This article is part of a series that explores the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) to Asia and efforts that the governments of the region have taken and could/should take to respond to it. Read More …
In September 2020, authorities in Malaysia’s southern-most state of Johor issued a fatwa (religious edict) declaring Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia (HTM) as haram (illegal). The state police opened investigations into the group for allegedly causing public mischief and inciting racial disharmony with the police threatening the use of counter-terrorism laws if they “crossed the line of security.” HTM has not been banned at the federal level but has been declared illegal in five states namely Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Negeri Sembilan, Sabah and Johor. Although the group officially espouses non-violence, members of Hizbut Tahrir in other countries have been found to be involved in violence. Members of HTM have been arrested in the past for insulting religious officials and the government has continuously rejected its application to officially register as a society. The article aims to assess whether HTM is a threat to the nation’s national security.
History of the Group in Malaysia
HTM is a component of the larger transnational Hizbut Tahrir (HT) movement that has established itself in more than 40 countries worldwide and was founded by Palestinian cleric and judge Taqiuddin an-Nabhani in 1953 in East Jerusalem. HT grew into a transnational movement after many of its members fled persecution in the Middle East to Western countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States. It can be identified as a radical group which strives to establish a transnational Islamic Caliphate, or Khilafah through non-violent means. It has been banned in more than 13 countries including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
In the Malaysian context, HTM began as a student movement and is alleged to have been established in Malaysia by a group of British educated graduates, many of whom were alumni of universities such as Imperial College London, University of Sheffield and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). They were exposed to HT’s ideology and believed to have been recruited by an individual called Mohammad Azree, a Malaysian who was married to a British national and who worked for an engineering firm in the UK. Most of the recruits had educational backgrounds predominantly in engineering and the sciences. Very few had any background in Islamic studies with some claiming to be jahil (ignorant) prior to joining HTM.
These students had imported HT’s ideology to Malaysia in the late 1990s when they returned and began carrying out halaqahs (discussion circles) across the country. They remained an underground movement and had used various fronts and student organizations as covers to avoid persecution. With assistance from members of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, they consolidated the movement by the end of 1997 and officially established Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia in 2004.
Recruitment of HTM members has continued to follow the same trend to-date. Most recruits tend to be predominantly students and academics from tertiary institutions, educated professionals and people from the middle to upper-middle class income brackets.
Ideology and Strategy
HT (and HTM)’s overarching ideology is centered on the formation of an Islamic Caliphate or Khilafah to lead the Muslim community; governance under sharia law; and the unification of all Muslims into a single ummah (community). HTM often presents an image of Muslim weakness and persecution, and an animosity towards the West and Israel, like other HT chapters. HTM has blamed secular democracy for the failings of the government and claimed that the only solution to overcome these failures is the formation of the Khilafah and the establishment of sharia.
HT (and HTM) declare themselves to be purely political movements that denounce violence. HTM also espouses a vehement rejection of the secular democratic political system and capitalism. They adhere to the principles of as-siyadah li asy-syar’ie, whereby sovereignty is in the hands of the syarak (Islamic law based on the Quran and Sunnah) and not in the hands of the people. The group also believes that Islam is not only a religion but has elements of holistic political governance in which the sovereignty is in the hands of God, rather than mankind. This is similar to the concept of hakimiyya in Salafi thought, in which the sovereignty in governance lies in the hands of God and no one else. HTM has also stated that the ruling and administrative powers of the state should solely be in the hands of Muslims and not the kafir (disbelievers, non-Muslims).
HTM does not support the use of violence, stating that it is prohibited in Islam. The use of force can only be initiated against rulers who do not rule by Islamic laws and those that rule by the laws of the kufr (infidel). The call to jihad, or violent struggle, is only permitted in an Islamic State and since an Islamic State has not been achieved yet in Malaysia (and other countries), the use of force is strictly prohibited. HT leaders in other parts of the world have also rejected violence perpetrated by Islamic State (IS) terrorist group and deemed the IS Caliphate as illegitimate. HT also rejects the use of terrorism in achieving its goals as they view terrorism as ‘counter-productive.’
HT’s strategy is to form an Islamic State or Caliphate through a political struggle as opposed to militant means. The group’s main methodology in achieving this is through a three-stage process which comprises: culturing, whereby, it aims to produce people who believe in the core ideology and method of the party; education/Islamisation, whereby, it seeks to educate Muslims about the importance of the Caliphate; and, finally ruling, whereby it takes over control of the government and upholds Islamic law. Similarly, HTM puts forth a three-stage process to control the government: political change through fikriyyah (thought) and not force; thalab an-nusrah or a call to help; and enforcement of laws through surrender of power. They have stated that the armed forces are key in the nusrah stage as they hold much of the powers in the government and does not rule out the possibility of using them to conduct coups to attain power.
Ideological Similarities and Ambiguities
That being said, a recent study by the Counter-Extremism Project notes that there are four main narratives that are jointly employed by both non-violent extremist groups such as HT and violent ones such as Al-Qaeda (AQ) and IS namely: the formation of an Islamic State; enmity for the West; the notion of a war on Islam; and communities under siege. The formation of an Islamic Caliphate is located at the core of HT’s ideology, similar to IS and AQ. IS was the first violent Islamist group to officially declare a physical Islamic caliphate in June 2014 while AQ viewed the formation of the Caliphate as one of its distant goals.
HT, like IS and AQ, view the world in binary terms, i.e. as the land of Islam (dar-ul Islam) and the land of disbelievers (dar-ul Kufr). Any state or government that does not impose sharia and govern by Islamic principles is viewed as the enemy and its leaders are considered apostates. In numerous publications and speeches, both AQ and IS have labelled their enemies, i.e. the West and Muslim states who do not rule according to sharia as dar-ul Kufr. Muslim leaders of the latter are viewed as apostates who fail to uphold Islamic systems of governance. Like AQ and IS, HT espouses great enmity for the West, vehemently rejects Western secular democracy and is anti-establishment in nature. Democracy is viewed as an evil system of the thoghut (oppressor) governments which must be rejected and destroyed. HT also often portray an image of Muslim weakness and constant struggle between Muslims and the West.
Despite HT officially espousing non-violence, it should be acknowledged that certain of its writings have been rather ambiguous with regards to the meaning of jihad and point toward a soft advocacy for violence. Some HT scholars have stated that jihad should be defensive, i.e. jihad should only be proclaimed when the enemy attacks and becomes compulsory for Muslims citizens to engage in jihad to repel the enemy. However, in HT’s ideological text ‘Mafahim Hizbut Tahrir,’ HT founder Nabhani argues that jihad is an “offensive” duty that must be waged by Muslims to remove any obstacles standing in the face of Da’wah (propagation of Islam). He further states that jihad is proclaimed by the State and is the tareeqah (way) to spread Islam.
A close study of HT’s ideological texts seems to suggest its call to jihad as a call for the use of force by the armed forces of the perceived Caliphate as opposed to the jihad defined by militant Islamists, which in most cases amounts to terrorist attacks. As stated by former HT member Maajid Nawaz, “It just so happens that Nabhani’s methodology in fighting this war was to use pre-existing militaries rather than creating his own army.” This seems to be in line with Nabhani’s argument that jihad should be carried out by the State. However, this is not evident to the laymen, particularly in a number of texts that have remained ambiguous. Ideological ambiguities with respect to the concept seem to be a tool to legitimise violence against enemies.
In a 2006 article in HTM’s official magazine Sautun Nadhah, the group called for the killing of a Malaysian woman who had converted from Islam to Christianity. In 2015, a series of articles written by HTM in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks seemed to justify the actions of the attackers by putting the blame on the West for instigating Muslims. It also castigated Muslims rulers for condemning the terrorists and for not standing up against the West. One article stated that “If Islam and Prophet Muhammad are insulted, it would definitely hurt and disturb Muslims…Thus, it does not come as a surprise if a small group of Muslims cannot control their emotions with the insults by Charlie Hebdo” (translated).
More recently, in response to the republishing of caricatures depicting Prophet Muhammad by Charlie Hebdo and French President Macron’s alleged anti-Muslim reaction to a series of terror attacks in Paris in 2020, a delegation of the HTM leadership had submitted a memorandum of protest to the French embassy in Kuala Lumpur. In a statement to the press, a member of the delegation stated that “Muslim leaders must demand an apology from the French government (for its insults against the Prophet and bad treatment of Muslims) and ensure this is not repeated in the future. If this demand is not fulfilled, they (French government) should be threatened with jihad fisabilillah (jihad in the path of God which in certain terms means violence).”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also featured prominently in HT (and HTM) literature. Some of HT’s ideological texts and statements reveals a tendency of supporting violence particularly against Israel and Jews. A recent article published by HTM stated that the only way to free Palestine from Israeli oppression is with jihad by Muslim troops. The Palestinian cause has also been used by violent Islamist groups on numerous occasions as a point of leverage to justify and incite terror attacks. In fact, Osama bin Laden had stated on a number of occasions that violence against America and its allies is an individual obligation toward Muslims in order to liberate Palestine from Western occupation. The liberation of Muslim lands from foreign occupation was one of the central goals of AQ. Similar undertones can be seen in IS literature. For example, in an article titled “The Road to Jerusalem” published in IS’ newsletter Al-Naba’ in May 2021, the group argued that the only way to liberate Jerusalem was through jihad that unquestionably rejects democracy, nationalism and un-Islamic ideologies. IS also called on the mujahidin to “defend their brothers in Palestine” stating that it was a religious obligation.
‘Conveyor belt’ to terrorism?
In view of the above, some scholars such as Zeyno Baran have labelled the larger HT movement as a “conveyor belt for terrorism.” Baran claims that HT provides an ideal “ideological launchpad” into terrorism with individuals from the movement eventually “graduating” into groups like AQ.
In fact, there are a number of cases of HT members eventually being involved in violence. For example, the infamous British IS member and executioner Mohamad Emwazi (Jihadi John) was known to have been active in HT circles prior to joining IS. Similarly, Indonesian IS recruiter Bahrun Naim, was a member of HT Indonesia (HTI) and attempted to recruit HTI members into IS.
Certain HT chapters have also morphed into more militant factions. A case in point is the UK-based al-Muhajiroun, which broke away from the larger HT Britain organisation. Led by Omar Bakri Mohamed, former leader of HT Britain, the group was formed after Bakri had fallen out with the HT central leadership in Lebanon in January 1996. Al-Muhajiroun has been allegedly linked to 50% of the terrorist attacks in the UK since 1995.
In April 2003, two British suicide bombers, Asif Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif, attempted to carry out a suicide attack at a bar in Tel Aviv. Hanif succeeded in detonating the bomb, killing three and injuring 65 others while Sharif had failed but was found dead 12 days later. Sharif was a close follower of Omar Bakri and HT ideology was alleged to have played a crucial role in his initial radicalization process as he was an active participant of HT meetings during his time as a university student at King’s College London.
Threat or No Threat?
Despite belonging under the same umbrella HT organization, HT chapters in different countries are unique, therefore, one should be cautious when making generalizations. HT chapters in certain regions have employed a more hawkish stance whilst those in other regions have developed a more passive one. In the former category, for example, HT branches in Jordan and Egypt had encouraged members of the armed forces to launch coups in 1969 and 1974 respectively. In 2012, 16 officers of the Bangladesh armed forces, who were members of HT, were arrested for attempting to launch a coup. In Uzbekistan, HT has been blamed for promoting violence and was alleged to have been involved in a number of terrorist attacks.
HTM, on the other hand, has remained a passive organization thus far. In the face of the recent crackdown in late 2020 by the government, HTM has called for calm among its members and there has been no evidence of them inciting violence. The group maintains a significant online presence, disseminating its ideology and writings via social media. HTM actively engages in proselytization campaigns (dakwah) and holds regular seminars and talks, in both virtual and physical spaces. The group has also engaged in a number of demonstrations. In 2015, HTM organised two public demonstrations; the first in condemnation of Charlie Hebdo for their controversial publications right after the terror attack against its media office, and the second, in opposition to the visit of then US President Barack Obama to Kuala Lumpur. In December 2019, HTM organized another demonstration in the city in opposition of the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims and called upon Malaysians to prepare for jihad against China to save the Uighurs. Apart from these demonstrations and statements, there has been no evidence of HTM engaging in violence or subversive activities thus far.
While the ‘conveyor belt’ theory seems to imply a more direct link with terrorism, i.e. any individual who joins HT will most definitely engage in terrorism, this may not always be the case. Not everyone who is a HT member may necessarily graduate into violence. HT analyst, Nawab Osman, who has studied the movement in Southeast Asia, argues that it is in fact “a reverse conveyor belt for terrorism” as it restrains Muslims from becoming terrorists and delays the waging of jihad until a Caliph is appointed to lead the Caliphate. Likewise, some HT observers have argued that while the global HT movement is still in the education/Islamization (stage 2 of its methodology) phase and jihad can only be proclaimed by a Caliph in stage 3, it would not use any form of violence until it reaches the latter stage.
Having said that, the possibility that some of HTM’s narratives such as the formation of an Islamic Caliphate, the imposition of sharia and the rejection of the government and secular democracy could potentially feed into the narratives of violent Islamist groups cannot be discounted. This is due to the ideological overlaps between HT and other violent groups and HT’s own ambiguities with respect to concepts such as jihad and its advocacy for violence.
In terms of national security concerns, HTM as a group is unlikely to pose a security threat in the current circumstances compared to other violent groups. None of its members have been found to have been involved in violence thus far. Nevertheless, owing to the ideological overlap between HT (and HTM) and other violent Islamist groups, it may serve as a stepping stone into violence for certain vulnerable individuals. Also, the group’s ideology may serve as an initial radicalisation driver for some individuals as in the case of Briton Omar Khan Sharif mentioned above.
Thus, the radical strains of HTM’s ideology does merit a certain level of vigilance lest certain individuals use it as a springboard to violence.
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 Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, “Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia: The Emergence of a New Transnational Islamist Movement in Malaysia,” Al-Jami’ah: Journal of Islamic Studies 47, 1 (February 2009): 96, https://doi.org/10.14421/ajis.2009.471.91-110.
 Osman, “Reviving the Caliphate in Malaysia,” 649.
 Houriya Ahmed and Hannah Stuart, Hizb Ut-Tahrir: Ideology and Strategy (London: Centre for Social Cohesion, 2009), 17.
 Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia, “Bantahan Fatwa Johor – 4.6a.”
 Ahmed and Stuart, Hizb Ut-Tahrir, 18.
 Osman, “Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia,” 94–95.
 Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia.
 Liam Duffy, “Gradualists to Jihadists: Islamist Narratives in the West” (New York: Counter Extremism Project, 2020), 2.
 Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, Mafahim Hizb Ut-Tahrir (London: Khilafah Publications, 2001) 30.
 Ahmed and Stuart, Hizb Ut-Tahrir, 45.
 Ahmad Najib Burhani, “The Banning of Hizbut Tahrir and the Consolidation of Democracy in Indonesia” (Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, September 19, 2017).
 Ahmed and Stuart, Hizb Ut-Tahrir, 23.
 an-Nabhani, Mafahim Hizb Ut-Tahrir, 10.
 Ahmed and Stuart, Hizb Ut-Tahrir, 46.
 Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia, “Serangan Charlie Hebdo vs Serangan Ke Atas Islam.”
 Ahmed and Stuart, Hizb Ut-Tahrir, 27–32.
 Bruce Lawrence, Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden (London & New York: Verso, 2005).
 “The Road to Jerusalem,” Al-Naba’, May 2021.
 Zeyno Baran, Hizb Ut-Tahrir: Islam’s Political Insurgency (Washington, DC: The Nixon Center, 2004) 53.
 “Hizb Ut-Tahrir.”
 Malik, “NS Profile – Omar Sharif.”
 Emmanuel Karagiannis and Clark Mccauley, “Hizb Ut-Tahrir al-Islami: Evaluating the Threat Posed by a Radical Islamic Group That Remains Nonviolent,” Terrorism and Political Violence 18, 2 (July 2006): 326, https://doi.org/10.1080/09546550600570168.
 Emmanuel Karagiannis, “Political Islam in Uzbekistan: Hizb Ut-Tahrir al-Islami,” Europe-Asia Studies 58, no. 2 (August 16, 2006): 265.
 Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, “Reviving the Caliphate in the Nusantara: Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia’s Mobilization Strategy and Its Impact in Indonesia,” Terrorism and Political Violence 22, 4 (2010): 616.
 Karagiannis and Mccauley, “Hizb Ut-Tahrir al-Islami,” 329.