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Richard McNeil-Willson

January 31st, 2024

The problems of banning Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Richard McNeil-Willson

January 31st, 2024

The problems of banning Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain

0 comments | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

After years of discussions, the UK government has now designated Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic activist group, as a proscribed terrorist organisation. It’s a controversial decision which has led to renewed critiques of the UK’s counterterrorism approach. Today we have an analysis by Dr Richard McNeil-Willson, whose research focuses on counter-extremism and Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain.

On 19th January 2024, the ban on the Islamic activist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (the ‘Party of Liberation’) came into effect in the UK and, overnight, the group became a designated terrorist organisation. The sudden proscription of Hizb ut-Tahrir comes at a time of heightened political tensions over Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, and it is justified by the UK Government based on statements made by the party during ceasefire protests, which the Government claims, incite terrorism and antisemitism. But the ban is highly problematic. It is predicated on labelling a non-violent group ‘terrorist’. It is grounded in wider racialised counterterror legislation that has targeted Islamic activism and framed Muslim politics as uniquely dangerous to British society. And it reverses 20 years of a successful strategy deployed by the UK Home Office, in which the unactioned threat of proscription, along with backchannel engagement, has successfully encouraged moderation within Hizb ut-Tahrir. Ultimately, the ban will likely cause more harm than good and is a likely indication that other non-violent organisations may soon come under the security lens.

The move to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir

Hizb ut-Tahrir was founded in Palestine on 17th November 1952 by Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani in East Jerusalem. The party has since expanded, with operative branches currently in at least 45 countries. Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain represents one of the party’s more significant national branches (or wilayat, in formal party parlance), often acting to produce and disseminate international key party literature in English, and they have been active in helping to establish other national branches in Denmark (1994), Pakistan (1999), Bangladesh (2000), Indonesia (2000) and Australia (2004). It is historically known for its sometimes controversial activism and its rejection of integration and democracy – including its 2003 Birmingham conference entitled “British or Muslim?” and the alleged takeover of several Islamic student societies which saw them banned by the National Union of Students.

Discussions on banning the party have been evident in many European countries. In Germany, there has been a ban on open activism (though, it should be noted, not on membership) of Hizb ut-Tahrir since 2003; meanwhile, Russia has imposed tough laws outlawing Hizb ut-Tahrir in both Russia and areas of occupied Ukraine, as part of a crackdown on democratic activism and religious minorities. In countries such as Denmark and the UK, discussion on its proscription has erupted on multiple occasions in recent years.

In Britain, there have been two previous major attempts to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir. The first took place in 2005, in which both the Home Office and the Bar Council undertook an assessment into potentially banning Hizb ut-Tahrir. Ultimately, these investigations found that there was no evidence that Hizb ut-Tahrir was a gateway to terrorism and that a ban was, in the words of Bruce Holder of the Bar Council, ‘unlikely to achieve its purpose’, likely to simply push the group underground. A second investigation in the early days of David Cameron’s coalition government in 2011 similarly found that a ban may do more harm than good, with Lord Carlile stating that, “I think the general view is that Hizb ut-Tahrir are best dealt with in public debate rather than by proscription”. Since then, a broad détente has been settled on in the Home Office, in which Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain were privately monitored but publicly ignored, the threat of proscription persuasion enough to encourage them to moderate their activism.

This changed with the Hamas-led operation on 7th October 2023, and the subsequent ongoing brutal assault on Gaza by Israel, leading to some of the largest protests and anti-war social movements in the West since the Iraq War. Hizb ut-Tahrir were catapulted back into limelight following social media videos of their activism, in which they publicly called for Muslim countries to “get your armies and go and remove the Zionist occupiers” – drawing condemnation from commentators. This ultimately led to renewed calls for its proscription in the UK, whereby it was banned under the Terrorism Act 2000 for encouraging support for proscribed terrorist organisations and terrorist acts, as well as being accused of antisemitism.

The problems with banning Hizb ut-Tahrir

There are many problems with this ban. It represents a significant growth of the application of security law, the first banning by the UK Government of a non-violent organisation. From a societal perspective, the ban is rooted in, and directly exacerbates, wider patterns of Islamophobia and racism in the UK, risking community cohesion and fuelling fears that other non-violent Muslim organisations may soon come under scrutiny. Ultimately, it is unlikely that such a ban will achieve its stated objectives. Rather than diminishing Hizb ut-Tahrir, it may help to unite those critical of UK counterterror policy – with bodies traditionally against Hizb ut-Tahrir publicly criticising the ban – and give greater legitimacy to a group that has, in recent years, been largely sidelined. It is demonstrative of a counterterror approach in the UK that has come to be governed by cynical, racialised and reactive politics, rather than evidence-based strategy.

Despite the implication that Hizb ut-Tahrir are violent, interviews with both members, former members, and police have confirmed their avowed non-violence. Whilst they advocate for an Islamic state, their conceptualisation of a Caliphate is not the same as Islamic State’s and was developed decades before it became a marker for terrorism concerns. And there is also no evidence that any Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been directly involved in any kind of terrorist-style violence in the West. Indeed, many authorities have agreed that Hizb ut-Tahrir represent a useful ‘safety valve’ for discouraging individuals from engagement with violent groups.

The ban of Hizb ut-Tahrir must be understood within wider patterns of racialised security that operate in British society. Since the Terrorism Act 2000, counterterror laws – both in practice and application – have disproportionately focused on Muslim communities in the UK. Of organisations proscribed under counterterror laws in Britain, the overwhelming majority are Muslim. Citizenship deprivation laws have been used almost universally against Muslim individuals; whilst anti-migration security laws are primarily targeted against migration from Muslim-majority countries. Since its establishment in 2003, the UK Government’s Prevent programme has also disproportionately discriminated against Muslims, casting them as a ‘suspect community’ in society. The proscription of Hizb ut-Tahrir does nothing to challenge the accusation that British counterterror legislation is primarily concerned with policing Muslim activism and is discriminatory and racialised in its construction and application.

From a practical perspective, it is unlikely that banning Hizb ut-Tahrir will have the desired effect. Previous bans were dropped because they were unworkable, unlikely to achieve their purpose. Due to a history of repression in Middle Eastern states, Hizb ut-Tahrir are largely designed to operate in hostile conditions, with members referring to their ‘natural state’ as being banned. The organisation does not keep membership lists, for instance, and local branches in town and cities operate entirely independently. Historically, Hizb ut-Tahrir have also been adept at using front groups to mask their operations – a tactic dropped by Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain in recent years, but likely to be revived following the ban. As the 2005 and 2011 debates found, a ban will likely push the party underground and make it more difficult to keep tabs on.

The ban also reverses years of successful ‘management’ of the organisation by the Home Office. In the late 1990s and early 2000s – when Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain was at least ten times larger in terms of membership and capacity – the Home Office settled on a strategy of allowing the party to operate with caveats. The threat of proscription existed only to the extent that it successfully encouraged the party to moderate its activism, whilst backroom engagement ensured that frustrations were kept in check. As such, the party has become less ‘radical’ in its activism, as well as becoming marginalised amongst British Muslim communities, fading in relevance, membership, and capacity. Even attempts by Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain to engage with widespread anti-Prevent movements have failed to endear the party to many.

The banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir undoes this nuanced approach entirely. It removes the buffers on the party’s activism, giving it strong reason to backtrack on years of moderation. It makes it harder for engagement and monitoring to happen around Hizb ut-Tahrir, pushing the party into a series of front groups. And, critically, it bans a form of non-violent Islamic activism and risks turning Hizb ut-Tahrir into a public martyr of counterterrorism.

The wrong approach

The ban is arguably the result of a UK Conservative Government which has polarised already controversial counterterrorism approaches. Government statements which specifically target Muslim critics of counterterrorism have worsened relations with minority communities, whilst the banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir sends an ominous message to Muslim campaign groups critical of counterterrorism, who have found themselves attacked by Prevent practitioners as “Islamist agitators” and by Government Ministers as “Islamist campaigners and their allies”.

Hizb ut-Tahrir’s activism has not changed, aside from broad moderation. Yet, somehow, the point made by former counterterror-reviewer Lord Carlile, that “Hizb ut-Tahrir are best dealt with in public debate rather than by proscription”, no longer holds true. The quick resurrection of concern around Hizb ut-Tahrir likely represents the creep of counter-extremism legislation in Britain, coupled with hostility by the Government towards ceasefire protests at a time of electoral panic.

The UK Government’s banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir is wrongheaded – grounded in unequal international political interests and? a racialised counterterrorism and politicking by the British Government. It will likely fail to achieve its aims: it risks giving fresh impetus to a group with otherwise fairly limited support in recent years, removes encouragement for moderation and engagement, pushes a non-violent organisation underground, and further demonstrates to those critical of counterterrorism that security policy unfairly targets Muslims. It is an ominous sign that non-violent groups are increasingly coming under an expanding counterterror lens, and a painful demonstration of how reactive politics so often drives counterterror legislation.

A longer version of this article has been published on 26 January 2024 with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (The Hague), and can be read in full on the ICCT website here.

Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

About the author

Richard McNeil-Willson

Dr Richard McNeil-Willson is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs, Leiden University. His work specialises in counter-extremism approaches in Europe, and he conducted a PhD thesis on Hizb ut-Tahrir activism in Britain and Denmark in the context of discussions over proscription. He is a former Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute and Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge.

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