Nonviolent, yet dangerousWASHINGTON Islam's ideological vanguard
Extremist Islamist organizations such as Al Qaeda have become well known in recent years for trying to accomplish their objectives through violence. Less well known, however, are the organizations devoted not to direct action but to ideological struggle. Of these, the most important is Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT, or the Party of Liberation), a transnational movement that has served as radical Sunni Islamism's ideological vanguard.
HT is not a terrorist organization, but it can usefully be thought of as a conveyor belt for terrorists. It indoctrinates individuals with radical ideology, priming them for recruitment by more extreme organizations where they can take part in actual operations.
HT's exact size is difficult to confirm because the group is composed of secretive cells, but its membership is estimated to number in the hundreds in European countries, such as Denmark, and up to tens of thousands in Muslim countries, such as Uzbekistan.
Because many governments recognize the threat it poses to them, HT is banned in most of the Muslim world, as well as in Russia and Germany. But until recently, it has been allowed to operate freely elsewhere - most notably in Britain, where it has played a major role in the radicalization of disaffected Muslim youth.
Since HT occupies a gray zone of militancy, with its activities involving more than mere expression of opinion but less than terrorism, regulating it poses a unique challenge to liberal democracies.
Hizb-ut-Tahir was founded in 1953 by a Palestinian judge who asserted that the only way to re-establish the kind of Islamic society promulgated by the Prophet was to liberate Muslims from the thoughts, systems and laws of nonbelievers and replace the Western nation-state system with a borderless umma ruled by a new caliph.
Under the current leader, Ata Abu Rashta, a Palestinian who had served as HT's spokesman in Jordan, HT has become more aggressive. But to avoid problems with law enforcement, HT scrupulously refrains from engaging in criminal or terrorist activities.
For the global revolution it seeks, HT does not believe it needs large numbers; hundreds of supporters in critical positions are deemed more important than thousands of foot soldiers.
HT envisions a three-step process.
The focus in the first stage is on building the party through recruitment and propaganda. Prospective candidates are brought in through study groups.
In the second stage, members are asked to blend in with the population and infiltrate the government.
When the second stage is complete, the ground will supposedly be ripe for the third: an Islamic state. HT believes it can carry out the revolution in a nonviolent manner, relying on the penetration of government institutions and the recruitment of key officials.
Today, HT is active in more than 40 countries, and on the Internet. In the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia, HT aims to overthrow governments, since it sees regimes there as direct obstacles to resurrecting the caliphate. In the West, HT's aim is to unite Muslims on the basis of their Islamic identity and prevent their assimilation into Western culture.
The challenge for the West is to deprive HT of the ability to discredit the West and its ideals. In the wake of the war in Iraq and the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, the credibility and moral authority of the United States in the Muslim world is at an all-time low, so this will not be easy.
The second task is to find ways to suppress the activities of HT without sacrificing too many civil liberties.
Finally the West must find ways of helping moderates win the theological and ideological civil war currently taking place within the Muslim world. The West can help by encouraging governments in Muslim countries to allow peaceful religious organizations to promote tolerance and dialogue.
In this context, the EU's handling of Turkey's candidacy for membership will be an important test of Western policy. If the Turkish Muslim tradition, which emphasizes a convergence of civilizations, is accepted by the EU, HT's arguments about an inevitable clash of civilizations will lose ground.
None of these tasks is easy and none can be accomplished quickly. The alternative, however, is to leave the cancer to spread.
(Zeyno Baran is director of the International Security and Energy Programs at the Nixon Center in Washington. A longer version of this article appears in Foreign Affairs.)