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Toleration of Religious Absolutism in Secular Society: The Case of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Denmark


A pamphlet appears urging Muslims to seek out and kill Jews.  A letter surfaces threatening Kurds.  Another targets “bad” Muslims.  Graffiti appears on the wall of a school building with the words “Death to Infidels” sprayed in giant letters.   A few students begin refusing to learn certain subjects which they deem contrary to Islam. Then come the questions. Is this the work of the Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir?  What do we know about this organization?  What should the response of a liberal democratic society be to these actions?  The answer has been called “a dilemma of tolerance,” “a dilemma of democracy,” and “a liberal dilemma.”  A tolerant society that allows its tolerant values to be questioned or suspended for certain groups is no longer practicing tolerance but “indifference,” according to Frederik Wiedemann, a scholar of Danish identity.  However, no matter where “the line” is drawn, it can be criticized for being intolerant, he says.  Where the line should be drawn in Denmark is the subject of much debate, and where it concerns Hizb ut-Tahrir is the topic of this article.  Furthermore, we will also consider what so-called “tolerant” democracies should do in the face of fundamentalism more generally.

What is Hizb ut-Tahrir?

Hizb ut-Tahrir is a fundamentalist Islamic movement with branches in most parts of the world.  The party was established in a number of countries in the Middle East in the beginning of the 1950s and has been in Denmark since the mid 1990s. Hizb ut-Tahrir describes itself as a political party with Islam as its guiding ideology and platform.  It is, however, not a party in the ordinary sense, because members wish not to seek influence through the parliament or other established channels in society but through unconventional means.  Hizb ut-Tahrir is thus better characterized as a politically motivated interest group working largely in the private sphere with its primary focus on Muslims and the Muslim world rather than Danish society.  Criticism of Western society and a belief in Islam as the only solution to all the problems in the world characterize the ideas of Hizb ut-Tahrir.  Democracy, secularism, colonialism, and human rights are all expressions for what they see as the same mistaken worldview.  This clearly implies a disassociation from basic Danish norms and values.

This disassociation is most clearly evident in Hizb ut-Tahrir‘s primary goal to establish a worldwide Islamic state, known as the Khilafah State.  This state is to be ruled by a Khaleefah, a sovereign charged to rule the state in harmony with the Koran, introduce Islamic Shari’ah laws, and propagate Islam throughout the rest of the world through evangelism and “enlightenment.”  In a feature article in Berlingske Tidende (May 2004), Fadi Abdullatif, the Danish representative for Hizb ut-Tahrir, writes how a rejection of democracy is not synonymous with working for political change in the Danish society or any other country outside of the Islamic world, since this goes against both the methods and the goals of the party.  Another important element of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s movement is an insistence on achieving the group’s political goals through non-violent means.  Hitb ut-Tahrir, as a group, has never advocated the use of physical violence, nor has it ever been proven that they have been involved in any terrorist or violent acts in the Middle East, Europe, or other parts of the world including Denmark.  On their official website the idea of peaceful regime change to a Khilafah State is explained in a three-step process. 

The First Stage: The stage of cultivation to produce people who believe in the idea and the method of the Party so that they form the Party group. 

The Second Stage: The stage of interaction with the Ummah (the Muslim people) to let the Ummah embrace and carry Islam so that the Ummah takes it up as its issue, and thus works to establish it in the affairs of life. 

The Third Stage: The stage of establishing government, implementing Islam generally and comprehensively, and carrying it as a message to the world. 

In their book Hizb ut-Tahrir in Denmark – Dangerous Fundamentalism or Innocent Youth Rebellion? authors Malene Grøndahl, Torben Rugberg Rasmussen, and Kirstine Sinclair interview Fadi Abdullatif.    They press him to answer how such a transfer of power will take place without the use of violence or armed conflict, and he replies that it is simply a question of having enough people behind you.  If one can convince those in the power elite that they are out-numbered, they will be forced to give in to the pressure.  So goes the philosophy.  Hizb ut-Tahrir stresses that the goal in Denmark is first of all to convert Muslims to live in accordance with Islam and make them aware and open to the idea of the establishment of the Khilafah State in the Muslim world.  The party therefore does not work to “Islamize” Denmark on an institutional level.  That said, many of the people we interviewed called the very idea of a Khilafah State utopian and naïve.  The question of how to possibly unify the diversity of 1.3 billion Muslims practicing various forms of Islam in a single capital is an impractical question to answer.  To this Abdullatif replies that the Islamic nation is not as distinct as many would like to characterize it as being.  Hizb ut-Tahrir’s goal is no more unattainable or naïve then the dream of the Zionist movement of establishing a Jewish state in the middle of the Islamic world at the beginning of the 19th century.  Abdullatif also draws parallels to the creation of the European Union and its recent expansion.

It is not clear how many members of Hizb ut-Tahrir there are in Denmark.   Abdullatif states that nobody has the exact number, not even him, in order to protect the members.  Different experts state that the party has around 100 permanent members and 500 supporters.  The party is multi-ethnic with members from various countries, including Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey, and Denmark.  Members generally can be divided into three main groups.  The first of these are youths with Muslim backgrounds.  These members have grown-up in the Danish society but feel marginalized within it.  As they search for their own identities, they value the group identity and concrete rules provided by the party.  These members include former petty criminals who have been given a “second chance” and been welcomed in by Hizb ut-Tahrir.  These members also include youth from families with little or no religious tradition and limited knowledge of Islam.  The second group of members are ethnic Danes who have been converted to Islam and wish to live a life consistent with Islam.  They are the least common members, but they are drawn to Hizb ut-Tahrir in search of a political and religious community with shared rituals and mutual care and support.  The third group consists of young, well-educated Muslims with refugee or immigrant backgrounds.  They are typically university students or professionals and by most outward appearances are fully assimilated into Danish society.  They are attracted to Hizb ut-Tahrir, because they believe Danish society to be based on superficial values and see it as their responsibility to “save” other Muslims from being tempted by alcohol, premarital sex, materialism, etc.  Proportionally, this is a small group within the party, but it holds the greatest sway .  

Responding to Intolerance

With all this in mind, the question remains as to what posture the government should take towards Hizb ut-Tahrir.  Should it be banned outright?  Should a hands-off approach be taken instead?  The view of the Danish People’s Party (DPP) is fairly singular and resounding on this issue.  They believe that the group should be immediately disbanded and that the courts would then show them to be in violation of paragraph 78 of the Danish Constitution, banning them permanently.  Paragraph 78 states, “(1) Citizens shall, without previous permission, be free to form associations for any lawful purpose.  (2) Associations employing violence, or aiming at the attainment of their object by violence, by instigation to violence, or by similar punishable influence on persons holding other views, shall be dissolved by court judgment¬¬.”  The DPP espouse the general sentiment of the European Right towards fundamentalism and immigration more broadly. They believe that fundamentalist or militant Islam is an archaic ideology which can be equated to communism or fascism.   It is an idea of no value and must be defeated.  For the DPP, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a problem of immigration and a failure on the part of immigrants to fully assimilate into Danish culture.  They fear being overtaken by Muslim immigrants who do not share their “Danish values” and “Danish culture,” and they see Hizb ut-Tahrir as a group bent on dismantling their democracy in hopes of eventually establishing a pan-Arabic state.  Furthermore, they see Hizb ut-Tahrir as an expression of foreign, immigrant ideals infiltrating a tolerant society, manipulating it to protect hateful, anti-democratic views.  Perhaps the DPP’s website best expresses their views on immigration when it says, “Denmark is not an immigrant country and has never been so. Therefore, we will not accept a transformation to a multiethnic society.”

These views are in many ways as controversial as the views of Hizb ut-Tahrir itself.  While the opinion that Hizb ut-Tahrir should be banned is widespread (78% of Danes agreed in a 2002 poll), it was not shared by Palle Kristensen, the principal of Søholtskolen, which has seen increased Hizb ut-Tahrir activity in recent years.   Søholtskolen is a school with approximately 530 pupils, 73% of whom come from immigrant, mostly Muslim, households, so when Kristensen speaks it is with the authority of first-hand experiences.  Unlike Carl Christian Ebbesen, a political secretary of the DPP, who thinks banning the organization will allow for more government control and monitoring, Kristensen thinks the organization will only become more secretive and attractive if banned.  He believes the best way to work against Hizb ut-Tahrir is to keep the group in the public sphere and try to match their rhetoric with a liberal democratic message through an ongoing dialogue.  When some students began to reject their lessons in biology and literature as contrary to Islam and others began acting out against girls and white Danes, Kristensen called a school-wide parents’ meeting to discuss Hizb ut-Tahrir and problems of fundamentalism in the school.  Many of the parents were unaware of what was going on and were ready to help with support for the school administration.  They did not stop there, though, and a series of meetings was planned to continue throughout the school year in order keep the dialogue going.  So far, results have been positive.  Kristensen argues that people should stand up to Hizb ut-Tahrir when necessary, but they should also be aware of the social and material factors that lead to such a group’s increased popularity.  He said most of his students who are drawn to Hizb ut-Tahrir are searching for an identity, while others may be brought in after experiencing discrimination or racism.   For Kristensen it would be ideal for individual Muslim students to really stand up against Hizb ut-Tahrir, but for that to happen, they first must feel fully accepted into the liberal democratic society that Hizb ut-Tahrir rejects.

Another person against the prohibition of Hizb ut-Tahrir is Bashy Quraishy, chairman of the Ethnic Debate Forum.  He believes the reasons that the DPP give for banning Hizb ut-Tahrir are, at their core, racist.  He gives the example of the Danish neo-Nazis and how their organization has been protected by the government.   Quraishy says if the DPP wish for Hizb ut-Tahrir to be banned they should also want the Nazis to be banned, and the fact that they do not is evidence of their racism.   According to a survey done by Media Watch, immigrant news items receive 34% of media coverage (representing approximately 7% of the population) and 75% of that coverage is negative.  Sinclair, one of the authors of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Denmark – Dangerous Fundamentalism or Innocent Youth Rebellion? agrees with Quraishy that Hizb ut-Tahrir thrive on bad media attention.  They use perceived manipulation by the media to maintain their role as maligned victims of an oppressive, racist society.  The May feature in Berlingske Tidende is a good example of this.  If they were left alone and unpublicized, Quraishy argues, their views would carry less weight, especially with other Muslims.  He disagrees with Ebbesen that banning them will accomplish this goal.  Comparing the situation in Denmark to the one in Sweden where more violence has occurred (and where Hizb ut-Tahrir is a banned organization), Quraishy argues that by banning Hizb ut-Tahrir and muffling their views one makes them even more militant and gives them a clearer, stronger identity.

According to him, Hizb ut-Tahrir is well aware that their dream of a Khilafah State is delusional and will never be a reality.  This, he says, is one of the reasons why they do not take part in more public debates and dialogues.  They know they cannot defend their overall political goal.  Sinclair shows that the impracticality of their goals means little to Hizb ut-Tahrir members because they are so strongly convinced that Islam is the way to a perfect world.  Whether the Khilafah State seems unrealistic and utopian does not trouble the party; they do not occupy themselves with everyday matters or what they consider to be trivialities.  The solution to all of their problems is the Khilafah State.  According to Abdullatif, however, Hizb ut-Tahrir does take part in public debates and on several occasions Hizb ut-Tahrir has arranged conferences and meetings for both Muslims and non-Muslims.  The form of debate that the “anti-Islamic media” (as Abdullatif refers to the Danish media) want is a debate on their premises, in which Muslims and Islam shall submit to the assimilation policy in order to participate in the debate.  

An Interminable Discussion

As long as there are immigrant groups living in Denmark, there will always be a discussion of how best to accommodate them.  Will we allow the views of Hizb ut-Tahrir to be matched by corresponding xenophobia on the part of the DPP and others?  We argue that their ideas can be described as “militant tolerance,” because they wish to preserve a tolerant, liberal democracy for Danes at the expense of dissenting (undemocratic, intolerant) opinions and foreign cultures and traditions.  Should we ban groups that attack the foundations of society, or should we allow these groups to be protected by the same rules they wish to dismantle?  Do we allow ourselves to slip into a malaise of indifference described by Wiedemann, or should we proactively punish groups solely based on their opinions?  Perhaps the answer does not have to be such a zero-sum prospect.

We argue here that Hizb ut-Tahrir should not be banned until it is proven that they have committed a crime or acted violently in concert.  There are many reasons for this.  One is that Hizb ut-Tahrir legally cannot be banned at this time.  The Danish special prosecutor investigated them, together with a group of experts, for over a year only to come to a decision that the case could not be won.  What kind of symbolic victory would it be if Hizb ut-Tahrir was tried in a court of law and proven to be in the right?  It is also clear that banning the party will not cease their activities or go to any significant lengths towards debunking their ideology.  In fact if they are banned they will have an even more effective argument as the victim of a discriminatory society, and so long as this is true, a ban will only strengthen the force of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s seduction and add to their propaganda.  Furthermore, it would only be fair to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir at this time if the neo-Nazis and other intolerant groups were banned as well, but this is a slippery slope that would only lead to an authoritarian creep within society.  

It is understandable that Hizb ut-Tahrir has made people anxious if not fearful for the future.  Sinclair points to three reasons for this.  The first is that many people make the connection between Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.  They connect Hizb ut-Tahrir directly to Osama bin Laden because of their symbolism (e.g., use of a black flag), their sympathy for Middle Eastern extremists, and arguments from the right that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism are the same.  Another reason is that Hizb ut-Tahrir is criticizing society in a new way, questioning its very foundations, and people think that if they are so discontented then they should just leave.  Also, people get scared because it is evidently not only a problem of bad integration.  Many of the members in Hizb ut-Tahrir are well educated and well integrated.  All of these factors combine to make Hizb ut-Tahrir a very abrasive and unwanted group in Danish society.

The most effective actions that can be taken towards this group do not include banning it.  What would be most beneficial would be to look for solutions to the factors that allow Hizb ut-Tahrir to claim a victimized role in society.  This includes things like looking for ways to end discrimination, trying to look at ways to make immigration policy less obviously anti-Muslim, and fighting the stereotypes into which media coverage consistently falls.  These are obviously no small tasks, and while there are no miracle cures for such social ills, there are numerous viable treatments.  Integration projects such as the GAM3 (pronounced GAME) are one option.  GAM3, started in 2002 by Simon Prahm and Martin Schultz, targets immigrants in ghetto areas through incorporation of hip hop music and basketball .  Another avenue would be cultural awareness programs, including ethnic festivals celebrating arts and cultures of the various groups living in Denmark.  It could also include a much-needed diversity education curriculum in Danish schools.  Most importantly what is needed, which surprisingly everyone we interviewed agreed to, is a comprehensive dialogue.  Even if Hizb ut-Tahrir is unwilling to debate or hold dialogue with what they call the Danish anti-Islamic media, it is important that we do not self-destructively match their rhetoric but take a more nuanced stance.  In this way we do not alienate more people but instead neutralize Hizb ut-Tahrir’s arguments.  

While we are unapologetically against the ideas of Hizb ut-Tahrir, we believe that a tolerant democracy cannot forego its most basic principles to neutralize dissent.  Hizb ut-Tahrir’s opinions cannot be supported or understood by people who hold a secular, liberal democratic view of society.  However, this same view of society also does not permit one toward the path of “militant tolerance” argued by the DPP.  It instead leads one to self-examination of guiding principles and a contribution to a more balanced debate.  It is hoped that this article accomplishes just such a contribution. 






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Denmark Denmark 2004


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