By: NOMAN HANIF
Published: July 8, 2007
On the 4th of July, 2007, in the British House of Commons, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron in his first public exchange with the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown launched an attack on the government for not having proscribed the Islamic movement Hizb ut Tahrir. According to Cameron: “We need to act against groups which are seeking to radicalise young people. Almost two years ago, the Government said that they would ban the extremist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir. We think it should be banned—why has it not happened?"
Gordon Brown seemed surprisingly to have been caught off guard by the question. Especially, as is convention, he would have been provided advance warning to prepare and respond. Hence his reply was quite perplexing in attemting to avoid the question and dealing in generalities about expanding the measures on terrorism. The best he could muster was a general statement on evidentiary requirement. Cameron however persisted with his questioning on the government’s handling of Hizb-ut-Tahrir pushing Brown on specifics: “A very interesting answer, but I asked a specific question. The Prime Minister said that we need evidence about Hizb ut-Tahrir. That organisation says that Jews should be killed wherever they are found.
What more evidence do we need before we ban that organisation? It is poisoning the minds of young people. Two years ago, the Government said that it should be banned. I ask again: when will this be done?
Brown tried to give Cameron the slip by assuring him that, “We can ban it under the Prevention of Terrorism Act – of course”. It was left ultimately to the intervention of former Home Office minister, John Reid who argued that there had been two reviews carried out by the government wherein it had decided not to ban the group. The issue of evidence was the baseline argument. John Reid stated:
“I therefore ask the Prime Minister to stay absolutely on the course that he set today, and to stick by the law and the evidence and not to be swayed by any arbitrary political advantage that he thinks might be gained…Nothing would be more politically disadvantageous than taking on a case without evidence and losing it. That would confirm all the accusations made against us by our opponents”
In my article entitled “The Future of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Britain,” I made the argument that the British government was merely going through the motions in respect to proscribing HT. Rather it had a higher political agenda which was to temper HT domestically and utilise it internationally. To a large extent the British government has been successful in its approach which has followed a defined strategy involving;
1. Maintaining the threat of proscription under Anti-Terrorism legislation in order to pressurise HTB into ideological compromise.
2. The heavy utilisation of compliant former HT members in the media in order to sustain a suggestive link between HTB and terrorism.
3. To use HTB’s security vulnerability in the UK to influence the movement from within.
4. To openly promote HT pragmatists through the media, with the aim of building platforms for engagement.
This policy has achieved a considerable measure of success largely due to the pragmatism of the current HTB leadership which has moved intellectual mountains to avoid proscription by bringing HTB closer to the mainstream of British politics. One has to situate David Cameron’s exchange within the context of this background. The failure to proscribe HTB by Tony Blair and the Labour government strategy towards HTB has perplexed many analysts. Whether Cameron is privy to Labour’s policy and strategy is an open question. Was the House of Commons exchange a real frustration on the part of Cameron or was it politically staged as part of this strategy with Cameron and elements of the media firmly within the esoteric policy loop. Although John Reid’s statement seems to indicate that Cameron may be an outsider and an irritant, the timing of Cameron’s comments along with a series of events within the current political and security climate may allude to another line of argument.
On the 24th of June, 2007, HTB announced on its website that Abdul Wahid had been appointed as the new Chairman of the Executive Committee. Abdul Wahid replaced one of the key pragmatist’s Canadian convert Jamal Harwood who would continue to remain part of the committee (www.hizb.org.uk). Abdul Wahid a doctor from London is a well known member of HTB having represented the movement in the media on numerous occasions. He has been central to the process of moderating and pragmatising HTB’s approach. He was a key proponent of the HTB local election campaigns and was instrumental in promoting a democratic friendly language for the elections. In those campaigns, the ideologically charged language of “democracy is Kufr(non-Islamic)” was shunned in favour of elections not being in the “interests” of Muslims, which by default legitimises the democratic process. Hence, his appointment further consolidates the dominant pragmatic influence in the HTB leadership committee. Abdul Wahid’s moderation was also picked up by Ed Hussein, former HT activist, author of ‘The Islamist and a close confidant of the UK security services who disclosed his assessment of Abdul Wahid prior to Wahid’s appointment as Chairman:
“I am aware that the current pressure that Hizb faces will ostensibly unite moderates such as Abdul Wahid with the extremists wing of Hizb, but the intellectual divisions are sufficiently deep to resurface repeatedly soon” (www.theislamist.tumblr.com)
The media clearly seems to have been briefed about Abdul Wahid’s moderation. For only this can explain why the UK Daily Telegraph on the 28th of June, 2007, took the decision to heavily promote Abdul Wahid. In a review of the Blair years, under the shocking title “The Great and the Good”, the paper promoted Abdul Wahid as the only non-English and Muslim personality amongst a host of exclusive former dignitaries. Wahid had been chosen over close establishment favourites such as Sir Iqbal Saccranie, Lord Nazir, Shahid Malik etc. Furthermore, he had been presented explicitly as a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. It is highly improbable that this was an oversight.
It seems highly likely that David Cameron’s Parliament onslaught on HT would have been situated in the context of testing this new HTB appointment. As mentioned above, the main part of Labour’s overall pressure has been the sword of terrorism. Cameron’s attack comes in the wake of the heavy securitised environment created by the London and Glasgow bombings. Brown’s statement that “We can ban it under the Prevention of Terrorism Act – of course” was equally suggestive as was Reid’s timely intervention in returning matters to the status quo. The media’s involvement in this strategy was further explicit when BBC’s Newsnight programme on the 3rd of July broadcast an interview with former HT member turned BBC advisor, Shiraz Maher. Newsnight’s agenda with Maher was blatantly obvious. It was to maintain pressure on HTB by perpetuating the possibility of links between HTB and terrorism.
In the interview Maher talks of being an associate of Glasgow airport bomb suspect Iraqi doctor Bilal Abdullah whilst at Cambridge, the crucial insinuation being his membership and activity with HT at that time. The tactic seemed to have worked with Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman on the 5th of July, after another exposé from Maher announced that HTB had contacted the programme while on air and denied any links with the Glasgow bombers. It is important to point out that HT is dogmatically political in its methodology and there exists absolutely no evidence of any HT involvement whether domestic or abroad of terrorist involvement. This issue is well understood about HT globally. For this reason the consistent agenda pushing of the HT-terrorist link puts huge question marks on the credibility of Shiraz Maher and Ed Hussein as mere neutral observers.
Cameron’s focus on HT’s position towards the Jews could also be construed as part of the continuum of the general strategy aimed at ideological degradation. It is here where the results of the government pressure in moderating HTB have been quite spectacular. In order to avoid proscription and fall foul of the race laws, HTB has removed from its website all Koranic and other references to the Jews and the destruction of the Israeli state. Instead the vocabulary of ‘Zionism’ has been inserted along with logical and political argumentation for a unified Palestinian state.
Moreover, HTB puts forward the argument that they are not against the Jews because they have protected status as “dhimmi” under Islam. In essence this argument is a deviation from its own ideological understanding which considers the concept of “dhimmi” only applicable under the concept of an Islamic state. Since there is no Caliphate or true Islamic state, the default position according to HT’s own original understanding is a state of war with the Jews because of their chastisement by the Koran and the considered illegality of the Jewish occupation of Palestine in the form of the Israeli state. The measure of the success in the British strategy was evident in one of the most astonishing leaflets on the Palestinian issue ever released in the history of HT entitled ‘Palestine – Why Only a One State Solution Will Work‘, June 7, 2007. The leaflet was a complete rationalisation of the conflict supported by arguments from former Israeli PM, Ben Gurion instead of the customary Koran and hadith. Amongst the five reasons rationalised for a unified state the most bizarre seems to have been:
“According to demographic trends, Muslims will outnumber Jews in 10 years or so and polls have clearly shown their preference for Islamic rule and hence a rejection of the so called 'roadmap' which would hand most of Palestine including Jerusalem to the Israelis.”
With this success in mind, it is unlikely the British government would be interested in proscription. Undoubtedly the British government would want to push HT’s boundaries further towards the recognition of Israel and the two state solution. David Cameron’s agenda regarding the jewish issue merely enhances the strategy.
The interesting question however relates to the strategy of Labour’s engagement with HTB. Because of HT’s belligerent ideological conception towards Britain, political engagement is a very sensitive issue for the movement. HT is very quick to draw conclusions of agency regarding individuals and movements who engage with Western governments. However, Imran Waheed and Jamal Harwood, two of the most influential and senior members of the HTB executive committee have taken steps to actively engage with the British political establishment. On March, 2006, Waheed and Harwood accepted an invitation from Labour peer Claire Short to address the political establishment at the House of Commons. There was an information blackout on this meeting by HTB, the details of which were only released on a blog from a participant in the meeting. Although the extent and nature of their engagement requires further investigation and analysis, the main point is that Waheed and Harwood have provided the platform. The duality of Labour’s good cop bad cop approach is also consistent with the style adopted by David Cameron. His public posture in pushing for the proscription of radical and extremist movements is not consistent with his appointment of personnel relating to community relations. His choice of shadow minister for social cohesion Sayeeda Warsi is an open advocate of engagement with these movements. Warsi’s appointment is no accident. Cameron’s duality is confirmed by the fact that he has stuck with Warsi despite the attack on her appointment by the Conservative think tank, The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom. According to the director Nigel Gardiner: “The appointment by the Conservative Party of Sayeeda Warsi as Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion sends the wrong signal at a time when Britain is fighting a global war against Islamic terrorism and extremism, both domestically and internationally.” (ConservativeHome, June 4, 2007)
The appointment of Warsi is the firmest indicator that Cameron is in sync with the Labour strategy having the potential to utilise Warsi for a backdoor engagement with HTB. The question is whether this engagement has already occurred with HTB. In a dramatic turn of events Sky news on the 5th of July, 2005, revealed that David Cameron’s office in August, 2006 wrote to Jamal Harwood in reply to a letter from HTB. Sky news quoted that Cameron’s staff wrote;
“ David is most grateful to you for your comments on relationships between Western governments and the Muslim world…He fully takes on board the points put across to him in correspondence from members of the public and it is very helpful of you to have taken the trouble to write…your comments are noted and appreciated..” (Full letter can now be found on hizb.org.uk)
The letter seems also to have caught out HTB, because they had not publicized the exchange. What could possibly have been the purpose and timing of the letter by Sky news is unclear. Was it aimed to provide cover for the possibility of contact for Cameron? Was it a warning for Cameron to lay off Labour policy? Or was it simply to test the new HTB appointment? No doubt the reality of Cameron’s intentions and position vis-à-vis HTB will become clearer in time.
Meanwhile both HTB and the Cameron office seem to have gone on the defensive. HTB tried to conduct some damage control by interestingly re-issuing an article on David Cameron written by Imran Waheed in February 2007, entitled “After Blair‘s New Labour, Cameron‘s Neoconservatism“. From these actions it is clear that HTB saw the revelation of the exchange with Cameron as a politically sensitive issue culminating in a flurry to distance itself from him. This was provided in the form of an official response by Imran Waheed entitled “Cameron's letter exposes his opportunism in calling for ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir”, in which he states:
"Many will find it remarkably hypocritical and opportunistic that less than a year ago, Cameron was expressing his gratitude for our comments on Israel's bombardment of Lebanon, yet now he calls for our banning, alleging that we call for the killing of Jews…We completely reject David Cameron's playing of politics with security and his baseless accusation that our organisation calls for the killing of Jews. His accusations are not surprising given that Hizb ut-Tahrir has been an ardent critic of the Zionist state, while Cameron has described himself as a Zionist. Perhaps Mr Cameron has not, this time, jumped onto a bandwagon, but onto a sinking ship."(Hizb.org.uk 4th July,2007)
The rhetoric however fails to mask the question as to why HTB would engage Cameron’s office knowing full well his views and position vis-à-vis Zionism and Israel. It is noteworthy that HTB did not publish their own letter to Cameron as it would be interesting to know why a “Zionist“ would give such a favourable reply to HTB on the issue of Israeli action towards Lebanon. No doubt there is more to the exchange between HTB’s leadership and the Conservatives than meets the eye. Again as with Claire Short, Jamal Harwood and Imran Waheed seem to be the central figures. Cameron’s letter being addressed to Harwood and Waheed’s obvious attempts to initiate damage control. The exchange further confirms the success of Labour’s strategy and the potential or existent role of Cameron in it. However, the accomplishment of Labour’s strategy cannot be achieved without the active participation of the HTB leadership which seems to be clearly reciprocating. It is no wonder that John Reid was so emphatic in warning Gordon Brown to resist the calls for changing the strategy.
“I therefore ask the Prime Minister to stay absolutely on the course that he set today, and to stick by the law and the evidence and not to be swayed by any arbitrary political advantage that he thinks might be gained…” (John Reid, PMQ 4th July, 2007)
Noman Hanif is lecturer in Radical Islam and International Terrorism at Birkbeck, University of London. He is currently researching the Global Politics of Hizb-ut-Tahrir.