Sunday, 4 October 2009

Hizb-ut-Tahrir Strategy and the Caliphate Conference in Indonesia

Published: August 15, 2007

On the 12th of August, 2007, the transnational Islamic movement, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), staged in Jakarta, Indonesia, what is undeniably the largest conference ever held on the subject of 'reviving the Caliphate'. The conference was the biggest in a series of events organised on the same subject in many different international locations. An estimated 80,000 people attended the event at the HGelora Bung Karno Stadium, with invited speakers from HT around the world, as well as Indonesian personalities such as television icon Abdullah Gymnastier, former Muhammadiya head, Prof. Amin Rais, Ma'ruf Hussein from Nahdlatul Ulama, including its board chairman, Din Syamsuddin, current leader of Muhammadiyah, Habib Riziq Shihab, General Chairman of the Islam Defending Front, FPI and Zainuddin MZ (Reform Star Party, PBR). On the day however two of the HT speakers, Imran Wahid from the UK and Sheikh Ismail Al Wahwah from Australia were banned entry into Indonesia. Whilst other speakers such as Abu Bakr Bashir, leader of Gemaa Islamiya, who was cleared of the Bali bombings by the Indonesian courts was according to some media reports requested to stay away by the police, citing security concerns. Hence, most of the speakers for varying reasons were unable to attend.

However, despite the inevitable euphoria created by HT, searching questions have arisen as regards the political circumstances surrounding the Indonesian Caliphate conference and the strategy of HT. This is because despite the big bang approach, HT is still a newcomer onto the Indonesian public scene yet on paper represents a clear and present danger to the stability of the Indonesian regime and Western security in the region. Despite this it seems that HT has been given the green light by the Indonesian government, the armed forces, the government sponsored Council of Ulema, co-opted by the Indonesian Islamic movements and allowed free reign without Western pressure. This article endeavours to understand some of the reasons for this perplexing political landscape by situating the conference within the context of contemporary HT strategy.

No Longer Arabian Knights

The conference in Indonesia forms part of a continuum of change in strategy by HT away from the Arab world. This is despite the fact that according to its literature, the Arab world forms the priority location for the establishment of the Caliphate. This position was firmly adhered to under its founder Sheikh Taqiudine-an-Nabhani until his death in 1977. According to Nabhani, the Arab countries were natural and necessary support points because of the historical strength of Islam in the region, the linguistic qualities of the Arabic language (it being the language of Islam and the Koran) and what he defined as the leadership characteristics inherent in the nature of the Arab people. Nabhani recognised the need for some activity outside of the Arab zone, but only from the point of expansion, not establishment. With Jordan as the hub, extensive work was targeted in Syria, Iraq and Egypt amongst others. Military coups were attempted in these countries during the 60's and 70's. Nabhani demonstrated no interest in establishing a presence in the Western world despite the presence of HT members in the West as students and asylum seekers. This position seems to have undergone a radical change under the leadership of his successor Abdul Qadeem Zaloom, who rode the wave of Islamic political revival instigated by the events of Iran in 1979. Under Zaloom, HT unsuccessfully approached Khomeini for support to transform the Iranian sentiment into a Caliphate. Bearing in mind the Iranian Shia doctrine, its Safavid history of hostility towards the Sunni world and its underlying Persian pride, the rejection by Khomeini would have been inevitable. The trend under Zaloom to focus away from the Arab world continued with success and expansion in Central Asia as a result of a vacuum following the collapse of the Soviet Union and with further moves into Pakistan and Bangladesh. The HT presence in the West evolved rapidly with branches in the UK, Australia, Germany, Holland, Russia and Denmark. The UK's co-option of HT for its own policy aims allowed it to develop a base for its global media. Indonesia, being the largest Muslim populated country was naturally warm to HT as an Islamist movement because of its unique history of having responded to the expansion of the historical Islamic Caliphate in allowing conquest through invitation. Yet despite this geographical expansion by HT, the Arab world remains elusive to it with its presence and influence in the core countries of the Middle East next to negligible. With no effort being afforded to focus on the Arab world and instead a monumental push the spotlight onto outside regions, the question arises as to whether there has been an unwritten strategy which has moved away from what was adopted by Nabhani. Indonesia represents the ideal model to evaluate this point. HT in Indonesia does not suffer the hallmarks of repression as in the case of Central Asia and thus inevitably provides a more fertile environment for its activity. Also as the case of Iran and the consistent calls for support amongst the armed forces in Pakistan and elsewhere demonstrate, the seeking of power in the absence of a party presence or leadership of society does not seem to be an obstacle for HT in the post-Nabhani era.

Bandwagoning to Power

In fact the post-Nabhani leadership has moved away from the dogmatic exclusivity of approach and instead embraced a co-operative process in the form of bandwagoning on the influence of other movements. The pre-occupation with the media and with continuous conferences and demonstrations outside of the Arab zone despite its lack of presence in society is indicative of a failure to build a popular base in the Arab countries and a leadership for its movement. Despite HT's failure in what it terms as the stage of interaction within which the leadership for its thoughts and movements is required as a pre-requisite to seizing power, no attempt has been made to scale back its position. Instead, its members insist that it remains in the process of seeking 'nusrah'(support for power) and that the general sentiments of the 'ummah' (Islamic nation) for Islam are sufficient to seize power. By adopting these vague criteria for mass leadership, HT has effectively abandoned the interactive stage of its methodology through which it envisioned exclusive leadership for the thoughts and the movement. In order to bypass building the popular base, HT has been forced to co-opt popular movements for legitimacy and through media spin promote the term of the Caliphate as a populist concern. The Indonesian Conference forms a perfect example to illustrate this point. Unlike in Central Asia, HT does not command a dominant following in Indonesia. The likely pull for the 80,000 or so attendance in Jakarta would have been from the ingrained organisations such as the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiya which alone claim to command more than 30-40 million members. HT has attempted to bandwagon on the backs of these movements based on the least common denominator, the agreement on the term 'Caliphate'. However, beyond concurrence on the term, HT has very little in common with these movements and individuals. This again is a radical shift away from Nabhani who in his book 'The Islamic State' had warned against abandoning the hard graft work of building a real popular base built on deeply held convictions instead of attempting to build an artificial movement towards the Caliphate through conferences etc. For Nabhani the popularisation of terminology and even of HT as an organisation meant nothing without a deeply held conviction in Islam as a political ideology dominant within society. Contemporary members of HT argue as they usually do, that the conference is a means and a style to advance the interaction of its ideas with the population. On this point Nabhani was categoric in his warning towards the dangers of using certain means and styles. Nabhani considered that unless HT was in the last push to seize power, large rallies and conferences would be counter-productive as they would simply release the frustration and anger of the masses, the cumulative effect being the loss in motivation, morale, confidence and even belief in the return of the Caliphate.

"...It therefore follows that holding conferences on the issue of the Khilafah would not of itself lead to the establishment of the Islamic State, nor would a federation of countries ruling Muslim peoples be a legitimate method to establish the Islamic State, nor would congresses of Muslim peoples help in the resumption of the Islamic way of life. None of these, nor anything similar to them, should be considered correct, instead they would merely represent rhetoric aimed at soothing the anger of the Muslims..." (Nabhani, Islamic State, p97)

One of the few times Nabhani did authorise a mass rally was in the 60's in order to ascertain the strength and support of the Party in Jordan for the purposes of evaluating a move into the stage of interaction with society. Hence in the context of the conference in Indonesia, having bandwagoned on the big movements to pull in the crowds, a distorted picture would have emerged as regards understanding the strength of HT in Indonesia, but more importantly in raising the spectre of a Caliphate in such a manner, it has attempted to promote a strength of societal leadership which in turn has raised the expectations not only amongst the masses, but also its membership. Unless, HT is planning something spectacular, how it perceives delivering on its promises through a contemporary strategy of media spin, conferences and band-wagoning on movements with whom it shares no ideological or political affiliation is open to question.

Sleeping with the Enemy

In this regard, it was clear that HT in the context of Indonesia was not concerned whether or not ideological and/or political convergence existed. A good example of this was the inclusion on its website of a statement by an Indonesian government minister promoting the conference upon a non-contextualised position of unity. Thus, in order to gain the support of the crowd and the invited movements and individuals, the emphasis of the speeches in the conferences was an attempt to provide confidence in the Caliphate as an institution. Interestingly, the basis of this confidence was promoted from the perspective of the Caliphate being a representative government, as well as an economic, social and political stabiliser. Why this is interesting is because it represents an attempt to market the Caliphate on a systemic level and not a doctrinal one which Nabhani regarded as the basis upon which the masses should connect and move for the Caliphate. In other words the Caliphate was being packaged on the acceptance that the Western model was lucrative to the masses and they may not necessarily respond to some of the comparative solutions to governance thrown up by HT's conception of the Islamic doctrine with that of the democratic model which HT rejects. This is reflective in its association with the Indonesian movements such as the Muhammadiya and the Nahdlatul Ulama which have a starkly different conception of Islamic governance to that of HT.

Both these movements have acted largely in concert with the Indonesian government for decades even acting as king makers in times of political crisis. This point is aptly demonstrated by the comments of the chairman of Muhammadiyah, who said that any implementation of a caliphate would have to conform to the state ideology of Pancasila, (the philosophy of the Indonesian state modelled on Buddhist conception of ethics), the principles of which are set forth in the preamble of the 1945 Indonesian constitution. The five principles enunciated by former President Sukarno and in the order given in the constitution are: belief in one supreme God; humanitarianism; nationalism expressed in the unity of Indonesia; consultative democracy; and social justice.

This concept of governance was put forward with the sizeable Hindu and animist sectors of the population in mind. Hence, the NU and Muhammadiya conceptualised Islamic governance within this framework. Thus according to Din Syamsuddin, invited Chairman of Muhamadiyya, "Khilafah shouldn't undermine the inclusivism and pluralism of the nation," (Christian Science Monitor 13th August 2007). He added that non-Muslims did not have to be afraid of the discourse on Khilafah as it was part of the democratic process. Furthermore, it was the Nahdlatul Ulama which was the first major organisation to formally make the Pancasila instead of Islam its sole foundation. The clause in the statutes stating that the NU was based on Islam was replaced by 'based on Pancasila'.

The point being that these two co-opted Indonesian movements did not perceive as antagonistic to Pancasila, the manner in which the Caliphate argument had been presented by HT. This is despite the fact that apart from the belief in one supreme God, HT ideology seems to be in direct conflict with all the other principles of Pancasila. Again, this strategy of HT is a rapid departure from that of Nabhani who maintained that in order to preserve the purity of the ideology, the clarity of its message and the political distinctiveness of HT, sharing of platforms with organisations which were deemed to espouse non-islamic concepts such as democracy, social justice and nationalism and/or were linked to governments were to be completely shunned.

In the post-Nabhani era, pragmatism has now become a hallmark of HT throughout its global branches, even extending to the extremes of sleeping with the enemy. This point is more ironic considering that Abdurrahman Wahid former head of NU who became Indonesian president was labelled by HT as a 'freemason' and an 'American agent'. The history of the Indonesian Islamic movements is testament to the fact that it is not their aim to undermine the status of the Indonesian state or its stability. This being the case, it begs the question as to what is the rationale for the NU and Muhammadiya in co-opting HT and allowing it mass exposure on its back.

Unification or Entrapment?

HT's pragmatism towards the movements in Indonesia who are relatively liberal Sin comparison, is similar to its stance in the UK. Just like in the UK, HT in Indonesia is exhibiting a conformist approach towards other movements in order to gain support and legitimacy. Here lies the problem for HT. HT's co-option by the Indonesian movements coincides with the policy brief put forward by the US Rand Corporation entitled 'Building Moderate Networks', which argues that the US has failed to move the Arab world away from radicalism and thus a strategy of mobilising moderate Islamic opinion from weaker countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and even the Western world is the way to effect change in the Arab world. The paper argues that in order to achieve this, the US must co-opt the 'liberal', 'moderate' and 'modernist' movements such as the NU and Muhammadiya in order to prevent and fight Islamic radicalisation based on the model of the Cold War. There already exists a fluid relationship between the US and the Indonesian movements including the NU and Muhammadiya through US-Indonesia forums and democratisation projects sponsored by the US administration through the Asia foundation and Ford Foundation. In fact former Muhammadiya Chairman Ahmad Syafii Maarif and Muhammadiyah Youth Central Board Chairman Abdul Mu'ti were key contributors to the RAND policy report. The report outlines the hostility within the liberal sections of these movements to the concept of an Islamic state and promotes them as ideal candidates to further the democratic liberal agenda.

"Network-building efforts in Southeast Asia should incorporate NGO work with the moderate traditionalist Indonesian organization Nahdlatul Ulama, with its 15,000 affiliated pesantren, and with the modernist organization Muhammadiyah and its network of higher education and social welfare institutions. Both Islamist and liberal sectors coexist in Muhammadiyah: Islamist elements can be found in the organization's Religious Council, which is charged with da'wa, while liberals have a home in the Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy, established to promote a liberal agenda within and outside the organization." (Building Moderate Networks, RAND, p139)

This would put HT in direct confrontation not only with US policy but also with the strategy of the NU and Muhammadiya. HT may have bandwagoned on the support base of these movements but beyond the rhetoric of the term 'Khilafah' there exists very little in common. In fact HT fits quite neatly into the pluralist framework developed by the NU and Muhammadiya. If any lessons can be learned from the relationship of the UK government with HT's new strategy of co-option, it is that HT can be manoeuvred to moderate its position and even serve policy goals. (The Future of HT in Britain, It could be argued that HT's inclusion into the pluralistic framework would serve as an entrapment mechanism which would seek to moderate and degrade HT's radicalism. This point is strengthened by the fact that neither the Indonesian nor US governments have intervened or put obstacles in the way of this approach between HT and the movements. This paints a complex picture and a perplexity as to the nature of the relationship between HT, these movements and US policy in the region. Bearing in mind the established position of these movements with US strategy and the Indonesian government, the question is whether HT as a result of its new pragmatism has walked into a US political trap with the acquiescence of the Indonesian government, NU and Muhammadiya.

The Theory of the Phantom Caliphate

There is no doubt that the idea of the Caliphate is becoming a worldwide phenomenon. On paper, HT's call for a Caliphate is the most dangerous one for the current regimes and Western security in the Islamic world. The manner in which HT have constructed the ideology of the Caliphate clearly demonstrates a brutal position towards Western civilisation and its adherents. For this reason US think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation have labelled HT in Central Asia as the "greatest threat to US interests". Bearing this characterisation in mind why would the US and the Indonesian government have allowed the Caliphate conference to have gone ahead in Indonesia. Due to its location, the US has maintained a strong strategic relationship with Indonesia.

The stability of the Indonesian government is of paramount concern for the US and for Australia. For this reason, the US is a major supplier of military hardware to Indonesia as well as the Indonesian army's biggest training provider through the IMET exchange scheme. The US has been engaged with successive Indonesian regimes, maintaining stability and influence through the loyalty of the armed forces. Hence it is ironic that despite the objective of HT to replace regimes in the Islamic world with a Caliphate, no pressure was exerted by the US or the Indonesian military/government to ban the conference. There was no bigger advertisement for the Caliphate and HT than the conference in Indonesia.

Bearing in mind the RAND reports suggestion of US failure to derail political Islam in the Arab world and with the ever critical threat of regime collapse, the theory of the Western powers being forced to install a pliant Phantom Caliphate in order to suck the life out of the Caliphate movement has some resonance and may even explain the events in Indonesia. It is in this regard that the allowance of a major Caliphate Conference by the UK in 1994 and now by the Indonesian government with the acquiescence of the US is suggestive of a possible plan to utilise HT's successful marketing of the 'Caliphate'. This suggestion may seem extremely fanciful and conspiratorial at first, but it does have precedent.

The exact idea was in fact toyed with by Britain in the last stages of the Ottoman Caliphate and detailed in what is known as the MacMohan-Hussein correspondence of that period. The strategy was based on the notion that the Islamic world considered the Caliphate as the only legal form of Islamic government and hence in order to absorb the aftershocks of the breaking up the Ottoman state, an Arab Caliphate pliant to British interests would be established under Sherif Hussein of Mecca. The idea was abandoned because maintaining the idea of a Caliphate was considered too dangerous. The theory of a phantom Caliphate is actually quite well recognised amongst the members of HT. In fact according to internal sources the US may have contemplated using the position of HT in Central Asia to bring about a Caliphate in order to cause enormous problems for Russia and China. However, the members insist that the US shelved this plan because of fears that the Caliphate may ignite an uncontrollable fire in the Islamic tinderbox surrounding Central Asia. What is interesting in this theory is that the members consider HT as being the only group which the US can use to bring about this scenario.

If one was to follow this logic then the hands off approach by the US and the Indonesian authorities towards HT's expansion in Indonesia is indeed a cause for contemplation as is the allowance of HT by the NU and Muhammadiya to bandwagon despite major contradictions between them. Indonesia would no doubt be an attractive location geographically to establish a Phantom Caliphate as it is far away from the crucible of the Islamic world in the Middle East and Central Asia. The idea of leadership over the rest of the Islamic world, especially the Arab world would be another issue of contention. The idea of staging a temporary Phantom caliphate and its fomenting a quick collapse would no doubt cause a major haemorrhage in the Islamic world and set back the movement for the Caliphate for decades.

Whatever the theory of a phantom Caliphate, what is certain is that HT has laid down the gauntlet and raised exponentially the hopes of the faithful regarding the immediacy of the Caliphate's return. The common rhetoric espoused by the speakers of the various HT conferences was the notion that the Islamic world was on the brink of the Caliphate. No doubt injecting motivation and confidence into its own membership to keep on board would have been a key determinant. Indeed, if the Caliphate Conference in Indonesia and the multiple other rallies in different parts of the world were intended as a final push before seizing power then this view may hold. In its absence, HT is walking a fine line with its rhetoric, on the basis of a failure to deliver and more fundamentally by seeking power in the absence of a popular base.

In conclusion, having withdrawn effectively from the key countries of the Arab world, HT has not availed its dominant situation in Central Asia. If power is being sought outside of the Arab world then Central Asia is strategically better located to the rest of the Islamic world than Indonesia. Instead Central Asia remains irrationally suspended in a mindless political struggle producing intolerable suffering for its members as a result of the brutality of the regimes. What exactly are HT objectives for Indonesia is unclear. The conference was no doubt a very loud political statement, but to whom?

There is no unified opinion amongst the membership as to the reasons for the multiple conferences. One predominant view is that it provides confidence to the 'ummah' and acts as a catalyst for the Arab world. This argument is somewhat infertile considering the fact that no popular base exists for HT in the Arab world and that the heat of large conferences are only temporary and are connected more to the location within which they are staged. Another point against this argument is that HT's media activity is obsessed not with the Arab world but a new strategy encompassing non-Arab territories. Whether this is in actuality a clever political ploy to divert Western attention away from the Arab world or it is evidence of desperation remains to be seen.

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

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