigger still. (It worked in the Netherlands.)

Badar mightn’t be planning to be the Islamist Theo van Gogh but his strategy depends enough on getting some reaction that his relationship to Islamophobia can only become more symbiotic. Hizb ut-Tahrir doesn’t want to make secular liberalism kinder to Muslims. It wants to persuade the Muslim community that any niceties are a sham and loyalty to Pan-Islamism – more realistically, Hizb ut-Tahrir – should outplay Aussieness:

We cannot see ourselves as a small minority alone in a foreign society. Rather, we are part of a large and powerful ummah with potential that begs to be realised.

Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Government Intervention report suggests ‘re-defining positive and negative media portrayals of Islam.’ For Australia’s counter-counter-extremists, the goal of a ‘positive portrayal’ isn’t multicultural acceptance but clash-of-civilizations trolling to bring out every conceivable antagonism:

A positive portrayal is not anything that has something nice to say about Islam or Muslims, or something that shows Muslims are just like other people. […]

Rather a positive portrayal of Islam is that which gives a fair hearing to those aspects of Islam which do not accord with the secular liberal ideals. Conversely a negative portrayal of Islam is that which demonises those aspects of Islam or attempts to secularise or normalise Islam within the ideological parameters of secular society.

This sums up Badar’s blitz on Western liberalism. It’s naïve to think that his arguments were meant to change his audience’s views so much as short-circuit them, straining relations between Muslims and wider society, feminism and Islam, secular liberals and secular liberals – three partnerships Hizb ut-Tahrir doesn’t want to see. ‘It is imperative for the community to separate truth from falsehood and Islamic from non-Islamic,’ the report advises. ‘We must adopt and promote Islam as a coherent whole and reject and critique secular liberalism as a coherent whole.’

Regrettably, no large belief system – religious or otherwise – has ever been a coherent whole. There’s no such thing as a non-‘localised’ Sunni Islam. Or a non-‘local’ Catholicism, not even in Vatican City. Maybe Scientology is still a coherent whole. It hasn’t so far spawned a drove of theological schools or conflicting hadiths. But when a belief grows rapidly into something more successful than a small persecuted cult, schisms are inevitable. All that rises must diverge! That’s as valid for Christianity, Buddhism or (frankly) Marxism as it is for Islam, which was branching into sects and traditions as soon as it began spreading through the Middle East. A map of the Muslim world’s different schools of morality is virtually also a map of its expansion routes. As Tom Lehrer sang: ‘I got it from Agnes, she got it from Jim…’

That’s why Hizb ut-Tahrir gives the government way too much credit for the fact that most Australian Muslims don’t yearn to form a Salafist Caliphate. It wasn’t Commonwealth social engineering that made the Khilafah state a fringe view. Instead it was that unutterably fearful thing: Islam’s aggressive worldwide growth. Today, Indonesia has more than twice as many Muslims as the Arabian Peninsula. Sub-Saharan Africa has three times as many. Less than 15 percent of the world’s Muslim population is Middle Eastern. The small-pond geography that allowed a true Islam-spanning Caliphate to work in the 7th century no longer exists. (Imagine running Australia from Alice Springs and you’ll know why Medina didn’t last long as a political centre after Muhammad.)

Nonetheless, Hizb ut-Tahrir shouldn’t despair. Even in a scorched land of heathen secular liberals, the Khilafah’s great resuscitators can count on an honest voice to back them in their struggle.

One Nation’s Stephanie Banister made it clear: ‘I don’t oppose Islam as a country.’

Ramon Glazov

Ramon Glazov is a Perth-based writer and journalist. His writing has appeared in Jacobin, The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. He is the translator of Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin (Liveright, 2017).

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