Five years ago, most Western observers did not consider Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) much of a threat—its goal of overthrowing governments in order to replace them with a caliph who would implement Sharia law seemed unrealistic and unlikely to resonate with Muslims raised in the West. Even though HT did manage to exploit political circumstances to gain a foothold in certain regions, such as in Central Asia, overall it was perceived as stagnant. During the last five years, however, turbulent world events and the changing tide of public opinion toward the United States has given HT a framework to advance its agenda. Five years ago, scholars estimated HT had a presence in approximately 40 countries . Today, that estimation has risen to more than 45 countries. During the last five years, several branches became large enough and strong enough to transition from their covert gestational phase to a publicly active stage, including those in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Malaysia, Palestine, Pakistan, Turkey and Bangladesh. Its membership has swelled, putting on track its objective of persuading the global ummah that the establishment of a caliphate—ostensibly through non-violent means—is essential to reverse the decline of Islamic society. Globally, HT presents itself as confident and optimistic, and it is progressing according to the strategy its founding members outlined in 1953 . Hizb-ut-Tahrir America (HTA) is enjoying a similar pattern of progress.
In its first 13 years of development, HTA was perceived as being too small and ineffective to present any kind of serious threat (Orange County Register, August 25, 2005). Its founders, most of whom immigrated to the United States from the Middle East as adults in the early 1980s, had a hard time overcoming cultural differences with their young American target audience, and they were sometimes unable to compete with other extremist groups with more money, more aggressive strategies and better established operations. However, the HTA founders managed to bring in enough committed members during the first 10 years to secure the party’s future. HTA has continued to evolve, using the same methodology as its other branches and is now exhibiting signs of vitality.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir in America: Temporary Setbacks and Long-Term Successes
Like every HT branch around the world, HTA’s foundation began with a “nucleus” of committed members . Chief among them were Palestinian-Jordanian Iyad Hilal, an Orange County, California-based grocer, who was most actively engaged in HTA’s development from the late 1980s to the beginning of 2000, and Mohammed Malkawi, a computer engineer based in the Chicago area (Spotlight on Terror, March 23, 2004). Both had been long-time members of HT in their home countries. Hilal and his associates initiated HT activities in New York and in Orange County simultaneously, while Malkawi and his associates established party roots in Wisconsin and Chicago.
HTA’s growth has been comparatively slow to other countries; however, what may have been counted as impediments to their growth initially have either been overcome or may now be considered assets. The first obstacle was the mentality of its founders, who were accustomed to conditions in the Middle East, where HT is banned in most countries. They constantly worried about “spies” infiltrating their circles and the name “Hizb-ut-Tahrir” was only mentioned in whispers outside of their meetings, which were conducted sub rosa . Such a degree of secrecy is practical when running a subversive political movement, but the cloak-and-dagger atmospherics seemed bizarre to young Muslims in the pre-9/11 era and many chose not to continue their association with HTA . In post-9/11 America, however, where many Muslims do not feel free to express dissent, HTA’s secretive method of operations could now be considered advantageous. In fact, HTA has grown without much public scrutiny and with little remark from journalists and scholars.
Another contributing factor to HTA’s slow growth may have been the founders’ reluctance to allow their students and new recruits to interact on the internet. They feared the free interaction between members in cyberspace would compromise HTA’s covert development of a party apparatus. Again, many of their young American adherents found these limitations ridiculous and chose to ignore the restrictions . The younger generation’s pioneering spirit has made HTA one of the most innovative extremist groups in terms of its use of new media as a means of marketing its ideology. Some of their marketing schemes have included hip hop fashion boutiques, hip hop bands, use of online social networks, use of video sharing networks, chat forums and blogs . Their ability to stay one step ahead of the trend curve has ensured their efforts endure, and their ever-changing tactics make adversarial scrutiny more difficult.
Turf battles have been an ongoing issue throughout HTA’s development. Sometimes HTA wins control over the mosque, Islamic community center, or student association it has set its sights on, other times it has been stymied by its inability to compete for recruits with better-funded organizations that have had a long-term presence in the United States, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. HT is a self-funded organization that only has its ideology and inexpensive propaganda campaigns with which to compete. Hilal’s first base of operations, the Islamic Society of Orange County, was rife with conflict between extremist factions vying for control over the mosque, including associates of al-Qaeda (New Yorker, January 22). Hilal’s small HT faction was not allied with the group that had control over the mosque, and when they attempted to entice recruits by distributing their magazine Khalifornia, they were forced to stop by the mosque’s board of directors (Orange County Register, August 25, 2005). Hilal did have better luck in Queens, New York, where his counterparts took over a small, out-of-the-way storefront mosque which was used as a base for their front operation, group meetings, conferences and editorial offices of their HT primer, thinly disguised as a news magazine called Ar-Raya . Hilal moved to his current base of operations, the Islamic Center of San Gabriel Valley, in light of the ongoing impediments at the Islamic Society of Orange County . There are informal indications that Hilal continues to use his weekend classes to present HT ideology, although he denies any ongoing ties to HTA (Orange County Register, August 25, 2005).
HTA’s presence in the United States was not limited to the two coasts. Some of HTA’s most influential members are in the Midwest, including Palestinian-Jordanian Mohammed Malkawi (also known as Abu Talha), formerly a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, and Muslim convert Jaleel Abdul-Adil, currently a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Abdul-Adil is perhaps the most charismatic of the identified members of HTA. He has spoken at major HT conferences in Britain, and was featured in a July 2007 video produced by members of HT Britain to promote their 2007 Khilafah Conference, making Abdul-Adil the first representative of HTA to be publicly identified as such .
Despite a few bumps from the start, HTA has made inroads, recruiting enough loyal followers to generate momentum for the party’s growth in the United States. As per their global strategy, HTA counts well-educated professionals who are influential in their communities among their members, including doctors, lawyers, business owners, scientists, engineers and university professors. In addition, HTA’s online presence reveals that their membership has blossomed beyond New York, Orange County, Chicago and Milwaukee.
HTA likely plays an important role in the global HT network due to its success in the new media arena and its access to international students, who study at American universities for several years before they return to their home countries. Naveed Butt, the influential spokesman for HT Pakistan, was recruited to HT when he resided in the United States. After graduating from the University of Illinois, he worked for Motorola at the same time as Mohammed Malkawi (Dawn, November 9, 2003). The fact that such a high-ranking member was recruited in the United States is an important victory for the party on the whole.
Even though it is unlikely that HTA will initiate violence, it may serve as a starting point in the radicalization process (Foreign Affairs, November/December 2005). There have been several cases of individuals passing through the HT ranks and then moving on to more militant organizations, as was the case with Tel Aviv pub bomber Omar Sharif, and Abu Issa al-Hindi, who plotted to attack several New York-based financial targets (New Statesman, April 24, 2006). However, at this point in their development, because the United States does not have the same incendiary social conditions as in Europe, HTA is unlikely to have as many recruits and students going through the indoctrination process as they have in many other countries. Nevertheless, HTA’s ambition to exacerbate tensions and to promote the lack of participation in American social and political systems should not be discounted . HT provides organization to Muslim communities’ feelings of disaffection and marginalization, as it has in the UK, Denmark and Australia. If rifts continue to grow between Muslims in the United States and the federal government, HTA will position itself to step in to exploit tensions.
1. Ariel Cohen, Hizb ut-Tahrir: An Emerging Threat to U.S. Interests in Central Asia, The Heritage Foundation, May 30, 2003.
2. “The Methodology of Hizb ut-Tahrir for Change,” Al-Khilafah Publications, http://www.khilafah.com/kcom/.
4. Author interview with former student of HTA, December 2004.
7. See, for example, khalifahklothing.com; hip-hop bands Soldiers of Allah, Al Nasr Productions and Arab Legion; social networks on Orkut and Facebook; chat forums such as www.trustislam.com, which was shutdown in late 2005.
8. The Masjid al-Fatima is located on 37th Avenue in Woodside, Queens. The front HTA worked behind was called the Islamic Dawah Center.
9. See, for example, http://www.icsgv.com/classes.html.
10. Abdul-Adil was a speaker at the 2000 Khilafah Conference in Birmingham, England. For the 2007 promotional video featuring Abdul-Adil, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfMy2goXLSY.
11. “The Methodology of Hizb ut-Tahrir for Change,” Al-Khilafah Publications, http://www.khilafah.com/kcom/.