Why Hizb Ut-Tahrir is wrong, part 3: what it means to be human

Hizb Ut-Tahrir envisions the establishment of a pan-Islamic super-state, but would it even work? Is it even what Muslims want? neweurasia’s Schwartz doesn’t think so. What’s at stake are two very different understandings of unity and humanity, the one of everyday people versus the one of radicals — and that difference is everything.

Protesters defending a more humane vision of Islam. Photograph by Flickr user Derek7272 (CC-usage).

Protesters defending a more humane vision of Islam. Photograph by Flickr user Derek7272 (CC-usage).

Editor’s note: Hizb Ut-Tahrir envisions the establishment of a pan-Islamic super-state, but would it even work? Is it even what Muslims want? neweurasia’s Schwartz doesn’t think so. What’s at stake are two very different understandings of unity and humanity, the one of everyday people versus the one of radicals — and that difference is everything.

In my first post I examined the inner logic of Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s vision of a restored Caliphate and in my second I did the same for their approach to Modernity. To wrap this up, I now turn to the more fundamental questions: would an Islamic super-state actually work, and is this something that Muslims even really want? That second question is the more important of the two, as ultimately it’s really dealing with differing views of what it means to be human.

Would an Islamic super-state actually work?

The honest answer to this question is that no one actually knows. However, historical precedence is not very reassuring, as we’ve seen the majority of super-states struggle and ultimately fail to become coherent and sustainable. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are the most obvious examples of failure; Canada and Belgium are examples where the struggle is ongoing, and in far more humane and liberal conditions. However, in the latter case, it has led to a very strange state of affairs, as it were, a permanent crisis. Consider: these four are examples of super-states, large and small, that were trying to weld together geographic and linguistic zones far smaller than the Caliphate envisioned by Hizb Ut-Tahrir.

Arguably the only super-state that has succeeded so far has been the United States, in no small part due to the fact that much of its constituent states were the product of colonization from an original nucleus of member-states. But even then the United States underwent an intense civil war, as two very different political and economic traditions vied with each other, and to some extent that conflict is still being waged, except now through political discourse and taxation and military policies.

Key to the feasibility of any super-state is the question of ends: why or for what purpose does the polity exist? Is there some grander call, e.g., gaining the maximum number of people to submit to the Law of God, or is the goal more worldly, e.g., to exert dominance over other societies? And not only this, but what is the place of the quotidian aspects of a polity, e.g., trash collection or managing healthcare, in the scope of that purpose? As far as I can hear, Hizb Ut-Tahrir doesn’t have consistent or well-thought-out answers.

I should confess that in this regard, I’m actually somewhat sympathetic. As a member of the Baha’i Faith, it’s an article of my faith that there shall one day be established a worldwide super-state — we call it the “Global Commonwealth” — and although the general framework has been laid out for us by the founders of our religion, i.e., that the Commonwealth shall seek to re-harmonize the spiritual and material qualities of humanity and thus further advance civilization in a dual sense, that diversity shall nevertheless be retained within or alongside this new unity, that there shall be a just distribution of wealth and resources, and so on, the details have been left to the Baha’is and like-minded groups to figure out.

Nevertheless, I think there’s a crucial attitudinal difference between the Baha’is and Hizb Ut-Tahrir, namely, how we understand what it means to be faithful — that important subtlety that appeared as early as the first point in my first point. Do we really know what God wants? If not, that is, if we are in an uncertain universe, how can we still act, and do so with confidence and energy? The Baha’is respond by inculcating a state of mind of humble experimentation: the answer will be revealed over time, and even then, we may never fully comprehend it. Hizb Ut-Tahrir, however, appears to be much more convinced that they somehow do possess the answer with certainty and clarity. I think I’ve sufficiently demonstrated the dangers of their approach in my previous posts, so let’s move onto the next question.

Is a Caliphate really what Muslims want?

I confess that the idea of the Caliphate taps into a very real nostalgia for a time when there was, ostensibly at least, unity within the global Islamic community, and moreover, that nostalgia doesn’t have to be historically accurate or all that realistic. However, one immediately wonders whether the majority of Muslims would agree with the idea that the global Islamic community is, at root, a demos, much less an ethnos, i.e., a polity and an ethnicity.

To be sure, they certainly see themselves as (usually) brothers and sisters in a common spiritual fraternity. In the experience of both myself and countless other people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who spend their time trying to access, as it were, the Muslim psyche, the overwhelming majority of Muslims would express various levels of discomfort at the notion of elevating their fraternity to anything as firm and fixed as a pan-Islamic national super-state. Rather, they seem to prefer present national and political identities, or at least ethnic and communal identities. Moreover, if Morocco and Turkey’s (albeit frustrated) attempts to join the European Union and the various revolutions that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa are any evidence, they’re just as interested, if not more so, in interacting and integrating with the larger non-Muslim world than just with each other.

Hizb Ut-Tahrir themselves tacitly admits that this is the case. Otherwise they wouldn’t be making such a huge effort to propagandize Islamic populations in the attempt to get the global Islamic community to see things their way (they, of course, prefer the euphemism dawa). What I wonder about is whether Hizb Ut-Tahrir is actually misdiagnosing the condition, i.e., seeing it as a problem of consciousness. In my view, the rank-and-file Muslim viewpoint, if I may speak in terms of such a vast generality, may actually have very real and meaningful content.

Here’s my reasoning: to be sure, the first impetus for wanting to vividly interact with and even integrate into the non-Muslim world is economic. However, underneath every economic, much less political strategy, there is a metaphysics, i.e., a sense of what it means to be human, and with it, a set of choices: if you see humanity one way, certain options occur to you that would not if you saw humanity another way. Clearly, the majority of several Muslim nations have considered it to be perfectly consistent to be Muslim and not necessarily part of a larger pan-Islamic national super-state, indicating that their vision of what it means to be human is something that transcends the particular identity category of “Muslim”.

Differing visions of humanity

So, let me conclude with this: what’s really at stake in examining Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s ideology is the question of how we understand tawhid or unity, that most fundamental of Islamic concepts: is tawhid only within the global Islamic community itself, or is it a human-spanning concept, and if so, in what way? Hizb ut-Tahrir opts for the latter, although doubtlessly they believe that eventually the global Islamic community shall be co-extensive with the human species (most likely through armed jihad emerging from the restored Caliphate). Everyday Muslims, however, seem to me more inclined to see the human species as simultaneously too broad and more fundamental than any one specific identity, including the Muslim one.

History can thank the influence of Sufi doctrines and not a little bit of secularization in this regard, but it is certainly a very different, and far less aggressive, conception of tawhid. Frankly, speaking as a Jew, whose history has been scarred by insufficient and inhumane tawhid; as a Baha’i, for whom tawhid is even more at the center of what it means to be religious, a journalist, and a human being; and most of all, as a human being, who, like all of us, longs for a real and deep reconciliation within our species, I’d take the “everyday” version of tawhid over Hizb ut-Tahrir’s any day. In the end, it is the truest, and it is right.

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  • Christopher, I have read you 3-part reaction with great interest. Thanks for this.

    Of course, the purpose of my initial piece and analysis was not so much to examine whether Hizb Ut-Tahrirs’ goals and concept is practically feasible, yet to argue that is reflects certain realities. I do that from a neutral position. From your side, don’t you mix up certain things with ideals coming from you own Baha’i-liberal background? That impression grew stronger from my side when you came at the point when you seem to promote the Baha’i concept of a Commonwealth as an alternative for Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s Islamic Khilafah State.

    Personally, at first glance, I think that Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s premises (historical precedents, common modern-day predicament, large common potential) are more grounded in reality (be it idealised) than the Baha’i Commonwealth which seeks to “re-harmonize the spiritual and material qualities of humanity and thus further advance civilization in a dual sense”.

    Now that we’re at it, I don’t think that the Khilafah concept shuns diversity (cf. the Dhimmi system). It is anti-nationalist, yes. The question remains whether this specific aspect is all that negative given nationalism’s record?

    Also, in my view, you make the frequent mistake to idealise Sufism (as an antidote to ‘extremism’?). Even though Sufism is historically important, still relevant for folk practice of religion and generally enjoys more credit in international opinion as a ‘gentle’ and ‘humanist’ form of Islam (also partly though the association with religiopop like Rumi poetry and Qawali music), much of its traditionalist establishment is corrupt or closely associated with corrupt elites and regimes (and, as such, increasingly discredited), and its influence, closely interwoven as it is with ethno-traditional and localist identities, has been undermined by migration and urbanisation.

    As for your question whether Muslim actually do want Khilafah, you might be interested in this (not surprisingly, Hizb quotes it often): World Public Opinions, ‘Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda’, cit.

    “Majorities in three countries also agreed with this objective themselves: Pakistan (74%), Morocco (71%), and Egypt (67%). Indonesia was the exception: only 49 percent agreed that Islamic countries should be united into a caliphate.”
    (http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/apr07/START_Apr07_rpt.pdf )

    Of course, it’s from 2007 (it would be good to have an update), it does not mean that the respondents’ definition of the Caliphate is that of Hizb Ut-Tahrir (here its is mentioned as one of Al-Qaeda’s goals even though the latter has no monopoly on the concept, and Hizb Ut-Tahrir is not Al-Qaeda) and much depends also on the methodology of the survey. Yet it indicates that despite the presence of everyday local and national identifications and affiliations, the concept of the Caliphate is certainly not alien to substantive segments of the Ummah.

    Also, do not under-estimate increasing (be it often ad hoc) transnational identification among Muslims thanks to increasing horizontal mobility and the global media.

    “Would an Islamic super-state actually work?”

    Will a European super-state actually work? Will Chavèz’s Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas work? :) Both are there and actually based as much on ideology, a common predicament, and a perception of the causes of this predicament.

    In terms of the scope of the foreseen Islamic Khilafah State, there are little indicators in Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s literature that it is to be isolationist (i.e. that it does not wants to interact with the non-Islamic world) nor that it is out to wage an ‘Islamic reconquista’ in Cordoba, Sicily, Hungary and Wallachia to name a few.

    “shall be co-extensive with the human species (most likely through armed jihad emerging from the restored Caliphate).”

    Of course, no-one excludes double-speech. Yet in terms of interaction with other peoples (international relations), I don’t see an emphasis on armed conquest and subjugation in Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s concept, cit.

    – “Due to the way Islam has been degraded by western governments and the media, it has had a negative impact on the perception by non Muslims and some Muslims. It would be absolutely vital that the state works towards refuting the arguments that are being hurled against Islam” (…)

    – “The State would be independent from international organisations such as United Nation who from the very basis contradict the Islamic ideology. The sole ambition of this organisation is to propagate the capitalist ideology.” (…)

    – “As Muslims we should be very vigilant of the erroneous beliefs of international law”. (…) “Furthermore, the Khilafah would need to ensure that they are progressing in the field of technology to build certain relations with places such as Japan.” (…)

    – “Domestic natural resources such as oil, diamonds and gold are widely recognised as being great assets for Africa. The state would encourage Africa to manage their resources effectively and not sell them for insignificant costs to feed US interests. The same thing would be said for Latin America; it is rich in resources and agriculture but is in poverty due to it being bankrupt by capitalist nations.”

    – “Building relations with neutral nations would smooth the progression of the state in terms of economy, technology and military power.”

    http://www.khilafah.com/index.php/the-khilafah/foreign-policy/7499-islam-and-international-relations (this is not Hizb’s offical site yet it is closely affiliated with the group)

    I agree that nostalgia generally makes the past appear more rosy than it was, cf. the USSR nostalgia among parts of the Eurasian societies. Yet it does not makes them less legitimate since they often come form confrontation with dire, present-day realities.

    Finally, I am surprised to see the way you use Tawhid, which you translate as ‘unity’ (among people?). Tawhid does literally mean ‘to unite’, yet it refers to the Oneness of God (единобожество), that is, monotheism, in the first place.

  • Usman ur Rehman Ahmed

    March 29, 2011 at 5:41 am Reply

    You know what I think of this series of articles?

    I find them rather a cheap publicity stunt. Take the concept of “Bahai’ism” and associate it with “Hizb-ut-Tahrir” somehow that more readers click on those links, “Oh what is BaHa’i at all?”.

    “The Baha’is respond by inculcating a state of mind of humble experimentation: the answer will be revealed over time, and even then, we may never fully comprehend it.”

    I can’t understand the reason of conducting such an experimentation of which comprehension metrics are not even justified as you pointed. N’d by the way, this approach to portrait “Bahai’ism” as rational, humble, ground to earth approach is interesting and purely scientific but guess what, there is some part of the faith which doesn’t require these long delays to ensure uprightness.

    • @Usman ur Rehman Ahmed, with regards to the “scientifism” of our faith, actually it’s true, many of us aspire to be, as it were, history’s first “scientific religion” in the sense of having an approach to the internal development of our community and our external goals of helping to establish a new divine civilization as an open-ended, trial and error-like process that is fundamentally similar to the communal, disinterested and evidential form of inquiry that’s at the heart of modern science. The challenge lies in, precisely as you say, the issue of comprehension metrics: history is not a petri dish, i.e., it cannot be replicated, tested and confirmed as we might, say, do for a new vaccine. But this is something we share with all reform-minded movements. I only tried to show that the difference, as we perceive it, is that we’re aware of the problem, whereas other movements often aren’t.

      As for the question of “requiring long delays to ensure uprightness”, that’s a very pointed ethical issue, for sure. I, myself, have discussed this at length with a lot of my fellow Bahais. We try to avoid the dichotomy — the same one that besets other movements — of thinking either entirely in the present tense or entirely in the future tense. It doesn’t mean that we as individual Bahais or Bahai communities always succeed, of course. And we are enjoined by our leadership, the Universal House of Justice, to try to balance acting now and in the future, indeed, to exhibit moral rectitude now if we’re to achieve an even fuller stance in the future.

      Anyway, I’m also one Bahai. I’m a bit worried I may have launched into too sectarian a debate here. When comparing us to Hizb Ut-Tahrir, I was more attempting to elucidate the latter, as well as also to demonstrate that, although I fundamentally and seriously disagree with them, that doesn’t mean I can’t also recognize in them some, indeed the same, genuine desires and problems.

  • Thank you for this series. I share few of HuT’s goals, but they seem sincere in rejecting violence, based on available information about them. While admittedly this will never happen, it might be wise for Karimov, Nazarbayev, etc. to reevaluate the group’s designation as terrorists and consider tolerating them as a “safety release valve” to dissuade Central Asians from drifting into genuine extremist groups espousing violence.

    Central Asia’s recent history suggests that ethnic identities are still much more powerful and combustible than religious identities. The Osh riots of both 2010 and 1990, the ’86 Jeltoqsan riots in Almaty, more recent clashes with Turkish and Kurdish laborers in Kazakhstan, and even (by proxy) attacks on Central Asian guest-workers in Russia were all driven by the toxic mix of ethnicity and economics; all had little or nothing to do with religion. Think, for example, how the Fergana valley might benefit from a well-organized and dedicated organization bent on encouraging Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Meskhetians, and others to see each other as fellow Muslims. My liberal/atheist side groans at the thought of encouraging and entrenching religious identity as a short-term substitute for genuine progressive tolerance. But this is a very different part of the world and, for better or worse, the immediate priority is to discourage violence and thus deprive autocratic governments of their favorite rationale for brutalizing their own people.

    Of course, the two places where my naive dream falls apart are 1) expecting the local regimes to muzzle their own hard-wired paranoia and leave HuT alone even in the absence of any evidence of anti-regime activities, and 2) once the crackdown begins, expecting HuT to abstain from attacking the regimes (even if only with words and not literally). There truly is no solution at hand. Certainly no simple or logical one. Only such horribly mislabeled “statesmen” as Karimov & Co. could make Caliphate seem like an attractive option.

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